Surrealistic Realism at Nature’s Mercy: Guy Kinnear’s Golems
Guy Kinnear lives and works on the Californian countryside, where he models and paints humanoid figures on the backdrop of local landscapes. Both his work and life speak of the relationship of humans in their natural environment.
With their hands full of crude clay, the bohemian artist Guy Kinnear and his adolescent daughter shape the muddy little humanoid form that will model for his next painting. Three parakeets chirp in the background, and warm Californian sunlight splashes across the studio. The golem is rough and wet, and the figure feels tormented, as if the spirit of life within it is struggling to break free. Soon it will be allowed to dry out, and Kinnear gets excited about the form the cracks will take as it begins to crumble back into dust. Other figures in the small studio are made of paper, their limbs cut from glossy magazines and curved card stock, folded and glued into colorful mannequins, then painted in bright hues. Others are conglomerations of wood, clay, fabric, holed socks — anything that can be transformed and reassembled into a human form.
Outside, live oaks float among the shimmering golden grass that covers the ocean of rolling hills rising and falling along the Central Coast. Kinnear lives with his wife and daughter in what appears to be an ordinary, small, middle-class, ranch-style home set three miles down a dirt track cutting through the trees from the nearest tarred road. The house is completely off the grid, and he and his family live entirely on the power generated by their array of solar panels, and from the water they pull out of a well drilled deep into the heart of the hillside. The land is beautiful. A vineyard presses against one side of his property, and a ranch on the other.
Kinnear checks the water level in his reservoir and says, “Everything that happens out here is entirely my fault. If there’s no water, it’s my fault, if there’s no electricity, it’s my fault, if there’s too much trash, it’s my fault. And then I go out and figure out how these things work.” With only enough amperage available to run a toaster oven, whenever he wants to use an appliance, he must check that nothing else in the house is drawing power, or he will overload the system. If an even crueler drought than that which afflicted California for the last five years returns to these hills, there will be terrible consequences — if the well should run dry, his property will become worthless and he and his family will have to leave. If a brush fire blows through the long grass, it will be up to Kinnear to save their home, using the water he pumps up from the well. It’s a life of daily risk, but when Kinnear gazes out to the North across the Paso Robles valley and sees the Arcadian landscape he lives in, it seems like a good bargain.
Kinnear’s paintings are wonderfully strange images of the golems he makes with his wife and children. He positions their twisted figures on the landscape around their home, painting them within his environment. Perhaps the innocence of the golems come from the part Kinnear’s children play in making them, and the openness he has to their ideas. “We all make art,” he says. “We all make characters. We all make these objects and constructions together. My kids are making paper characters and I’m making paper characters, and then we’ll talk about who they are, and then they’ll start finding their way into the land, so sometimes I’m directly painting a creature they’ve made, sometimes they’re over my shoulder and we’re talking together — okay, who is this person? Where do they belong? What do you think? How should they change? Where do you think they should go? So, we’re working quite collaboratively, really.”
Kinnear was a child on this land, then moved South from the central coast down to Los Angeles, where he worked as an associate professor of art. After two decades of city life, he and his wife decided to return to Paso Robles to live again in the rural world. But he says he came back a different person: he had become artificial, like one of his golems. “My whole body has gotten used to eating synthetic foods,” he says, “My whole chemistry has gotten used to certain experiences with electricity and machines and I just assumed this as real. And when confronted with real dirt, I’m finding that going back to nature isn’t quite as easy as one thinks it should be. So it’s kind of fun to have these puppets and marionettes and toys as a stand in for myself as I’m trying to understand how we exist in this world. How do I exist in this little patch of dirt knowing that I have removed myself so far from this?”
In the past, artists learned to paint and sculpt by copying the plaster casts of works from classical antiquity. Kinnear sees his golems in a similar light — in the same way that atelier artists learned to craft their paintings by imitating an imitation, Kinnear’s mannequins are the source of his work, their twisted forms paralleling the strange humans that have evolved from the post-modern ruins of the enlightenment. They are innocent and naïve, experiencing the dangers of life in this burning land, this droughted land, like children.
According to legend, the Czech kabbalist who made the mythical golem imagined that he could imitate god in the creation of life, and crafted a hulking human figure from the clay of the river, and then brought the form to life by deciphering one of the many names of god, and writing that name onto paper, then pushing it into the mouth of his creature. The golem came to life but could not speak. Some accounts say it fell in love with the kabbalist’s daughter, who naturally rejected it, being an animated pile of clay, so it murdered her. Horrified, the rabbi pulled the name of god from the golem’s mouth, and it crumbled and was stored in the synagogue’s attic.
The golems in Kinnear’s paintings are us, as we stand in our innocence and naivety before the power of nature. Keenly aware of his fragile relationship with the earth, balanced between ruin and paradise, he paints images that return to the act of creation, that desire the same harmony with nature that primordial Adam and Eve felt in Eden. It would be easy to mistake these glowing paintings as imaginative latter-day surrealism, but they actually are realist images of artificial mannequins. There is no subconscious connection of random things in these works, instead, these paintings are allegorical — they tell a story about hubris.
The seasonal brush fires that burn through California’s dry landscape are a normal part of life here on the edge of the great deserts that spread across North America all the way from California to Texas. But the stressful length of the fire season has expanded under the pressure of the warming climate, and the burns brew up earlier and later than they did in the past. And when the fires come they are as invincible as dragon’s breath, and they scour the golden hills completely, erasing all life and stripping them to bare, blackened dirt, leaving only the stink of smoke and a sick fear for the homes that are in their way. These windblown walls of flame eat everything in their path. Humans are frail puppets before them and pray for the wind to fail, and for calm to come.
The paintings are an exorcism of Kinnear’s old assumptions of his relationship to the earth. This land is in conversation with his golems, and Kinnear is listening. This land is huge and has its own presence. He deliberately presses the sky high and the horizon low. “As I’m getting to know the voice of the land a little bit better, I’m noticing it speaking more articulately in the story, and that’s pretty exciting to see.” He has moved toward a more sophisticated understanding of the earth that is especially colored by his experience of the shared resource of water, which doesn’t respect the boundaries of property lines. Now it’s raining again in California, and Kinnear can take a breath of relief that the fire season is over. “We’re all on the back of the same dragon. We’re all out here in the middle of nowhere,” he says.
For more articles, auctions, exhibitions, and current art trends, visit MutualArt.com