Interview with ‘False Monarchy’ Artist Kyle Kogut

Kyle Kogut | Exhibiting artist in solo show False Monarchy from January 24 through March 17, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Grace DeWitt

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Walking into Kyle Kogut’s solo show, False Monarchy, at The Stamp Gallery.

Let’s start with some history. Where did you grow up? Where and what have you studied?

I grew up in a small town outside of Philadelphia, PA. I started making art at a very young age, and have been drawing for as long as I can remember. I ended up going to Tyler School of Art at Temple University and got my Bachelors of Fine Art degree and explored a range of mediums, but decided to focus in Printmaking. I was really attracted to the graphic flatness of screen printing and the tiny lines of etching, elements that are still prevalent in my work today. I was out of school for a few years and my work started to expand beyond drawing into animation and sculpture. I then got my Masters of Fine Art degree from the Mount Royal School of Art at MICA in Baltimore, where my work really grew and has informed much of my practice today. I started to experiment with video and performance, while continuing to create drawings and sculptures.

You often describe your work as autobiographical. Can you explain what processes or parts of your practice contribute to this sense autobiography?

My work draws upon narratives from my upbringing in a religious household and the life experience of my father as an auto mechanic, along with other elements of my life. I was raised Roman Catholic, attending mass every Sunday and played guitar in the Church band. In this one stained glass window at my Church growing up, I was always more attracted to how Lucifer was depicted as a dragon being conquered by the saint than the saint himself. While attending Catholic school I discovered horror films and heavy metal and became obsessed with dreadful imagery. I had a spiritual awakening at a young age and realized that I wasn’t drinking the kool-aid, so after a few terrible years in that environment I left and had a complete split with the church. My work comes from a very American Roman Catholic perspective, presenting an antithesis of the “In God We Trust” of a nationalist identity. Though many aspects of my religious upbringing, such as constant balance of good versus evil, imposed self-reflection, and a questioning of life’s meaning, still have an immense influence on my life and art. I also reflect upon my father’s life as an automechic and the labor of his life versus my life as an artist. My dad worked a lot growing up, always working two jobs to make ends meet and provide for my family. Seeing his experience as a blue collar worker has informed much of the imagery I utilize, elevating symbology from the automotive industry as relics to be worshiped as gods through an occult guise. I draw upon my history while attempting to present universal experiences.

Transitioning to The Stamp Gallery show, False Monarchy, can I ask what your thinking was behind the exhibition title?

The title is derived from Pseudomonarchia Daemonum, an appendix in Johann Weyer’s demonology manual from 1577, De praestigiis daemonum. The appendix lists the sixty-nine known demons, their characteristics, and how to conjure them. Much of my imagery draws upon historical depictions of demons as a representation of the Other, and the reality of demons to past cultures really fascinates me. While I was planning the exhibition I also spent a lot of time reflecting on Americans’ worship of jobs and the romanticisation of the working class in the rise of Donald Trump. The title was also a nod towards his absurd rise to power and exploitation of a disenfranchised demographic in this country. People now worship a monarchy founded on lies, an American dream that no longer exists, and an empty promise of a return to prosperity.

Visitors to False Monarchy often say that the show does not feel like a typical exhibition, but rather, a charged yet domestic space. There are no labels or traditional exhibition titling, print presentation is minimal, and there are animal crackers available at the docent desk. Can you talk a little bit about your intentions with the show’s atmosphere?

I hadn’t thought of the space as domestic but it’s interesting to hear viewers have had that reaction. I wanted viewers to enter the space and discover things for themselves, engulfing them in symbolism and imagery similarly to a church or other sacred space. I tend to let the work speak for itself, so we decided not to include titles and minimize other materials. I wanted the viewer to have a multi sensory experience, hearing, viewing, and tasting elements of the exhibition that will inform and play with each other. I wanted the video False Monarchy (A Ritual) to be its own entity, but also have the audio serve as the soundtrack for the entire space. A viewer would be looking at a drawing while hearing the drone metal, or eating an animal cracker while reading the prayer in the video, as if they were kneeling in a pew staring at Jesus on the cross, eating the Eucharist while hearing a psalm sung by a choir. Overall I want the space to be holy yet evil, comforting yet chaotic, familiar yet esoteric.

What was the process behind Capricho (Owner)? Were you referencing any particular objects or monuments as you created it?

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Kogut’s Capricho (Owner), right, and television playing False Monarchy (A Ritual) at False Monarchy in The Stamp Gallery.

