In Alex Kuno’s horrifically cute paintings, children with droopy doe eyes roam a dark heath, always in uneasy coexistence and sometimes at outright war among themselves. In one of the pieces to be featured in Kuno’s solo show opening June 5th at the SooVAC’s Gallery Too, a child who has suffered bloody abuse with a pitchfork is pursued to the edge of a precipice, where she cowers tearfully. In another, children dressed as deer are held at gunpoint and bayoneted. The work “plays on children’s primal fear of loss,” says Kuno. Loss of what? “Anything.”
Kuno, 33, works out of a home studio in Minneapolis’s Warehouse District. He grew up in Anoka and earned a BFA in painting and drawing from the University of Minnesota, then headed to New York City to face the “worst-case scenario” as an emerging artist. Kuno says he learned a lot during his three and a half years in the world’s art capital, but returned to his home state at the encouragement of his then wife, a fellow Minnesotan.
When the marriage ended shortly after the move, Kuno took a short break from painting and then decided to “start from scratch.” Now living back in the state where he spent his own childhood, Kuno found himself inspired to depart from the dark, gothic fantasies that had marked his earlier style. “I started doodling these little circles,” he remembers, “and they turned into children. Invariably, they looked sad, and eventually a kind of narrative built itself.”
The SooVAC show is Kuno’s highest-profile outing to date featuring work from his current series, which he calls The Miscreants of Tiny Town. “The children exist in a fantasy land,” he explains, “where it’s arrested development—they’re permanently children. They’ve started to develop their own little cults and societies, which then run into each other.” Kuno has an idea of the narrative connecting the Miscreants, but he has no plans to make the story explicit in text form. “People have different reactions to the paintings,” he says. “They take their own personal messages from them.”
Kuno describes the general tone of the work as “Where the Wild Things Are meets Lord of the Flies.” The children often wear animal costumes, and in some cases they actually seem to be morphing into animals in Pinocchio-style transformations. In a series of pieces to appear at the SooVAC, children in deer costume are violently attacked by actual (albeit anthropomorphic) deer in military costume. “This tribe of kids has run into a tribe that’s more advanced,” explains Kuno, “and the more advanced tribe are able to deal with them pretty handily.”
The first thing that those who have been following Kuno’s work will notice at the SooVAC is that the new pieces are eccentric in dimension, painted on pieces of wood cut in unique curved shapes. The idea, says Kuno, is to evoke pieces of illustrations torn from storybooks. He acknowledges the influence of Edward Gorey and understands why viewers see similarities to the work of Henry Darger and Mark Ryden (“people always mention Mark Ryden, and I hate it”), but the inspiration he prefers to cite is the director Terry Gilliam. In films like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Brothers Grimm, Gilliam paints a dark, grotesque picture of the pre-modern era, when it was commonplace to scare sense into children.
Among the fears the work engages, says Kuno, is the fear of growing up—transformation into animal form can be seen as a metaphor for becoming adult. “It’s making fun of children’s anxieties, in a way,” says the artist. “A lot of the people who’ve liked the work the most have seen the humor in it. They’ve actually found it quite funny.”
Jay Gabler (email@example.com) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
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