Shared Spaces at Grunwald spotlights Eskenazi faculty Kennedy and Mansdorf


Art history students, you know the drill: the lights go down, two slides go up on the screen. It’s time to compare and contrast. The two images have so much in common, it throws their differences into relief. 

The gallery that paintings and drawings by Eskenazi School painting faculty Eve Mansdorf and Tim Kennedy currently share presents a similar sort of binary relationship. Entering the Grunwald Gallery of Art, we notice that both painters seem to represent the everyday spaces, things, and people you’d expect to see in and around a college town in the Midwest. This is a world that appears to be perceived through human vision and that obeys the laws of physics. Its imagery is rendered in naturalistic colors in oil paint, on canvases frequently measuring four, five, six, or even eight feet tall and/or across. 

Given their affinities, the paintings on view in the exhibition “Shared Spaces” – opening Friday, January 12 and remaining on view through March 2 – beg the viewer to consider their contrasts: the paintings that Kennedy is showing here are nearly all landscapes, while Mansdorf’s are mostly interiors; his project a pastoral innocence, while hers feel saturated with culture. At their most superficial level, the paintings evince disparate ways of making a mark. Tim has a shorthand for the difference: “the fuzzy painting versus the sharper-focused.”

“Is that the way you describe it?” I ask, wondering if their differences can really all be boiled down to the way they navigate edges.

“It’s not a bad way,” he replies.

“It’s true,” Eve concurs.

Are we really to believe that their mark making is the most salient distinction between these painters? Admittedly the painters, who are married, share more than most. Both graduates of the M.F.A. program at Brooklyn College – albeit at different times – Mansdorf and Kennedy name professors Lennart Anderson and Lois Dodd as artistic forebears, and continue to pledge allegiance to an oft-overlooked diaspora of perceptual painters, less a movement per se than something like a bunch of Deadheads, they joke, who run into one another at the Antonio López Garcia show (no relation to Jerry).

Tim Kennedy, "From a Picnic Shelter," oil on muslin panel, 2020 Mike Finger

On top of their artistic sensibilities, the sharing has extended to their professional lives. Mansdorf, associate professor, has been on the faculty of the Eskenazi School since 1996, and Kennedy, senior lecturer, since 2000.  Over the course of their combined total of 52 years teaching at IU, the pair have mentored thousands of emerging artists, rotating from beginning undergraduate painting classes to B.F.A. and M.F.A. instruction on a regular basis. Together, they have also helmed the school’s summer painting program in Florence. Whether there, or painting elsewhere in Europe on their own, their jaunts tend to bring the painters even closer.

“I have sometimes looked at some of our outside paintings and thought, whose is this?” Eve admits. “Especially when they’re less finished.”

“There’s one time I can think of that made me do a double-take,” Tim agrees. “Dorothy had that painting of mine of Polgetto in her office–”

“And you weren’t sure –” ventures Eve.

“And it took me a while to think,” Tim corroborates, “is that mine or is that Eve’s?”

Both laugh.

“What is that feeling like?” I ask, “Is that exciting, kind of?”

“Well, you know,” starts Tim, “we’re looking over each other’s shoulders–”

“When we first started going out landscape painting,” Eve elaborates, “was when we went to Italy, to Florence, probably like 1999 or something? And we stayed in Bob and Nancy [Barnes’] house in Umbertide. And I had never really painted outside before, and I was actually a little nonplussed, like, I don’t know if this is for me. And, you know it takes a while to organize yourself–”

“It’s really like camping,” Kennedy interjects.

 “And a lot of it was really following Tim’s lead,” concedes Mansdorf, “and so to some extent that summer I was doing a lot of imitating you, like consciously trying to learn how to do this thing. So he’s always been the one who’s led when we’re going out.”

“But it trades off,” Kennedy asserts, “because there was this little town – basically two or three houses – at Polgetto, and Eve did this series of paintings of this kind of cluster of houses that had a very Morandi feel actually. But I thought, “Boy, she's got something there that I want.”

