A biannual publication dedicated
to contemporary art
Summer 2009 Volume 3 Issue 1, pp. 12, 13
by Brandon Anschultz
Larry Krone is an artist and performer who grew up in St. Louis and is currently based in New York. I first met with Krone during the production of his 2006 exhibition Artist/Entertainer at the Contemporary Art Museum-St. Louis. We became fast friends during the run-up to and production of the exhibition and subsequent performances around that exhibition. In addition to the Contemporary STL exhibition, Krone has also participated in group exhibitions at the Portland Art Museum, The Whitney, and at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. Krone’s work blends elements of performance with handcrafted costuming and props. From an early point in his career, Krone has drawn inspiration from both the aesthetic and lyrical content of country music, the form of his homage varying from work to work; sometimes he is the lonesome balladeer, sometimes he is the leader of a family band. A quintessential Larry Krone prop/object are his Underpants of Many Colors, a reference to the Dolly Parton song Coat of Many Colors. For this interview, we had several conversations via Facebook chat, which are synthesized below for you.
Brandon Anschultz: Good morning!
Larry Krone: Well good morning, Ms. Anschultz!
BA: Are you ready to dive in? I have my Barbara Walters style soft focus lighting.
LK: I’m promising myself I won’t let you make me cry!
LK: But if you do I’ll look in the mirror and describe it to you.
BA: Tell our readers about your background.
LK: My parents are both from Chicago, and I was born there, but I moved to St. Louis when I was about one. I went to school all the way through the University City public school system. In high school I took one studio art class and one really good art history class, but I was much more involved in the music program there. I did write and draw cartoons and illustrations for the school paper, though. Outside of school, I was playing tenor and baritone saxophone in a band called first The Fuzzy Pumpers (my choice of name) and then Blank Space. We played out a lot and sometimes opened for big name bands. The best as far as I remember was the Red Hot Chili Peppers. When we parted ways, I sat in with other bands here and there. I was also active in visual art stuff outside of school. When I was little, my mother started taking drawing classes from Leslie Laskey, and he became a family friend. In high school years I started tagging along on Laskey’s summer “art camp” retreats in Manistee, Michigan. Also, in my last couple of years of high school I started dating an older girl who was a really good artist and active in the St. Louis art scene. That scene was exciting to me. It was fun, and people made big events out of art openings. I remember following searchlights to find the galleries!!! The kind of work I was seeing then—big paintings, mostly—became my model at the time for what I considered legitimate art to be. Anyway… after high school I stayed in St Louis and shared a small basement studio with two friends where I tried to get into painting. I did produce some paintings that I’m not completely ashamed of, but what I mostly did there was drink and waste time, procrastinate and avoid working on my paintings, and instead made joke projects like a mobile made from a Barbie Activity Book, clothes hangers, and magic markers.
BA: It sounds like you were already finding your voice, even then…
LK: Yes, I really was, but I wasn’t aware of it. At that age and with no real sense of having an audience or anyone interested in my work, the little projects were completely just silly diversions. Totally unselfconscious but very entertaining to me.
LK: At my parents’ insistence, I did apply to colleges, and I ended up going to NYU after having one year in St. Louis after high school.
BA: Did you go there to study art? Music?
LK: Art. I brought my saxophone, and tried playing with a ska band when I first moved here, but it was too hard to practice in New York apartments, and plus I hated the band. I hate ska and I will go on record as saying that.
BA: I do as well; I was disappointed in you for a second… What was your focus in studying art?
LK: I really did not want to be in school and had no agenda or career aspirations, so my attitude about the art classes was pretty loose. The slant at NYU then was very 1960’s/1970’s non-object, conceptual, performance, and minimal type art. Happenings, Fluxus, etc. Joseph Beuys was everyone’s hero.
BA: Was that when you first began performing?
