Through performance and installations, Jimmy Kuehnle’s art elicits interaction and participation
Story and photography by Michael C. Butz
About halfway through the installation of his latest work of art – a large-scale, red inflatable called “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle” – Jimmy Kuehnle realizes he’s going to have to crawl into his creation to make a couple of adjustments.
When fully inflated, this part of the installation will occupy a sizable portion of the Akron Art Museum’s Beatrice Knapp McDowell Grand Lobby, serving as both a welcoming beacon to passersby through the entryway’s floor-to-ceiling windows, and jutting out over the doorway, a greeter to museum visitors.
This day’s snags involve a strand of lights that got tangled inside the polyester piece following a previous install attempt as well as a pair of scissors that had somehow slipped inside, visible only after Kuehnle and his crew of seven had pulled, pushed and lifted “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle” into place and had it partially inflated.
Neither that physicality nor making such adjustments are unique to Kuehnle’s art – he and his team once donned scuba gear in an attempt to make adjustments to an inflatable installation in a museum pond – but the level of involvement in erecting his site-specific pieces hints at the level of participation he hopes to draw out of museumgoers. In fact, the second part of “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle” is an inflatable labyrinth in the Mary S. and David C. Corbin Foundation Gallery that visitors can feel and squeeze their way through.
“I don’t want you to think the museum is only a reverent place,” Kuehnle says, speaking generally. “I mean, museums are rad, and I like them, but you can run and jump in a museum as long as you don’t damage the really nice things.”
It’s meant to be fun, and the 37-year-old Cleveland Heights artist appears to have fun in the process. He relishes his role, which toggles between construction site foreman during installation and lead singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band during an opening reception. For the opening night of “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle,” he’ll be wearing a suit he made for himself out of the same red polyester that comprises his art. Slipping into character is part of the Jimmy Kuehnle experience.
“I’m very happy, and I think it’s going to work out great,” he says following installation, adding that he welcomes the challenges of the process. “That’s kind of the fun part. My dream is to come up with the ideas, then get to play builder until I get tired of it.”
Drawing, making, tinkering – these were activities Kuehnle’s family encouraged in him as a kid.
“My parents gave me and my siblings masking tape, markers and scissors every Christmas. I would run out of those really fast and raid my dad’s drafting table for more stuff,” he says, adding that art was something he knew he wanted to do from an early age.
Kuehnle was born in Atlanta, where his father, James, now retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, met his mother, Christine, a former nurse and human resource specialist. When he was 3, the family moved to St. Louis, where he spent the remainder of his childhood, along with younger siblings Liz and Will.
His high school art program allowed him to flourish, he says, but when it came time for college, he didn’t want to go to art school. Instead, he enrolled at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., about 200 miles northwest of St. Louis.
“A small town of 16,000 meant there wasn’t much of a contemporary art scene, so I didn’t have any aspirations or even know what contemporary art was,” he says. “My friends and I would take field trips to Chicago and New York to go see galleries, but we didn’t know what we were doing.”
It was that “naive experience of art” that led Kuehnle and his friends to found the Tom Thumb Gallery, an alternative space – set up in the house they were renting – where they hoped to create chaos. Activities included Improve the Art nights, where attendees were given bottles of spray paint to use to upgrade bad art, and events at which participants could swing at old TVs and other technology with sledgehammers.
Tom Thumb represents an early example of Kuehnle’s penchant for participatory art. It engaged people in ways that existing art institutions hadn’t, not only for students, but also for the art faculty who eventually attended. Once, even the provost stopped by, and now some 20 years later, the gallery still exists at Truman State. It’s a Kuehnle legacy.
“That really gave us a taste for, ‘Wow, if you do art, other people enjoy it.’ As primitive as that experience was, that’s how I got into studying art,” he says. “It was a lot of fun, and we learned a lot about organization and collaboration – all that stuff your faculty wants you to learn in your curriculum.”
After graduating in 2001 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in sculpture, Kuehnle went to Japan to teach English and make art. He returned stateside in 2004, and by 2006, he’d earned a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture from the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“I thought it might be interesting to teach art – I liked the teaching part, I just didn’t like teaching English – but little did I know that teaching in higher education is a hard job to get,” he said. “I got lucky.”
Kuehnle spent another year at UT as adjunct faculty before returning to Japan, this time as a Fulbright Graduate Research Fellow to research public art and practice sculpture. He then spent a couple of years “hopping around residencies and gaining experience in the studio and in exhibiting so that I had something to actually teach” before landing a job in 2010 as visiting assistant professor at the University of Alabama Huntsville.
He arrived in Northeast Ohio in 2011 after being hired as an assistant professor by the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he still teaches today.
Of bikes and suits
Performance is central to Kuehnle’s art, and early in his career, those performances took place on bicycles. Frames for the “F-Bike” and “ART Bike” spelled out messages for bystanders as he rode them around San Antonio wearing outlandish costumes he tailored for himself, and then there was “The Bike That Draws,” a Rube Goldberg machine on wheels that allows a second rider’s pedaling to draw a picture. That 2005 creation remains one of his favorites.
From there, Kuehnle transitioned to using cathode ray tube TVs – “because everyone was buying flat-screens and you could buy them for pennies on the dollar” – for video sculptures and installations. This phase was short-lived, however.
