Kyle Vu-Dunn’s paintings overflow with personality, emotion, and narrative depth. Sculpted and scaled to size, Vu-Dunn’s works have weight and form, which extend inwards into the narrative subject matter. Seeing one in person feels almost like looking at something you shouldn’t be privy to -- they are deeply intimate and his precise articulation of color allows for a distinct separation of interior and exterior spaces. The subjects of Vu-Dunn’s pieces have primarily been autobiographical, often featuring him and his newly-wedded husband in natural and private moments of their daily lives, with thought-bubble shapes that reveal personal memories, symbols, and dreams that thread a narrative backdrop for the figures. While grounded in autobiography, his pieces are also dreamy and otherworldly. They playfully oscillate between reality and fantasy, crafting a mise en scene that is simultaneously welcoming and distant.
Vu-Dunn received his BFA in Interdisciplinary Sculpture from Maryland Institute College of Art and has shown work in numerous group exhibitions across the United States and in Germany. He recently had a solo show at The Java Project in Brooklyn in 2016, where he created an immersive, abstract, architectural installation, and also marked the turning point for when he began creating figurative work. Vu-Dunn has received grants from the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and has held residencies at The Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild and The Scholastic Atelier Artist in Residence Program. I visited Kyle Vu-Dunn at his studio in Brooklyn, where we discussed the development of his current body of work and his creative process.
It’s really great seeing your work in person; they have such a strong physical weight and presence.
Thanks! These works can be hard to photograph because they’re paintings atop sculptural forms. Photographs definitely flatten them a bit. I’m really interested in going back and forth between painting and sculpture as a way to exaggerate the physical relationship between things. When you’re working with relief sculpture, the objects cast actual shadows, but then you can go in with paint and exaggerate its depth across other elements of the work. I can play with that and make certain things bounce off of one another, and it’s fun to do that in a way where parts of it are reacting to actually present objects in the work, and some are totally fabricated.
What materials do you work with and how are they made?
The works are carved from foam, with fiberglass support as the back. The skins are plaster with acrylic hardener, with the image being painted in acrylic and latex paints.
Can you talk about your trajectory of how you arrived at this process and also this body of work?
I’ve been making art for as long as I can remember--some specific terrible drawings I made as a kid come to mind, so I’ve been in this for the long game I guess.
When I was in undergrad I was doing a lot of metal work. I was making plasma-cut steel works that had a lot of similar patterns to these current works, but the scale of the pattern was closer to lace. It was a big breakthrough for me when I scaled these patterns up in foam and fiberglass, as it allowed me to combine a couple separate bodies of work. Like a lot of sculptors post undergrad, I had to figure out new ways to work without access to a full shop of tools. I’m ultimately glad for it, because I think I would be making the same stuff now and it forced me to innovate in my practice. For me personally, there’s been a learning curve with painting because I come from a sculpture background. That’s been challenging, but I think I’m getting the hang of it.
I used to make abstract sculptures, but I now find those works a little silly. I was making abstract sculptures for about three or four years, but I just had so much going on in my life this past year that I felt like the abstract art I was making just wasn’t saying enough for me. When I pulled in the figurative elements, they sat on top of the abstract works that I did before, so it became a combination of the two. I’m glad I did create abstract work for such a long time because it has now, in an unexpected way, formed the base for this newer body of work.
Where do the images for these figurative works come from?
These are the first bodies present in my work. These works are mainly autobiographical, and the figures are me and my husband in a lot of them. I got married this past year and it was a really big emotional shift for me. It makes you think about your mortality and shit got real, for lack of a better way of saying it. That, mixed with all the politics that have been going on this year, created a lot of emotional highs for me.
A lot of these works are me and my husband in environments with objects and props from my home from the past year of my life. In this piece (Canaries, 2016) there are these curtains that were at my wedding and we’re in this enclosed space where we are making our own world. The outside space has this bright, day-glo color and the inside space is all cast in shadows. I try to use color in a way that implies psychological information or conveys feelings rather than being totally decorative. These works start with sketches and I do a lot of work on this app I have on my phone that is similar to MS Paint. The drawings are based partially on photos or a rough idea that I have, and then I color it. I’ve been taking photos of the works, and I’ll alter them in the app because it’s low risk working digitally, so my process is a constant back and forth between those two things. I work with color in little fields that interact with one another, so the digital square paint brushes in the app work well simulating that.
Can you talk about your use of color? I notice in your abstract works there were a lot more pastels, whereas in this current body of work it seems more vibrant and saturated.
Because they are dealing with my life, I think these are much more emotionally charged and that is something you don’t really see in the abstract work. There was a lot of experimentation in those, but it didn’t have the emotional resonance. With these newer pieces, the colors are more saturated because I’m really feeling them more. In terms of the saturation, a lot of it is just playing warm and cool parts together in different spaces. In terms of this piece The Talk, these bubbles that occur within the works are artificial in the strictest sense of the word, since they aren’t actual objects. Because of that, they’re in a totally different palette and they’re reflecting this light and color onto our heads and our bodies.
