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‘Realizing Things’ with Matthew Ryan and Amanda Assaley

An interview with the artists behind a Kylie Jenner-themed show at SUGs.

By Arts & Culture

Matthew Ryan and Amanda Assaley, “Pile of Balmain,” 2017. Image courtesy of Student Union Galleries (SUGs).

If you have an Instagram account there’s a good chance you’ve witnessed the sparkly fresh, aesthetically inviting, and economically inaccessible images of a life less common provided to you by the human conglomerate that is Kylie Jenner. She is the youngest of the Kardashian-Jenner clan — and a cultural icon, for lack of a better term.

Jenner, and figures like her, have had significant impact on the ways we think about aesthetics within consumer culture; our contemporary world relies on visually appealing digital personas and if those personas can be used to make us buy and spend, all the better. Spaces on the internet like Instagram have us concerned about and engaged with outer appearances and not much else. Jenner, using these accessible digital modes, has turned her face and body into a consumable commodity, one that is used to promote products and sell makeup.

But is this marketability self-empowering? Is it positive? School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) undergraduate artists Matthew Ryan and Amanda Assaley ask these questions in their joint Student Union Galleries (SUGs) exhibition “Realizing Things” (on view at Gallery X until April 19), which centers around mass culture, what drives our urge to consume and commodify, and, of course, Kylie Jenner.

Through an email interview with the two artists, F Newsmagazine got to the core of the inspiration for “Realizing Things.” (The interview has been condensed.)

F Newsmagazine: “Realizing Things” deals with themes such as how popular aesthetics drive consumerism or vice versa. How and why did the two of you choose the topic of Kylie Jenner and material culture?

Matthew Ryan: Kylie was initially discussed as a figure that provides the most access for both Amanda and I. Being around the same age, we had at least some mild connections to what Kylie may be experiencing, at the very least the inability to consume alcohol legally. My personal interest was that Kylie is a celebrity, a businesswoman, the embodiment of a brand, a model, a reality TV star; the list goes on.

All these points of contact with Kylie get filtered through media, or through a medium which is generating income on Kylie’s end. When we see Kylie, we see her at work. Anytime we see her, it is a performance which she enacts to become more relatable and further her career. Reliability on this end is not universal, but a development of character that provides more ways to understand her  — her now being interchangeable with [her] brand.

What interested me is the question of how much Kylie owns or doesn’t own an object, commodity, or good. The works in the show are pointing at, but not directly stating their relationship to the figure, many viewers have agreed that they wouldn’t know that these things came from Kylie without the supplemental text. This accentuates the question of how these objects get displayed. The arrangement of most galleries, with respect to artists is that items are displayed but not purchased. So underlying our actions in the gallery is the notion that we look at the things but we aren’t going [to buy them, or] can’t afford to buy them. This is different in a store or when seeing Kylie put on makeup, carry a bag, or wear a bracelet.

When Kylie isn’t wearing the items, do they still feel as desirable, do they still reference that body, or do they readjust and become more self referential to different histories that the objects, brands, and materials have?

My reasoning for the title was twofold: quote something that Kylie said in the media services that she regularly communicates with us through, and to take the financial meaning of “Realize” — make a profit from a transaction, convert an asset into cash — and consider that as what Kylie meant.

Amanda Assaley: Initially, I brought the idea of doing a show on Kylie Jenner to Matt in a jokey sense because it could be superficial and we tend to think of her as superficial; I just love things that are artificial and glamorous and ridiculous. Then the two of us talked about it more and investigated further what we “just love,” and believed what we discovered within the domain of Kylie Jenner was really telling about who we are and how we know ourselves through material and consumption.

Is this show meant to be critical or simply observational (or both)?

MR: This show is meant to analyze objects and the relationship of the object to maker, wearer, consumer. I’m critical of the way Kylie’s brand processes body into brand into product. The products like her Lip Kits take a color, attach them to Kylie’s lips, then package that into what a consumer will be buying. When I buy a “Leo” Lip Kit, I’m buying Kylie and I’m buying myself. This constant dissolution of self that ends with reconstitution once a purchase or transaction occurs is a place that I am critical of. There are varying opinions about how long it takes to form one’s identity, but certainly identity in the United States begins an extreme shift throughout the teenage years and into the 20s. This is another reason Kylie is such a good figure for her brand — she is still in the stages of identity formation. 

