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The Visceral Visual Art of Writer Wayne Koestenbaum

Installation view, 'Wayne Koestenbaum: Unfamiliar Grammar, Paintings from 2010-2015' at the University of Kentucky Art Museum (all images courtesy the University of Kentucky Art Museum)
Installation view, ‘Wayne Koestenbaum: Unfamiliar Grammar, Paintings from 2010-2015’ at the University of Kentucky Art Museum (all images courtesy the University of Kentucky Art Museum) (click to enlarge)

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Writer Wayne Koestenbaum, best known known his for smart collections of cultural criticism like Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon and The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, says that during the first year of his painting career, he was consumed with homoerotic visuals. As a result, the apartment of this self-admitted overproducer was wallpapered with newly created soft porn.

“It was cluttered with desire, but I wasn’t particularly self-conscious about it,” Koestenbaum remembers. “I’m an extrovert, so when people came over I took a certain giddy pleasure in it.”

Wayne Koestenbaum speaking to visitors (click to enlarge)
Wayne Koestenbaum speaking to visitors (click to enlarge)

For readers of Koestenbaum’s work, this won’t come as a surprise. In his recent book Humiliation (of which New York Times critic Dwight Garner wrote, “Reading it, you may need to pour yourself two fingers of Scotch to settle your jangled nerves”), Koestenbaum occupies a space between blatant exhibitionism and self-criticism. This includes discussing amputee pornography and the act of pleasuring himself to a photo of one of his twentysomething writing students. The text leaves you feeling like a voyeur, an impression that’s also very present in Koestenbaum’s first museum show, Unfamiliar Grammar, Paintings from 2010-2015, currently on view at the University of Kentucky (UK) Art Museum. Pieces like “Angel with Blue Wings” (2011) a colorful view of a nude man lying prostrate on a bed, and “Buttfucking with Lamp” (2013), a work with a relatively self-explanatory title, urge viewers to take on Koestenbaum’s gaze as a way to understand his desires, and from there, perhaps, to assess their own.

It was this sense of continuity between the notebook and the canvas that initially attracted Stuart Horodner, the new director of the UK Art Museum, to Koestenbaum’s work. The two had become acquainted years earlier when Horodner asked Koestenbaum to contribute an essay to a book he was compiling about the resurgence of erotic sketching and the intimacy fostered by that form; their relationship continued while Koestenbaum developed as a painter.

“I’m interested when someone who is significant in one field ventures into another field. There’s always the potential cringe factor — you know, ‘Oh, let’s look at Viggo Mortenson’s collages,’” Horodner jokes. He goes on to point out, however, the model of more successful cross-discipline artists like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and even Elvis Costello, who have all moved seamlessly between music, literature, and visual art.

“Wayne being someone who has written so smartly and beautifully about visual art for many years, the fact that he transitioned into actually creating artwork automatically interested me,” Horodner says.

Wayne Koestenbaum, "Blue David with Insignia" (2013), oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches
Wayne Koestenbaum, “Blue David with Insignia” (2013), oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches

Curated by the director, the show pares down the growing expanse of Koestenbaum’s work to 18 pieces. All smack of bright, unblended color, sexuality, and a heavy concentration on line and ornamentation — qualities that speak to the artist’s admiration for modernists like André Derain, Henri Matisse, and Marsden Hartley. The connection is clear if one compares Koestenbaum’s portrait “Blue David with Insignia” (2013) to, say, Hartley’s “Madawaska—Acadian Light-Heavy” (1940). Both feature front-facing, bare-chested males against ruddy backdrops, though while Marsden’s piece is more subdued in tone, Koestenbaum’s subject smiles as bright patterns splash across his face.

Koestenbaum’s deftness with color and form denotes a contemplation of the elements of visual art that obviously precedes his painting career. His biography of Andy Warhol was published was in 2001, and in the years that followed, he began thinking more materially. “In 2009, maybe earlier, I started typing poems on colored construction paper,” he says. “I appreciated the notion of color — that it could inspire or provoke different ways of thinking.”

Fast-forward about a year: it’s September 19, 2010, just a few days before his 52nd birthday. Koestenbaum wakes up from a dream of writing with a fountain pen, but instead of words, what had appeared on paper was just a fluid, nonverbal line that, to him, denoted some form of expression. He goes out and buys watercolor pencils and a pad, and then eventually returns to the art-supply store for a watercolor set to make use of a blank canvas that’s been sitting in his closet for some time.

