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"There’s a real power in seeing yourself reflected in art": A Studio Visit and Conversation with Kyle Vu-Dunn

Art has the unique ability to be therapeutic. The act of creation, problem solving and general solitary thinking allows artists to work through some of the biggest questions about identity, sexuality and ultimately themselves. Manifestation of these deeply personal thoughts and ideas can be incredibly cathartic and expressive. With these tools, artists can tap into p​​arts of themselves that are usually out of reach for others.

Exploring that endless terrain is New York based artist Kyle Vu-Dunn. Unafraid and distinctly himself, Vu-Dunn’s work acts as a periscope into his own sexuality and personal relationships. With dazzling line work, sinuous compositional form and illusive cinematic lighting, Vu-Dunn’s canvases bow and bend to create a stage for his loving subjects. Usually framed by architectural elements (doorways and windows) his work portrays honest and intimate domestic scenes of gay love and give the viewer an almost voyeuristic view into his own life. 

We recently swung by his studio in Ridgewood, Queens to discuss his new series of paintings, his distinct, labor-intensive process and what it means to explore ones own sexuality through their own practice. Take a look at our interview with him below. 

Jessica Ross: Your work oscillates heavily between sculpture and painting. How would you describe your work to those who have not seen it?
Kyle Vu-Dunn: I call them “relief paintings.” They are essentially bas-relief sculpture, common in antiquity in Egyptian and Greek culture, but with my own contemporary color and imagery. There is a fair amount of trompe l'oeil in the panels, as some parts of the paintings have three-dimensionality and other areas are solely painted illusion--I had a studio visit recently with someone who called this “special effects” which I thought was funny and accurate. It’s hard to fully document them in photos for this reason, as seeing the panels from multiple angles in real life better explains their dimensionality.

I feel a wave of soft-heartedness and warmth when looking at your work. Do you find people connecting to the tenderness of your subjects and imparting their own experiences and narratives onto your paintings?
Thank you! And yes, that is one of my goals. I think of a lot of these paintings as love letters, a revision of a memory from my own experience, or simply a desire or fantasy made tangible through paint. They each have a loose narrative jumping off point, but I try to not fill in all the blanks.

Times are changing rapidly, and queer imagery seems to finally be leaving the margins of visual culture. There is a kind of wariness I feel about that sometimes, as queer culture can also be a place to be stranger or more idiosyncratic than the mainstream would permit. That being said, I feel motivated to make the kind of imagery I wish that I had seen growing up as a young gay person questioning myself and my desires. There’s a real power in seeing yourself (or your tribe) reflected in art. So I come to these paintings very sincerely and with a lot of warmth for who I imagine would benefit from seeing them.

Can you walk us through your process a bit? What’s the biggest challenge you face with your sculptural paintings?
The process for these panels took several years of trouble shooting to develop. The imagery in them grew alongside the material experimentation, and this year I feel like these two paths finally merged. I love the amount of creative control the panels provide versus painting on flat stretched canvas--it blurs the line between object and image, and allows me to emphasize areas of the composition with actual physical depth. My thoughtline with it has been if it doesn’t have to be flat, why should it be?

Before I start fabricating the panels, I have to have a firm idea of what the composition will be. As many parts of the image have actual physical edges, it’s hard to change course halfway through as you could on a flat surface. So I start with pencil sketches for tonality, and then a color sketch to capture the mood of the figures. Once this is done, I translate the image onto rigid foam and carve along the drawing--from there it’s a back and forth of layering and sanding plaster, fiberglass, and epoxy resin until I have a smooth working surface on which to paint. 

I also make paintings on paper in tandem with the panels, as a less time consuming way to sort through new ideas and techniques to bring back to the relief work.