AA: The show is definitely meant to be critical — because of the politics both Matt and I have, we are critical of Kylie Jenner, celebrities, [and] brands that function similarly to her, and the cultural impact of those brands. I think the way we approached making the work was to make pieces describing an ethos and experience and allow the viewer to decide what they are critical of. As Matt has said, we wanted to be clear that we are not making a judgement about who Kylie Jenner is as a person or soul, but we are unpacking and making critiques about her as a brand and the impact of her brand.

“Realizing Things” installation view. Image courtesy of Student Union Galleries (SUGs).

The spray tanned angel sculpture provides a pseudo-religious feel to the rest of the show. Was that on purpose? Would you say people like Kylie Jenner are deified in our contemporary culture and if so, what are the implications?

MR: The sculpture certainly references Western sculpture’s history as being involved in making statues for wealthy religious institutions. In this sense I’m thinking about religious icons and the way that someone might say, “Kylie? I follow her religiously!” or “Kylie? She’s my icon.” (Cheesy but hopefully clarifies the example.)

The idea here is that Kylie could be someone that I strongly believe is beneficially to me [and] my identity. Or taking the word ‘icon’ and understanding it semiotically: an “icon” has a physical resemblance to the signified, the thing being represented. If Kylie is my icon, I claim that she bears some kind of concrete resemblance to me, or that I have a strong will to be associated to her through some direct trait.

AA: I think that yes Kylie and celebrities like Kylie have been deified in present day, but what we are hoping to do with this work is to start with the body that is worshiped, make a move that is humorous — a spray tanning an object — and get to a more pressing conversation about appropriation and erasure.

Spray tanning a sculpture is an amusing move, but I do not think there is anything to laugh about when we think about how Kylie shops for her skin tone. She is a white woman (specifically of Northern European descent) and modifies her body to look like a person of color for the sake of fashion. With this work I reflected on how my Arab American identity is confused by celebrities like her who make efforts to pass as Middle Eastern and as a result erase the experiences of Arab Americans.

I think there’s something in the shift of mood from when you first look at the sculpture to when you take time to think about what it’s doing, that helps make our criticism hit a little harder. There are other works in the show that discuss how a Balmain dress and a Cartier bracelet have literally become the skin of Kylie Jenner, but I think this work resists the idea that the spray tan is her skin with how the form of the work is performing – the plastic sculpture underneath the spray tan application does not absorb the spray tan at all, and it very evidently is just sitting on top of the surface.

Could Kylie Jenner exist without Instagram? Would she be as interesting?

MR: There has always been a figure that culture holds as widely relevant either in appearance or action. What a platform like Instagram does is allow for multiple figures to exist alongside each other and allow consumers to pick the ones they would like to interact with, or receive content from. Instagram functions like the store, I choose what I want to have and a transaction takes place which defines my profile or identity.

AA: We would still see Kylie on TV with her family, but I think what Instagram does for Kylie is really interesting because it makes her (again, her brand) so accessible to youth and those at the age of forming their identities. It’s perfect for her success because the way Kylie’s products work is that they make us look to find ourselves in her. With instagram she’s able advertise the experience of her and create what works as a moodboard of glamourous things and spaces and aesthetics that trigger our class aspirations and desires.

The show title “Realizing Things” comes from a ridiculous fake-deep interview answer Kylie provided regarding her 2016 New Year’s resolution; in that moment she more or less proved herself to be the only single reliable messiah of our time. Do you think that Kylie knows exactly what she is doing and calls all the shots regarding her personal brand, or is she just a corporate product controlled by outsider forces?

MR: Kylie is autonomous. I feel that it is very destructive to think otherwise […] even if the body, brain, [and] person that walks around as Kylie doesn’t understand a concept that we see in her brand, someone else inside that brand does.

There are multiple places that we can separate Kylie’s physical body from Kylie’s “soul” [and] from Kylie the brand. It is a task for sure to separate out things that Kylie’s soul is responsible for, that Kylie’s brand is responsible for, and what both of them aren’t responsible for. However, this process can clarify the ways that our own identities will be constructed or compromised, and that will hopefully help us gain agency inside the complex systems of late capitalism.

AA: Yes! to everything Matt just said. There are people whose full time employment is working to ensure we don’t think about the team and the labor that goes into creating Kylie Jenner. It’s meant to seem that Kylie is in control, her selfies and big lips are effortless, and we can be like her if we buy her $29 lip gloss. Her products wouldn’t sell if her plastic surgeries, stylists, makeup artists, managers, and money were always in the front of our collective consciousness. I don’t know if I can tell how much control she has within her team, because such and effort goes into obscuring that. Regardless, as Matt said, she still should be held accountable for what is done in her image and that impact her image has on culture.

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