“I remember one time driving to Houston for an installation at Project Row Houses, and I had a trailer with plywood sides heaped over with televisions, video cameras and all this equipment, and I was like, just carrying it in to do the installation, ‘This is a lot of work.’ I thought that as an artist, I wouldn’t be digging ditches,” he quips.
Sewing costumes for bicycle performances eventually led Kuehnle to dabble in sewing together wearable inflatable suits, which were easier to transport – a relevant concern when he returned to Japan for his Fulbright.
“The original idea was to have these small, duffel bag-sized objects that were battery-powered and allowed me to pop out of a train station or hop off my bike and do a performance,” he says, equating his new approach to having a concert set list.
“Bands have a repertoire of albums and songs they can show up and play. It takes a lot of work to get there – they’ve done all this studio work – but then they have this finished product at any time,” he explains. “So, that was my way of having a song or an album.”
In that sense, Kuehnle is a one-man band while wearing his colorful, impossible-to-miss inflatable suits, but he says they take on their own personas.
“For example, ‘Big Red’ was this one I made in Japan, and I found out it liked to spin around in circles a lot, cross intersections diagonally and try to get into storefronts,” he says. “And since it would blow around in the wind so much, I made one smaller called ‘You Wear What I Wear,’ and it really likes to get inside different telephone poles or gas station pumps and smash into everything. It really enjoys going into spaces where people don’t expect it to come, and it can run really fast – so that one is a lot of fun.”
Kuehnle’s inflatables didn’t stay duffel bag-sized for long. By 2010, they’d become stationary – as public installations – and they’d grown.
They include “Amphibious Inflatable Suit” in 2014 at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., a Loch Ness Monster-sized inflatable that resided in a pond and wasn’t a suit at all; “Please, No Smash” in 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, which occupied MOCA’s four-story entryway; and “Tongue in Cheek” earlier this year at The Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, N.Y., a portion of which protruded from the tower windows of the museum’s Glenview Mansion.
Not wanting to lose the interactive nature of the suits, Kuehnle tries to surround his audience with his installations. He also incorporates kinetic elements – lights, sequencing, inflation/deflation – that in a sense transform his installations into living, breathing organisms, complete with an electronic pulse. It’s no surprise, then, that like with his suits, Kuehnle speaks of his installations as characters he created, not static sculptures.
“I think (Kuehnle) has a great deal of talent, and he’s wonderfully articulate about his ideas. His work is fun, interesting, challenging, it occupies considerable space, and it’s bright and colorful,” says Bruce Checefsky, gallery director at CIA’s Reinberger Gallery, where Kuehnle’s work has also been shown.
Kuehnle’s inflatables are reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg, Checefsky adds, referring to the sculptor best known for his public installations, including the “Free Stamp” sculpture in downtown Cleveland.
“He has this pedigree that reaches back to those Oldenburg sculptures, but also the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” Checefsky says.
Back at the Akron Art Museum, director of education Alison Caplan also connects Kuehnle to Oldenburg – not only in artistic form, but also in the way “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle” and Oldenburg’s “Inverted Q” interact while sharing the museum’s lobby space.
Caplan also compliments Kuehnle’s ability to work within diverse architectural settings and to invite museumgoers to look, touch and participate.
“When people tend to think about contemporary art, they don’t think of it as playful or accessible to everyone, and he’s someone who breaks down that barrier,” she says. “People connect to the work through their body, their own sensibility and the materials he’s using. … They can connect in a joyful way.”
Other museums see the same qualities, as evidenced by Kuehnle’s string of recent exhibitions, all of which have come about, he says, from people just emailing him. In fact, he received another email not long ago and is already working out details of another commission for 2017 or 2018.
“I don’t know how to make more people do that,” he jokes, referring to the emails. “I’m at this weird place, but it keeps happening.”
Looking ahead, Kuehnle wants to continue working on inflatable installations in order to master the process – at least for now.
“I feel I have the suits down. It’s something formulaic that I can always revisit. I’m getting close – I’m not there yet, but I’m getting close – to figuring out how to do the installations,” he says. “There are still a lot of things I’m not satisfied with: kinetics, sequencing, ease of install. If I can figure those out, maybe in a couple of more iterations, I think then my mind might start drifting – but I’m still pretty fully engaged in the site-specific, large-scale installation work.”
Whatever comes next for Kuehnle, connecting with others is certain to be at the heart of it – as has consistently been the case for his kinetic installations, bicycle performances and inflatable suit performances.
“I want to disarm people. I want them to smile. I want people to talk to me in a way that gets a little beyond small talk – and that happens,” he says.
“When I’m struggling with the suits, there’s this symbiotic, emergent behavior with other pedestrians. Not everyone – some people just want you to get out of the way, but a lot of times there are people who want to help,” he continues. “You find they’re coming along with you the whole time, and I find that to be a successful piece – when you form another human relationship with somebody.” CV
Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle
Jimmy Kuehnle’s latest work, “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle,” will be on view in the Akron Art Museum’s Beatrice Knapp McDowell Grand Lobby and the Mary S. and David C. Corbin Foundation Gallery through Feb. 19, 2017. For more information, call 330-376-9185 or visit akronartmuseum.org.