The sculpture is an amalgamation of different motifs serving as the focal point of the space. The specific shape of the sculpture is a quote from an etching from Goya’s Disasters of War, Plate 39, titled ‘An heroic feat! With dead men!’ (Grande hazaña! Con muertos!). The image is haunting, with three dismembered corpses and body parts hung to a tree, depicting the horrors of  Napoleon’s invasion of Spain. The title is derived from the last section of the Disasters of War, the “emphatic caprices,” which depict absurd charactertures of the clergy and other people in positions of power. I translated that absurdity into the sculpture, creating a demon hand and using an abject t-shirt while quoting the body parts from the Goya print. The piece is also a place of worship or a shrine, with offerings and remembrances placed around the base. I was also thinking a lot about waste, fossil fuels, and sludge, covering the tree in an industrial tar.

This show has a vital symbolism element to it, most immediately recognized in the car company logos throughout the work. However, the hand seems to become a symbol in False Monarchy: it is physically placed as an object in Capricho (Owner) and then referenced through print on performance materials also displayed in the show. What inspired the hand as a repeated symbol, and how important was it for you to include both the physical hand and printed hand images together in this show?

I view the hand as a utensil for transformation, a channel for mystic practices, and a tool of labor. In many of my drawings I depict demons (I call them Friends), as a representation art historical archetypes for the Other, such as the faun, wildman and satyr while also referencing depictions of demons, devils and fiends; beings who possess power beyond human understanding. I see creating (particularly drawing) similar to a transformation sequence in a werewolf movie; a metamorphosis from human into something other.  I view the hand as possessing similar mysteries. I have always been drawn to the visual language of the hand, as they hold an expressive, universal vernacular.

The inclusion of the demon hand in Capricho (Owner) gave me an opportunity to explore new materials and processes that I have been wanting to utilize for some time. I cast my own drawing hand into silicone, and used my own hair to transform it a physical representation of the demon hands I have been drawing for years. While it also quoted the Goya image previously discussed, I also wanted it to loom over the viewers head; both blessing the viewer and being in a hierarchical position of power. The hand on the back of the mechanic’s suits is a quote from Éliphas Lévi’s depiction of Baphomet and reference to The Left Hand Path, a philosophy of magic that focuses on self empowerment and creation of personal dogmas.

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Detail of Kogut’s Capricho (Owner), left, and television playing False Monarchy (A Ritual) following the opening performance for False Monarchy.

To what extent does humor play a part in the experience of False Monarchy?

Humor definitely plays a role in the work, but I’m never trying to hit you with a punchline. I try to poke fun at the absurdity of everyday life, history and the human condition. Like many occult practices, I try to use the carnival of powerful images to elicit a range of emotions, humor being one of them.

You’ve mentioned that the opening ritual for False Monarchy was the first public performance you have organized. Who influenced you as as you put together the words and actions of the performance, and what were your goals for its reception?

I was inspired by a range of real occult and religious practices and performance art. I studied the Satanic Black Mass and reflected upon my own childhood growing up in the Church. I wanted to use the psycho-drama of rituals to envelop the viewer in a real ceremony, forcing them to participate something that they may not have signed up. Much like being in a mass, I wanted the viewer to read the prayer and not necessarily have time to process what they were saying or hearing before the next line of prayer appeared on screen. I also wanted the viewer to give themselves over the priestesses of the ritual, feeding them a Eucharistic cracker and letting them drink the kool-aid (literally) of the cult in front of them. The prayer was a combination of passages from the Satanic Bible, Bruce Springsteen lyrics (who has always been seen as an American working-class hero), Dante’s Inferno, Faust, and a 2005 Chevrolet Cavalier manual. I also looked at a lot of performances from artists Jen Rey and Hermann Nitsch, along with films by Kenneth Anger and Häxan: Witchcraft Throughout the Ages from 1922.

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Viewers and participants at the opening performance for False Monarchy.

You played drone sounds on guitar during the False Monarchy performance. Can you explain your personal connection to metal music or drone guitar? Have you included audio elements in previous exhibitions?

I discovered metal at a pivotal point in my life and it saved me in many ways. It helped me discover that there were other ways of thinking about spirituality and it never strayed away from the realities of life. It did not preach or promise salvation, but instead told me to discover those things in myself. It was scary, mystifying and fun, and sort of became a secret guilty pleasure of mine while I was in Catholic School. I would listen to Black Sabbath on the way to school, then had to transform into a different person when I walked through the school doors. It still has a profound influence on my life and art, both aesthetically and conceptually. I started playing guitar when I was around 12 and mostly learned the standard classic rock tunes, then started to teach myself Black Sabbath chords. It really amplified my interest in metal as I could now participate myself; I was now a member of the club, of the church or cult. But that dichotomy still persisted, as I also joined the youth band at my church and provided songs for the mass twice a month.

