ABOUT                HAPPENINGS


An Interview with Karyn Lyons
By Blair Hansen

New York-based artist Karyn Lyons possesses unique skills with brushes and oils. Her capacity for portraiture – for essential, gestural human capture – is extraordinarily keen. This adeptness is present in all of Lyons’ work, including a small and quixotic grouping of five paintings L’editions will unveil alongside this interview. The atmosphere created by these works feels beautiful, loaded, and liminal – which is perhaps why the paintings are especially resonant in this moment.

The reason the painted gesture (still, and yet in motion) is so exciting is that we ourselves are exciting and often unknowable bursts of energy. We are energies on the loose within contexts and narratives, and often the painter is trying hard to allude to all of these components in concert with a color choice or a dripped application.
Lyons takes nothing for granted; she questions these interrelationships between source and paint and hand and eye and world. In questioning those relationships, she also questions the very purpose of mimesis; we are not recreating reality as in a postcard here, we are crafting something that has never existed, making way for new energy, new ideas.

Here, the artist and I discuss the brass tacks of painted subject matter, focusing on this group of works for the gallery that together form an assembly on lust. With these paintings, Lyons offers us a reframing of the much-plumbed and yet perennially under-considered female body, and our almost involuntary desire to possess it.

- Blair Hansen

Hair, 2019
Karyn Lyons
Oil on canvas
30 x 42 in

BH: We’ve talked about Anne Collier and Sarah Charlesworth a little bit, and the ways that both of those artists isolate their subject, kind of pitching their subject into the void a little so that it empties of its reflexive meanings and becomes unfamiliar. Did you set out to do something similar here?

KL: I started this series of paintings when I was painting a portrait of a woman from the back. She was sitting in a landscape. I was dissatisfied with it, so I eliminated the landscape. Then I started eliminating the body, and what remained was the hair. I liked the idea of a deconstructed portrait, so I continued painting hair and then moved on to lips, eyes, noses, hands, etc. I constructed the pieces on the studio wall as I had seen in an Agnes Varda film and was satisfied with it as an idea. 

BH: Yes – this process of elimination and deconstruction. Against a pure grey background, the hair in motion, for example, becomes the symbol of the gesture of flipping hair. It is almost Magritte-esque; it is a semiotic reduction, but a reduction of the female figure, which is quite loaded.

KL: I feel like the images in Anne Collier's crying women series have a lot of loaded meaning in that way, but I tried to keep mine more neutral. I appreciate Collier’s with their feminist message. I didn't think of that painting as a gesture of flipping of the hair but more as a movement away from the viewer.

Ear, 2017
Karyn Lyons
Oil on canvas
16 x 12 in

BH: Yes, she is flying away from us. I want to see her face, to catch her eye. There is an element of defiance in denying this to the viewer. Maybe the subject is denying this also to you, her painter – did it feel like this when you made that piece?

KL: I wasn't thinking of narrative with this particular work, but more of formal concerns: texture, softness, color, or lack thereof. It is less a story than simply possession of the subject matter. I have little narratives I tell myself with the paintings, but I don't expect the viewer to associate a narrative with any of them. The extreme crops might lead the viewer to fill in what is beyond the canvas, but that is not my intention.

BH: Yes – I asked that question so poorly! I was wondering if you were wanting to amputate narrative, cleave it away from these particular paintings, which it sounds like you were, though in a way second to your desire to deconstruct/reconstruct. The sense of fracture and isolation defy narrative, which to me is a call to forget about language and just FEEL. Does that resonate?
KL: Yes. That resonates. I am trying to suck the narrative out of the work, remove it once, twice, ten times from the original meaning. I wanted to distill it as far as possible from the action, the memory. But of course, it is still in there with the amputated parts. Maybe it is even more present as a result.

BH: Deconstructing and reconstructing (in a Derrida fashion, anyway) entails pulling apart component facets of meaning, reconsidering assumptions and subtexts and influences on each piece. It also tests the subject matter’s elasticity and resilience to pull it apart and see what still holds up on its own legs in the end. In a way these parts of the body become like individual words or individual sounds to me: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do. And as you say of Varda, it opens the door to create a new song or a new body across the wall. Do you find it calming to simplify these “notes”?

KL: I love that you have likened them to sounds – they feel that way to me. Therefore, I would say it is a step away from language and towards intuition. Painting them I thought they were more about painting. But your reading feels so right when thinking about the work.  Thank you for describing that for me.

Shirt, 2018
Karyn Lyons
Oil on canvas
18 x 14 in

It is less a story than simply possession of the subject matter. I have little narratives I tell myself with the paintings, but I don't expect the viewer to associate a narrative with any of them.

BH: The breast painting is an isolation/crop of the exposed breast in Courbet's L'origine du monde. I love the idea of prizing the breast over the pussy, which is clearly the star of the show in the full Courbet painting - the breast is more of an afterthought to me there. But once life is given, it needs to be fed! That painting to me is so much about inputs and outputs – how these generate life and culture. Courbet's subject is a headless, truncated woman, and you have further cropped and distilled her. How did you come to this composition?

KL: With L'origine du Monde, it was another example of wanting to possess an image. I have that painting on my corkboard in the studio and continued to gaze at it and yearn to possess it, and I wanted to know how it would feel to sit in that painting for days.

Breast, 2019
Karyn Lyons
Oil on canvas
13 x 11 in

Lips, 2019
Karyn Lyons
Oil on canvas
20.5 x 16 in

BH: I love how you say that you wish to sit in that painting. It is a lovely inversion of Pygmalion! Instead of wishing that Courbet’s figure could come alive for you, you would wish to join it, to meet it in its own inanimate space as artwork. Do you see this this way?

KL: Yes, exactly. I wanted to be a part of it, feel it surround me, hence the large scale. I painted this six feet across. I wanted to enter it (pun intended), either to go back into the womb or, if I were a heterosexual man with a penis, as I would want to possess a woman by fucking her. In the end, I cropped out the breast because I liked the way it was painted and it went along with my wall of parts. Perhaps I was subconsciously influenced by the imagery we are exposed to during adolescence because I feel like I have seen all of these paintings before in some shape or form.

Perhaps I was subconsciously influenced by the imagery we are exposed to during adolescence because I feel like I have seen all of these paintings before in some shape or form.

Sarah Brook Gallery ©2022