Some artists create in the name of the extraordinary. They paint romanticized versions of landscapes, imagine up new dimensions and worlds, tell tall tales. Other artists choose the path of the ordinary, the everyday, by reproducing objects and images from our lives in a photorealistic way. New York-based Kevin Frances bridges these two artistic modalities, gathering inspiration from “things we have held in our hands a thousand times, paths we walk every day,” as he says, but then rearranging it all into surreal scenes that defy the ordinary nature of the subjects. 

His new solo show—and his Denver debut—at Leon Gallery titled Man In The Moon, showcases the process he undertakes to create breathtaking woodblock prints. Because of this, the show is also part of the Month of Printmaking celebration spread across Denver, highlighting printmaking in all its various forms. Frances’ prints are hyper-focused vignettes from life, reimagined and recreated through scale models and photographs, with a slightly surprising twist.

There’s an added layer to these scenes, a je ne sais quoi that makes the viewer search for meaning in incongruous objects. That indefinite space between familiarity (seeing a chair) and surprise (realizing it was created out of matches and set on fire) is something Frances seeks fervently, the “shimmering edge between those two states of the mind” he explains. But Frances, a staunch perfectionist, doesn’t simply think up that shimmering edge. He fabricates it. 

Miniatures on display in Kevin Frances’ Man In The Moon at Leon Gallery. Photo by Eric Nord

The first step is making miniature versions of everyday scenes. Frances first started working with miniatures in 2012 with the project New Apartment New City, where he built an apartment at scale for a young woman to move into. Through his documentation of her move, showing rooms with boxes half unpacked and a book on the table, for instance, her identity came to life without ever meeting or even seeing her. 

His collection of miniatures has expanded since, and yet some of the first miniature models he utilized remain in his practice. After he arranges the miniature vignettes, he projects pictures of other everyday things—like the sun shining through the blinds or the silhouette of a person—onto the models. Then he photographs the whole new scene with a film camera, developing the photos himself in color, an arduous technique that also allows for Frances to obtain over or undersaturated shades. All of this is done in order to make a proof of an image for Frances to then carve out of wood and imprint onto paper. 

“The process is super clunky and kind of frustrating. For me the frustration and the gaps between what I’m trying to do and what the end result is—that gap is a super useful place. That’s where I find the surprising things. I’m a perfectionist, so I have to throw roadblocks in to prevent me from gaining perfection,” he says.

Some of those roadblocks are developing the film photographs in color, carving the negative space of the image onto a piece of wood, and inking colors onto the wood in order to imprint it on paper. Before the final woodblock print is chosen by Frances, he might try dozens of different ones with slight variations of tone, saturation, and hue. 

“I like learning new things,” Frances says. “But there’s something about the woodblock print I always come back to. It’s my favorite way to make an image and it’s infuriatingly hard to pin down. Every print I ever do comes out different than I want it to. It’s challenging in a unique way.” 

Frances wants viewers of his art to see what they wish to see, which is why he shies away from his long-winded process of procuring the images. It’s also the reason behind the title of the exhibit, the idea that we seek familiarity regardless of what we’re looking at. In scientific terms, it’s called Pareidolia, the act of recognizing something in an object—like shapes in clouds or faces in a piece of toast or a man in the moon.

In this vein, he hopes that people look at the woodblock prints and see meaning that is significant only to them. His fascination revolves around portraying the inner life of a person—but not through their thoughts, through the fabrication of their surroundings. In many ways, Frances is a stage designer, a world builder. And then he offers the stage to his viewers to act out what they wish, without his guidance, judgment, or approval. 

A compelling part of this series is Frances’ repeated use of certain images or models. Look for the house plant or the silhouette of a woman or the speckled glaze from a pottery shard and you’ll find them over and over again. This is partly because he is fabricating the world himself and partly because he likes the idea of reassessing an object from every possible angle. Through this, he creates a visual vocabulary that viewers start to recognize, which helps bring the viewers closer to the work and closer to their own triggered memories. 

“In a way, this is emblematic of the whole thing. I’m making these objects that have these strong personal connections to me and then when I jam them together they lose their meaning. But I think they gain something new. They gain meaning in a more open way. I’m releasing ownership of the meaning on it, advocating for people to decide on their own terms,” he says.

If you go: Man In The Moon is on view at Leon Gallery, 1112 E. 17th Ave., until March 28. The gallery is open Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 12 to 5 p.m. For more information, visit Leon Gallery online.