As I grew older I strayed from the dogma of the Church, but played in the band until I left for college. I’ve played in a few bands exploring other genres of music, but somehow it always comes back to metal. Most recently I’ve been listening to a lot of drone metal, and have become fascinated with the moments of lingering feedback and the repetitive mantra of a chord. I’m interested in how we fill those empty spaces and what psychological transformations can happen.

I have done one other performance where I played live guitar. For my last solo exhibition I filmed myself performing a ritual in which I played the Devil’s Tritone for 66 minutes and 6 seconds. I was standing in a magick circle with only my guitar and amplifier, using the performance as a ritual to focus my will and conjure whatever was listening. The Devil’s Tritone is a medieval chord progression used in occult practices, but is also a foundation for contemporary heavy metal and rock music, most notably in Black Sabbath’s song Black Sabbath of their debut titular album.

I understand that you embrace influence from the Renaissance and Romantic eras. Were there any artists from these periods, other than Goya, who impacted False Monarchy in particular?

I most notably reference the works of the Northern Renaissance, the movement of art making that occured north of Alps during the 1400s-1700s. I reference the draughtsmanship of masters such as Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein, along with the focus on peasant life from Pieter Bruegel the Elder. I’m also extremely influenced by the hellscapes, monsters and fiends of Hieronymus Bosch. I’m also inspired by countless other artists from across history, such as William Blake, Philip Guston, and Trenton Doyle Hancock.

What was the greatest challenge you experienced when putting False Monarchy together?

I think the biggest challenge for any artist is having the time and resources to make work while functioning in the “real” world. Along with making art I teach and work other jobs to make ends meet, so the biggest hardship gearing up for any show is balancing other responsibilities while refocusing your dedication to the work.

If you could describe the “take-away” from False Monarchy in one phrase or one feeling, what would that be?

To reflect upon how our country has gotten to the point where it is, to contemplate how images play a significant role in shaping our identity, and to question the so-called truths that have shaped our hypocritical theocracies.

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Still of Kogut’s False Monarchy (A Ritual), in The Stamp Gallery.

Do you see your work heading in any particular direction at this point? Any particular impulses you feel you will follow after your experience with False Monarchy?

I definitely want to stage more performances in the future. I learned a great deal from this experience and can see them getting bigger with more performers.

Any advice for undergraduate artists such as those studying at this university? Anything you would tell your younger self as you entered the arts?

My advice for young artists in a university program is to really cherish the time that you have to focus on making. Never forget that you are paying to be there, so always explore every opportunity that is presented, whether that be a lecture to attend or a crit from a visiting artist. Build a foundation of dedication to your work and don’t waste your time. When you get out of school, reality hits hard. I would also advise to build a network of classmates that you can rely on after you graduate, as finding a community can be difficult outside of a facilitated art school setting.

To close, is there anything else you’d like to promote here? Any other current or upcoming shows you’re participating in?

I currently have work in Quinn Likes Trucks at Transmitter in Brooklyn that is on view until March 25th. I’m also curating a show of two artist’s work at Fjord Gallery in Philadelphia. Other Bodies, featuring work by Emily Culver and Elliot Doughtie, will be opening June 7th. I would also like to use these closing remarks to thank Raino Isto for doing such a phenomenal job curating the show and writing a fantastic essay on my work. It was really an honor to work with him and his dedication to the project made the show possible. I would also like to thank Stamp Gallery for hosting the exhibition and the docent staff. Thank you also to my performers Miranda, Chelsea, Selina, and you, Grace.

False Monarchy is open to the public from January 24, 2018 through March 17, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park. A recording of the opening performance for False Monarchy can be viewed at www.facebook.com/StampGalleryUMD/videos.

Kogut will join False Monarchy curator Raino Isto for an artist talk in The Stamp Gallery on Thursday, March 15, 2018 at 6:30 pm.

For more information on Kyle Kogut, visit www.kylekogut.com.

For more information on False Monarchy, upcoming artist talk with Kogut, and related events, visit www.thestamp.umd.edu/gallery.

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Kogut, preparing for the opening performance of False Monarchy in The Stamp Gallery. False Monarchy will be open to the public through March 17, 2018. Image courtesy of curator Raino Isto.

 

 

 

 

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