Long before Kim Gordon became a rock legend, she was first—and foremost—an artist. Her music career was an unexpected detour—a great talent that she had discovered along her creative path. Before co-founding the influential alt-rock band Sonic Youth, Gordon studied art at LA’s Otis College of Art and Design. Afterward, she moved to New York City, intent on pursuing an art career. During these years, she wrote for art magazines, worked for dealer Larry Gagosian, and began her ongoing art-design project, Design Office.
As a pastime, Gordon immersed herself in New York’s post-punk, no-wave music scene. Never having played an instrument, she followed her intuitive musical talents for the next three decades to become a celebrated bassist, guitarist, and vocalist. And in the process, she established herself and Sonic Youth into music history. With her signature demeanor of unaffected cool, Gordon is untouched by the gravity of her success. “I don’t really see myself that way,” the artist candidly tells CR. “When someone says they picked up the bass because of me, I never know what to say, but it is great to get inspired by other people.”Since Sonic Youth disbanded in 2011, Gordon has explored varied facets of her creativity. She has collaborated on music projects, released her first solo album, written a memoir, and worked in entertainment—with a range of appearances from Gossip Girl to Gus Van Sant’s films. The rock-chic icon has showcased her gift for style in campaigns for Saint Laurent and Rodarte, and modeled Proenza Schouler and Marc Jacobs alongside her daughter, Coco Gordon Moore. Memorably, Gordon created the ’90s cult streetwear line, X-girl—a pioneering emblem of girl power—and designed a host of collections, including the Françoise Hardy-inspired Mirror/Dash, and edits for & Other Stories and Surface to Air.
Despite Gordon’s creative scope, her reigning focus has always been art. Since her earliest days in New York, she has exhibited in and curated shows, often internationally. And even when she was writing music, in her head, Gordon was imagining art. Her latest solo, The Bonfire opens this week at New York City’s 303 Gallery. A blend of canvas, sculpture, and video, the exhibition’s works comment on culture, anonymity, and visibility. Here, CR speaks with the artist about the connections between art, music, and design; how visual art best reflects her identity, and why, underlying all her creative expressions, she will always be an artist at heart.
You began your career during a time when women were not well-represented in rock music and you inspired many female artists who followed after you. How do you see your influence as a female musician?
“I didn’t aspire to be a musician, I just sort of fell into music. Other than jamming on a piano and an African drum with my brother in our living room, I had never really played before. But I did like performing, and I liked that in Sonic Youth we were an experimental band. Recently, I ran into Patti Smith. She is kind of like a national treasure, and seeing her I was reminded of how inspiring she is [to me]. I never thought of myself that way, but when I was in Sonic Youth, I did realize that I had a platform. In 1990, I wrote a song about harassment and there was not much of a reaction. Back then, it didn’t seem to have affected much—but it did feel good to write it and bring attention to it. Our culture has taken a long time to catch up, but that is always the way of culture and change.”
How is creating music different from visual art?
“I always feel a little bit outside of music because really, I am an artist at heart. Being involved with Sonic Youth, I was making observations about culture while being in a pop cultural band. But when it comes to art, I am not such a commercial person. I follow what I am drawn to—‘60s and ‘70s process and conceptual art, the Judson Dance Theater, The Factory, and Andy Warhol. I love how [Andy] created his own myths in his art and the people he surrounded himself with. There is a lot of influence there—in the art that drew me to New York.”
Even when you lived in New York, you have said that you “carried LA around in your head.” How does Los Angeles inspire your art?
“LA is a funny place. It has a sprawling feeling, and you are always in a car, so you see it from a distance and from a voyeuristic point of view. I have a long history there—my mom’s family were some of the first settlers in the Gold Rush. People always suggested I read Joan Didion, but I didn’t until a few years ago. I really relate to how she writes about California. So in a way, I am deeply sentimental about it. I have also seen LA change a lot over the years, and New York even more so. It has lost a lot of its village feeling, but it will always have great energy.”
You have said that through music, you get lost and you hope the audience gets lost with you. How does art connect you with a visual audience?
“Art is much harder for me than music, because it is conscious and conceptual. It is something I have wanted to do my whole life, so I care a great deal. I had to put a lot on hold being involved with Sonic Youth. Since the 2000s though, I have been more focused on my artwork. Art is what I know and it’s how I stay true to myself.”
How does your new exhibit The Bonfire comment on culture and constant visibility in the tech-driven era?
“Technology seems like, and in many ways is, a good idea. But it also has the ability to take over. There is a need to re-evaluate its place and how we use it. That is the natural process of evolution. The show has paintings made from photos of a friend’s bonfire in Provincetown, [Massachusetts]. I was really struck by the lighting in the images, and how people post private moments on social media, but the technology as they say, is watching us all anyway. I digitally framed parts of the photos, and then over-painted and shadow-painted them on printed canvases. The video shown, ‘Los Angeles, June 6, 2019’ is set in downtown LA. It was something I had always wanted to do—going around downtown playing a guitar, using the handrails of buildings like guitar slides. I was kind of reclaiming the space like skaters in Dogtown did with corporate buildings, and doing something in a setting that doesn’t really belong. There is also the private versus public dynamic—I have always been interested in that.”
You have worked on a number of fashion projects and collaborations. What most interests you about design?
“I am a very visual person. I like to look at ads, and I like the classic elements of fashion. It should be fun and something that is not taken too seriously. I am also very interested in advertising and ad copy. I love walking through airports [and seeing] perfume ads with words that read like poetry fragments. It sounds very personal, yet it isn’t. It is interesting to see the effect of ads and branding, how they create reality and context. I think I am really more of a sociologist than anything.”
What do you see on the horizon for your creativity?
“I am most ensconced in the art world, and I would like to stay with my art. It is always who I have been—even when I was focused on music, I saw myself as an artist who was making music. In many ways, I feel like I am making up for lost time—almost like I am just getting started.”
Kim Gordon The Bonfire is on view at 303 Gallery in New York City through February 22, 2020.
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