Mencher, Kenney: Under 21 Not Allowed

Lovers and Liars: Kenney Mencher on display through March 1, 2008, Varnish Fine Art, 77 Natoma between 1st and 2nd St. and Mission and Howard, San Francisco, 94105, 415-222-6131, Tues-Fri 11am-11pm-ish [wine bar opens at 5pm] and Sat 1pm-5pm

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Jonesing for some tele-noir? You are if you’re an NPR junkie. All last year we listened to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross and her frequent guest, TV critic David Bianculli, first grieve the loss of The Sopranos, then beat the drum slowly for The Wire. As the Hollywood writers’ strike approaches its twelfth week, the networks have run out of fresh episodes of television serials and are resorting to reruns and late-night experiments. Fortunately, you can get your fix this month at Varnish Fine Art where Kenney Mencher’s campy pulp fiction-inspired oil paintings are on display.

With titles like “After School Special” (sold) and “Hotel/Motel,” Mencher’s work features heaving bosoms, blindfolds and grand gestures painted in a loose realist style. (Imagine an unbuttoned Edward Hopper.) Much like Jeff Wall’s artistic process, he stages his paintings first with live models in costume, then works from photographs. Often the models get into the act by suggesting storylines and poses, turning the photo shoot into a piece of performance art.

Mencher is a guy who’s gotta paint. He graduated with a BA (CUNY) and an MFA (UC Davis) in Art History, then completed his trifecta of advanced art degrees with an MA in painting from the University of Cincinnati. He has been an Associate Professor of Art & Art History since 1999 with Ohlone, a Junior College in Fremont. Influences include Duane Hanson, 20’s and 30’s pulp fiction illustrations and N.C. Wyeth, the early 20th Century illustrator who also worked from composed scenes.

Mencher has a little bit of a reputation. He was dismissed from Hang Art in 2003 by then gallery director Michelle Townsend (now with Portola Valley’s SPUR Projects), who, in an oft-repeated quote, said the gallery employees felt his work was too “wry and perverted.”

The following year, his work was pulled off the walls of a consultant-curated federal office in Sacramento. It probably was a little too ribald for the California State Teachers' Retirement System building. (He’s in good company, though; some nudes by North Beach notable Lawrence Ferlinghetti, represented by George Krevsky, were recently pulled down from the halls of the B of A building with no explanation.)

Perhaps Mencher, whose collectors include KQED’s quirky Josh Kornbluth, hasn’t found the right venue for his work. Hang prides itself on being highly accessible to rookie collectors who may not be ready for a guy whose thesis in grad school was "Vampires, the Audiences They Consume.” Varnish is more like it, with a track record of showing pop surrealism that veers closer to fine art than lowbrow art. Mencher’s next show after this is at Stanford Art Spaces beginning February 15.

The kitschy subject matter will be at home in this alternative space. Varnish Fine Art is different from other local art bars not because it extends its reach into fine art, or because it features artists who are decidedly mid-career. What distinguishes Varnish from most San Francisco art venues is that 30-40% of their exhibitions are dedicated to cast metal sculpture. (And they are also the only art bar that was an unwitting participant in the J.T. LeRoy hoax, the greatest literary scandal of the oughties.)

Business partners Jennifer Rogers and Kerri Stephens are both trained metal sculptors and became friends while working at Berkeley’s Artworks Foundry in the early nineties, which happened to be the same time that the work of famous sculptors like De Staebler, Voulkos, Asawa, Neri, and Oliviera was being cast there. They are still part of the close-knit cast metal sculpture community that centers around Artworks.

These days, Rogers dedicates herself 100% to being Varnish gallery director. Stephens still practices her art in her spare time and has her own furnace for casting in her Point Richmond backyard. You can see their formal training in the patinaed cast steel of the Varnish bar, stairs and loft balcony railing, all of which Stephens designed herself.

Rogers and Stephens opened their space in 2003 and plan to close in 2009. Not because they want to but because they have to. After lovingly restoring the old shell of a warehouse space, they got word that the city would exercise eminent domain and take possession of the property as part of the Transbay Terminal project. The neighborhood association’s “Friends of Second Streetwasn’t successful fighting City Hall.

Wherever the women end up relocating Varnish after they leave Natoma Street, they’ll continue to be a venue for San Francisco institution Litquake and happenings like “Green Drinks,” a monthly happy hour where people who work in the environmental field meet up for socializing and networking.