LK: Since I had no agenda, I saw my advisor a lot and got him to substitute some of my required core classes for graduate seminars and phony “photography” classes, which were actually freeform discussion/reading groups with loose art assignments. I was into performing, and interested in pushing my own boundaries… doing things that embarrassed me just to see if I could do it. Also I love to dress up and I always kept a supply of wigs and crazy things to wear just for going out. But the costumes also made their way into some art-type performances. There is a particular pair of gold sequined underpants that have been with me since high school days. They predated my Underpants of Many Colors for the inevitable strip down portion of my show. I wore those gold underpants for Halloween that first year in New York, then in an art performance at school based on Milli Vanilli’s Blame it on the Rain, then I think that same year in my Changing Clothes video. Then later in all of my stage shows… sorry just reminiscing. I saw a place for myself in that realm. But I still had it in my head that art had to look like something specific in order to be considered for discussion. I was resisting showing my true self in my work… the funny stuff and silly projects like the Barbie Activity book.
BA: The first piece of yours that I saw was in the stairwell at the Forum for Contemporary Art in St. Louis, probably in 2002. It was the phrase I will always love you written over and over up the three flights. That song is also prominently featured in other pieces of yours. What’s so special about that song?
LK: There is a lot wrapped up in that song for me, and in a way, those lyrics written over and over has become my mark. I first noticed that song when I was really confused about the appeal of country music to me. It was in a really rowdy bar in New York called the Village Idiot where the whole jukebox was country music…
BA: It’s also a drag standard, right?
LK: Maybe now because of Whitney Houston’s version. The song used to seem to me like a country oldie that only real Dolly Parton devotees loved. That’s probably one of the reasons the drag performance I saw of it at a bar called Gabriel’s in St. Louis was so powerful. I wasn’t writing songs at all at the time, but I was interested in the structure of the song. I was really confused by the chorus being just the phrase AND I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU over and over again. That kind of repetition really appealed to me and was already evident in a lot of the artwork I was making.
BA: That song is a good one. Really straightforward – simple message. Kind of a perfect song about what? Loss and love? Hope?
LK: It’s really a goodbye song. The sincerity of it ultimately comes through, but there is plenty of opportunity to doubt it, which is one of the things I love about it.
BA: You mention confusion about liking country music, which is interesting considering what a large role it plays in both your performances and in the objects that you make. When did you first start listening to it?
LK: When I was in high school, my girlfriend at the time and her circle of friends were really into classic country. I didn’t get it at all. But when I moved to New York to go to NYU, I started going to the Village Idiot and it kind of reminded me of home because of her but also in a totally imaginary way. I also started to associate it with good times at the bar (GREAT times, really, involving way too much Pabst). I looked for country on the radio and started listening to it. But the music on the radio wasn’t rowdy, drinking music. It was contemporary country, which was a lot of ballads and sentimental songs. I loved it and that totally confused me.
BA: Is it the sincerity? The deviance?
LK: I think so. I think giving into it was the beginning of a theme for me… if something is easy to like, why not let yourself like it? Just because it seems unsophisticated and obvious doesn’t make it bad. (Country music is not actually unsophisticated, but it seemed that way compared to all the hi-faluting art theory I was immersed in at school.) It also was the beginning of me looking into my own masculine identity. I related to the male country singers and admired their confidence in being so showy about their emotions…especially emotions like sadness and regret. The most typical masculine traits like aggression, love of sports, etc. always left me feeling very separate from other men, but these brooding sentimental sides made me feel included.
BA: Your performances have this earnestness about them, which I like, but I find the same qualities in country music to be suspect. I don’t know if that’s a question or just a bias on my part.
LK: I think true character comes through even in the most hoaky shticks onstage. And in music, especially country/folk/singer/songwriter type music, it seems very important to be honest and authentic. To me the phoniest routines are of people completely convinced that they are being authentic. Gillian Welch comes to mind. Don’t get me started on her! I was shooshed during her concert once for ordering a beer. If nothing else, that ruined her for me. Tanya Tucker’s big rule is to never even smile while you’re singing a sad song. KT Oslin and I disagree.
BA: So you should smile?
LK: Well, I can’t help it sometimes. And KT does this sort of creepy, wistful smile that I try to recreate. Sort of a distant stare with a half smile like she’s being really brave.
LK: Sometimes I even really cry, which breaks Kathy Mattea’s rule. Anyway, I think I am drawn to performance for just this reason. I’m completely distracted and absorbed by the character of performers and their desire to present themselves in some way. When I love a performer, I want them to be my friend. I get totally lost in fantasies of hanging out and expressing our mutual adoration of each other. Dolly Parton comes to mind as one of my main subjects of such fantasies.
