Artist Feature: Kevin Champeny

Kevin Champeny grew up in Beloit, Wisconsin, where he attended Beloit College and studied Art History and Education. Upon graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Studio Art, he moved to New York City. Like many other artists in the 20th century, Champeny’s relocation to the city afforded him the opportunity to have unfettered access to a range of artists, exhibitions, and sources of inspiration. He cites Chuck Close, Kris Kuksi, and M.C. Escher as some of the artists that have had the most impact on his artistic development.

Across his professional career, Champeny has engaged in artmaking in various capacities, be it design, painting, or sculpting. For nearly two decades, the New York-based artist has been focused on honing his skills as a sculptor, working with urethane frequently to construct large-scale, textured hanging mosaics. He has created works for high-end clients, such as Warner Brothers, Disney, Lenox, Patrón Tequila, and Belvedere Vodka. What’s more, he has been contracted to execute original work for the perfumeries of Calvin Klein, Polo, DKNY, and a host of others. Perhaps most notably, Champeny created the master model for President Obama's cereal bowl. Currently, he resides on Long Island, continuing to create new work and accepting commissions. Champeny’s work can be found in several museums and galleries in the United States.

One of his most recent works is Remains Revisited, a deeply moving assemblage of urethane flowers that can be understood as the most recent image in a series that Champeny began several years ago with Remains 1, Remains 2, and What Remains. Approaches to confronting and accepting death are some of the chief ideas that have preoccupied Champeny for the past several years; he has addressed the universal motif in several of his imposing mosaics, including The Killing Field and Sweet Death. The titles of these works contain religious overtones, specifically related to the biblical account of Christ’s crucifixion, death, and resurrection. Remains Revisited implies that both artist and viewer are returning or reconsidering a subject that was once thought to be at rest. As such, Champeny plays with viewers’ perception of familiar imagery in order to upend expectations and encourage spectators to look more closely at his process and materials. 

For Remains Revisited, Champeny draws on memento mori iconography. The Latin phrase memento mori can be roughly translated as “reminder of death,” and it is a type of image that many artisans and craftsmen have modified and deployed in order to explore themes of life, death, vanity, and the vulnerability of the human condition. In Champeny’s variation on this long-standing tradition, he casts and places urethane flowers to form a composite image of a human skull that directly confronts the viewer. Across his body of work, Champeny has cast different objects depending on the central figure. For example, his mosaic portrait of Derek Jeter entitled The Face of Baseball contains thousands of sculpted and hand-cast urethane baseballs in varying colors. The miniature synthetic flowers in Remains Revisited are appropriate since flowers are typically offered within funereal contexts.

Kevin Champeny, Remains Revisited. 35,000 sculpted and hand-cast  urethane flowers, 66 x 54 x 1 inches.

Kevin Champeny, Remains Revisited. 35,000 sculpted and hand-cast urethane flowers, 66 x 54 x 1 inches.

Significantly, though, Champeny’s artificial flowers are blooming, seeming to defy the cycles of life and death, or put differently, temporarily suspending life and the passage of time. The artist’s provocative use of ethyl carbamate components (polyurethane) is also quite fitting conceptually since it is a synthetic compound most commonly found in the production of pesticides, fungicides, and pharmaceuticals such as anesthetics. The work’s subject matter gains greater potency since the dominant artistic material is integral to the manufacture of chemical agents used to exterminate living organisms and numb or eliminate human pain. In its unrefined state, urethane appears as white crystals or granular powder, and from a distance the skull in Remains Revisited appears to be set against a sea or plane of crystals. The difference in appearance between the raw and refined states of the organic compound urethane has parallels to the de-compositional nature of human beings. Just as urethane is transformed from a powder or dust only to inevitably disintegrate, so too is the cyclical nature of human life and matter. 

In addition to the painted or sculpted images of skulls, the memento mori tradition also included a textual or scriptural component. The visual reminders of death were often accompanied by biblical verses that warned mortals of their imminent return to dust. These verses, in tandem with stark images of death, were meant to simultaneously humble human ambitions and encourage pious behavior since death and its consequences for the afterlife were perceived to be inescapable. Champeny plays with this visual tradition by using urethane as a material that can represent these ideas about life, death, and human desires to intervene in this cycle. His work can be read as a questioning of human progress in terms of medical and pharmaceutical advancement in altering and intervening in the cycle of life and death.

To see Kevin Champeny’s powerful images that confront notions of death and the human condition, stop by NYA Gallery along 7 Franklin Place Monday through Sunday, 12-5pm. Remains Revisited, along with a number of his recent work, was part of the gallery's inaugural exhibition on March 7, 2019, which opened to much acclaim and was on view throughout the month of March. To read more about the artist and Remains Revisited, follow this link.