How is it having your primary subject your husband? How do you think this particular artist / muse relationship affects the work?
At first it was simply because he was there and obliging, should I need a photo of a man crawling on the floor or hanging out a window haha. But over time it’s developed into more than just convenience--my relationship with him is the realest thing in my life, and is the emotional bedrock for a lot of the fictional situations I put in my work. If I want real emotional fire in the paintings, that’s where it is in my life, so it has felt pretty natural. Recently I’ve been sketching for pieces that are less romantic and more overtly concerned with uneven power/sexual dynamics, whether this is intentional or not--who submits, who’s in control? So painting also feels like a safe place to continue to explore my own sexuality.

What are you listening to in the studio these days?
I listen almost exclusively to audiobooks in the studio, as it’s a good way to stay entertained without any visual distractions. Last month, I went on a Toni Morrison audiobook marathon, as she narrates her own work and has so much wisdom and charisma to her voice (Paradise and The Bluest Eye are knock-outs). Some other favorite authors are Octavia E. Butler, Joyce Carol Oates, and Margaret Atwood.  Since then, I’ve been listening to 1950s and 60s science fiction novels, as there is an endless chain of them on Youtube in the public domain. Some are terrible, and some are surprisingly good!

I’ve noticed a trend in your paintings of figures slumped and sloped around various pieces of furniture. What’s the conversation between subject and environment you’d like to communicate?
I started using the furniture as a framing device. In these compositions, I try to organize information in a way that puts focus on the figure. So there is a lot of geometric planes, in the architecture and furniture around the subjects, that runs parallel or perpendicular to the edges of the panel. The figures being lithe and organic run against the geometries to emphasize them. 

While there is a lot of furniture in the work, it’s rarely being used correctly haha. Blocked is a kind of self-portrait as frustrated artist with my head ducked below the studio table. In Pink Crush (Greenhouse) the figures are laying on the floor next to a couch rather than on it, and a bisecting plane of glass that could be a table but isn’t specified cuts through the work and doubles the image. The greenhouse was the working idea for my show Night In at Julius Caesar in Chicago, both as a safe place to grow and a steamy/sensual interior. So furniture with glass tops collecting condensation and window panes were a leitmotif carried throughout.

More recently, your palettes have shifted quite a bit. Still striking and cinematic but definitely on the more quiet side. What’s changed?
I’ve really fallen in love with grays and browns. In my older work, everything was uniformly vibrant, and having areas that are more subdued helps to organize things for me visually. Most of my paintings are set in a dawn or dusk like lighting for its cinematic quality and feeling of temporality.

I really love the candid, domestic scenes of gay love you portray. I feel lucky to get a glimpse into these very personal spaces. Which artists have influenced you in your practice? (queer or otherwise) 
Some contemporary artists whose work I admire are Cindy Ji Hye Kim, Aaron Zulpo, and Kate Klingbeil. I’ve recently been looking at Paula Rego’s early paintings (The Family, 1988 and The Maids, 1987, are all time classic) and Takato Yamamoto, whose work seamlessly blends the Japanese ukiyo-e tradition with an electric contemporary sexuality. 

How does masculinity play into your work? Can you talk a little about your intent and how masculine ideas (what they mean to you) are translated through your paintings?
Boys learn at a young age in this country to not express emotion or show vulnerability. It’s a toxic cycle that stunts emotional growth and self-expression, and translates in adult life into misogyny, violence, and a lot of ignorant chest-thumping. I think it’s critical to explore alternatives to all this bravado--both for men themselves to live fuller lives, and to undo the systems of oppression this type of ingrained role-playing engenders. The more firm gender roles are, the greater the risk to those who defy them. And as a gay man in our current moment, I owe so much to every individual in the past who was brave enough to cross that line in the sand.  In my paintings I think about men presenting themselves as desirable, as being soft and vulnerable, as a way to show the sky won’t fall if you let your guard down a little. 

What are some of your goals this year? Either in your career or otherwise?
I would love to be able to make some work in seclusion in nature. Although I am very social by nature, I did a residency in the past where I went into full hermit mode in the woods and loved it. Living in NYC with no parks nearby can grate on the nerves.

Interview and photos by Jessica Ross.