Paul Kenny: Exploring Fragility and Impermanence in the Landscape

Born in 1951, Paul Kenny grew up on a council estate in Salford. He did well at a school where most students went on to work in the heavy-engineering industries based in Trafford Park. When Kenny received five good O-levels he appeared in the local newspaper. Kenny’s father worked for a crane-manufacturing company and wanted his son to work in a drawing office where he would not have to do manual labour and Kenny quickly took to drawing. Whilst studying fine art in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, he began to appreciate the Northumbrian coastline. He had only ever known beaches at Blackpool and Southport and began catching a bus out of the city to spend days walking along the expansive stretches of Cheswick Sands. He was taken by the vast emptiness and endless horizons of the beach.

At art school Kenny came under the influence of American Modernist photographers Minor White and Paul Strand, seeing their work published in Creative Camera magazine. He started making small, detailed still life photographs of beaches, at first in the traditional way with a camera, but then using experimental methods including splashing the images with seawater as they developed to give them a tinted sheen, always using water taken from the location of the photograph. Experimenting further, he realised that different kinds of exposure and erosion changed the appearance of the image.

Whilst undertaking a residency at Lancaster University, Kenny started experimenting with digital scanners. Sometimes making sculptural arrangements directly on the scanner, he realised he could exploit the intensity of the light source inside the scanner to produce vivid, often luminous images. He started creating plates with ephemera found along the shoreline, adding drops of seawater to trigger the chemical reactions that produce effervescent colours when scanned and enlarged.

Made from both the land and the sea, Kenny’s work confronts issues of fragility and impermanence in the landscape, illustrating, as he has said, how “man’s hand is scratching away at remaining areas of wilderness.” The concept of his Seaworks series arose whilst he was scouring a beach in Mayo, Ireland. He found a 7UP bottle with a message inside that had been washed up on the shore. The bottle had taken seven years to cross the Atlantic from Fado Island, off Newfoundland. Kenny noticed that the bottle was covered in thousands of scratches that had been left by the tide, rocks and barnacles whilst it was at sea. Inspired by the idea of the landscape leaving its mark on the man-made object, Kenny started cutting up bottles to create images. Scouring the beaches between Holy Island and Berwick upon Tweed in his native Northumberland, he collects objects discarded by the sea, taking them back to his studio to transfigure into esoteric, abstract images.

On close inspection the leaves, flowers, shells and rocks from which Kenny’s images derive are perceivable, but looking from another angle will uncover entire landscapes within the photographs. Alongside the works created from objects found along the shoreline in his Seaworks series, Kenny is undertaking a land-based project called O Hanami. Named after the Japanese festival that celebrates the few short days when the cherry blossom blooms before being swept away by the wind, the series considers the passing of the seasons and the ephemeral beauty found in objects foraged from the forest floor.

Kenny lives in Lowick, Northumberland, with his wife, Margaret.

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