Artist Spotlight: Kurt Kauper
BY Christopher Harrity
July 16 2011 4:00 AM ET
Why hockey players? A hockey fan ... or ... ?
I’m not a hockey fan. Many people have asked me recently if I’m happy that the Boston Bruins just won the Stanley Cup, and I couldn’t care less. But when I was 6, I — like many other boys in Boston — idolized Bobby Orr. Looking back, it was as if I was in love with him. And that’s part of the reason I made those paintings, although I wasn’t consciously thinking that at the time. I just know I was casting about for something to paint after finishing the diva paintings. It occurred to me, for no reason I can remember, to start paintings based on hockey cards from 1972: The first hockey paintings were the oval portraits. The shape of each portrait comes from the cards’ graphics, each of which shows a head-and-shoulder photo of the player inside an oval frame. After blocking in the first painting, one of Bobby Orr, I started the Cary Grant paintings, so the hockey card painting sat around my studio in an unfinished state for several years. Looking at it over time, I realized that what I liked about it was the tension between the original intent of the cards and the way they could be received by the viewer. In other words, sports cards are meant to embody an ideal of masculinity and transmit that ideal to young boys. And yet the designers of the cards represented each player in head and shoulders, framed in a small oval. The cards were more like locket portraits than anything else. I thought about the tradition of locket portraits, small, intimate images of loved ones, meant to be worn next to the heart. I think of it as a “feminine” tradition. The cards’ graphics threaten the ideal of masculinity they were meant to embody. I love that slippage in portraits, when the intent and the reception of the painting are at complete odds.
Those are interests that carried into the Cary Grant portraits: I wanted to make paintings that, instead of confirming traditional, stable representations of desire, confounded the perceived relationship between the maker of the image and the object of desire represented. I’m interested in how representations of sexuality are perceived and understood by viewers. I wanted viewers to wonder whose desire was being represented and to be uncertain as to the identity of the artist. Cary Grant seemed the perfect subject through which to engage in that investigation.
When I started those paintings, there was a highly publicized return to figurative painting. Artists like John Currin, Elizabeth Peyton, and Lisa Yuskavage were the most prominent, but there were many others. And yet none of the artists most frequently discussed were painting the male nude. It was always the female nude, and in many ways very traditional representations of the female nude, both technically and conceptually. And by and large the reception of these paintings, by critics and collectors, was that they were reinscriptions of traditional desire; now, I want to point out that I think this is a misread, and I find the work of all the artists I mentioned to be much more complex. But that was nevertheless the discourse that surrounded the work. So I loved the idea of making paintings of nudes that resisted attempts to categorize the desire represented.
And finally, I loved the idea of making paintings that used nakedness as a gesture of both admiration and iconoclasm.