When Marshall McLuhan declared “the medium is the message” in 1964, he gave the mid-20th Century a reality check. Before he died in 1980, the pioneering Canadian media theorist also coined the term ”global village” and predicted now-common realities such as multimedia communications and the Internet. With his “message” mantra, McLuhan proposed the possibility that the conduit, not the current, held the crackling narrative — e.g., whether a TV channel aired a royal wedding or a riot squad was irrelevant, because the real “story” was in the object emitting the information to audiences.
Lily Kuonen is a kindred spirit tuned into McLuhan’s message of object-as-story, with her signature work detonating ideas of media in contemporary art into inventive recoils of shape, color and texture. Her new exhibit at Crisp-Ellert Art Museum, PLAYNTINGSSGNITNYALP, features some 40 pieces of her signature PLAYNTINGS — works that merge painting, sculpture and installation that are simultaneously void of and saturated with narrative.
“PLAYNTINGS are a synthesis of painting with additional forms and actions,” says Kuonen, telling how she repurposes raw wood, cinder blocks and paint. Kuonen’s work is a product of her surroundings, as most of that same media is within arm’s reach in her studio.
Kuonen is also influenced by her residential environment. While living in Charleston, S.C., the 29-year-old artist was fascinated by old houses supported by stilts. She emulated these construction fortifications by creating elongated works. “Now I live in Riverside and all of these sinkholes, orange flags and barricades are pushing me toward those colors and shapes,” she says.
Originally a figurative painter, Kuonen still approaches art with a painterly mentality. “Even though I haven’t lived in Arkansas for years, I still say I’m from there,” she says with a laugh. “In the same way, I feel like my heritage is that of a painter.”
In 2010, she began PLAYNTINGS. “It is a verb and noun,” Kuonen explains. “There can be the act of painting or a painting on the wall.”
In her practice, pieces are disassembled and rearranged into new works, and the same materials are utilized. “Over time, I have realized that I’ve created this kind of lineage within my work,” she says of the growing ancestral quality of recurring objects. “Whether or not this translates to the viewer, part of what I wanted to do with this show was really address that lineage. I created a large drawing to map out this experience.”
Kuonen charts her accumulative, ever-morphing work into three distinct categories: forms, materials and concepts. “I’m really thinking as much about the arc of my process.”
Pieces from her Surface Conditions series are indicative of this. The media used in these works are as enigmatic as the idea. X-shaped patterns dance over abstract forms, creating glyph-like motifs that are as intriguing and indecipherable as the materials they camouflage.
CEAM director Julie Dickover first became aware of Kuonen from stories in the pages of this magazine. “Lily toys with conceptual ideas, and you really read the pieces in a variety of ways, but she’s also a formalist at heart,” she says. “She pays heed to the inherent properties of the materials she uses, but manipulates them in ways that are really smart and thoughtful.” Dickover is fascinated by Kuonen’s ongoing repurposing process. “This is the thread that connects the works in our exhibition, and it’s incredibly exciting.”
As an assistant professor of foundations at Jacksonville University, Kuonen suggests students begin practicing an analytical, open-minded view of their work now, encouraging them to be mindful of their media selections, motivations and even beliefs, and to question if something is finished or in a state of evolution.
“I don’t want to be 100 percent sold on anything that I do,” Kuonen says. “You lose criticality that way. As long as I’m remaining critical of what I’m doing, and questioning myself, it’s going to be the valid decision and exercise for myself.”