Wildcrafting Our Queerness: An Interview with Dustin Hall, Artist (Update #4)

Dustin Hall is a self-taught painter working out of Neon, Kentucky. In the past few years, he has a created a prolific body of work that engages multiple aspects of his identity–young, queer, Appalachian–while challenging established artistic assumptions regarding bodies, landscapes, figures, and abstraction.  Often painting on unconventional materials that are readily available to him, including dollar store housewares and frames found in the dumpster, Hall maintains a keen sense of irony and self-awareness towards the pretensions that wind their way around the academic art world.  His paintings are not only aesthetic adventures but records of his experiences as a gay man in Appalachia.

I had the pleasure of sitting and chatting with Dustin Hall on June 13. We met on a bright summer day in Whitesburg, Kentucky at Appalshop, the renowned cultural center where Hall had his first solo exhibition at the age of 19.  There, I conducted an oral history with the artist, where he told me about his upbringing in rural Kentucky, his early encounters with queer images, and (of course) his art. This following interview is an excerpt from this oral history, slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Dustin Hall’s art can be seen (and bought!) on Instagram @birdsdeadbutshesnot.

Maxwell Cloe: Let’s talk a bit about your art. When did you first start making art?

Dustin Hall: Three years ago. Wait a minute, I guess now it’s four. I’m almost 21 and it was when I was 17. Three and half, four years.  As I said, when I was in high school I was this sort of drag queen.  Not even a drag queen, I was just wearing makeup all the time. So I had this bucket full of makeup and shit. Good makeup. It was like Chanel. I told you, I wasted some money. I was just bored and all my friends were artists. Really good artists. Like actual trained, went to Pratt painters. So I would take the makeup and finger paint line drawings and that was my first work.  Portraiture of just what was in my head. I gave my friend Brandon for Christmas once–one of the first things I ever did was called Picasso with a Vagina–it was a really not elaborate rendition of a labia and a Picasso fake and that was my thing.  I did that for about a year. I did my first canvas painting–with makeup still because I didn’t know–and it was cream paint from Halloween.  That painting still exists in a friend’s house. They won’t throw it away even though I keep begging them to get the fuck rid of it. It sucked.  It’s like a guy with a blue shirt with some geometric thing happening. I think it has mold now because it’s wet cream paint.  Anyways that’s what I was doing in the early days.  I slowly progressed into actually doing large scale canvas pieces or multimedia pieces or scavenged pieces until I was making actual gallery-ready art. But to answer the question more specifically, about four years ago. I was seventeen. It was the summer I left high school.

MC: And have you collaborated a lot with Appalshop? I remember seeing an advertisement for a show on Facebook.

DH: Yes. It was last August when I had my show.  This is an advertisement for Appalshop. I did AMI, the Appalachian Media Institute, when I was too young. I think the cutoff was 14 and I was 13 maybe.  I came in and learned documentary filmmaking and all that. I came back a few summers after that and did the same thing. Then I worked with Appalshop doing roadside theater work: going to New Mexico and doing a film there, which is really embarrassing and I hate it but it’s all online if you want to look at it. It’s called The Lonely Thing. They show it at high schools all the time, people love it and I’m like “it’s not good, it’s so bad.”

They’ve always had a sort of influence on me being a more creative person. I would probably not be a painter if I did not have the formative period of my life being here. When the time came they let me hang my art here. I had an actual show. I think I was 19 at the time which is the youngest in Appalshop history. Not to be in love with myself but it was one of the most interesting shows that had been here in about a year. [For] A lot of art in Appalshop and Appalachia specifically, there’s this notion that all real art has to be naturalist or realism. My work was complete opposite of that; it was lines and figural and abstract expressionist and parody work and irony.

MC: So what other kind of influences do you have? There’s Appalshop and their material influence. Were there any others? Spiritual influences?

Dustin Hall, St. Sebastiane, 2019, Acrylic on paper, photo from Instagram – @birdsdeadbutshesnot

Dustin Hall, St. Sebastiane, 2019, Acrylic on paper, photo from Instagram – @birdsdeadbutshesnot

DH: Oh no spiritual influence [laughs]. When I was sixteen I wanted to be a Satanist because that sounded cool and then I got their bible and it was just an advertisement for Anton LaVey and I felt let down, like I just wasted six dollars.  I came from Christians but not real Christians. They didn’t practice but there’s this hypocritical “Oh we love God.” I had that upbringing and I had the fear of God for at least the first ten years of my life. I would pray to not be gay and I was still gay. I was still watching porn. I was being a gay kid, there was no turning back after a certain point and I realized that God wasn’t listening. Nowadays I do a lot of paintings that involve saint figures and people wearing halos–it’s something I’m fascinated by. The glamour of being a religious figure, being revered by the masses, I love that.  But I have an obvious preference for St. Sebastian and David and Jonathan and all the Biblical gays. Love that so much. I guess I do have a spiritual background for some of my work.

