The Downward Spiral: Not So Much Horny as Full of Despair
This month, Dean Kissick investigates what’s going on in Goshen, New York.
“With no note left, with a treasury long since dispersed, this sonic lich quakes as this congregation of young and tilted queers melts to his side. … Housed in the brothel Neue Alte Brücke … five American harlots seek artificial rejuvenation.” (Text for “Foul Perfection”, a show by Henry Belden, Kye Christensen-Knowles, Hardy Hill, Sean Mullins and Phoebe Nesgos at Neue Alte Brücke)
The day after Boxing Day, right after returning from Guangzhou, I take a trip upstate to the small town of Goshen, New York, where Kye Christensen-Knowles has invited me to come see the home studios he shares with Henry Belden, Sean Mullins and Phoebe Nesgos. From the Pearl River Delta to Hudson Valley, I’m searching for something new. I can’t just mope around feeling jaded about all the lazy, boring exhibitions I go to, where everything looks the same; No! I need to go to the woods and hang out with some vampires in a barn that has been described to me as a space of “pure vitality, erotic psychosis”. I am always ready to be corrupted; anything for a change, and some new ideas of how to live.
The bus ride takes around an hour and a half. New York’s suburbs give way to highways to woodlands and rolling hills in midwinter before pulling into town. Kye’s waiting in a red Volvo, smoking a cigarette with the collar of his Polo Ralph Lauren jacket turned up. Goshen sits in Orange County, in picturesque, slightly down-on-its-luck countryside blighted by opiate addiction, like most of America, but I won’t see any of that, I’m going to the home of the Lotos Eaters.
I often dream of living in a mansion on an island somewhere with my friends, where we can just wander around talking about things, free from obligations or the constraints of time or reality. Artists often talk about starting an Arcadian community, but here’s a group that’s actually doing so, in a big, cosy barn 50 miles outside of the city.
They’re cooking red meat on the barbeque out back. We drink red wine and smoke. We go inside and have eggnog with rum by the Christmas tree. Over lunch they tell me about the homosexual desire for immortality, and how they don’t want to live in a world without pictorial representation in art, and how they’re not so much horny as full of despair. Their origin story begins at the Rhode Island School of Design at the start of the decade, during the heyday of “Provisional Painting”, which was how Raphael Rubinstein, in an essay for Art in America in 2009, described painters like Michael Krebber whose compositions appeared deliberately casual, inconsequential, noncommittal, unfinished. Who was talking about that, I ask?
“Everyone! … It killed people … Be yourself, do whatever works; No! … The Problem of Painting, everyone was worried … That David Joselit shit … Forever Now at MoMA … Everyone shitting themselves!” And so they chose a different path. They would become heroic figurative painters and sculptors.
Most of their studios are in the converted stables downstairs. In the front, Henry Belden carves out a translucent, reversed Plexiglas bas-relief of a young twink in thigh-high boots, an object of desire and callipygian harmony. The boy’s noisily and painstakingly power-sanded buttocks catch the light like a fine piece of Tiffany crystal. He shows me his bedroom, which doesn’t have any windows. Vintage oriental rugs hang on the walls. Lil Peep is playing. Mist blows from a diffuser balanced atop two dumbbells. A PlayStation controller lies on the bed.
Here in their wood-panelled farmhouse in the country, they’re building their own vision of late 2010s American Gothic
When they were at college together, says Hardy Hill, a close friend of theirs who doesn’t live in Goshen, who lives in the Columbia Theological Seminary, but comes to visit more than anybody else, and also has work in their Neue Alte Brücke show, Henry made photomontages depicting Hardy as a grim angel dragging him down to hell. Hardy, in turn, wrote a short character sketch of Henry in his book My Whole World:
“The New Man was leaving the apartment to receive a massage from a stranger. The New Man was a homosexual recently for a homosexual; four years totally maximum,” it begins.
Upstairs, in the dining room in Goshen, a lifesize fibreglass sculpture of a naked woman by Hardy’s grandfather, William Klapp, stands unsettlingly watching over everybody, in front of an otherworldly scene by Phoebe Nesgos. She paints tortured, writhing bodies in the mountains, and naked figures bathing in emerald green underground caves, and animal sacrifices. She’s away for the holidays when I visit, unfortunately, because her works are the most mystical and strange and sexually charged of everybody’s. Leant against the wall of her studio downstairs is a large, unfinished painting of Kye, naked in a storm of light, with three serpents twisting out from his groin and back into his body, like he’s crucifying himself with his penises. In the next studio along, Sean Mullins shares his love of Greek mythology.
