Karl Meyer is a multidisciplinary visual artist whose stunning photo-tapestries question the potency of digital photography by embracing the haptic qualities of craft. Through successfully combining mechanical and artisanal elements, his work speaks to the human condition of seclusion, oppression, memory and loss. We talked about inspiration, process and artistic life, including his experience of spending a significant period of time in Swaziland doing field research and advancing his art practice.
Varia Serova: Kyle, your artistic foundation is in photography. How has this challenged you through the course of your career?
Kyle Meyer: So I did go to undergrad in the City College of New York. I studied graphic design and photography there. And I also did an MFA in Photography at Parsons. Although I did study photography, I feel that my work just utilises photography more than anything else. It's just been the tool because most of the work that I'm making is kind of plagued by this idea of photography being so much out there. Photography is all done essentially by a machine. You have the camera that is digital, then it goes into a computer. It's processed on a computer and then ultimately is printed by an inkjet machine. So I'm really trying to find ways of making photography handmade. And so I'm weaving. I'm dying with printer inks or leaving it outside, or sewing it together, or ripping it apart. So essentially, I feel that my work has become more photographic sculptural pieces rather than just photography. I don't know how to really explain how it has challenged me through the course of my career, but I think that it has been about utilising photography to make, you know, the ultimate sculptural work. That is essentially where I'm headed. I don't ever just show a photograph - none of my work is singular photograph, it's all been woven or embroidered, dyed or processed in other ways.
VS: What do you pay attention to most when merging the potency of digital and handicraft, and exploring the potential of both?
KM: The handicraft is all about weaving essentially, I studied under master artisans in Swaziland back in 2009 so that's where the weaving really comes from. So originally I was doing baskets and I was making rugs and blankets. And when I came back from Swaziland, I didn't have any of materials that I was using while I was there, because I was getting it all from from several different factories. And so that's when I started weaving two photographs together, and kind of exploring what that can do when it's two pieces of paper. Now with interwoven work which is what I've been really focused on for the last eight years when merging those two together, it took several years to figure out the what is actually being shown when it's going through the face, and also having the fabric that is really laid on top of the photograph and then kind of shuffled around. And it's really become painting with the fabric over the photograph and making sure that specific things are coming out in the face, and covering and kind of giving subjects this silk screen on top of their body. So bringing together digital photograph and weaving elements is all quite planned out. There's nothing that is not planned when making a weaving.
VS: And that brings me to the next question, so is your work essentially process-driven and if so, what are the key stages of this process?
KM: Yes, I would say that my work is extremely process-driven for different kind of reasons. It really depends on the project. You know, one of the projects I'm working on is a really strictly process-driven body of work called Snow Dyed (Snow Graph) where I am taking digital photo paper, placing it on the lawn, covering it with sticks and leaves and any debris that I'm finding in my wooded area around my studio. And then this is all done right before a snowstorm. So once the snow falls on top of the paper, I then dye over the snow with printer ink and and let it melt. So once it melts, whatever is laying on top of the paper is dyed into the paper, leaving this kind of perfect implantation of leaves and sticks. And so that is really the process behind the making of these works. But now I've been weaving two together and making these kind of newer, abstract paintings essentially, because it's all about color on and about the about the pattern that's being woven through these two pieces of paper. Another work that I can really talk about that is really process-driven is House Graph, which is also on my website. In House Graph, I covered the house with white fabric and then during a rainstorm pigment dye was dyeing the fabric, the process through which I was really interested in getting, you know, this imprint of space. I have also photographed that space while I had the piece of fabric on top. And then I wove the fabric through the image, getting the physical documentation of the fabric and then having the photographic documentation and bringing those two together and collapsing those two moments into one confined piece. So I would say yes my work is indeed process driven and it really comes from, you know, making one work and then continuously exploring this idea of imprintation and dying and using, you know, environment elements as a material.
VS: Thank you very much for sharing information about these wonderful projects that you've been working on. So by weaving together photographic and artisanal sculptural elements, what are some of the enquiries that you making and the themes that you're exploring?
KM: So that goes back to the process driven. I'm really interested in making sculptural pieces around environments. So there's a photograph where there's all the smoke coming out of this house and it's called Last Breath. And so it's like this structure is dilapidated, and it's just kind of giving it this kind of last breath that is green and red and sort of spewing this last moment out of itself. And I'm really interested in death and middle ground between life and death. You know, what is that split second, what does that entail? The fragility. The kind of the emotions that one goes through and also thinking about time and reality and pass what people can take. And I'm really interested in if you just pick up a glass of water at one point, if you did that, what path is that going to take you on? And if you wouldn't have, what path is that gonna take you on? And I think a lot of these ideas that I'm kind of exploring at the moment really come from living in Swaziland and documenting a religious sect that was really based around black magic and demons and really deep African traditions of going in trance and speaking in tongues. I documented this group for about two years, and a lot of the things I was experiencing and a lot of what they were talking about is what started a deep inquiry about these things that I was seeing and and experiencing. So that's kind of the themes that I'm exploring at the moment. But I'm also very interested in multiple personality, and the list goes on. I have a lot of things going on in my head right now that I'm exploring and thinking about. But ultimately each of these works, rather than the Interwoven which was a large body or large series of work about the community, is more about making poetic statements with the photo, the things that I'm photographing and then weaving together.
VS: So what did initiate your move to Swaziland?