All of my art influences are–I hate the academic world and I guess this falls under the category of academic influence–a lot of people bought coffee table books for decor. They want a coffee table book that will be in their house. I would go to libraries and steal them because your first images of fashion, your first ways to see George Platt Lynes and Herbert List and all these. It was the first time I saw that.  I buy, and was at the time taking, coffee table books to see things. I still have stacks of them and I go and look at them all the time. I was very influenced by those images of editorial art and tomes by Taschen or Assouline. The first I ever had was called Fragrance and Fashion and it discussed all the first perfume houses of France. There was a whole thing on Guerlain where they would show you bottles. Now I guess I do a lot of work that mirrors stained glass. Maybe that’s an influence you could pull from that. Lots of male nudes, George Platt Lynes and Herbert List and all those great 30s queer photographers. Man Ray, who always photographed arms and armpits. Love that, so fabulous and beautiful. That was a big influence for me. Self-education, if you will. I taught myself how to paint and people love that. They really ate it up like fucking candy. They’re like “oh you’re a kid from Appalachia who taught himself how to paint, oh my God,” and I’d be like “I read a book as a kid” and they’re like really into it. Catholicism and the male body via books. That’s my influences.

Dustin Hall, The Red Tulips, 2018, Acrylic on cardboard, photo from the private collection of Maxwell Cloe

Dustin Hall, The Red Tulips, 2018, Acrylic on cardboard, photo from the private collection of Maxwell Cloe

 

MC: Another thing that Jon [Coleman] mentioned and I think we brought it up in our Instagram conversations is your frames. You were talking about how you made those out of found materials. Could you talk a little on that?


DH
: Both I pieces that I sent you that you were interested in were [from] dumpster diving. I found them and I put art in them. They’re scuffed up. They’re not pretty but they work aesthetically. All my paintings, or a lot of them, have this frenetic sense of busyness with them and I think having them in an ironic framing makes them more interesting and to me, more beautiful. I would much rather have a painting in a beat-up, gross, interesting frame than to have it in a gallery rack.  People put [Jean-Michel] Basquiat paintings now, if you go to galleries, in these bamboo, sterile, gross frames with his footprint in the middle. He didn’t give a shit. You’re putting it in this pedestal box and it’s so pathetic. Or like [Piero] Manzoni and his canned shit–they’ll have it in this glass box. It’s a can of shit! And you want to be like “Why, it doesn’t make sense to me. My brain can’t see that as a good thing.” I would much rather, and I do oftentimes, go out and seek found frames or make some from driftwood or dumpster dive. One of the paintings I brought with me today is painted on the back of the frame for a poster because I like the texture. It’s in this little wiry, flimsy frame because I think it’s so interesting.  I just love the way that is. It’s just nicer to me. Aesthetically and spiritually it feels right to me. I guess I worship at the feet of bad framework [laughs].

MC: You have that one painting you showed me that was painted on the shower curtain.

Dustin Hall, The Conception of Ishamel; The Visage Fantastic of a Dirty Man, Clean, 2018, Acrylic on shower curtain, photo from Instagram – @birdsdeadbutshesnot

DH: Yeah I couldn’t afford canvas. It’s 70″ x 70″. I wanted to do this huge [painting]. I was watching a documentary of Rothko at the time and he would do these size-of-a-fucking-wall paintings and I wanted to do that but those canvasses are like $500.  So I was like “fuck that” and I went to the dollar store. I had old two-by-fours left over in the yard and I started nailing the shower curtain to them to make a tapestry and I painted on that. It didn’t work out in the long run because it’s sort of cracking because it’s on polyurethane and I guess acrylic plastic is not really melding well. But I think it worked beautifully because you have the suggestion—the title of it is The Conception of Ishmael; the Visage Fantastic of a Dirty Man, Clean—you have this idea of what a shower curtain represents, you cleaning yourself, and then with driftwood you have this crucifixion imagery of nailing someone to the wood. Then you have the conception of Christ imagery of a figure eating semen from a tall obelisk figure. I love it. I think it’s perfect. At the time I wanted to use it as the centerpiece to apply for grants because they want to have museum pieces. It just came out of necessity because I couldn’t afford to thrift a frame at that time and I couldn’t afford a canvas for it. I had some paint and some nails and some wood and that’s how the painting came to be. Heritage Kitchen right up the street, I have work in there. One of those is a shipping pallet with a shower curtain wrapped around it, or stretched I guess, to mimic a canvas. There’s a foam board with paint and tape and shit and a big phallic piece of wood nailed to the front of it.  That’s what it is. It comes from not being able to afford things but I think it works better for me because it’s original, it’s more interesting, and it gets my point across without being cost ineffective so I can still afford to do it. And that’s how the shower curtain painting came to be. It was the centerpiece of my gallery last year and people didn’t know what to make of it because it’s this four foot tall penis [laughs]. People will ask “what is that supposed to be,” and when they figure it out they’re in love with it or they’re uncomfortable. So that’s the story of that.