He says we have become like gods, with all the powers we have now. He says we should remain open to the radically unknown. There’s a desperate need for honesty and for artists being real about their desires, he says. He’s made a painting, now on display in his show at Fragile, in Berlin, of Henry drinking the blood from Kye’s neck. It’s good to see the inherent vampirism of the art world, and art school friendship circles, laid bare; this dynamic of everybody feeding off one another, both attracted to and jealous and fearful of one another, staying up late together and bounding towards eternity. Here in their wood-panelled farmhouse in the country, they’re building their own vision of late 2010s American Gothic.
Artists used to be self-constructed monsters but now they hardly exist. Their personalities aren’t considered to be of interest anymore. But I’ve always liked how the great artists of the past lived wild lives, and had books written about those lives, and hid portraits of themselves in their works, and formed intense communities and secret societies; and I like how these Goshen artists combine their mythological subject matter with a self-mythologizing approach. They’re telling stories about one another, and painting imaginary worlds around themselves. Visiting them I’m reminded of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, with Kye playing the Dante Gabriel Rossetti role of seductive visionary who’ll most likely lead them to great success, and eventually their doom.
to the edge of my wood.
devoid of lost boys,
I fuck the mud---
To which only these
thorns are witness.”
(Exhibition text for “Energumen”, Kye’s show at Rehnsgatan 3)
Energumen, means both “a person possessed by an evil spirit” and “a fanatical devotee”. On the top floor of the barn, in a white loft criss-crossed by wooden beams, Kye paints creepy doll-like children in period dress, and ornate ecclesiastical and neoclassical architectural studies, and dwarves from Giambattista Tiepolo Punchinello drawings made more grotesque, and rabid, salivating dogs. His subjects often look like him, or else completely monstrous. His painted world has the feel of period anime, of a dark Japanese drama set in Victorian London.
They’re the first generation of figurative artists to take as their subject matter the soaring hyperreal metaverse
In his open-plan loft there’s a bench press, Isabelle Graw’s High Price on the coffee table, a reproduction of Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ hanging from a beam, orderly piles of printouts of manga characters and wax monsters and rococo sculptures, which are also stuck to the walls, the sweet pastoral melodies of “1 Hour of Relaxing and Beautiful Zelda Music” playing on YouTube through his speakers, a box of the pearlescent white surgical gloves that he wears when he paints. It’s like a scene from a Donna Tartt novel. There’s a sweeping view of farmland outside his front window.
Though often historical in their style, the artists living here make works that feel part of our swirling collective culture and fantastical, desperate moment in a way that most of their contemporaries’ do not. Reviving figuration is a worthy pursuit because there aren't many 21st-century figurative painting superstars to speak of. There’s a reason why the young look to della Francesca, and Deviant Art, and anime figurines, and video games, and Instagram thirst traps for inspiration; because that’s where more beauty is to be found. They’re the first generation of figurative artists to take as their subject matter the soaring hyperreal metaverse, rather than the real world outside in the fields. I don’t think they’re yearning for another time so much as looking for ways to make more of the present.
Kye writes lines in exhibition texts, and says things in conversation, like, “If postmodernity were an enema, to which a geyser of fecundity follows—these paintings are the blood in our stool. History is my ground, culture my grisaille, mortality my glaze.” That isn’t something you’ll hear in the average panel discussion. He tells me that he wants to make paintings like movies that will cost hundreds of thousands to produce. He has that sort of charismatic, romantic, reckless self-belief on which the American Dream is founded, which is what’s drawn me out here in the first place. There are few things that interest me as much as a cult of personality, and where it will lead.
Artists are figures who create desires in others, and desires are what shape our reality, and the kinds of desiring machines they’re building in this barn in Orange County seem based upon the stories we tell about ourselves, and how we perform ourselves in the great libidinal economy of the 21st century, and our dreams of other ways of living, our wish to join a cult, our craving for magic and meaning, our desperate yearning for dirt and romance and suffering and glory. Someday Henry and Sean and Phoebe and Kye will move out, and the dream will be over for a while, but hopefully not yet; and before they do, they’ll have a wild leaving party, a bloody, gothic barn dance in the hills, and you all must come, you must come.
DEAN KISSICK is a writer based in New York and a contributing editor for Spike. A new installment of The Downward Spiral will be published online every second Wednesday a month. Last time he visited the sixth Guangzhou Triennial, “As We May Think: Feedforward”.
Sean Mullins, “Protracted yawn, evanescing Eos”, is at Fragile, Berlin, until 17 February.
Kye Christensen-Knowles, “Energumen”, is at Rehnsgatan 3, Stockholm, until 16 March.
Henry Belden, Kye Christensen-Knowles, Hardy Hill, Sean Mullins and Phoebe Nesgos, “Foul Perfection”, opened at Neue Alte Brücke, Frankfurt, on 8 February.