“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” wrote Oscar Wilde in his 1889 essay, The Decay of Lying. Simply put, Wilde believed that we understand emotion through the lens of art, so therefore by design, artists have informed how we see the world around us. More recently, movies and television instruct our contemporary perception and how we approach our own understanding of the world. On a personal level, it’s hard not to translate my feelings as characters in my own self-directed film, amplifying their respective tenor and casting my own experiences through a theatrical lens. Sometimes, the smallest everyday moments, like brushing my teeth or waiting for the train, appear somehow important or significant. Whether or not that’s the case, it’s a way to sort through some daily existential dread and lend a little drama to an ordinary existence. Taking those ideas and expanding them in his own practice is New York-based artist Kyle Dunn.
His paintings quite literally set a scene, staging figures among highly stylized backdrops, in the midst of a variety of activities and positions. Dunn’s subjects emote expansively, some disassociate at a social setting, while others despondently daydream during ordinary daily activities. Through his unique bas-relief style and trompe l'oeil techniques, Dunn amplifies every emotion, propelling his characters’ psychological state with such melodrama, it leaves ample room for a viewer’s own contemplative rumination. Partially fictional and personal, Dunn’s magnetic paintings are affecting, with heart-wrenching, honest performances from his own cast of characters. I was delighted to sit down with him this last fall to talk about his ever-evolving process, his measurable growth over the past year, and what it means to construct his own narratives through painting.
Jessica Ross: There seems to be a clear tonal shift in your work in 2019, still fiercely compositional, but more gripping and moody in timbre and style. Can you elaborate on this aesthetic shift?
Kyle Dunn: I think there is something theatrical about freezing an image and turning it into a painting. For me, it is about digesting and reflecting on a certain emotion or hypothetical situation, then trimming off the fat so what remains is necessary—in the same way that props and background in plays or film set the scene but don’t pull focus from the action. Over time, I have been more inspired by film stills and their kind of visual logic.
For example, in the piece The Witch, my initial interest was in painting a male witch, as this is often a female character, and wondering what that would look like. Witches have a sort of seductive element, an idea of wiles and scheming, that doubled my interest, as I have been making work where men are the objects of desire. He is lit theatrically from below, and the low camera angle is taken from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), when Barbara is confronted by a zombie inside the abandoned house. The tilted camera is an old-school movie trick to translate this idea of menace or something being “off.”
While the Salem-era spindle chair and dead tree wallpaper reinforce things thematically, the heaviest lifting, of course, comes from the broom he is holding and about to mount. I wanted there to be humor to it as well. Dust clouds are being kicked up at his feet, which makes you wonder if he is, indeed, a witch, or simply a boy daydreaming about being one while doing the chores.
As your process develops with these relief paintings, how has the 3D element become more prominent in your work? How do you emphasize the sculptural element?
Working in painted reliefs means that I have to go into each with a firm plan. On a perfectly flat canvas, you are able to change your mind at any time. As the objects in my paintings have carved physical edges, they have to be followed once committed. I actually have grown to really enjoy this limit because it gives me something to work against and keeps my next moves clear, as there are not the unlimited possibilities you would have if the images were only paint.
I try to choose subjects that can really benefit from a hybrid two- and three-dimensional depiction, as this keeps the relief element necessary and not a gimmick of sorts. I often have transparent or reflective objects in my work, or pools of light across the composition, as these blur the line between two and three dimensions. For example, in Lover’s Leap, a moonlit window casts a trellised prison bar pattern over half the figure, who is sprawled (or as I like to think, splatted!) across the floor, morosely trapped in romantic indecision.
You had some major life moments this past year (going through a divorce tempered by substantial professional success). How has your personal life found its way into your work?
My work usually draws from my personal experiences first, then my relationship and thoughts on pop culture second. But there is a big divide between the exaggerated emotions on display in art, and actual on-the-ground lived reality. As I work half-autobiographically and half-fictitiously, sometimes people assume that what I am painting is one hundred percent earnest, when it is really leaning into fantasy or cathartic bombast. So, while autobiographical in origin, they are more about blowing those feelings up past life-size, to the point of comedy or tragedy.
Take, for example, Patsy Cline, who I have loved since childhood when hearing my mom walk around the house singing “Crazy”. She is the queen of the jilted-but-helpless break-up ballad. A title like “I Love You So Much It Hurts” really says it all. There is a type of decadent, over the top emotion to these songs that is infectious. Yet, at the same time, her cultural output had nothing to do with the actual woman. She was a ballbuster who went by “The Cline.” At the height of her fame, her opening acts were men, while she was the star attraction, and she refused to perform until she was given the top billing she deserved. The contrast between the dejection and helplessness in her songs’ lyrics, and the assertiveness with which she lived her life, is fascinating and speaks to me as a painter with a proclivity for melodrama.
