Watch That Man: Interview with Larry Krone
New York, Sep. 2013:
Bradley Rubenstein: In the almost twenty years now that I’ve been following your work, I have always been struck by how much attention you pay to every detail, how much craft goes into each aspect of the work. With that in mind, as a link running through your various projects and series, can you talk a little about the early stuff—the dolls made out of your teeth, for example?
Larry Krone: The dolls are a great place to start. They were a breakthrough for me at a time when I quit being intimidated by the idea of art and just started making what came naturally to me. I’m a big collector of things, and I remember being so pleased with myself at being able to achieve these little objects that looked like something the Franklin Mint might produce but had a secret personal art content that would give them extra value. In this case, the secret was that the heads of these little court jester characters were actually my four wisdom teeth—cleaned, glued back together, polished, and painted so that the inverted roots of the teeth looked like the peaks of fools’ caps. Each time I painted one of the teeth, I would imagine myself as the guy in the Franklin Mint commercial, putting the last hand-painted details on the ballet slipper of their special-edition Pierrot Doll, and crack myself up. After those four original dolls, they got crazier, as I indulged in themes: a witch, a mermaid, a pirate, a devil, Gene Simmons. Each costume was unique and hand-sewn from silk, and the hands and feet were cast in silver and gold from little wax carvings I did. The more details I could get on a tiny doll, the more thrilled I would be, partially because it worked to the end of making something cute and precious out of something loaded with content and kind of gross, and partially because I just enjoyed making something so ridiculously adorable.
BR: I first saw them, I think, at the New Museum, but you had been showing in New York for a while. I was still living in Boston when I met you. Can you talk a little about what brought you to New York?
LK: That New Museum show was in 1996. I was in a Selections show at the Drawing Center in 1994, which led to meeting you, because a Boston gallery went to the Drawing Center and put two of us—Kara Walker and me—from that show into a group drawing show that included you. As to my earlier history, I grew up in St. Louis and came to New York in 1989 to go to art school at NYU. My draw to college was the prospect of living in New York City, plus a partial scholarship from NYU that included a program that paid for a trip to Europe every year. Also, I had been supporting myself in St. Louis after high school, but my parents offered to pay my way in New York while I was in school. I wasn’t interested in college or ambitious about becoming an artist at all. A career in art seemed beyond me, though I guess it was probably a fantasy in the back of my mind. I just couldn’t imagine the things that I liked to do being taken seriously by the art world. But I got a lot of encouragement from my professors and some introductions to galleries once I graduated, so I was able to start exhibiting my work as soon as I was out. My parents paid for a tiny studio for me in a divided up loft on Lafayette Street, where my first studio visit was from Marcia Tucker who became a great friend and supporter.
BR: I remember being at your place in the East Village when you were just starting out on the ukulele. You had used music in pieces before, but it was country, like Dolly Parton; then you were doing covers, like “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” which were awesome. They were so sincere but also really funny, doing metal songs on a ukulele. When did you decide it was time to start writing your own material? You really made a complete move then, also, from an object-based way of working to performance.
LK: Well, I didn’t ever really make that move away from objects, though gradually I have become less concerned with insisting to the world that the performance work is directly connected to my practice of making objects.
BR: True—I have always noted how you even hand-letter all your handbills and whatnot. You turn every aspect of your work into some kind of drawing or multiple.
LK: I originally started performing music as an extension of a still-ongoing body of work that examines male identity using country music as a model. At the time when I started performing, I was noticing that my strongest emotional reactions came from music, which—considering that someone else wrote and performed the songs—was very separated from my own reality and experiences. In the objects I was making, I was thinking about using other people’s finished products as building blocks for content in my own work. (Remember post-modernism? I didn’t realize it, but that’s sort of what I was doing.) “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Over at the Frankenstein Place” are good examples of me trying to use music the same way. Those songs are so beautiful and perfect as their own things, but my goal was to present them in a new way that was specific to me and my own experience in the context of Art. Also at that time, I was making drawings combining idyllic landscape photography with Dolly Parton song lyrics and writing out words to “Margaritaville” and other songs using strands of my hair.
BR: So the show coming up at Pierogi—can you give anything away or is it top secret?