Can you talk about this current piece, Night Swim?
This is my newest piece and it’s still wet right now. This is the first one I’ve made of a person who isn’t me or my husband. It’s my friend Tania and I wanted it to be this buxom, beach-beauty type girl who is presenting that away from you. I kind of imagine her as a Judith-type figure who’s presenting her body, but she’s not presenting it to you. There’s going to be one of those bubbles presenting a different scene along this side, but that is usually the last detail I put into the paintings.
Can you talk about your use of scale within your works?
The scale is largely life-sized or a little smaller than life-size. Scale is something I struggle with. I wish I could make them smaller, but you have to have a certain level of detail and information within the paintings, and I can never seem to do that at a smaller scale. In part it has to do with the amount of detail you can achieve carving the objects. But I think there’s something inevitably attractive about having life-sized figures in work because it puts you at more of a one-to-one relationship with them.
I saw your piece A Nail in the Cherry Pit at The Java Project, which is the largest work that I’ve seen you make and it was very much an architectural piece that fit within the gallery space. Can you talk about this work?
All the background pieces of these current works are from that piece, and it’s been taken apart. I actually worked on that in this studio… it was eight feet tall, and my studio is seven feet and some change, so I didn’t see it the way that it would actually look before it was in the space. One of the reasons I moved away from abstract works was because of that show. I feel like it was what I wanted to do with abstract work, and I had the opportunity to take over the gallery space and to do something big and ambitious with it. Working at an architectural scale is something that I had wanted to do for a long time. I put the vinyl on the floor and had painted it, and I custom painted the room that phenomenological gradient. It was sort of a mind-fuck, because there was so much pink in that space that when you left the room everything was green because you’d seen red for so long. And that was also kind of the idea of it, that a sort of digital environment at large entered and became a real environment.
So these figurative works are built on top of that piece. For the compositions of them, I was looking at a lot of millefleur tapestries and both Egyptian and Greek art because they have a way of arranging figures and symbolic props in space in a way that doesn’t delineate lines of architecture or what is real. Instead, it’s more about what it significant. In this work (The Talk, 2016) the windows are on the back wall, but I didn’t feel it was actually necessary to show that wall. I like the flattened space because it becomes kind of like dream logic; you’ll dream that you’re at your grandma’s house and you know that’s where you are, but if you think about what you actually saw in the dream, it wasn’t the actual space. Maybe there was a table or an armchair that you recognize, but your mind fills in the blanks, and that is what’s important. I think I was looking at ancient Greek art because it was on round, decorative objects so you could only see a little bit of it at a time because you had to turn it, so if there was a big environment you wouldn’t really understand the scene. The same thing with hieroglyphs, where you see the scenes walking.
Can you talk about how you approach sexuality within these works?
While I don’t want to be pigeon-holed by my sexuality, it is very much a part of the work. Unconsciously or not, I am definitely informed by the aesthetics of queer visual culture. I think artists make the kind of images they want to see that don’t exist yet or that they haven’t seen before, and this is often rooted in sexual desire and self-perception; wanting to see your identity reflected.
The figures are naked because they’re usually in domestic spaces, and there’s a vulnerability to being naked, that isn’t dated or time-stamped with fashion. I also have one of those apartments where you can’t control the heat, so it’s just always hot…
The natural elements that abound in the work -- leaves, flowers, branches -- obscure the figures and create compact, compositional spaces. For me, they evoke equally a furtive outdoor tryst or an otherworld space that is both in- and outdoor. This to me is a leitmotif in a lot of queer work, from the paintings of Hernan Bas and Takota Yamamoto to the dreamy film Stranger by the Lake, which I would imagine dates back to freewheeling days of outdoor sex that needed to be hidden.
Are you thinking about a particular direction that your work is moving toward right now?
I’m definitely going to continue figuratively. I would like to scale the figure down and also start including more complex variables within the work. The figures are so big, so the work is very tightly cropped around them. The previous pieces were a body of work; they were sequenced with each other as I was making them. I want to start having figures and groupings of figures in more complex environments and having more objects interact with them.
Are you still focused on making work that is autobiographical?
I feel like the work will move further away from that, because I think I’ve said what I needed to say. The door isn’t fully shut by any means, but I think you have to keep switching things up and adjusting. These images are my husband and me, and I feel like I have total autonomy over using our image. I don’t have to worry about it being taken the wrong way or being sexualized or anything like that because I am making it, and it is my body to show. The relationship between the model and the subject is more complex when it’s not yourself, so that is something I’m figuring out as well.
It’s interesting that it has such a strong backing in reality because the pieces themselves represent such dream-like spaces and environments.
