Interview with Stanya Kahn

Posted to Exhibitions, Kunstformidling on 30.10.2016, 12:03 by Susanne Roald with

Stanya Kahn is an interdisciplinary artist working primarily in video with a practice that also includes drawing, sound design, writing and performance. Humor and the uncanny emerge as central modes in her practice that seeks to re-work relationships between fiction and document. In this interview, we have talked with Kahn about her works in the exhibition "Los Angeles – A Fiction".

Could you describe the initial idea behind your snake drawings?

The snake drawings came out of an earlier body of work involving venomous and predatory animals. I made a series of jokey (albeit darkly) drawings in which, for example, the very poisonous box jellyfish comments to another, “I’m just saying, you get really huggy when you’re drunk.” Sharks chat about narcissistic swimmers, a mother stingray comforts her offspring: “Poisonous, shmoisonous.” These drawings restored a subjecthood to creatures considered dangerous to humans, shifting the privileged perspective from dominant (human, hegemonic) to subjugated, “othered.”

This grew into a project involving drawings of “lowly” animals like clams, worms, snakes (stand-ins for the citizenry.) The more I read about snakes, their biology and vulnerability in the face of climate change, the more impact their image had for me symbolically in the work. When I learned that they only eat their own tails when during a panic attack brought on by over-heating, the image made perfect sense as I was thinking more and more about global warming as we are experiencing it quite palpably in an increasingly hot, dry Southern California. Ideas about power and status dovetailed with the destructive usurpation of resources and devolution driven by humans. The joking became even more crass, devolved.


What are the aesthetic origins of drawing with Flashe? Why have you chosen to use this technique in these works?

I was looking for a bright, punchy, light-weight, matte alternative to acrylic. I knew that cartoonists used Cel-Vinyl on acetate and started with that and then found Flashe, which is also a vinyl paint. Anecdotally, I liked the relationship to drawing and joking. But maybe that sounds silly, romantic, because ultimately you use whatever materials make sense for what you want to do visually. As someone who has been more comfortable with drawing than with painting, this helped me bridge a jump from pens and inks to oil sticks and then brushes. Flashe was the first material I used to apply color on large drawings on canvas. I love the flexibility of Flashe, it’s really inky and you can control it so much, it almost demands control. It can be intensely opaque or diluted into a wash. I’m into the visceral combination of oil against Flashe (seen in the works currently up in the show.) And maybe I found an internal joke between the cartoonist’s tools and the “master” material (oil paint.) Weirdly, the mediums’ behaviors seem to rhyme with the content in terms of the quick shifts in tone from comic to tragic, low to high, etc. I can sort of feel it alchemically when I’m working and some of the choices come intuitively from that.


How do you deal with humor in these works?

You tell me! Ha. Usually when I think about a terrible situation, a joke comes to mind. I guess that’s a personal coping mechanism, my mind metabolizes distress. There’s a filter in me that sees the absurd almost immediately in difficulty. The snark of the snakes is deathbed humor so to speak. They are clearly in peril and they know it. Hopefully what at first seems like cynicism reveals sincere grief and anger. Cracking a joke from that place can be generous, can call attention to the problem at hand while deflecting sentimentality so that what results is resilience, a clarity that comes from combining a  willingness to regard disaster head on with the ability to have a range of feelings about it. At least that’s what I hope it can do, that’s what I think good comedy can do. Most of my work has some kind of humor in it. It’s a core part of my general perspective. Lately I’ve been submerging the jokes more deeply though, embedding them so far into the fabric of a thing so maybe there’s less of a quip on the surface and more of a low-end throb of chuckle seeded inside the pathos. Recent landscapes and animations I’ve been making are doing this I think. I try to follow what comes organically.


The exhibition Los Angeles – A Fiction is on view at Astrup Fearnley Museet until 22 January 2017.

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