KM: I originally moved to Swaziland after undergraduate in 2009, I received a grant through the BRANDEIS University to go to Swaziland to document and do research why Swaziland had the highest prevalence of HIV in the world. When I went there, around one in three people were HIV positive. Having grown up in rural Ohio and being gay, it was, you know, I was told that I was gonna get AIDS and die from AIDS because I was gay. So I was growing up and having that kind of over my head. Once I graduated, it really wanted to understand what it's like to be in an epidemic and why that specific place was affected. So I was working in these handicraft organizations. I was doing documentation of the local religious sects. I was photographing people in government, I was working for several different non government organisations documenting and doing exploratory work and really trying to understand the epidemic.
VS: When you think back and reflect on this experience, how has living in a different place has challenged you both artistically and personally?
KM: Living there was a huge wake up call to life because I was exploring and I never said no to anything, I was doing all types of crazy stuff, putting myself in these really dangerous situations. I was hijacked at one point. I mean, I can't even count the amount of times that I almost died while I was there because I was putting myself in really dangerous situations to really understand things. So it was very mentally and physically challenging. Now it's still challenging, cause I'm dealing with a lot of the repercussions of PTSD of some of the stuff that I was experiencing. I wouldn't change it for anything, because it really affected what I'm doing right now. I really feel like it stems from what I learned there, and I've met some of my closest friends, and have, you know, a second family there because I've been living there on and off for the last 10 years. And artistically, it's really meaningful. If I wouldn't have went there, I wouldn't be weaving. My style of photographing really stemmed from there because a lot of the time that I was living there when I wasn't out documenting, I was in my house just weaving or experimenting with materials and photographing myself and doing lots of different videos. So I really feel like that time when I was secluded and alone and didn't have cable or Internet turned into a very interesting time for me to explore myself both personally and artistically. Living abroad definitely changed my life completely.
VS: When you think back and reflect on your experience, what are some of the negatives and the positives associated with it?
KM: The positive is that I came out with a body of work that's really powerful and also kind of focusing on my studio practice and really exploring stuff and gaining an understanding of what I want to do. The negatives were just putting myself in really vulnerable and dangerous situations that I shouldn't have been doing.
VS: So, being an artist at the time, was it difficult for you to adapt to the new environment? And if so, what were some of the major challenges?
KM: I mean, obviously going from, you know, living in New York and being gay, and then going to a developing nation where you are seeing people dying all the time and poverty, it was extremely hard to adapt, but I was just thrown into it, so I just had to survive. And I was only supposed to be there for three months, and that turned into two years. It was the culture shock and not being able to call my family on a regular basis. I mean, when I moved there, there was no internet in Swaziland. It was a really weird time.
VS: When faced with all of this extreme conditions, what has helped you with the process of adaptation?
KM: I guess it was the people that I was surrounding myself with, and also the drive to wanting to understand who I was, and hearing the personal stories of these people. I mean, it was incredible to hear these people open up and let me come into their lives and show me how they lived. And it was the first time being alone, essentially. Before I went to Swaziland, I had a boyfriend of several years and we lived together, so it was going from this comfortable home to the middle of the mountains. But it was this excitement of meeting people and hearing people's stories and feeling so welcomed just because I sat down and gave these people five minutes of my time. It was just a very beautiful experience. Also, there was some really crazy stuff again which I've mentioned before.
VS: That sounds extremely interesting. So what are some of the projects that you're working on right now?
KM: So, I just came out with a book that has taken a little less than a year to make. I'm working with Radius books of Santa Fe. The book is called Interwoven. It's all comprised of my portraits of gay and bisexual men from the community in Swaziland. It's about 60 weavings, 60 hand and border Polaroids. There are quotes from men that were in the project. There is some ephemera in the project, there are pieces of printed fabric, but ultimately it's the last element to the Interwoven project. So that comes out in June. I think it's when it'll start being shipped. Which I'm super excited about and I already have a copy, and it's really stunning. It's a really incredible publication, and I think Radius Books did so much. David Chickey has been an incredible person that I've been working with on the publication. Also, I have a show coming up in London, opening July 10th. I don't think I'm gonna be able to go, but I'm making the work. It's gonna be called "When will I see you again?" One of them is the photograph Last Breath, which is the one of the house with the smoke. They're all very poetic photographic weavings. Also some hand-dyed weavings of myself and House Graph will be in the show. So it really is talking about living in the time of seclusion and not knowing what's going on with reality, not knowing when we will see each other, when we will be able to hang out together. But I've made a lot of this work during lockdown of Corona virus. Originally, I was gonna be doing something completely different for that show and it was going to be portraits of people. Unfortunately, I had to stop photographing people. So I had to shift. And so each work has come from the last work, and it's trying to make a narrative on how I'm feeling and the overwhelming nature of society and being fearful in isolation, and I'm still putting together the words. And so that's the two things that I was working on along with some video work of me talking about individual works and my practice. I hope my commentary isn't all over the place. I'm quite crazy at the moment with everything that's going on. So it was nice to sit down and think about some things.
VS: And in response, it was very interesting to learn about your projects and about your life events that are very unique and special and brought you to where you are right now, as well for the people that are listening and would like to learn more, as Karl has mentioned, he's working on a few projects right now that you could follow on his website and through the Interwoven book that is going to be published this summer.
© Kyle Meyer for Zephyr and Maize, May 2020.
From the series Interwoven, 2018/19.
Archival Pigment Print Hand Woven with Wax Print Fabric
Courtesy of the Artist and Yossi Milo Gallery