BUT SERIOUSLY, WHY SO SERIOUS?
BY MARINA MAY
The word least associated with “gallery art” is probably, if I had to bet, fun.
But what happens when you take serious, timely, and conceptual subject matter then strip it of its pretentiousness and add a wink? Brittany Boynton.
Her body of work is the artistic equivalent of a Carol Burnett ear tug at the end of a sketch or Dolly’s blinding smile on the cover of Playboy. She knows. Culling content from both her personal history and enigmatic pop culture moments, she recreates and formats these vignettes into typically small-scale illustrations and paintings.
From Kim Kardashian modeling Yeezy’s in a monochromatic swimsuit/sarong situation next to an elephant, to @emrata’sstrategically placed rip in her jeans, to her aunt’s 80’s glamour shots, her work asks “Why is this very specific moment important? Isn’t that weird?”
The brilliant thing? Sometimes we don’t know. But it is made important by virtue of the process of re-examination. She understands voyeurism. She’s a voyeur. I am a voyeur. You are a voyeur. Unless, of course, you’re living under a rock with no access to E!, advertising, news, cable, Netflix, books, or taxidermied animals. You name it. We’ve all tried to escape our own reality, mentally masturbating to the “wouldn’t it be nice” fantasy sold to us in variable doses.
But her illustrations and sculptures acknowledge, and in a way, celebrate that ability to escape, even momentarily from a mundane, banal existence. For an instant we can pretend to be Dennis Rodman, the impresario of 90’s basketball turned defacto foreign diplomat (or at least reconsider the nature of his legacy). We can appreciate the androgyny of a dolled-up deer head, the absurdity of animals in clothing, or the twisted nostalgia of those sickeningly cute little Christmas angels that your grandma buys from the Dollar Tree.
Her work, though the subject matter is light and easily recognizable, can be more than just a whimsical or comical sketch of a celebrity. And there is an emphasis on “can be,” because there is no particular directive or assumption that these works have to be “digested” for specific socio-political connotations in the formal sense of the word. Or they aren’t overtly begging for it. The subject matter is expansive and encompassing, devoid of the rigidity or self-importance that typically accompanies a “work of art.”
By removing iconic, obscure, or jarring images from the media “zeitgeist,” it allows for space. For room to understand the complexities of a single image. The pieces are witty access points for further exploration and catalysts conversation, without a prescriptive narrative. In this way, her work allows for freedom of discussion by minimizing the barrier of access to the subject and implied connotations.
Keep reading to learn more about Boynton’s obsessions and schedule an appointment to view her show currently on view at the brand spankin’ new CunstGallery. While you’re at it, look out for our interview with Liz Moore, whose work is also on view at Cunst. That’ll drop next week!
Marina May: Speaking of Jerry Springer… Your work deals with this kind of voyeuristic fascination with celebrity culture and their weird, bizarre moments in pop culture history… How did you get into that?
Brittany Boynton: It came very naturally. Like most kids in my generation… in America… I grew up watching a ton of TV and I think also coming from a small town with like — except my friends and family who are pretty colorful… “down to earth” sort of people?
Important: *Boynton notes that she first heard the phrase“down to earth” while watching The Mask starring Jim Carrey*
BB: Yeah, which I’ve grown to respect, but I think as a kid, the expressiveness of celebrities really attracted me, so I love to watch TV and movies. I love to watch CMT, the music videos. They were so romantic and sexy… even though I didn’t know what that was. And I guess that never changed.
MM: Who are you drawn to? Or what about a situation is like “Damn, I want to recreate this”?
BB: I’m never going to paint anyone that I don’t have some kind of affection for. Even if I can recognize that they are kind of insane, or even problematic, there has to be some kind of adoration. I can identify with them or relate to them in some way. My friends that I’m attracted to in real life, and even my family, are kind of “wahh!” flashy and extroverted in their personalities. That’s just who I like!
I think I like when people are a mix of being larger than life and unafraid to be themselves, and to be a little bit eccentric, but also have a vulnerability. They’re not a super hero figure, but they’re somehow defying the normal game of life. Either with the way they’re dressing or the way they are presenting their art, or acting or however.