MC: On the note of social response to art; do you see your art as political? Do you see it as a political act?

Dustin Hall, Completion, 2019, Acrylic on wood panel, photo from Instagram - @birdsdeadbutshesnot

Dustin Hall, Completion, 2019, Acrylic on wood panel, photo from Instagram – @birdsdeadbutshesnot

DH: Oh yeah. I hate this notion that by existing, you’re political. No, fuck you. You aren’t Jane Fonda from birth.  I don’t think that being alive is political in and of itself. I think that speaking is so I think that my art takes on a political edge by showcasing lots and lots of queer sex. I paint a lot of vaginas and I collect feminine art–that sounds so sterile and gross–art that depicts a certain feminine body.  I find that I’m drawn to that and I paint that because when I was coming up as a gay I was taught that vaginas are gross and that the female body is disgusting because you can’t sexualize it. So I have found that confronting that misogynist thinking is good and that by painting vaginas I’m really working through that. I’ve been doing that since I first began painting, like I said, Picasso with a Vagina. So it was this way of confronting misogyny, I guess, and understanding vaginas. There are men on this earth, I’m sure millions, who don’t know what a fucking clitoris is. Why don’t you know that? Why? And why are gay people taught to be afraid of the vagina. It’s a fucking vagina, it’s fine. Why is that a thing?

To go back to my original point, I think that by painting male sexuality, gay male sexuality, queer male sexuality—that’s inherently political because people don’t want to see it. They’re afraid of it. And it’s so similar in many ways to the normal conception of what sex is supposed to be and what fetish is supposed to be. It’s fine.  It’s nothing you haven’t heard of. There’s just two penises. There’s two vaginas. Maybe there’s nothing there.  Anyway, I do a lot of work that is gender nonspecific. There’s all sorts of things going on with the bodies or there’s nothing at all. Just to challenge it a little bit. While I am no way claiming the space of being trans or anything, I’ve always been fluid in how I view my masculinity and my femininity and what that means to me and the way I center myself. I love to put that in my work. The energy of not giving a shit, basically about what this means or what it looks like. I don’t know how that makes me sound. That’s the truth I guess.

MC:  You’re in this small town that’s kind of conservative while your art is very visible–do you think that’s playing into how you’re making your art and how it’s received?

Dustin Hall, Springtime for Sodom and Gomorrah, 2019, Acrylic on watercolor canvas, photo from Instagram - @birdsdeadbutshesnot

Dustin Hall, Springtime for Sodom and Gomorrah, 2019, Acrylic on watercolor canvas, photo from Instagram – @birdsdeadbutshesnot

DH: Oh I guess. My mother one time said to me, “you’re really good at drawing dicks and balls” [laughs]. I thought that was hilarious. They’re paying the bills. I want to say yes but I don’t know how to word that to make more sense. I think that only a few places in this country do you see contemporary art existing positively. A lot of this country wants to see your classical, naturalist images. If you ask the average person, “do you prefer a Kandinsky or a Cy Twombly or do you prefer a Monet or Pissarro?” they’re going to say Monet or Pissarro because that is their idea of what art is and what it can be. I get people all the time who are like “well I can fucking paint that” or “why do you want to paint dicks and balls? Why do you want to be color blocked? Why do you need abstract line work? Why can’t you do actual portraits of people?” I get those questions all the time and I think that more people are starting to look at it as art instead of “oh there’s Dustin painting a dick again.” They have a better sense now that I’m doing it, of what that means. By painting them, I guess I am challenging what that means to people and juxtaposing that to my environment. I’ll tell you, there aren’t a lot of abstract penis drawers in Neon, Kentucky. I think I’m number one. It’s a monopoly at my house.  At the same time, though, Letcher County, Kentucky, Whitesburg specifically ten years ago, we were the highest arts per capita in rural America. There’s a lot of painters here and I’m not the first one to paint gay art. I just happen to be doing it in a different way. I guess that does challenge what’s going on around me. That inspires and informs my art. There’s lots of mountains scenes in my abstract pieces of nude bodies. Lots of greenery and verdantness and the colors I use. That all informs it. I draw from it. I do that. It’s there.