Artist Wyatt Kahn in his Bushwick studio. — Photo by Mimi Luse.
For the past four years, the artist Wyatt Kahn has been living and working in a converted industrial space on Starr Street, a block from the L stop at Jefferson. Though a sculptor by training (this was his BFA concentration at the Art Institute of Chicago), of late, Kahn has quietly been developing a painting technique using dimensional materials. On raw canvas and paper, he applies liquid rubber, graphite and industrial solvents to create hazy architectural landscapes.
They are impressive to look at, and ambitious in scale and methodology. To start a canvas, Kahn pours liquid black rubber over it. When dry, he sands it to give it tooth, and applies layers of charcoal powder and a fixative. Then he presses a stencil that he has carefully cut from foam-core, sprays glue and shakes more charcoal powder through the negative. The result is a fragile, powdery painting that Kahn wouldn’t let me touch when I asked him — not even just a little bit on the side.
Kahn carefully chooses his source materials; his paintings are abstracted versions of fascist architecture, Haussmann-era urban plans that were never executed, and the sad, low buildings of suburban strip-malls. But like the works of Hiroshi Sujimoto, whom he greatly admires, Kahn purposefully mediates the scene; his layers of material blocking the viewer’s access to the image. There are two basic ideas that Kahn thinks art can achieve. One is the pleasure of the viewer in their own objectivity; the other is the viewer’s pain in their realization of their lack of subjectivity. According to Kahn, what he tries to achieve is the latter.
“There is no pop or kitsch in my work,” says Kahn. “Either the viewer feels what I set out for or not. An artist can only control the object, it is up the object to interact with the viewer.”
The results are haunting, ethereal spaces that require a certain amount of light on them in order to be viewed properly at all. The liquid rubber has a slight sheen, while the charcoal is dead to light. These are not proper painting materials per se — tellingly, Wyatt admires artists like Jay DeFeo, who subvert traditional painting techniques. “I find Defeo’s work attractive because of the way she used a traditional art medium in a new way, for her oil paint. I also find her attractive because in works like The Rose, DeFeo pushes painting to the limits of sculpture. I am trying to push sculpture to the limits of painting.”
Though he spent less time on them with me, the sculptures Kahn had in his studio were great, too. They shared the stark minimalist aesthetic of his paintings, but these were humorous, playing out dynamic visual puns. For Punch, Kahn cast a cement version of a punching bag with his fist imprinted in it. Created under intensely personal circumstances (venting a breakup), it matches Kahn’s own weight pound for pound.
Kahn and his studio-mates have converted the ground floor of what was once an industrial warehouse, building all the walls and amenities. They live and work in this constantly evolving space.