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An Invitation to Another World with Kenny Kenny

To me Kenny Kenny has always been otherworldly in that he comes from that other world known as NYC nightlife. A world with it’s own royalty and rituals, a sort of pomp and circumstance. As someone who used to photograph that world, Kenny became a sort of personal muse. A night would not be complete without a photo of Kenny in one of his “fabulous lewks”

But how one is photographed by another is not necessarily how one sees themselves. “Kenny Kenny” the nightlife legend in my eyes was full on glamour – brash and bold.

But if you look at Kenny Kenny’s Instagram it’s like a mash up of the best windows from the old Barneys mixed with the Ballet Russe and religious ritual. Like something that you’ve never seen before and yet utterly familiar.

In his personal self-expression there is a delicate quality and something a bit more fantastical that is seen in part through the intimacy of the space. All of his creations are done in a small corner of his west village apartment. In this tiny space he designs intricate sets that evoke entire worlds.

We ate ice cream together at the Waverly Inn Diner (one of the few old spots that survived the pandemic) and below is, not exactly “an interview” but a pastiche of thoughts and ideas from one of the more creative minds I know.

Katya / No Kill Mag- I know you first from nightlife when I would photograph you.
Kenny Kenny – Yes and photography started it all. I’ve been photographed by other people but I wanted to do it myself because I wanted it to be more intimate. And I wanted it to be really something I feel.  I didn’t want it to be someone photographing me because I have an interesting outfit. Or I’m a nightlife celebrity. I wanted it to speak to me. And I do it all myself.

How did you get started in doing this?
I have always been interested first of all in dressing up.
And I don’t think dressing up is –dressing up is never just to do a drag show. It was very tribal, a ritualistic kind of thing. all of it. And I always felt like it brought me to a different world and brought something out of me and made me stronger.

I’m extremely shy. It’s ridiculous! But when I would dress up, I would feel very confident. And for these rituals of dressing, I needed to create worlds that this person, this dressed up person could be in. Worlds that speak my language. I think that’s pretty much what it was.

There is a spiritual aspect to your work. Were you raised any religion?
I was raised catholic but I’m not just interested in Catholicism –but I like parts of it. I like the drama of it. I think all spirituality can be good because it’s a search. It’s a search for something deeper. A search for a connection with the universe. A search for a connection with yourself.

I feel my own oppression the most so it’s about how androgynous people struggled for ages -they have been shamans but also demonized. So we recreate worlds. So I’m being tied up but at the same time I’m doing rituals to connect me to the universe and give me meaning and these rituals are also part of art. They’re not separate. They’re artistic.

How often do you create a new piece?
I mean life comes in and (laugh) it can get ugly. Life can get ugly. So, when I’m in a good place I’m constantly working. Whether it’s doing prep work. Getting little bits and pieces together because it’s all quite detailed but then when I’m not in a good place I can sort of avoid…and that can last for a couple of months.

But I would say that I had a breakthrough in that I thought I was leaving my apartment, and I thought ‘I have to get work done’ because I have all of this STUFF ready to go and I can’t take everything with me so I’m going to have to hurry up!

So, it was a bit of a breakthrough in that I realized I could be more steady. I didn’t have a fear or a dread – some sort of thing holding me back. And I realized you can just keep on doing it, you know?

Yes action is good. they say perfection is the enemy of the good.
Yeah and I’m a bit of a perfectionist

I made these symbols on the background on the wall and they’re all supposed to be channels but they’re my own, I made them up. Like a cave person or someone from prehistoric times or a witch or someone from Egyptian time have on the wall. So it’s a little bit witchy this one. And this is a whirling dervish.

What are some of your influences?
Cave paintings, all shamanic cultures, Leigh Bowery, Bowie, all of these pop culture things and even queens like Taboo who’s also an artist. I’ve been in NY nearly 30 – 40 years now. I’ve seen a lot!

Kenny Kenny with Quentin Crisp, working the door of the Limelight, with Amanda Lepore

What was NYC like when you arrived?
Well I think that whenever you come to New York you think that was the most magical time. And so I came in ’86 and I thought the city was really magical and I knew Basquiat, he was very flirtatious and the other doorperson said – “get him to do a little drawing of you”…but just getting to know the city and wandering on the lower east side, and not being able to walk to Avenue B.

And there were a lot of street queens. There were a lot of queens that had run away from home. And were hanging out on the street. And were shacking up in somebody’s apartment and being thrown out. There was one I knew who always wore a nightie – a young boy, you know? It all seemed…there’s no word for it, it was just an alternative reality. It was its own piece of art. And I loved it.

Like I’d go to the Pyramid club like Ethyl Eichelberger? So extreme… I would see these queens and they were otherworldly. And it was at a time when it took a lot of courage. And it wasn’t just courage it was beauty. They were expressing beauty but it took courage to express that.

And now it’s turned into something very…very different. It’s great that people have this vehicle (RuPaul’s Drag Race) but it’s nothing of what I’m about. Or those people like Ethyl were about.

But you know, it’s great to have a business and it’s great that people are making money. I’m all for it! But it doesn’t speak to me.

There’s something really compelling about your work that I can’t articulate personally
Well that’s it. I can’t either…(laughs)

I grew up in a culture that’s all about poets. You know, Ireland is all about the poets. They don’t really appreciate a lot of the arts but they appreciate poetry and I think it comes from sort of the moody weather. You know it’s very moody there. It’s very contemplative. It holds oneself to dream on a misty wet day, you know? And I’m a bit of a dreamer and I’m very intuitive and I think I do go into other worlds. We’re more than we think we are. What did Shakespeare say? There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Or something like that…

And I’ve always been interested in portals into healing. Because I had a very difficult upbringing. There were many good things but also extremely difficult so if you’re interested in healing you’re drawn to many different aspects of that…and you notice certain things…and then I began to see the beauty in all the rituals and the beauty of letting who you think you are go. Just drop.

So I try to express all of this in my art. Even though it’s not Obvious. The feeling is there.

Note: Kenny is having his first show at Calligaris New York, 144 W 18th Street
Opening May 27th.

DM us on Instagram if you want to attend the opening party 🙂

Follow Kenny Kenny On Instagram

–Katya Moorman

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