BA: Aah! Dolly. I saw her live for the first time last year. I texted you right after the show, and you asked me some specific questions about her set list, obviously you had seen the tour at least once. How many times have you seen her?
LK: I think 5 times.
BA: She’s like the ultimate in performance. Sincerity and artifice, where does it begin and end with her?
LK: Is that a rhetorical question? Because I don’t think there is a beginning and end to it for her. Sure she puts on a blown up persona onstage and for interviews, etc., but I think she is always sincere. Or at least she’s not pretending to be more sincere than she really is. It’s hard to figure out why I trust her character so much. I think it’s partially because she has so much confidence in it, that she’s not afraid to risk seeming inauthentic because of her hair, makeup, and body.
BA: I think that’s one reason she crosses so many types of fans, her audiences are really diverse.
LK: She makes me insane, she is so good. And I have gotten to the point where I stop trying not to cry like a baby during her shows. I get so overwhelmed by her. The time that took me over the edge was at Madison Square Gardens… I had a pretty bad seat and she was so far away- this tiny little sparkly dot on the stage introducing Coat of Many Colors like it was the first time and she was with a small group of friends. Then singing that song. Whew! That’s what it’s all about!
BA: The last work of yours that I saw was your show at the Contemporary in St. Louis in the fall of 2006. That was basically a 10-year survey of performance, ephemera and objects. Can you talk about that exhibition?
LK: It’s hard to express what that show meant to me. It seems wrong, because so many people are involved in achieving a show like that, not to mention all of the people who ultimately saw it, but the biggest result of an experience like that for me is an intensely personal, wonderful feeling of satisfaction and connection to the world. The planning and all of the collaborative efforts of Shannon Fitzgerald, you, Mike Schuh, Bruce Burton, and all of the staff and interns there… that experience is what I really walked away with. Plus the opportunity to really see my body of work. The whole thing was very emotional. It’s hard to describe it without getting melodramatic.
BA: I guess, specifically, what did it mean to see so much of your work together? Did anything change in your view of your practice?
LK: It was shocking to see my work like that. It really came together to create this character that was me. But mostly just the crazy and sad parts. I didn’t realize how totally exposing my work really was until I saw it like that.
BA: Really? Did you think your work was exposing you?
LK: Making that work felt like I feel onstage, like I am at least mostly in control of how much of myself I am revealing. But I wasn’t really in control at all.
BA: You’re talking about the objects in the show?
LK: Yes. I think it’s good that the work comes out like that. I guess it means that I really tap into unconscious stuff. So I’m proud of the work. But also kind of embarrassed. The problem I had, though, was that it was so all about me. It made me feel isolated. Since then, I’ve been consciously trying to work with that feeling of connection and collaboration and try to incorporate it in my actual work and objects.
BA: You’re making objects collaboratively or trying to take the focus off yourself?
LK: A little of both, but I can’t help that always want to put myself in stuff. I’m trying to really think about the participation of viewers of my objects. I made a lot of things in the past year with eyes on them… a corny and fast way to create a connection between the viewer and the piece. I’m also taking found objects and putting them together so it’s as if their original owners/makers are collaborating with each other and me. Last year I did a project in Portland where the whole theme was getting together around a campfire. I needed the help of volunteers to make a big Mylar curtain, but their participation became part of the piece. Our time together was part of it. We had special coffee cups for breaks, a fake fire to sit around, music, and periodic sing-alongs. Viewers were invited to participate in the sing-alongs and contribute to the Old West campsite environment by making tumbleweeds out of the Mylar scraps and clothes hangers.
BA: How long did the performance last?
LK: I think it was 10 days.
BA: That’s a pretty big departure from the performances I’ve seen of yours, which were really straightforward, hour long “shows.”
