My paintings depict perspectival spaces that are populated by things I pull from observation, imagination and found imagery. I use a variety of disparate painting materials, tools and methods of visual description on a single painting surface -- from faux painting treatments to airbrush to naturalistic rendering. These combinations create fragmented worlds that range in tone from humorously playful to insidiously unsettling and reflect the fragmented American political and social landscape. In a single illusory space I combine pictures, letters and abstraction. This points to the ways we internalize various images, texts and gestures non-logically to form our identities and perception.
Kyle Utter was born in 1988. He grew up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, before moving to Brooklyn, New York, in 2007 to attend Pratt Institute where he studied Painting and Art History and received a BFA in 2011. In 2016 he began his graduate studies in studio arts at Hunter College where he received an MFA in 2018. He currently lives and has a studio in Queens, New York.
Images courtesy the artist.
Interview questions developed by 2020 AIM Curatorial Intern Niuniu Zhang.
Oil paint on wooden panel
6 x 6 in.
Acrylic and oil paint on canvas, unstretched
29.5 x 19.25 in.
Q&A with Kyle Utter
What has been your most recent artistic concern?
In the body of work I most recently completed. I shifted my attention slightly to focus on incorporating written words, letters and numbers into my paintings. In a sense, this was a continuation of a focus on language that has been present within my work for several years.
My paintings are constructed spaces. Most often, they portray illusory spaces. Using perspectival schema I paint images of spaces. These spaces are populated by signs the inclusion of which are inspired by a non-linear meditation on history, current events, theory and my own personal history. Thinking about my conglomerated imagery in terms of signs, I have already been thinking about my paintings in terms of language.
Also, I had already been thinking about my paintings in terms of combining painting languages; that is, combining potentially disparate modes of painterly representation and abstraction on a single plane. This may be read as an embrace of cosmopolitanism where multiple languages are being spoken in the same space or a crowded psyche which is populated by many incongruent voices.
In 2020, I continued to think about language through painting. I began to focus more explicitly on written forms of language. I began to include letters, numbers and written words within my constructed spaces. Sometimes they seem to occupy volume within the illusory space and sometimes they seem to sit flat on the picture plane, in front of the illusory space that recedes behind it.
I think of my paintings as views of peculiar worlds. Like any worldview they are constructs and there may not be a coherent logic behind their construction. In this sense, the inclusion of written language was a logical development for my paintings as the written word greatly shapes our world, the way we understand it and the way we understand our self.
At times your paintings seem to portray a familiar memory or a childhood fantasy. What has informed your practice? Are you interested in creating “absolute art”?
I do reflect upon my own personal history and how that narrative intersects with historical and theoretical narratives, however I think free association is one of the most important concepts to my practice. I think by constructing and compiling imagery based on impulse opposed to cohesiveness I am using a sort of dream logic to make paintings, but my paintings aren’t transcriptions of specific dreams or fantasies that I have written down.
I am interested in romanticism as a time period and an intellectual movement, and I do think I’m a Romantic in some senses but I don’t think I am making “absolute art” because I am okay with viewers reading narratives in my paintings. I’d rather my paintings exist as visually engaging polysemous (bodies) of signifiers than insist that they have no extrinsic significance.
In your article “Words are a pipe,” you intentionally avoid prescribing a meaning for the viewers but would let them construct meanings. How have audiences, or your artistic peers, responded to this approach in your work - what have you learned about interpretation and meaning?
Recently (through the AIM program) I have tried to come up with simply stated verbal and written statements about the meaning of my work to help viewers access my paintings. I understand that looking at art can be intimidating and difficult. A short statement about the meaning of my work can provide a map for someone who feels completely lost looking at it. I am not opposed to this, because at the end of the day, I want as many people as possible to be able to engage with my work.
By presenting my work in different ways and talking about it with people over the years, I’ve learned that meaning is contingent. That is, even if I give the viewer an ‘elevator pitch’ while we’re looking at the painting, they may start talking about how it reminds them of something not included in the pitch or something I was unaware of. This helps me understand my own work. Sometimes, I will be blind to something that several viewers will see in my painting. Sometimes it takes me several years to understand why I did what I did in the studio. The way I understand or see meaning in my own work changes over time.
Interior with a Snake
Acrylic and Oil paint on canvas stretched over wooden panel
36 x 44 in.
Oil paint and enamel paint on canvas, unstretched
29.5 x 16 in.
In your opinion, what role does art play in 2020 amidst the events of the past year?
Art has helped me get through 2020. I live in Elmhurst and have a studio in Woodside, Queens. It’s about a 2 mile walk from my apartment to my studio. In March and April, in the early, particularly dark days of coronavirus, when seemingly everything was canceled or up in the air, before I returned to my day job, my studio practice lent consistency to my life. My studio is in a small office building that was completely vacant in these days and I half-joke that my mental health routine was I would get up, walk the 2 miles to the studio to get exercise, paint for a good part of the day and then walk home. Also, I’m a member of a reading group that reads art criticism/ theory and during the first couple months of caronavirus we went from meeting once a month to meeting once a week via zoom. Between my studio practice and this reading group I was able to assign a structure to my life in a time that otherwise might have felt like a freefall into a cycle of worry and despair. All this is to say the unprecedented circumstances of 2020 have affirmed art’s role as a tool of meaning making and community engagement in my life.
What are you most looking forward to in the coming months and 2021?
I want to make a big, figurative painting, in my fragmented, improvisational and uncanny style, generated by thinking about/research into America, conspiracy theories/misinformation, the internet, Michigan, guns and militia groups. I’m from Michigan and the occupation of the capitol building by armed citizenry and the foiled plot to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer (both happened in 2020) are particularly disturbing. 2020 has felt like such an unprecedented, crazy moment in America, that it feels appropriate to memorialize it by employing the European tradition of ‘history painting.’ Think of a dystopic, post-internet version of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. I think the Mexican Muralists provided a good historical example of how to incorporate regional aesthetics and contemporary concerns into the fold of European history painting.