When you feel like matching that same big emotional energy, what do you listen to? (Besides Patsy, of course).
I actually do not listen to music in the studio. When I was younger, I had to have music and noise on all the time. My work involves a lot of repetitive labor and detail work, and music is too present in the room and pulls focus. I listen to audiobooks mostly, and tend to relisten to the same ones ritually—it is fun to play against the same background and dip in and out. Some favorites are Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, and, for a lighter fare, the podcast My Dad Wrote A Porno.
On that note of music, we’ve talked a bit about the Joni Mitchell song that explains that feeling of disassociation one gets at parties. Can you elaborate on how this is now tied in with your figures?
I am often jealous of musicians! There is such an immediacy to the format of music, such a direct connection between artist and audience. A song can be carried with you, and used to reflect or reinforce a particular moment in your life. That being said, I sometimes take inspiration from songs, or will have a nascent idea that becomes more fully fleshed out with my reaction to one.
That was the case with People’s Parties, based off the Joni Mitchell song of the same name. I recently went through a painful break-up, and I was trying to go out and have fun but finding myself mimicking other people, even as I was floundering or just not feeling up to it. The song is so succinct and honest in its self-deprecating humor; it feels like a nervous laugh used to cover something darker and more slippery.
How are humor and pain in dialogue with one another in your work?
There is a kind of humor and silliness to big emotions, at least when you are looking back and processing. Making paintings is a way for me to distill messy situations in my life down to something understandable. Sometimes that feels uplifting, sometimes it is like picking a scab, sometimes both. I can be too earnest.
If you had to choose three of your biggest inspirations from art history, who would they be?
Recently, I have been looking at Goya. I was initially drawn to his work for the subject matter, specifically the Black Paintings, as I myself was interested in the supernatural (the aforementioned witch). While I came for these darker works, I ultimately stayed for the tamer society portraits and pastoral scenes. There are lovely jewel tones contrasting these washy locales that I find visually captivating.
I have also been looking at Suzuki Harunobu’s woodblock prints, which are wonderfully composed and give a sense of frozen action, or something taking place just off camera. And, lastly, Paula Rego is a longtime inspiration. She has a series of works including The Maids and The Family that, on the surface, are innocent enough, but seethe with psychosexual menace. She often based these works off plays, this being the case with the former painting, and I feel a kinship there.
Being in this new transitional moment in your life, how important is change in your practice? How has your work developed in the past year?
My painting took a big left turn in early 2019 while developing a body of work for Frieze NY. I am consciously trying not to take any element of the paintings for granted, including choices in palette, technique and subject. Which essentially means I am trying to be as specific as possible, or aim for visual legibility, with each part contributing to the whole story.
A recent body of work created for Miami Basel with Galerie Maria Bernheim explores the experience of romantic separation, the process leading up to it, and the untenable emotional positions people adopt to justify or rationalize their feelings. I translated this into cramping poses, whether on a ledge or terrace, that can’t be held for long. It’s that one second when a pendulum is still before it swings back the other way.
You’ve talked about the importance of showing male sensuality rather than male sexuality. Why do you think representing more sensitive male subjects is important?
I am not sure if the distinction between sensuality and sexuality is important to me anymore. What has been useful to me in thinking about gender is considering what is allowed or expected of men, then portraying the opposite to highlight just how strange or stilted those expectations are.
What does the ghost imagery in your new work hope to highlight?
The initial idea of a ghost came about through a studio error. In Raft, I realized I had made a mistake in carving one of the figures, so I moved his shoulders down a few inches in paint, but the carving remained. His older profile is still visible in the background, as, for lack of a better term, a ghost image. The figures in these paintings are half three-dimensional relief, and half painted illusion. A fully transparent ghost, therefore, is a way to really change the relief-to-painting ratio and favor the relief, which I had not done before.
I spun off conceptually from there in a few directions. One is from Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, from the viewpoint of an elderly woman who is peeved to realize that vanity does not diminish with age. I wondered if vanity would end in death, which became the title before the composition took shape (Vanity Never Ends).
And concerning the idea of a ghost itself—they go about routine, even after death, perhaps unaware that they are dead and need not carry on with mundane earthly things. We often see them trying to get revenge on wrongs inflicted on them when they were alive, haunting a particular place. In other words, on serious business. I am shooting for some levity with the idea of a vain ghost who is getting ready in the morning and checking out his reflection.