“But that was the first time we really did that, because we were doing the Italy program in the summer, and that became a thing that we did, and I think when we do things like that, that we’re consciously imitating each other, following each other’s lead, maybe one person is doing it more or less, given the time period. But that summer I know I was really, like, ‘How is he doing that?’”

Eve Mansdorf, "Fishing Dock," oil on muslin panel, 2020 Mike Finger

And on and on they go, finishing each other’s sentences, each making sure to acknowledge how often the other takes initiative, how often they themselves are the student. Gobsmacked by this extraordinary graciousness between long-married people, I came to learn that it does have its limits. 

“So you all give each other full reign to do that?” I asked. “Like, ‘I’m doing this thing, and I see you’re kind of copying me?’”

“Sometimes we get jealous of subject,” Tim admitted.

“Well, certain things,” Eve agrees. “When we were living in the house on Lincoln Street, one of the reasons I moved out to a painting house was because I felt that Tim had taken over the subject matter. I felt that I could not make it mine anymore. Seriously. I couldn’t paint anything there without seeing [trails off]...It was like, I could not start a really big painting in that house or around that house because Tim had just taken it as his. I had to go somewhere else.”

Some spaces just can’t be shared, it seems.

“And once we moved into that second house, I said, ‘You weren’t allowed’,” laughs Eve. “Remember?”

“What?” Tim asks, “To paint?” 

“There were certain things where I said, ‘You’re not taking that!’” Eve recalls, “That we would fight over. Like, when you were painting in the front yard I was saying you couldn’t paint in the back, remember? And I would have trouble painting in the front now.”

Whether or not it was in response to the limited real estate situation, around ten years ago, Tim started painting in the local state parks, especially at Paynetown and Car Top State Recreation Areas, on Lake Monroe. The scenes are bucolic, and although they are doing mundane activities – grilling, rowing, fishing – the figures are idealized, evoking those in a WPA mural from the 1930s or ‘40s. Kennedy’s thoughts on painting seem to be of a piece with the progressive zeitgeist from which those murals emerged: 

“What good is art?” Kennedy speculated in the essay that accompanied his 2018 exhibition at First Street Gallery in New York. “No one asks for it. It can't feed you. It is a poor weapon... And yet it feeds the soul. It is explanation without speech. It reveals by allowing the pieces of a disjointed world to lock into place. It provides hope…We live in the world as it is. We cannot simply wish the aspects of the world that we abhor away. We perform the duties of citizenship even when they seem futile. Art creates an Edenic space, a refuge. It shows us what is real and teaches us how to live.”

Tim Kennedy, "Fishing Couple," oil on linen, 2022 Kevin Mooney

Along with the public settings of Kennedy’s state park pictures, this aspirational agenda stands in contrast to the highly personal content and brooding mood of Mansdorf’s – including several double portraits of the couple, watching TV, cutting hair, posing nude in the bathroom. The painter cites David Hockney’s double portraits from the 70s as a reference for one of them (“Have a Nice Day,” 2021) insofar as there’s “a certain tension in those relationships,” she says. “People are together and separate at the same time, and the things in the room are carefully chosen.” 

Similarly, Mansdorf’s paintings overbrim with an argosy of strange props – Wonder Woman action figure, T-bone steak, doorknob, pistol – not to mention stacks of books and pictures referencing literary and artistic influences. One would need a concordance to understand the significance of each item within the painter’s personal mythology, let alone be able connect them like a rebus to produce a comprehensive meaning. 

Eve Mansdorf, "Voyage," oil on linen

If her references remain esoteric, Mansdorf doesn’t seem to mind. She has stated that her artistic aim is not to edify or uplift. Rather, she has argued for something she calls “the uselessness of art–the value of aesthetic experience as a thing in itself rather than as something that improves life in the community or edifies in some way.” 

“So do you have different philosophies or goals or just different ways of getting to a similar place?” I wonder.

