Michael Kennedy Ember to Inferno

Dragonology: A Phd Proposal

By Diego Ramirez

I have a theory about dragons that I believe is worthy of a PhD, I emailed my alma mater about it but they did not reply. My thesis is that we ideate dinosaurs with their current morphology because we have been imagining dragons for so long, that we simply project these mythical forms onto fossils.

‘Anthropologists force bones together to create these skeletal structures that resemble our imagination,’ I said, ‘give me a scholarship.’ This is a preoccupation rooted within the early years of my life, where I would see images of these creatures reproduced on television, magazines, and urban life.

‘I am contributing to new knowledge by suggesting that dinosaur fossils are a myth and dragons are a reality,’ my email read. If dinosaurs look like dragons, and dragons look like dinosaurs—a semblance premised on the origins of the first which birthed the appearance of the latter—it means dragons are real.

My aims and objectives was contextualising the work of Michael Kennedy in relation to dragon theory and object painting. I described how in his exhibition, Ember to Inferno (2021), Kennedy paints the symbol of the dragon repeatedly with an iconic sensibility to vacate and refill it with meaning:

‘He customises his canvases to resemble the scaly horns often found in dragon designs. Then paints these beings with acrylic and minimal lines, evoking the graphic sensibility of cartoons, street signs, or pop culture shops. However, unlike the clean lines associated with these visual sites, he creates grungy portraits that bring attention to the materiality of the object. This is because his paintings are more sculptural than pictorial.

One of the ways he achieves this is by exhausting the icon of the dragon and removing it from its referent. This is the nature of the symbol, which points to an arbitrary meaning—unlike the icon that signifies itself. The image of a dragon connotes varied ideas such as greed, video gaming, and escapism until Kennedy repeats it to exhaustion, when it becomes flattened like a sticker and ceases to signify the form it conveys. This allows the artist to approach the picture as cultural material in sculptural canvases, that sit closer to an object than an image. He reinforces this state by incorporating dragon figurines that sit on top or above the frame, creating a relationship of thingness between them.’

I explained that my research methodology involves ‘visiting castles around the world with a stipend,’ while emphasising that ‘I have always wanted to have a picture taken in Versailles but that’s more of a palace’. Then I suggested that cultures around the world are wrong by claiming they all share a dragon myth, since these semantics group anything that is large and serpentine: ‘does a wingless Japanese creature swirling in the ocean really have that much in common with a European animal hoarding gold like an app developer? I do not think so.’

I returned to Michael’s show to explain why his work looks totally metal, hoping that my level of rigour would score me an emergency blanket—I mean, scholarship:

‘Since it is impossible to entirely remove the dragon from its connotative chain, Kennedy continues to reference the metal and gaming subcultures that embrace this fantastical imagery. The title of the show itself references the debut studio album of Trivium, a heavy metal band from Florida. This is a motif that extends to the pieces themselves, with names such as I am death, I am eternal darkness, which is a reference to Wintersun, a Finnish metal band.

This piece, I am death, I am eternal darkness, is a modified canvas with spiky edges that Kennedy cyphered with the image of a dragon breathing fire. The outlines are white in contrast with the black background and mimic the prickliness of the frame. Its simplicity lends to an abstraction of form, which mirrors the perceptual process that the artist has undergone by staring, reprocessing, and reimagining dragons for an extended period. Therefore, the work points to subcultures that exist beyond the artist—such as metal—while also documenting an inner mental picture.’

I was very pleased with the emotional labour I put into this email so I took a moment to imagine myself receiving a doctor’s degree, with a few awards. I updated my Tinder bio with a line that says, ‘Doctorate in Dragonology’ because I believe in manifesting.

Then I clicked send.