When the husband/wife tagteam of Robert and Elisabeth McKay reworked their second-floor studio space at 12 Monmouth Street to include a gallery exhibition room, the mission statement couldn’t have been clearer: advance local interest in the captured image as fine art. Elevate photographers to the sort of status enjoyed by painters, sculptors and illustrators. Apply their own passionate advocacy and love of craft to the creation of a forum that would inspire the shutterbugs of New Jersey to new and greater heights.
Then in walked John Kochansky, and things immediately went from fine-tuned to fuzzy.
A high school classmate (and on again/ off again friend) of Bob McKay’s, Kochansky had spent the interim decades pretty much picking up from what he already did throughout his teens — busying himself with the creation and exhibition of a staggering body of original art works. Vivid paintings and cartoony drawings; wearable oddities and grandly graphomaniac statements; sculptures in wood and metal and “repurposed” esoterica. All of them infused with an all-seeing, all-knowing sense of humor that reflected their author’s outsize personality and infectious joie de vivre.
When McKay explained that the new room was to be all about the photo, Kochansky returned with a set of vintage photographic portraits that he had rescued from thrift shops and antique stores, treated with bleaches, dyes and organic materials — and transformed from orphan castoffs to provocative works of art. And when McKay Imaging Gallery opened its doors on July 14, 2005, it was with an inaugural exhibition by the name of Found, Not Lost: Works by John Kochansky.
This Friday night, June 17, the McKays will host an opening reception for another display of Kochansky creations — this one a collection of “Drawings and Such” presented under the name Afterthoughts. Like their previous Kochansky solo shows in 2005 and 2006, it’s an event that promises to draw a sizable crowd and generate a positive buzz — but conspicuous in his absence will be John Kochansky himself.
A carpenter by trade — and a hemophiliac from birth — John Kochansky studied art for a year at Syracuse University, returned to Monmouth County, married, fathered a daughter — and spent every available hour making art, and doing everything in his power to get that art seen in public. He exhibited in group shows at venues that ranged from Shrewsbury’s Guild of Creative Art and Red Bank’s Art Alliance, to the since-vanished Artforms and Asbury’s BE Gallery. He did a custom blackboard for a children’s art studio; crafted rubber fashions for a runway-art show; created work for Red Bank’s much-missed Freedom Film Society and a “cyber-erotic installation” for NYC’s Knitting Factory.
The 2005 show up at McKay’s was probably Kochansky’s highest-profile display, and one that remains, in the words of Bob McKay, “one of our most successful to date.” Less than three months later, however, John Kochansky passed away as unexpectedly as he had reappeared in the McKays’ lives — having suffered a ruptured spleen, massive internal bleeding and a ten-day coma before succumbing on October 10, 2005 at the age of 47.
Two posthumous exhibitions in 2006 — one at the now-defunct Gallery 31 in Freehold and one at McKay’s — were organized to benefit a college fund that was set up on behalf of Kochansky’s daughter Karly. Now 18 years old, Karly Kochansky is personally curating this latest retrospective of her father’s works; a colorful collection culled from the more than 1000 drawings, paintings, collages and sculptures that have been photographed, catalogued and offered to the public.
Hovering over everything in that body of work, no matter how meticulously constructed or casually dashed off, is the spirit of the man who’s variously been called “audacious,” “bizarre,” “brilliant,” “buoyant,” “generous” and “incredibly prolific.”
Those who knew him, or even met him just once, could tell you also that John Kochansky was a talker. Not a garden variety gossip, narcissistic self-promoter or hipster know-it-all, but a man who lived to learn; who absorbed great oceans of knowledge with intense fascination, and who couldn’t wait to share what he had discovered, with anyone he happened to corner.
This correspondent first met Kochansky in the late 1980s during our tenure as one of the owners of the long-gone Red Bank boutique BlowYourselfUp. The affable artist created some “wearable art” items that we were happy to feature on consignment — an arrangement that allowed him to stop in anytime during business hours, stand there at the counter, and regale his captive audience (sometimes for hours) with an encyclopedic, cream-of-consciousness wordsoup that spanned the globe and all frontier outposts of the observable universe. The random beauty in a drop of paint that misses the canvas; the common thread that runs from a haiku to the bars of a jazz tune’s themes; the erotic allure of sliced fruit — all “cabbages and kings” to the man who took in so much more of this world, and all delivered in a voice that’s been described as “a deep, lilting, low-registered timbre, interspersed with pauses and rhetorical questions.”
You can read more about John Kochansky from two writers who knew him well, Holly Hodder and Gregg G. Brown. For his part, Bob McKay offers a reminiscence from those ten days in October 2005 when his friend hovered close to death in a hospital bed — an interval that the photographer recalls as “raining nonstop for that entire stretch — water was pouring into my basement like it was a sinking ship.”
“I heard that Wampum Brook Falls in Eatontown was overflowing, and I went over to take some pictures,” McKay continues. “There was a storage place nearby that posted a Quote of the Day on their sign, and that day featured some words by Allen Ginsberg, about not being afraid of dying — I thought of John when I saw it.”
“By the next day John had passed away; it stopped raining just like that and the sun was out for the first time that week…I like to think that John had something to do with it.”
The McKays, who encourage the public to “attend this exhibit with your imagination loosely strapped in place,” will be dedicating all proceeds from Afterthoughts sales and auctions to the Karly Kochansky Scholarship Fund. The free opening reception at McKay Imaging’s walk-up gallery space — always an amazing place for a little wine, conversation and great views indoors and out — runs from 7 to 10pm on June 17, with the exhibit continuing through July 7, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 7pm or by appointment.