It definitely is a dream world. I liked this one (Year of Plenty, 2016) because I wanted to very consciously make one that didn’t have a face or head in it at all. I wanted to reduce the body down to a secondary role, becoming more of an object within the work and less of an actual person whose personality might get mixed in with their expression or their whole form. This piece shows me sitting with a curtain over my body, and the curtain is parting in the middle with a bubble emerging at the bottom. In these works, the bubbles are like dream clouds. After I got married upstate, I had the classic thing happen where you leave the city for a little while and then you really want to move to the country. Like, “fuck New York!” and all the sacrifices you have to make here. In this work (The Talk, 2016), the middle bubble shows all these hands reaching together, showing the overwhelming generosity we received from so many people helping us, and there’s also this dream house cabin in the woods. In Year of Plenty, the bubble is more like a puddle -- it’s like an ejaculate bubble kind of. Do you know that expression ‘seeds spilled on the ground’? It’s a biblical quote that I’m roughly paraphrasing, but it’s about having sex for pleasure, and how that’s like spilling seed on the ground because it’s not used for procreation. In this bubble, the hands are dropping these berries and fruits and they’re spilling out of the hands and onto the ground. It’s just an Instagram photo I took last summer, but I really liked it...
Nature seems to be a common motif within your work. Can you talk about this?
I really love, and have always loved, nature. My grandmother was a botanist, my mom is a very good and avid gardener and raised me to be one as well, and I just have a really strong relationship with plants. They solve some compositional problems for sure because they fill in space, but more than that they’re one of the more art historical references that are in the works. Like I mentioned, I looked a lot at the millefleur tapestries’ way of structuring space with flowers, and they’re a way of making that environment.
What informs your work?
I’ve recently been looking at a lot of Japanese manga. Outside of Instagram, which everyone uses, I try not to look at or actively seek out other contemporary too much just because I don’t want to ride the trends, nor do I want to accidentally quote something that I didn’t mean to. I try to actively look at things that aren’t contemporary art for my sources. And I don’t have a computer, I haven’t for years and I just use my phone a lot, so I don’t really look at things that much. I’ll do sketches here and there, but it’s a lot about how I remember things more than actually looking at something. I take reference photos for the figures themselves because there are some things that I just can’t make up, but a shoe -- I just put the shoe there and I carved it. I guess I don’t actively try to seek out things to look. I do the opposite actually, for what it’s worth.
What is your studio practice like?
I feel like everybody has to do five different things at once just to keep moving forward. I make things because I feel like I have to, I always have. I have a full-time job as an art handler at Paula Cooper, and I’m just in the hustle every day. Working on applications for grants or sketching paintings keeps me engaged with the work, and working on them even if I’m not physically there. I try to stay as mentally engaged with it even if I’m not in the studio.
I also tend to go in boom and bust cycles in the studio. I’ll start working on a piece, and it gains momentum, and then I’ll go down into the studio every day for like four or five hours after work. I become totally obsessed with it. And then after a certain number of pieces are accomplished, I have to not think about it for a couple of weeks before I start working again. My studio is quite big, but it’s not much wider than my arm span, so my work can quickly overtake the whole space. I don’t know if I could work on multiple things at the same time, because each piece has a different mood and personality, and there’s a certain emotion that goes with each one. I feel like it could be a disservice to them to work on different ones simultaneously, because I might start sharing colors and they could start to become one painting spread across two paintings. It’s easy to see how I could accidentally combine them.
How do you approach your older abstract work and what are your plans for those pieces?
I’m not really that interested in them anymore. They were the necessary thing I had to do to get here, in so much as they are actually literally half made out of them with the backgrounds. But working figuratively for me...I just don’t know why I didn’t do it before. I feel so much more purposeful, and there’s so much more of a finite end for them. It was such a struggle with the abstract work for me to know when it was finished. I felt a lot more existential dread with the abstract work because I questioned what I was doing. I think making figurative work, especially with a personal nature like this, was bringing my life to it and it was less of a separate body.
What advice do you have for other artists beginning their own studio practice and process?
One piece of advice that I would give, which I should take as well, is to watch less TV. I mean, I made a lot of this work by just trying to really be perseverant. It’s hard to be an artist because you have to sacrifice a lot of things. I wish I had time to workout or read more or do other things, but you really have to go for it. If I do a little bit every day, like if I’m in the studio every day for at least an hour, then things will progress faster and get better. It’s pretty cliche advice, but it’s cliche because it’s true.
What makes a painting successful to you?
Painting is a lot about making problems for yourself and figuring out a way to solve them. You don’t always answer the question, but each piece develops a distinct personality that wasn’t in another painting. Painting is, and all art-making is, world building. When they develop a distinct identity, it feels done. It’s hard to define what exactly that is, and I have definitely sometimes gone too far, but it’s definitely about a balance between that. As I’m working on them, there’s a closed set of logic.