Humor is a huge thing to me. They don’t have to be comedians. Maybe they’re even unconsciously living something that’s kind of funny. And people are, like me, drawn to these characters that represent something that you wouldn’t live out yourself, but you can feel it. You know that you have that in you somewhere, even if it’s not something that you put forth. I think about that a lot to, the comfort that you seek, and the things that comfort us and why? Why is watching certain characters’ lives so comforting? Is escapism bad? Is it good?
*Edit* A big aspect is someone who’s in on the joke.
MM: They defy the norm of whatever they are supposed to be, or do or act. SoDennis Rodman, for example?
BB: When I was a kid, my grandparents watched a lot of sports. I wanted to be all about that. I loved watching them enjoy it, but I didn’t care about the game — so Dennis Rodman was everything! Because he was playing but I got to watch this beautiful character, who had different hair all the time, and my grandpa would be like “Oh my god those nose piercings!” and I would be like “I think they’re cool!”
MM: He’s an in-game spectacle. I think that speaks to a lot of celebrity culture and visual culture. It is a spectacle now. Do you feel like Instagram or social media has changed the way we relate to these kinds of characters? Has it made them more human? Has it impacted you in anyway?
BB: Yeah! I mean I love Instagram. Before Instagram I was constantly buying magazines and stuff and now I can just hop on. Back in the day, someone who thought being interested in pop culture or even the arts in general was silly — someone who thought pop culture was flippant — they would say an actress was just “seeking attention”, even just a few years ago — well people are still saying it about — Kim
MM: I love Kim.
BB: Oh I do too, but I think that people think that “she’s just full of herself” and stuff. People see it as Instagram “caused this” but I see it as a beautiful outlet for everyday people who haven’t won this “golden ticket” — Now I get to live this “special” life. I don’t have to do the mundane thing.
A lot of celebrities — like Dennis Rodman, he was so talented that he got to live this extremely surreal life where he had enough money to have these crazy poker games, fly all over the place, date these wild women, have parties, and create all of these stories within his life but the average person, if you don’t have something special about you, doesn’t get the chance to do that. But my point is, that EVERY PERSON wants a chance to have a photo of them when they look extra special, to share a fun moment that happened, and I don’t think that’s bad. It’s a natural thing.
I put my aunt’s glamour shots in because I love that they are these working class women from DeSoto — and this is pre Instagram and Facebook — who paid money to have glamour shots taken. Because who doesn’t want to feel special and flashy and have fun with clothes?
MM: Yeah, it’s an expressive and a creative outlet and you can be, for an instant, larger than you are. It’s fun, and exciting and chameleonic and you can change.
MM: So I wanted to talk about the style in which you create your works, to me, they are reminiscent (to be art speak-y, hit me if it’s too far) of caricatures? How have you evolved your style — the technical ability makes them look like who they are, but they all have this bizarre, grotesque nature about them?
BB: Ever since I was a kid I loved to draw people — but I wouldn’t want to just draw a person. I would want to capture something in them. I think I developed the ability to capture an individual before I developed the ability to “make a nice drawing” if that makes sense? The art I was exposed to as a kid was very “low brow,” you know? Caricatures at Six Flags, cartoons, things like that, and the exaggeration has just seeped in over time — plus a lot of practice. Learning from actual good artists, if that makes sense.
MM: To back track — How did you move from DeSoto to St. Louis?
BB: Well it’s not that special because anyone from DeSoto pretty much travels to St. Louis to work. I saw St. Louis as the big glamorous city — which was a great dream to have— and I heard Webster was like the weird, art kid school and bada-bing, bada-boom we’re here!
MM: You are also an illustrator and run Buttn’ Booty. How has that impacted your artistic practice?
BB: Butt’nBooty has helped me tremendously. I graduated from college and was very self-conscious. When I went to college, I don’t think that teachers fully understood that I had a fixation with media, and celebrities, and musicians. They were just like “Oh everyone starts out doing famous people… you’ll move past that… you’ll be doing abstract paintings before you know it hunny!” and I was like “Ok.”
Then I was 23 or 24, and still wanting to do the same kind of stuff and coming up with all of these art-speakyways of trying to justify what I wanted to do. I was in this stupid headspace where I was like “everything has to be GOOD and every single thing has to be SO MEANINGFUL!” and I have to make it DARK! I was overthinking everything a lot.
