It's 2 p.m. on a temperate Monday when we stopped by the gallery in Far-West Chelsea where Jeremy Kost's latest exhibition will debut. The walls are white, if not a bit scuffed, with framed photos, larger silkscreen paintings, and overlapping collage works leaning against the walls. Kost—who made a name for himself through his fly-on-the-wall Polaroids of famous (and infamous) figures as they frollicked through New York's simultaneously seedy and glamorous nightlife—is conferring with Eric Shiner, the Director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, who is curating the show. Together with the help of Hugo Boss, Kost's latest collection of works, titled Of an Instance, is both a retrospective of his career thus far, and a comparison to the correlating themes of his work—celebrity, drag culture, the male form—and those of Warhol's (selected Polaroids from Warhol are also featured). We were able to trap the busy duo for a few moments to discuss the show.
Out: So, how did the three entities—Hugo Boss, the Andy Warhol Museum, and you, Jeremy—come together for this particular exhibition?
Eric Shiner: Well, we’ve known each other since 2004, early 2005.
Jeremy Kost: We met through a mutual friend. Eric was a freelance curator at the time and put together my first quote-unquote show—and I say quote-unquote because it was the gallery of the Soho Grand—but I think it was a pivotal moment for me. For example, a friend of Eric’s, who is a curator at ICP, came to see the show and I ended up in the ICP Triennial two and a half years later.
For us, we wanted it to be clear that it isn’t a nepotistic thing. Oftentimes, you hear a lot about how artists get a show because they slept with the curator, or because they’re close friends. You hear rumors, but for us it was really important that things be done the right way.
Hugo Boss was my one of my first sponsors, and really helped me make art a full-time thing. Without their support from the very beginning I don’t know if I would be in the position I’m in today. They have such and amazing history with arts patronage—like the Hugo Boss Prize at the Guggenheim. To have them involved in this, both with their history with my career and their arts patronage, is really significant.
Eric: Historically, so many fashion designers worked with the best photographers to do formal portraits of their models and clothing. Fashion and photography definitely fit together, and then you throw Warhol in the mix. Andy was obviously always making sure he knew what was going on in fashion and hanging out with the most fashionable people, starting with Baby Jane Holzer and Edie Sedgwick in the ’60s and then moving forward with Liza Minnelli and that whole Halston crowd.
Jeremy: Not to mention, his first job was as a fashion illustrator.
Eric: That’s how he made his living during the 1950s. He wanted to be close to anyone at the cutting edge of fashion. I think that Jeremy is a logical extension of that—catching the stars, but also what they’re wearing, is a very big element in his work.
Jeremy: Especially the collage work, the abstraction of clothing. But, I think fashion is just drag for women.
Jeremy: If you really think about it…furs, and all these layers.
Eric: You’re always performing—no matter who you are—by what you put on your body. Drag queens, I think, look at the fashion industry more than anything for inspiration—either for how to dress themselves or to react against it. So, they’re sort of going against the grain of some drag queens, especially Sharon [Needles].
Jeremy: My drag queens tend to be freaks, more outrageous.
Do you think that’s artifice or an outward expression of who they truly are?
Jeremy: I think there’s that, but it’s who I’m drawn to.
Eric: And, of course, there’s a very long history of camp—going against the grain of popular culture and critiquing it as they go.
Do you think things like RuPaul’s Drag Race has mainstreamed the subcutlure that you’ve always followed?
Eric: I think it has always been underground. When John Waters put Divine in his films, they were completely underground, hovering between art and popular culture. Even now, Pink Flamingos isn’t necessarily well-known to the general public. I think that RuPaul and especially RuPaul’s Drag Race has opened up the aesthetic of drag to a much broader audience.
Jeremy, I think what you were touching on the idea that the drag queens you’re attracted to are…
Jeremy: They’re not pageant queens. If you look at the Warhol Polaroids of drag queens and transsexuals that I chose, they’re a bit less beautiful.
Eric: Warhol wasn’t going for classically beautiful, he was going for “realness.” That’s a term that appears on Rupaul’s show all the time. So, if you’re passable, it’s a whole different thing from camp.
I know that fame is a huge part of your work, and now with reality television and Twitter, for instance, some of the mystique has been sucked out of celebrity culture. Does that affect your work?
Jeremy: I’m not working in that context anymore. I’m not interested anymore.
Is that a reaction to…
Jeremy: You know, it started when the reality star bullshit happened a couple of years ago and I decided I didn’t want to be a part of it.