LK: I wish I could pretend it’s top secret, but if any of your readers have been in the vicinity of my Facebook page over the past few years, I’d be busted. Since about 2009, I’ve been making a bunch of work under the blanketed title of Then and Now and posting pictures along the way, shamelessly soliciting “likes” whenever I finish a piece or when I just feel especially isolated by my obsessive process. It’s ironic that making this work separated me so much from the art world, because its content is really about collaboration and coming together. That’s part of what’s behind the title of the Pierogi show, Together Again. Now that I have finally allowed myself to show this work in a big way, I feel together again with the world and within my own mind.
The work in Then and Now combines the craft projects of mostly unidentified people with my own labor-intensive workmanship and ideas. I’m a compulsive thrift shopper, and for years before I started working on Then and Now, I had been buying embroidery, crochet, and needlework projects, as well as remnants and materials from craft projects whenever I saw them at a cheap enough price. In the first Then and Now pieces, I sewed found hand-crocheted potholders and doilies together into geometric patterns or organized color arrangements. The idea is that I facilitated a collaboration among these people, whose handiwork somehow ended up in my hands, and joined in.
As with a lot of my earlier work, there is a sense of failure and haphazardness in the final products, because the formal choices are beyond my control. For example, there’s a piece called Then and Now (Rainbow Order) that does its best to make a rainbow from found crochet pieces culled from thrift stores in Missouri, New York, and Michigan. The pieces and yarn that I had to work with determined the imperfect rainbow gradation and irregular shape in a way that I would have had to force if I were trying to simply crochet a rainbow afghan.
The biggest deal in the show will be Then and Now (Cape Collaboration). It’s a huge cape I made from hundreds of found embroidery projects I’d been collecting for years. After I sewed the pieces together to construct the cape, I filled in every piece of fabric left unembroidered and exposed with sequins that I sewed on one-by-one. It took me two and a half years to make.
BR: You are working in so many different media—the obvious precedent seems like Warhol and his Factory, but your House of Larréon is more DIY…
LK: When I was little, my Grandma Henny used to say to me, “YOU are a Renaissance man! You can do everything!” It got kind of old, and I didn’t take her that seriously because she was my grandmother after all. But that did kind of sink in. I can’t really do everything that great, but I do like to spread myself around. And I really believe in not forcing a path for myself in my career and life. Is it savvy for me to focus so much of my attention on songwriting when I have a flailing visual art career to tend to? Not for the career, but for me, yes. And House of Larréon. Where does that fit in? Like my performance work that has always teetered over into the entertainment world, my costume and gown design seemed like an indulgence that I was allowing myself, because it was so fun and immediately satisfying. Also funny. I couldn’t believe I was succeeding in making dresses that were so vulgar and ridiculous—using techniques I learned from watching Project Runway—and having them worn by such high-profile and dynamic performers like Bridget Everett on stage. The real joke in the end is that the dresses work in a totally unironic way!
To be a little “unironic” myself, all of this crossover and success in finding an audience for these different things I do feels like my dreams coming true. About ten years ago, I took a mental break from the art world, though I continued to show my work and certainly to make it. At the same time, I came out as gay and met a whole new group of people in the “downtown” music/cabaret/theater/dance world, including my fiancé Jim. There was no room in my new life for art openings or networking, as is necessary for a visual artist, and I lost art world friends. It was liberating to me that none of my new friends were associated with the art world or even had any sense of me as a visual artist with a relatively established emerging-artist kind of career under my belt. Instead, I did a lot of singing and performing with this circle of friends and was accepted that way. Really, when I started House of Larréon was when I became outed as an artist among that group. Avant-garde dance and performance people started coming to me for costume and set design, which is such satisfying work—it feels cool to imagine myself as a real modern artist like Rauschenberg or Isamu Noguchi who brought their aesthetics to dance and theater in a way that was part of their larger body of work. With this stuff, with more of my full-on Larry Krone show performances in the works, with the House of Larréon LOOK BOOK coming out, and with Together Again opening at Pierogi in November, I feel like there are no secrets left that I’m keeping in either of my worlds. Everyone knows what I do, now!
Oh, and Andy Warhol? Yes, I relate to him.
ArtSlant would like to thank Larry Krone for his assistance in making this interview possible.