Then Buttn’ Booty — me and Julie [Rechtien] did it together — and it was fun! I wasn’t “painting,” I was just making these little buttons. It was very very quiet. I was putting them out there very inconspicuously. I got in the practice of making stuff constantly, and it was very low stakes because the supplies weren’t that expensive. I realized over time that it wasn’t completely meaningless. People really reacted to it. It was a great way to relate to people. It was a little bridge to letting me have my own voice in art, art.
MM: This is a tangent. But I was working on a research project with a muralist named Mitchell Siporin, who was an artist in the 40s and was charged with preserving and recording scenes from Missouri’s history in a series of murals. The act of translating those “rural” or “unimportant” scenes into murals, was in a way codifying their existence and elevating them. Which is how I feel about your work. You do it in a way where you’re able to preserve and elevate these bizarre, grotesque moments, and characters and make us think about them again.
BB: That’s very nice. I don’t know it’s a reach, but I agree. I’ve thought that image sharing is so just flippant, constant. A photograph at this point is just “boom.” Even if it’s Emily Ratajowski taking a picture of her ass popping out of her jeans. I feel like drawing it is taking it out of this sea of images and saying “This one is significant” or this one needs a second to be looked at.
MM: You’re asking people to “LOOK AT THIS”
BB: I try to make my work a document of time, or the current moment, as well. Even things that aren’t obviously current, but something that’s on my mind. We all look at the same stuff constantly, and if it’s on my mind, it’s probably on your mind as well somewhere.
MM: Right and the thing about pop culture is it’s pop culture until it’s history.
BB: Can I add another tidbit of niceness about Julie and Buttn’ Booty?
MM: Yeah go ahead.
BB: Our humor is very, very similar. We are like the same brand of person, somehow. So it helped me completely get over all of my insecurities from art school because she’s not an art school person at all and she totally thought it was valid to make the fun, me, goofy sort of art that I was making.
MM: When you were in school, and people were sort of devaluing what you were doing, how did that make you feel? Did it make you feel shut down?
BB: Yes, because also my high school’s art was nothing to write home about. It was “look at a picture, draw it” and if you can do that you’re good. It was so basic and I was like “Oh, I don’t know as much as these other people. I’m not educated. I’m clueless… blehh” it was just hard. Webster specifically is so conceptual. By the end of it, I found my group, I found teachers I liked and peers that I got along with and got me.
At first, I was surrounded by people taking an emo approach, which is great for some people. However, when I am recognizing that something is absurd or shitty, if I’m going to criticize something, it’s from a humorous perspective.
MM: I think that’s a better approach to take and that carried into Grease 3. Can I fluff Grease 3 for a second? Sara and I felt really uncomfortable in a lot of art spaces… for a lot of reasons.
MM: And Grease 3 was the first place that we went — and I think she felt the same way— where there was interesting fucking work and it was accessible. There was this emphasis on pop culture, and having fun, and art that was self-reflexive, but it all had the same kind of humor that carried through even though it was serious and amazing work.
BB: That’s what I’m attracted to. People that are serious about what they make, even if the content is “fun” or “light hearted” or “accessible outside of the art world.” That was our goal, so it’s really nice to hear you say that, especially being in St. Louis.
Let’s not pretend we’re in New York, because we’re not. I felt uncomfortable in galleries, not knowing anything about the art world. I’m not going to pretend that I relate to rich art collectors, that doesn’t make sense to me. That scene of pretentiousness and inside knowledge. I don’t understand why would want to make things that are specifically for a small group to be attracted to.
We just wanted a wide range of people to come enjoy a show on multiple levels. If a gallery is full of only people who are trying to succeed in the “art sphere” then it just becomes this kind of festering thing. Grease 3 was a place for people to come and see real art from people who were serious about it and feel comfortable.
MM: I know that you and Julie and Conor [Murphy] owned the space. How did you decide to pull the trigger?
BB: It was out of nowhere for me at least. Me and Julie were running Buttn’ Booty and had casually talked about a potential store, and Conor is just a go-getter when it comes to art things in general. Julie found the space on Craigslist and Conor did a lot of the initial deal making. We decided to start renting the space before we had a complete idea of what it was going to be, but we went with it. We thought of it as a gallery and a store. We had the buttons but were also interested in shopping online for art-adjacent objects. Clothes and things that independent people make. Over time we discovered the DIY art gallery, event space, and store it would be.