“I think we have more in common,” Tim responds. “Maybe Eve’s a little more on the militant uselessness!” Like Mansdorf’s pictures, he argues, his landscapes are always personal narratives, too. “When I first arrived in Bloomington, I did a lot of paintings around the house on Lincoln Street, and I thought of everybody in those paintings as being basically me and Eve. And to tell you the truth, even in these situations that are more public, and these are consciously more public spaces I’ve been trying to paint for about the last ten years, all the figures are still me and Eve.” 

Nonetheless, Eve suggests, there is something to the idea that her partner’s vision is more outward-directed, more socially conscious than hers. “Well now I’m speaking for you, Tim – but Tim is very interested in history,” she asserts. “I’ve probably gotten more socially aware because of being with you – but you could say that [for you] it is grounding. Maybe in another world I would have gone toward psychology and you would have gone toward history. The interests you have besides painting itself feed what you do, so I think in a lot of your recent catalogues you’ll talk about the structure of public parks or the structure of neighborhoods. So I don’t think it’s so much, ‘I’m going to put my painting out and it's going to make the world better,’ as trying to observe the structures we’re living in and how people mold themselves to it and fit into it or don’t fit into it.” 

“That’s probably better than I can say myself,” Kennedy agrees.

Concluding that Kennedy’s painting is fueled with goals for the great wide world while Mansdorf remains introspective would be an overly facile response to the binary this double retrospective presents.  Although they are both often categorized as “perceptual painters,” neither undertakes the work as blithely as that label suggests. (“Nobody’s that “Innocent Eye,” Tim laughs, referencing a satirical painting in the Met by Mark Tansey in which artists gauge a cow’s response to a painting of cows.) 

Both painters make highly calculated paintings with highly curated content. Kennedy might venture out in public and encounter scenes by chance but then hires models to replicate the fortuitous passersby and executes multiple sketches that he then “grids up” and “knits together” back in the studio for the final painting. Mansdorf does not make as many preliminary sketches but her process is hardly more ingenuous; rather, she constructs elaborate stage sets in her home and also projects photographs on a screen from which to paint. 

I could see how the binary that the painters’ relationship suggests might have affected the critical reception of their work. But I couldn’t help but wonder what the effect of sharing spaces, personally and professionally, with another person for so long might be for each of them. “How much does your companion’s approbation play a role in the work that you do?” I asked.

“Tim can walk into my studio and I just know immediately if he thinks what I’m doing is interesting or not– like immediately,” Eve says. “He doesn’t even have to…it’s just the look on his face. And it’s probably the same thing for you.”

“It’s true,” Tim admits.

“And he can’t lie either! He can say, oh yeah, that’s really… and I just know – no, what’s wrong?”

“There are certain paintings you never warm up to,” Tim offers.

“So if she’s super excited about something,” I propose to Tim, “you obviously don’t want to dampen that through your lack of interest.”

“Well sometimes we purposely say, ‘Look, just don’t come in, don’t say anything, and don’t look even, cause I’ll know anyway.’  But at the same time,” she tells Tim, “you’re my best critic, and I really depend…we can be really honest with each other in a way. I count on Tim to tell me.” 

“Going back to the beginning, when you started dating and building your life together,” I ask them, “did it ever occur to you that this was too close for comfort?”

“No,” Eve immediately responds, “I think we liked it right away. It’s really been helpful. I’ve always felt like I can’t imagine being with someone who wasn’t a painter. You’d have to explain everything. And they wouldn’t understand anyway.”

“This is true,” he avers.

Eve Mansdorf, "Have a Nice Day," oil on linen, 2021 Mike Finger

Visiting the exhibition:

The Grunwald Gallery of Art presents "Shared Spaces," an exhibition of paintings and drawings by Eve Mansdorf and Tim Kennedy, longtime members of the painting faculty of the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design at Indiana University, from January 12 through March 2, 2024. An opening reception takes place Friday, January 12 from 6-8 p.m. The Grunwald Gallery is located in the Fine Arts Building on the Bloomington campus, at 1201 East 7th Street. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 12-4 p.m.