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Published June 5, 2023

Kan Seidel's Twisted Americana

By Matthew Herskowitz

Matthew Herskowitz is a journalist based in NYC and works in reality TV and documentary development.

Kan Seidel in his Chinatown studio, Image by Jan Rattia. Courtesy of Kan Seidel

In his debut as part of the David Lewis Gallery’s presentation at the 2023 Frieze Art Fair, Chinatown-based artist Kan Seidel depicts his own brand of queer, suburban Americana by way of oil on canvas and clay sculpture.

Seidel wears many hats: LGBTQ+ activist, historian, ghostwriter, storytelling coach, sculptor, and painter as he made his way from Nebraska to Chicago and currently New York City. Though he's now an undeniable cosmopolitan, Seidel's Midwestern upbringing informs a great deal - if not all - of his work.

“I studied English at the University of Nebraska with a concentration in creative writing. I’d always been making short films and was pretty media agnostic. After college I made a series of short videos featuring my Black Trans friend skewering a June Cleaver type of role, which won a Juror's prize at a regional exhibition.  Subverting that suburban life we’d all become accustomed to as queer people was something provocative, at least back then.”

Grotesque and deformed figures are a trademark of his paintings, which emerged in no small part due to the cataclysmic and tragic loss of his younger brother, AJ, who passed away at the age of 27. AJ’s death came at a time when Kan was straddling work and family obligations. Initially, he found it difficult to reconcile the time spent away from his family while trying to focus on his first painting residency in the Hamptons last summer. However, he took solace in the work, which came to both include and exalt his younger brother more frequently. What initially emerged from Kan as a penchant for provocation became something urgently therapeutic.

"It wasn't that I immediately thought I was going to make this giant show with all of these five, six foot paintings about my brother, but I did feel the opposite of how I'd felt back when I was 22 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Then I was too young. And I was trying to fill this room with all of these big ideas that I hadn't experienced enough. And now I finally felt like, 'Wow. This is real.' I always thought I wasn't crazy enough or depressed enough or whatever to be an artist. I finally felt like I had a true thing to exorcise out of me. It was no longer just about poking at social norms or getting a rise out of people. Now it was something that had to be forced out of me.”

The force with which he takes to the page, canvas, or clay is evident in the ferocity of his work.

His paintings operate in a world of familiar motifs. A common through-line is the blue house he grew up in. The suburban veneer obscures an entanglement of grotesque figures, outsized, entangled limbs, brazen nudity, a sort of contorted normality. It’s all stepped on, quite literally, by what he refers to as the “Godfoot” which emerges out of the sky as though to stomp out whatever is going on inside that home.

Kan Seidel, St. AJ, Oil on Canvas, 2022. Courtesy of Fireplace Project

Here, we see the familiar “Godfoot” crashing through his childhood home. His brother portrays the role of the martyr a la St. Sebasatian, being strung up and punched through with holes as onlookers either despair or participate in his fate. Frequently, Kan displays his brother in a state of distress, almost calling out for help, or appearing somewhat helpless. The tragedy of the whole affair is invariably paired with the absurdity of the surrounding subjects and situation he finds himself in.

Kan Seidel, Blessing the Meatloaf, 2022, Oil on Canvas. Courtesy of Kan Seidel

In "Blessing the Meatloaf", Kan reimagines a typical family dinner with characters that call to mind the work of modern Cubist/Surrealists like Jonathan Green. The checkered tile and ripped wallpaper become familiar in Kan's home. While the figures are meant to disturb and appear monster-like, there is almost a comfort in the sedate look in their eyes. This isn't necessarily intentional but reflects Kan's feelings of alienness in the most familial of all domestic spaces.

Kan Seidel, Nobody is Asleep on Earth, 2023, Oil on Canvas. Courtesy of David Lewis Gallery

The above painting, "Nobody is Asleep on Earth", most recently on view at the David Lewis booth at Frieze, is a culmination of his twisted proclivities. The blue house is beginning to tear apart (or is it being torn apart?) at the seams, open and exposed as Kan’s two-faced figures force their way into every inch of the home. There’s a feeling of claustrophobia; that there may be no place left to escape to in the home, that the largest figure has inhabited the space almost in its entirety. Of course, the “Godfoot” appears, this time not stomping down on the home but almost offering a way out to the figure crawling desperately away from the mayhem below him.

There’s also an element of levity Kan imbues in even his most disturbed, contorted visions. The shape of lips, bodies, and limbs is almost humorous, while soft blues and the pleasant green backdrop almost offer an inviting mood that cuts through all of the chaos. Kan himself wants onlookers not to despair in what the work is actually about.

“People will ask you what's it about, and you're tempted to tell them, but when it's about your dead brother, or about some trauma, then all of a sudden, their face turns green. Even though there's undertones of darkness and tragedy, I want them to first experience the humor, so I don't want to spoil it for them by telling them it's about something so serious.”

While Kan's family life left an indelible mark on his art, his work also comments on queer sex, open relationships, orgies, public sex, and some of what he often views as "the extremities" of gay modern life.

"It's either family autobiography, or it's gay culture autobiography. I haven't yet figured out how to reconcile these two universes into the same body of work without someone inferring some incestuous connotation. When I do talk about queer culture, there's definitely an element of satire and critique. But it's also done in a way where that's not totally clear, and people could also see it as a celebration. But I do think that there's a little bit more of a twist to it. It's not just sentimental. There's something monstrous and humorous about the consumptive kind of absurdity."

Kan Seidel, A Gay Couple On Their Wedding Night, 2019, Gouache on Paper. Courtesy of Kan Seidel

Kan fixates on excess in his paintings, especially those that appear to depict an orgy or some type of group sexual configuration. In the above, which Seidel nearly called "Gay-rnica", he sets about depicting the discomfort which visits him in a world of free, uninhibited sex. Gay men, and queer people more generally, are compelled to a sex-positive attitude that few dare rail against. While controversial, the absurdity of the painting serves to skewer and prod at what one might describe as "the gay scene". The proverbial scene involves chiseled men in a constant state of physical and mental entanglement with one another, navigating a cloud of image and relationship issues. Though this comes from Kan's own personal experience, he also holds that these pieces should invoke humor just as much as they invoke shock.

Seidel is set to have another solo show at David Lewis's new East Hampton location later this year and intends to feature pieces that go beyond what he views as familiar subjects. When asked about how he sees his style evolving, Kan offered the perfectly vague and fantastical response only a painter could provide.

"I definitely have this Phantasmagoria of flashing imagery. In my mind, I have so many scenes with weird landscapes and new people; it's just kind of a flood that I can't wait to keep getting out and making bigger. That's one thing I'm really excited for. I want to see some of these ideas at an eight foot scale, like a whole wall, a giant Guernica painting of my style of figures and characters."

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