LK: It was different definitely. And not that easy to share the spotlight during the singalongs (though I still was kind of at the center of it). The sing-alongs really did achieve that feeling of togetherness and connectedness for me, though. I couldn’t believe how many people wanted to sing and for how long! The sing-alongs would end when we couldn’t think of a single other thing to sing. So many songs we sang were just the beginnings of songs we thought we knew but realized we didn’t. The idea for the performance approach to making the curtain came from my experience at the Contemporary making Where You’ll Find Me.
BA: I really like the idea of starting to sing these songs you think you know, and then the singing just trails off…
LK: Me too. I couldn’t believe all those people wanted to sit there and do that with me! It was so fun.
BA: One question I had prepared was about collaboration, whether or not you were directing the performances, calling all the shots with your friends and family you perform with. It sounds like that’s changing?
LK: With the performances, I do direct, but I really try to make my decisions based on what people are best at and want to do. I had wanted to make a huge sing-along songbook, but I ran out of time. I did get a lot of the lyrics to my own songs down and used those. One of the most touching moments for me during the sing-along was when I sang my song It’s Hard to Live with the gang working out spontaneous backup oohs and aahhs & trying to follow along.
BA: That’s one of my favorite songs of yours! That’s the Buffy [the Vampire Slayer] song, right?
LK: Yes the Buffy one. I love that it is so specifically about Buffy (season 6), but it seems like it could apply to anything.
BA: My favorite season, I think.
LK: Me too! So dark! And with the musical episode.
BA: Oh, I could gush about that…
BA: Back on track…I know you’ve performed several times at Blueberry Hill, which is mostly a straightforward music, rock and roll venue, and mainstay in St. Louis. How / when did this start? How does it change the performance as opposed to playing in an art context?
LK: I don’t really let that affect my performance too much in that I don’t leave out anything that I think will be too artsy or challenging. If anything, playing at a place like Blueberry Hill gives me a chance to do more, because they–unlike many galleries and art venues–are equipped for all kinds of things. Lighting, good sound, backstage areas, etc. (although nothing could have been better than the setup at the Contemporary!) I really do lean on the costumes and onstage changes, Mylar backdrops, etc. to distract from my weak voice, though I have gained a little more confidence over the past couple of years. Not in the quality of my voice, but in my ability to sing a song to people who really just want to enjoy the music. I do find that just because an audience is there to get entertained, does not mean that they won’t appreciate the artistic elements of a performance. In a lot of my work, including the performance, I like for there to be a surprise meaning/artistic content hiding in something that seems just cute, entertaining, or beautiful.
BA: I’m going to pop back to something you said before about your early experience in St. Louis, where you were talking about all the work you saw here being painting driven. You’ve been back a lot and shown and performed several times, how have you seen the art scene change?
LK: Well, I think it’s a lot less insular. I was always proud of St. Louis, and I never wanted to leave. But when I first started coming back after living in New York, I was shocked at how conservative it was there. It felt like there was a deliberate mission to avoid influence from New York and the larger international contemporary art world. I had the feeling that people there thought I was crazy for what I was doing in my work. Now, the galleries, and certainly the museums and not-for-profits like White Flag, Boots, The Contemporary and The Pulitzer are deeply involved in the bigger dialogue. And young artists are aware of what is going on around them. It certainly wasn’t the case when I was in St. Louis.
BA: Is there anything additional you would like to say about future projects, plans, etc?
LK: I just got the NYFA grant. Hallelujah! My immediate future plan is to quit my job at the Phoenix and finish this goddam latch-hook hay bale I’ve been working on.
BA: Congrats! That’s awesome. Tell me about the latch-hook hay bale.
LK: I love using hay bales in my performances and installations… they create a scene immediately. But they are such a hassle to deal with every time I travel. Sometimes they have bugs in them, so museums are afraid to have them inside. Often they are hard to find in urban environments. Anyway, this is a project along the lines of my Hobby Horse of Many Colors… taking matters into my own hands and making my own hay bale. Of course it is barely recognizable as a hay bale. It’s made from latch hooking green and yellow yarn remnants I find on eBay or at thrift shops. And it’s taking a ridiculous amount of time and labor. In the end it’s going to be too heavy to be practical as a traveling stage prop. It’s just becoming it’s own thing, and I think a pretty weird & beautiful object.
BA: I can’t wait to see it!
LK: It is really ridiculous!