Originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, Kat Ryals (b. 1988) is a Brooklyn-based artist, curator, and photographer. Ryals pursued her BFA in Photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design, later obtaining an MFA and an advanced certificate in Museum Education from Brooklyn College.
Her portfolio showcases a rich history of national exhibitions, including solo booths at the SPRING/BREAK Art Show in 2020 and 2022. Ryals participated in a two-person show at Ortega Y Gasset Projects in 2022, and recent group exhibitions with ChaShaMa, Ortega Y Gasset Projects, and The Wassaic Project.
Her career also features several artist residencies, such as those at the Wassaic Project in 2017, 2019, and 2022, ChaNorth in 2019, the Peter Bullough Foundation in 2021, and a fellowship at the Vermont Studio Center in 2018.
As the co-founder of the online arts platform PARADICE PALASE based in Brooklyn, she has carved out a space for contemporary artists to connect and collaborate. Ryals also served as the Curator of Art for the famed nightlife and culture venues House of X at PUBLIC and House of Yes. In her work, she delves deep into the constructs of man-made power and value, exploring them through the lenses of myth, ornamentation, and illusion, heavily influenced by her Cajun roots and Catholic upbringing.
Your work dives deeply into the dichotomies of value, power, and illusion, themes that seem reflective of your background in Cajun culture and Catholic upbringing. How do these personal experiences directly influence your approach to the subjects of myth-making and ornamentation?
Yes! My practice is often influenced by my upbringing in Arkansas and the Acadiana region of Louisiana, where my days were spent rummaging through thrift and junk stores, daydreaming in ornate Catholic churches, and processing a dual experience of rural and city life. I’ve only recently started researching Cajun heritage more and learning about some of the rural traditions of the region, such as the Courir de Mardi Gras, which is an old French begging ritual that entails creating gaudy homemade costumes and going house to house in the countryside gathering food items for a big gumbo stew (the final act is drunkenly trying to catch a live chicken). Within this culture and Catholicism, some traditions extend way back to medieval European rituals and myths which often deal with defining what is sacred and what is profane and reinforcing or rejecting existing power structures. It’s interesting to see how those rituals and myths have hybridized and evolved through different cultural blending in southern Louisiana and the unique aesthetics that have emerged. I’ve learned that ornamentation is closely tied to myth-making as they both give us a fictional yet meaningful understanding of our surroundings. In terms of growing up Catholic, the over-the-top ornateness in addition to the cult-like rituals have had a big impact on me. Once I got older and started to question the intention of these aesthetics, rules, and rituals, I started to question culture, systems of power, and aesthetics at large.
The idea of examining "cultural currencies" and how they shape hierarchies is profound. Can you share a specific instance or work where your Cajun roots were at the forefront of conveying this concept?
For me, cultural currencies are taste, value, and authenticity. The finer the taste, the more authentic, the more expensive, the more highly regarded. Poor taste and the artificial are not. Poor taste and fake versions are therefore subversive and controversial. These cultural currencies are based upon opinion and a mass agreement/understanding of how things are regarded. The world can seem complacent in its current order and structuring, so employing things like bad taste when creating luxury items like contemporary art is a way to help rupture that Capitalistic dream world, and to also exalt those don’t have the access to higher forms of this cultural currency. I think a recent work that could be an example would be my cast glass croc titled “Sailor’s Slipper (Trasharella)”.
With an extensive background in various mediums—sculpture, photography, and installations—how do you decide on the most suitable medium for each concept you wish to convey?
Often, an experience with an object or environment is the leading force behind ideas for new work or series. It’s usually something familiar and everyday (such as a rug, a chandelier, a shoe, a shrine, a museum) and I often find I have an immediate intuition about the materials I want to use to recreate my own version of this object or setting. Or something I’ll come across when researching the history of a place or object is a driving force as well. As an artist, I tend to act as a translator of the ordinary into a disorienting or disturbing new experience, hopefully revealing a bit more about our relationship to that specific object. A lot of times, a combination of two or three of the mentioned mediums is employed to achieve this – it starts as a sculpture or installation that is photographed and translated back into a sculpture. Or perhaps I’ll create an immersive installation in combination with my sculptures and prints.
As an artist who has displayed work in multiple exhibitions and completed several residencies, how have these experiences shaped the evolution of your approach to the themes of luxury versus kitsch, and sacred versus profane?
I don’t really think my experiences exhibiting and attending residencies have really shaped the evolution of themes in my work all that much. Usually, an exhibition space or a residency is a site where I bring my ideas and work them out. But that’s not to say my experiences in these spaces haven’t shaped the work. There are some residencies that were very much about responding to the place or the experience in consideration of these concepts (Arquetopia in Oaxaca, Peter Bullough Foundation in Virginia) and you’re bound to have studio visits and conversations at any residency or exhibition opening that shape your direction. I would say my approach to these themes in my work has mostly developed from years of lived experiences and research. This has included travel, books, classes, and conversations.
Your dual roles as an artist and a curator must offer unique perspectives. How does your curatorial experience impact the way you create and present your own art? Additionally, how has co-founding PARADICE PALASE informed your understanding of the contemporary art scene in Brooklyn?
I tend to curate based on themes/ideas I’m interested in exploring and pull in a group of artists whose work can create together a conversation around that theme. I very much curate in a similar manner to how I produce my artwork. When I exhibit my own work, the process of curating and designing the exhibition often feels collaborative with the curator or gallerist, likely because I have this dual role. It’s challenging to balance or separate the two roles, and it can be hard to not take on too many projects at once. I’ve been trying to be careful to not let my own art exhibitions overlap with curatorial projects because it can be overwhelming trying to manage it all at the same time. Through PARADICE PALASE, what I’ve come to understand about the contemporary art scene is that community is key. Having a network of like-minded peers to support and in turn support you is vital to not only your sanity in such a difficult field but to also helping each other find joy in the process and navigate success as an artist.