Imagine some anime character charging his ki as waves of plasma vaporize everything in a fifty foot radius. Throw in a Post-Impressionist sensibility and few cues from underground comics and you'll have Kyle Ranson's explosive brand of portraiture. Since his arrival in the 1990s, this former East Coaster has made himself, and his work, right at home in the Bay Area. We recently sat down to chat about volcanoes, embryonic goo, and R. Crumb. —Tyler Curtis
Tyler Curtis: There was a heavy graffiti scene by the time you got here in 1994. Where were you situated then?
Kyle Ranson: I was doing crazy amounts of graffiti, but more tagging than anything else. It was a long time ago. I had something I did, it wasn’t a word, it was more of a robot-cyclops head. So I’d hear different things from different people, like “the thumb” or “the carrot stick head,” there were many descriptions. I got really addicted to doing that for a long time. And the graffiti scene was really wild here around that time. It was a lot of fun, but I was never into the gang mentality or tough-guy aspect of it all, which I always thought was stupid. Like beef between graffiti writers, I really had no interest in that. But, because I went out and did those things, I was involved in that world whether I liked it or not. And I would say that a lot of those attitudes, along with police involvement, were some of my reasons for not being a part of that world anymore.
Do you think you’ve retained that sense of exploration with your canvas paintings now?
I mean there were a few things that I did glean from doing graffiti that I enjoy. In fact, I like public art and I like murals a lot, and I’d have to say that doing murals has been some of my more fun moments in the art world. Doing a mural, especially during the day, everybody’s walking by, the guys pushing shopping carts, some yuppies parking their Jetta, or some little kid’s like “Wow, that’s really cool!” And that feels great, because that’s really who it’s for in the first place. It’s really democratized, and that aspect of it is really my favorite way for people to see art.
I know some of those people better than others. I’ve met Barry McGee a couple of times, but I wouldn’t say we know each other. I know Chris Johanson pretty well, and Alicia McCarthy, too. But by no means do I consider myself a graffiti artist. I mostly know a lot of those people through the music scene. I think I know Chris more through music, at least at first, than through artwork. But I will say this: I went to the first Bay Area Now in 1997, and that had a massive impact on me. That was a fantastic show. And there were so many things that were good about it. It was epic, beautiful, and tangible. I was like “Wow, I could do that.” And that was a very important thing for me to see. To be like “Oh yeah. What the fuck am I doing?” I was kind of in limbo between doing music and doing art. I forgot I was an artist, first and foremost, and to see that stuff was really inspiring.
So when you got back into painting after Bay Area Now, and you starting pursuing it more full-time, how did your style shift into what it currently is? Did you start building the prototypes of the kind of work you do now?
I’ve had really weird ups and downs. I was really into comics when I was young, and up through high school I was really into graphic novels, too. We had a lot of underground comics around the house, so I was raised at a super age with Robert Crumb, Richard Corben, and Art Spiegelman, and all these wild underground artists. Crumb was the first person I learned to copy when I first started making art at four or five years old. I’d say he was the father of my abilities as an artist, in a strange way.
It’s a twisted style to get into at such an early age, having so much disgusting detail.
Definitely, but comics are twisted. I was thinking about illustrators today, P. Craig Russel, Wally Wood, Arthur Rackham. I really liked Swamp Thing, the first run, before Alan Moore. These guys, Bernie Wrightson and Bill Mantlo. Those illustrations were really incredible, and really stuck with me as a kid. I was all about the 70s era of comics illustration, more so than the 80s. Man Thing, old horror comics, and guys like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. Jim Steranko, too.
I get that illustrative style in your work, and you have that very solid human figure outlined almost into caricatures. But pieces Toulouse-Lautrec’s “The Kiss,” among others, definitely seem to be a part of your genealogy, especially with the chaotic coloring situated within and outside of a human outline.
Toulouse-Lautrec is a favorite of mine. As for the human figure, I love it. I always go back to it. Both the figure and the portrait are really important to me. And I always seem to gravitate back to them, even if I venture out a little bit. I’d say they’re the body of my work in a lot of ways. Going to art school in Baltimore was not my greatest experience, because I was sort of adrift. But actually, I took night classes when I was in high school at this place called the Lime Academy, because there were really traditional painting and drawing classes, and I had access to the human figure. Around that time, my interests were splitting in weird ways, because I was so interested in comic books, but I also had access to the history of modern art, so I was gobbling that up as well. Sort of in a dumb high school move, I destroyed all of my comic book illustrations, because I was like, “No, I’m going to be a fine artist, I’m not going to be a comic book artist.” I made some sort of distinction in my head that was really regrettable.
