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Birds of a feather

Steven Kenny's latest work finds nature as a muse



Even swathed in Adrian gowns and over-the-top millinery, Hollywood clotheshorse Joan Crawford had nothing on the outrageously tricked-out woman in the oil painting "Earthborn." Serene in a garment made of grass, mushrooms and boulders and a chapeau of moss topped with a salamander, the woman doesn't so much blend into the forest floor she lays upon, as make the forest floor into a fashion statement.

This lush and imaginative painting, by Steven Kenny, is so nonchalantly odd, it's hard not to smile. Kenny's work, on view at Buckhead's Trinity Gallery, feels like a mix of Walton Ford's environmentally minded humor and Jan van Eyck's moody, richly detailed portraiture -- with a little "Twin Peaks" thrown in for good measure.

She's not the only one who has taken nature as her muse in this fashion parade of outrageously coifed and outfitted dames to rival George Cukor's The Women. The ladies -- and some men -- in Kenny's droll, beguiling paintings tend to outfit themselves, not just in the fur and feathers of New York runway shows, but in nature's entire kit bag of bird's wings, bark and beaks.

A woman in "The Swan" -- with sad eyes and a striking resemblance to actress Kristin Scott Thomas -- wears a Bjork-type ensemble of swan wing draped around her shoulders like a stole. The bird's head and beak sit atop her head like some surreal Elsa Schiaparelli chapeau.

Like a fashion survey of the latest in birch-tree evening gowns or caterpillar capes, the lovely ladies in Kenny's sly, fanciful solo exhibition seem to have taken this season's fashion cues from Audubon and gypsy moths.

In "The Bonnet," a woman's head is topped by an enormous goldfinch head tied with a blue ribbon. In "Quince Crown," a nude clutching a white drape protectively to her breast wears a headdress of pink blossoms and yellow quince, one of which she holds in her hand and regards with studious interest.

In matters of strangers seated close by on public transportation, weirder is not better. But with Kenny, the weirder his portraits get, the more satisfying they become.

This is not the case with some of his nude self-portraits, which veer into New Age territory. In "The Exchange," a long frieze-like painting of a yellow parakeet caught, cradled and then released by the naked artist draped in a red banner presents a mildly absurd juxtaposition of brawny hunk and delicate bird that feels silly in all the wrong ways.

You admire the artist on one hand for his willingness to make himself a half-dressed object of scrutiny as often as half-naked women. But the effect feels more conventional and grandiose; like a Renaissance sculpture of some exquisitely-cut beefcake or a fold-out hunk in Playgirl.

In a nutshell, not weird enough.

But a portrait of a woman with a cuckoo clock torso, clock face tiara and pine cone earrings called "The Clockmaker's Wife"? Thrillingly weird. As in so many of these images which echo the regal, stilted, immortality-seeking expressions seen in classic portraiture, the woman is strangely calm. Calm despite the odd circumstance of having a hollow midsection from which a bird, suddenly liberated from her chest cavity, flies.

Kenny's imagination is boundless, though his ladies certainly are not. Birds figure prominently in Kenny's paintings, and they echo how women are often the cosseted and caged birds in oil painting's historical repertoire. There is sad resignation beneath the whimsy in how these ladies drape themselves in swan parts or cradle dead woodpeckers to their breast pietà-style. It is as if those lifeless bird hats or the birch dress worn by a cool blonde in "The Totem" conveyed a simpatico psychological state of a lovely entrapment shared by so many creatures, human and animal.

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