MM: How did the programming work?
BB: Right from the get-go we had people in mind, people whose work we admired, but maybe hadn’t shown much in St. Louis. We had people from out of town too. People who hadn’t had solo shows or anything like that. Conor gets along with tons of artists and people he knew from school — it just happened very naturally. By the time it got competitive about who was going to show it was over… and that was just a money and life thing. Conor was ready to go to grad school and it was hard to sustain that kind of space without outside funding.
MM: Did you feel like that was a barrier? I personally feel like money is the biggest barrier to having cool DIY spaces that show great work.
BB: Oh it definitely was. It was probably as easy as it could be because the people that were interested in showing were on board with it. They were on board with not necessarily making money from the shows. We kind of had it figured out — a little bit — how to pay for it. But after a few months it was like how are we going to do this? Then we started trying to have events and things to supplement events. We couldn’t have done it without the help of everybody and the people willing to show for free.
MM: And I think that’s what contributed to the strength of the programming. You weren’t worried about constraints.
BB: It was freeing. I wouldn’t say we didn’t have expectations,but we were just thrilled to be doing it at all and I think the people showing there were as well. It definitely contributed to the fun atmosphere and open communication with the artists. And we would let people show whatever they wanted.
MM: And it showed! What was one of your favorite shows? And what do you think you took away from the experience?
BB: That’s hard. Nick’s comes to mind. He put together a show that was very cohesive and clean, but it still fit our vibe. He included the basketballs and things that built this bridge between the conceptual ideas of his work and the everyday person. There was a group show with Harley [LaFarrahEaves] and Sloan [Brunner] and Shawn [Burkard].
MM: Friday the 13th!
BB: I loved that one. We wanted it to be an experience rather than people nodding their heads and silently looking at art. It went with the party vibe. They made a range of small and large works and special spooky lighting. And the fact that it was Friday the 13th… people were just wild. I really loved every show. And the last show with Marianne [Laury]’s work… that was great.
MM: So, what was one of the biggest lessons that you took away from running the space?
BB: It gave me a lot of confidence to make art in the St. Louis art scene because I met a lot of people. And, even though we all collaborated, if I were to divide it, me and Julie ran more of the event/store side, and Conor was more of the curator. I met a lot of people who just made art because they had it in them to do that. It was so refreshing. I met so many people outside of Webster.
It taught me so much. It made me realize how hard everyone works to make an art experience come together. The artists, the curators, and the space itself. Also, even though it’s a lot of work, it’s easy to be like “it’s impossible, I could never make that work, I don’t have the money,” but to witness those shows that were so magical… if people are genuine about what they’re making, and the place is genuinely interested in the work, you can create something magical. Just like this place [CunstGallery] is doing!
MM: Okay tell me about the deer head.
BB: What do you want to know?
MM: I want to know everything.
BB: The deer head I acquired because — it was when Conor and David and Carson were living together — and they were going to get rid of it. They were feeling vegan at the moment, so I was like “I’ll take it”! We were going to put it in our basement or something, but it just sat, and I never got around to it. It was just an urge. I was like “I’m going to put makeup on this deer.” It goes with my aesthetic, I think, and my background, and being from DeSoto and hunting, a glamorous country queen.
MM: I was going to say… it’s like the glamour beauty shots, but you’re doing it to this taxidermied deer head.
BB: There’s a lot of ways we can go with this… You’re already taking advantage of the animal, you killed it, you’re putting it on your wall
MM: Yeah, I mean if it’s dead.
BB: When people put a deer head on their wall, are they appreciating it’s beauty? Are they just being proud of what they did? I don’t know. Then it’s funny to take it one step further. I like the idea of a deer being extra. Choosing to be extra.
MM: It’s femme and performative.
BB: I love in cartoons when a dog is wearing eye shadow. I like when people just assume that animals want what we want. The deer is a celebration of androgyny. Maybe the deer is a boy and wants to wear makeup. There’s a lot of things I think about when I look at the deer. I think about a conservative huntsman, proudly having the deer with makeup on in his house.
MM: In a housecoat. In his study.