The dreamy and evocative paintings of Karyn Lyons’ teenage life

The American artist conjures vivid scenes of youth, drawing inspiration from both Sofia Coppola and the 19th-century socialite portrait painter John Singer Sargent


“I was never about words, I was always about images”, says the American artist Karyn Lyons. After studying journalism and a career in advertising, she ended up devoting herself to her childhood dream of painting. In his new exhibition, under the spell, presented at the Turn Gallery in New York until December 10, it revisits this youth, focusing in particular on the clumsiness of his adolescence. “I channel my teenage memories: the good, the bad and the ugly; heightened emotions, loneliness and vulnerability,” Lyons says. “During my teenage years, I felt heartbroken… It took me this long to look back on this girl with empathy.”

The juvenile figures in his paintings, with their undone hair and their relaxed postures, exude the magnetism of adulthood: girlish agitation, mischievous charm, tender sensitivity. They are all versions of Lyon herself: she describes them as “hybrids of me, my mother, who I wanted to be like”. The fight against self-perception is at the heart of the painting exercise: “for many young girls, the women we see in magazines and in the media shape our ideas about beauty and affect our self-esteem. When I was growing up, the ideal was the tawny blonde girl with flowing hair, blue eyes, big breasts and erect nipples,” Lyons says. “My parents had the Pirelli calendar on the coffee table in our living room and I spent hours looking at these pictures…I always had sketchbooks growing up and drew this figure over and over again. I try to include it now in paintings with a sense of humor, to try to break this fantasy ideal for myself.

In addition to the daughters of the calendar, classical works are also referenced in the Lyons corpus, obliquely or faithfully: Ingres, Cézanne, Vuillard, Balthus. Framed miniature paintings, prints or statues are themselves swapped for cherished pop culture totems, whether it’s a Bowie lightning bolt concert poster, the rainbow-haired figure -sky of Milton Glaser by Bob Dylan or a still image of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. “The walls of our teenage bedrooms are where we first begin to display our aesthetic and cultural preferences,” Lyons says, alluding to the sanctuary of every teen’s bedroom, “and begin to determine who we are and who we want to be”.

The titles of the paintings further confirm the theme of adolescence, as Lyons implements the high school trend of categorizing people into easy identities and reductive rubrics: “The Pot Smoker”; “The very bad babysitter”, “The day dreamer”. To baptize her paintings, she often uses her brother as a sounding board, and it was he who invented “Keg Party Casanova”. the painting, which shows a young couple in a passionate embrace. “But then I realized it was really about her…she sees the hot guy at a party and spends the evening trying to get his attention.” The kissing scenes are less about intimacy than the hormonal thrill of exploring libidinal urges, the pain of wanting to accumulate experience.

Lyons is unprecious and embraces experimentation, wiping the canvas if necessary if she doesn’t like its direction, letting mistakes and happy accidents play out. While the distraction-free circumstances of the pandemic made her particularly prolific last year — “I got into a stream and I’m still surfing it now” — she’s also strict about maintaining an eight-hour studio schedule. hours a day, six days a week. Routine is his watch at all levels, in fact. “I eat the same thing every day and I wear the same thing every day,” she laughs. She relies on Instagram as a working tool – to post work in progress, to create digital mood boards – though her own images are of a world that predates social media, dotted with static lines, rotating – discs and wooden tennis rackets.

These signifiers join his attention to clothing. She evokes a sense of prep school polish and privilege in the shimmering button details, jewel-toned sweaters and meticulously tied scarves. There’s also a carefree feel whether dressed casual in those athletic trainers and running shorts or sipping a solo cup in a jumpsuit. She highlights fabric and texture with care, and says she seeks to emulate 19th-century society portraitist John Singer Sargent – ​​whose sitters were sophisticated, well-to-do women – but filtered through the modern lens by Sofia Coppola. Both references are tangible: for the first, the beautiful interiors that his subjects inhabit have a European living room atmosphere – soft curtains, antique wall mirrors, candelabras – although they are only projections, those that Lyon imagined in the lavish homes in the adjacent wealthy Connecticut town. where she grew up. For the latter, the dreamy representations of Coppola’s youth in fact influence these painted vignettes. “I also loved Jane Eyre and Northanger Abbey and dreamed of being sent to a boarding school for girls in the moors of England,” Lyons says. “Perhaps there is also a bit of gothic fantasy in these interiors.”

under the spell is on view at the Turn Gallery in New York until December 10

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