It seems like you’ve found a medium between those competing interests now, pop culture and fine art.
Of course. The best teacher I’d ever had in my life was my high school art teacher. But he was very old school. The things I learned from him were much more about humanitarianism and the way people treat each other. He was a Polish immigrant, he was in Warsaw, and he was an older dude. So he had lived through Russia taking Poland, Communism being thrust upon him, and then in World War II he was in a concentration camp. And then he moved to eastern Canada and would drive down to New York City every weekend to try to sell his paintings, and he just couldn’t make it as a painter, in that way. Then he became a potter and his pottery was popular, and he started teaching. He was a really great teacher with a wealth of information, but he thought of those things, comic books, as not necessarily fine art, and I took what he said very seriously. So later on I had to find peace with both sides of that spectrum, and come to a place where I look back on those comics and actually see them as just as valid, and those people as just as talented. I guess it’s been a no brainer since then.
What point do you think that high culture centrism might be missing in things like comic book illustration?
Just time. I mean, Honoré Daumier was kind of like a comic book artist, he was considered an illustrator. Maybe not a comic book artist like we understand it today, but he had a flare for the common, in that the common people liked his art. And now you can’t avoid him in art history books. And it’s happening with R. Crumb now. And when I was a kid, he wasn’t revered like he is now, he was just some scummy fucking underground artist.
They were showing his Kafka drawings at Tony Shafrazi Gallery all through last summer, too. That says a lot about how far that kind of work has come in retrospect.
And that is important. I spent so much time as a young man trying to get away from my illustration roots, like, “No, I’ll only do fine art.” And now it sounds so stupid. I’ve kind of bounced back and forth, too. A lot of my friends are tattoo artists, and I’ve always been more in that world than the fine art world, more folk art, like tattooing and illustration. And when I say that I don’t mean like I’m in the country, I’m cleaning my shotgun, I paint, and I’m Christian. I’m an informed artist, I’m not naïve. But I am a folk artist, and there’s a difference. I’m more interested in what the people around me are doing, and I can communicate with them.
Can you talk more about the relationship between the chaotic color schemes overlapping the solid human forms in your work?
Well, I really like hot lava. I love the idea that you and I, sitting here talking right now, in some ways, are a mixture of hot lava and water and some gases, and have come into being from that. As far as we know, to the best of science’s ability, we came from goo. I think that’s pretty cool. I always try, whether it’s conscious or unconscious, to go back to that. It feels good, just to reference that place before life began, where the soup’s cooking, and where endless possibilities are coming from this molten goo. And you can see that anywhere in nature, where something is amorphous first, and then it took form. That’s fascinating to me. You can see when it was a possibility for any number of things and then it decided to be a tree, or a rock, or a person.
You have a lot of funny stories about being tortured by your family in these crazy mock-horror movie scenarios during your formative years. I was wondering if you still pull elements of those terrifying moments from your memory bank when working on a piece.
My family’s always had a pretty dark sense of humor, and they’d joke sort of blatantly about things like death and destruction and drug addiction, and I like my family for that reason. Yeah, some of those moments were terrifying and bewildering. There’s one example in particular that sums up my family dynamic pretty well. My uncles and aunts were only a few years older than I was, so they were more like siblings growing up. One of my uncles in particular was only eight years older than me. One day, when I was living with my grandparents, he was like, “Hey, I’ve got a present for you.” And I was thinking like, “Oh wow, it’s a Stretch Armstrong or something.” And my uncle said it was in a closet, downstairs, in the corner, under a coat. I was a little kid, and the closet was gigantic to me then. I remember climbing over this sea of my grandfather’s patent leather shoes he kept in it. And then there was the coat. I was so excited. I just couldn’t wait to see what he got me. I pulled the coat away, and there was a giant Mason jar just filled with three pig fetuses. I had no idea what they were. I thought they were actually human children, human babies or something. There were three of them, and I remember just freaking out, like, “No! Oh God, No!” But at the same time looking anyway, just like, “But what is it?” And that sort of terror and curiosity has carried through my entire life. Things that terrify me are things that I’m usually drawn to, in some way. If it’s music that I find disturbing and terrifying, I probably listen to it over and over. Or there are movies where I’m like, “Why is it fucking me up? I can’t watch that.” Usually those are my favorite movies. And I don’t know why that is. Sometimes I think I’m just beating my sensitivity down, because this is a harsh world. Sometimes it’s about dulling my nerves, and then other times there’s something else about it. I think being open to the reality of things is important, and violence and horror is a part of reality. More violence and more horror happen as a result of people denying its presence, rather than accepting it as a part of the everyday.