Eric: But there’s still a lot of overlap. Now Sharon [Needles] has thrown Jeremy a bit of a curveball because suddenly she’s a celebrity, based on her appearance on the RuPaul’s show. As are his boys—they’re not named, but they’re all big in the fashion industry.
Jeremy: The biggest theme that runs through the show is the narrative of facade—the desire for attention on some level.
Eric: The limelight and how you engage with it.
Jeremy: Which was Andy’s obsession. The face we put forward.
How did you go about choosing what to show? You have a lot of stuff going on and it’s not all the unveiling of new things.
Jeremy: It was a multi-month process in terms of going through the entire archive and choosing 250 images from 5,000. But more specifically, in terms of Andy’s photos, it was finding relationships that weren’t always so direct as, say, his Liza versus my Liza. There's the Wicked Witch with Cher, or Garret Neff with Sylvester Stallone, based on a similar gestures or compositions. The curation became more about gesture and form. In the other room, it’s more about cross-generational relationships. Diana Vreeland and Anna Wintour. Beyoncé and Diana Ross. And in a moment of ego, Andy Warhol with the skull on his shoulder and me in skull makeup.
Jeremy: The newer work has become a lot more about the fragmentation of façade in addition to the fragmentation of character.
I even see Lana Del Ray’s image in one of the works here—who has come under fire for re-manufacturing herself in sort of multiple iterations to find a successful niche—and then you to place another element on top of her’s and break it apart…
Jeremy: There is always this huge consideration of location scouting and inserting a character into a certain context.
You were talking about boys earlier, which is a main focus of the exhibit. What’s the interest in the male figure, beyond the obvious? It's erotic, but…
Jeremy: As a gay man, there’s always that. But, for me, they also tend to refer to my own body issues and such. They serve as a representation of these guys I used to pine after but never gave me the time of day. Now there’s this power scenario of having them pose for me. All but one of them are straight, so there’s this distance and unrequited interest.
Eric: In the 1950s, Andy would invite any beautiful boy he happened by over and take photos, and there are a lot of nudes but the cocks have hearts on and around them. So it is unrequited.
How has your process changed? It used to be much more candid.
Jeremy: There’s no candid work anymore.
Jeremy: Number one, I think I’ve done it. It is so well represented in the archives that I don’t know how much more can be done with it. Also, there’s the film situation. Every frame is another I can’t use. I have to be more precious with the material.
Eric: As it goes away, so too is the nightlife that you were recording. There aren’t many places you can go to see…
Jeremy: …the same viscerality
It used to be that you were just a kid with a Polaroid camera.
Jeremy: There was that moment with Mary J. Blige in 2004 when she sort of said, “With a Polaroid? What is this?” So I walked away.
And there’s a video piece as well?
Jeremy: As of now, the one video in the show is of Sharon, and its called “The Queen’s Speech.” She’s in three different costumes stumbling around the Meatpacking District—as a nod to the tranny hookers—and mumbling an Oscar acceptance speech, as this delusional character. Bryce shot it…and I guess I, well, directed it.
I like this shot of the paparazzi. Do you always feel like you’re on the outside, or the inside?
Eric: You were never paparazzi
Jeremy: The interesting thing about all those paintings, if you look at them, is there’s a consistent sense of access. I’m on the carpet with Dolly Parton. I’m on the carpet with Cate Blanchett. I’m behind the cameras and all the shots are clearly very intimate and I never stood behind a barricade. I never would, and if I was told that I had to, I would leave.
It doesn’t seem like an, ‘Excuse me, may I take your picture?’ kind of thing.
Jeremy: That’s what I think is interesting about it. I wanted a tension between these more focused photos—like Madonna—and the more situational abstractions. One is of Brad and Angelina signing autographs at the American Spirit Awards. Its called “American Royalty”. You’d never know it, though, because it’s all these fans shoving 8x10s at them to be signed.
It’s kind of spooky to be honest.
Eric: But it’s also great that you’re getting photography within photography.
Do you consider yourself a voyeur in general?
Jeremy: I do…and I think Andy was.
Eric: He absolutely was—par excellence
Jeremy: I wanted to create this sense of manic-ness. I think it is interesting going back through archives and looking back on things with a different filter. Things you thought were garbage suddenly seem great, but the paintings are something I’m really going to continue with and develop, without question.
"Of An Instance" in partnership with Hugo Boss and The Andy Warhol Museum will run from May 4th through May 31st at 150 Eleventh Avenue, between 21st and 22nd Streets, in New York City.
For more about Jeremy Kost, visit his website here.
All photos courtesy of Jeremy Kost.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.