“I went crazy with passionate self-tutelage,” Koestenbaum remembers.

Wayne Koestenbaum, "I Pose Problems" (2010), acrylic on canvas, 20 x 16 inches
Wayne Koestenbaum, “I Pose Problems” (2010), acrylic on canvas, 20 x 16 inches (click to enlarge)

He soon moved from watercolor to acrylic and oil, a shift which resulted in several of his most striking images. The first is a neon-flecked — as all his pieces are — work that features a male head looking straight at the viewer, with the phrase “I pose problems” (consequently the name of the piece) written above. It is perhaps a nod to the discomfort that the rawness of Koestenbaum’s work can elicit.

Horodner describes a recent experience while leading a tour group through the exhibit. Two elderly women blushed upon entering a gallery filled with graphic pieces and equally provocative titles, including “I’m Not Underage” (2010) which features a man looking lustfully out from the canvas as his tongue reaches for an unidentified — though definitely phallic — object. One woman whispered almost immediately: “Is that an erection?” The other silently nodded, horrified. Horodner took the opportunity to question them: If this were a show dealing with the male gaze and female subjects, would you feel the same discomfort?

“I never thought for a second that Wayne’s work would be problematic in that way,” he says. “Mostly because I think of the decorative factor, the adornment, the geometry. If and when there is an erotic image or an explicit male part — an erection, someone licking their underarm, even the implication of intercourse — it is so adorned and overlapped with elemental abstraction that it subdues it in a way. Honestly, it has more to do with work like that of Gustav Klimt in the adornment of the body.”

Wayne Koestenbaum, left, "Everything Is Nice" (2014), oil, Flashe, acrylic, and ink on canvas, 48 x 36 inches; right, "How to Explode in Slow Motion" (2015), oil, acrylic, acrylic marker, and Flashe on canvas, 48 x 36 inches
Wayne Koestenbaum, left, “Everything Is Nice” (2014), oil, Flashe, acrylic, and ink on canvas, 48 x 36 inches; right, “How to Explode in Slow Motion” (2015), oil, acrylic, acrylic marker, and Flashe on canvas, 48 x 36 inches (click to enlarge)

This artful embellishment of stark physical imagery is another tie between Koestenbaum’s literary work and his visual art — although he does sometimes work in abstraction, too. Those pieces tend to be dramatic coalescences of his preferred bold patterns and hues. Two of his largest such works, “Everything Is Nice” (2014) and “How to Explode in Slow Motion” (2015), are currently displayed side-by-side in the UK gallery. “When I was did those, I thought of them as novels,” Koestenbaum says. “They are built out of small sections, a creative amalgamation.”

And while the way in which his literary work inspires his visual art is evident, Koestenbaum says that the act of painting has in turn informed the way he writes, both physically and stylistically.

He recently noticed that he could sketch for hours, much like in his 2010 dream, but writing in a notebook felt significantly more labored. So he purposely drafted his newest book, The Pink Trance Notebooks, by hand as a form of “visual sketches in words.” The result is an intimate and detailed narration of Koestenbaum’s stream of consciousness — take for example this excerpt from the poem “Trance Notebook #15 [The opposite of Tupperware]”:

sexy guy entering
café thinks I’m over-ogling
him and resembles icy-
demeanored artist
whose neck I hovered
near in pursuit of musk—

__________

eviscerating envy
of sailor
hat akimbo
on crew-cut head

__________

Li’l Abner “I’m
past my prime”—why do
I find that song so haunting?

__________

            because I
don’t remember the singer’s name?
because she isn’t past
her prime?

__________

            what is a prime,
anyway?            

“Regarding its form, there’s a lack of punctuation, a syntactic looseness to it,” Koestenbaum explains. “It feels very cheap to call it painterly,” he says, before pausing. “But I was definitely trying to capture the dreaminess that I feel when I paint.”

Installation view, 'Wayne Koestenbaum: Unfamiliar Grammar, Paintings from 2010-2015' at the University of Kentucky Art Museum (click to enlarge)
Installation view, ‘Wayne Koestenbaum: Unfamiliar Grammar, Paintings from 2010-2015’ at the University of Kentucky Art Museum (click to enlarge)

Wayne Koestenbaum: Unfamiliar Grammar, Paintings from 2010-2015 continues at the University of Kentucky Art Museum (405 Rose Street, Lexington, KY) through December 18. The Pink Trance Notebooks are published by Nightboat Books and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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