It took, oh, about 400 years for someone to spell out the revolutionary implications of Rabelais' earthy, fart-ridden Gargantua and Pantagruel. It was Mikhail Bakhtin who wrote with respect to what was perhaps the world's first novel, which he called an "encyclopedia of folk culture": "Fear is the extreme expression of narrow-minded and stupid seriousness, which is defeated by laughter."
Kyle Herrington's often funny, sometimes grotesque canvases — which he calls, collectively, "a study of humanity" — are, happily, finding like-minded spirits a little more quickly. But the same struggles at play in the reception of Rabelais' work — fear vs. freedom, high vs. low culture, seriousness vs. humor — have informed reactions to recent shows by the 31-year-old artist.
I spoke with Herrington at his Harrison Center studio, where his text-centered paintings — which find insults and phrases like "Eat me, beautiful" written in an imperfect scrawl against an interstellar background — take pride of place.
NUVO: How did you get to this point in your work?
Kyle Herrington: I lot of this is spurred by my entering the dating pool. I went into my early 30s not really dating, just focusing on myself and my work.
Different demographics read into it differently. A lot of my gay friends will read this as being gay art. At the same time, I've shown work and people have been surprised that I'm not a black woman. And people read it as a redneck, white woman saying these. The text is literally floating in space, devoid of candor and context. I find that people automatically insert the accent into their head.
NUVO: Do you ever get accused of appropriating those people's voices in a disrespectful way?
Herrington: A lot of gay culture is based off of appropriation of other cultures. But I also think that with the Internet every sect of humanity is melding into each other. Most of these are things that I've heard before: They're interactions either I've had with friends or strangers in a bar. It's kind of like I'm taking the underbelly of society and putting it on these — and seeing what sticks.
It's only been in the last year or two that I've gone in this direction, because for a long time I didn't want to do text on stuff. I didn't want to do things that are silly in my mind. When you go to art school you're trained to make this pretty and gallery-acceptable. You have to meditate on composition and color. I was doing that sort of work, but I was sort of doing these on the side while waiting for things to dry. These became so much more at the forefront of the work I wanted to make — and it was a lot more honest than everything else I was making.
NUVO: There's this pressure to make work that's technically adept or profound...
Herrington: I would rather make bad art than boring art. I may be one of the only artists in this city who wants people to laugh at their work. I do have that academic art painter in the back of my head informing at lot of these, but I'm also not sticking to those restrictions. I'm basically flying off of these wild hairs I get. I'm really trying to make every idea I have. In years past, especially when I just got out of school, I would edit myself a lot: 'Oh, what's the point of that piece.' With this, I'll be sitting at work, one of these phrases or images will pop into my head, then I'll write it down and come home or to the studio and just make it. Either it works or it doesn't; a lot of times it doesn't work, and that's fine.
Somebody will look at this and say, 'Oh, this is some sort of deep proverb,' and another person will look and say, 'Oh, this is shit.' And I think that's a lot of what the Internet is right now, too. People will scroll past all this crap, but then there are other things that have 15 million likes. And there's this idea that you can put these things, literally, into space and they take on a life of their own.
NUVO: What do you think about the person saying these things?
Herrington: I think the person that's saying this is probably the worst person in the world. There are two titles I'm thinking of for this show: Gay Shit and The Worst Person in the World. If this is all the same person saying this, they're horrible. The funny thing, too, is a lot of these could be something anyone says, but if you take it out of context and put them on the wall, you think, 'I can't believe I said that.' I like that something can be really offensive to somebody and really funny to another person and then just innocuous to the person after that.
Text is such a good tool for the viewer. There's not a lot of figuring out of what it is. If you have an abstract painting, the first thing people want to say is: What is it? Is it a hillside, a pond, a piece of meat. Anyone who's literate can read these paintings. That takes a lot of the guesswork out of it and people can spend time thinking about it, instead of spending that time navigating the painting visually.