Growing up I was always pitched a vision of artists as free and uninhibited eccentrics. I hate to say it but I’ve found myself plodding through a much more pedestrian life. I work very slowly, easily falling prey to self-doubt and indecisiveness. The discomfort that comes with this leaves me discouraged and questioning whether or not I’m cut out for the life of an artist after all. Why spend my time anxiously rubbing my palms together in my unheated studio when I could be doing, well, anything else? More than anything, though, I find myself wrestling with one central question: is my art stupid?

Shapiro 11 PeepholeFishbowl copy

Kenny Shapiro, Peep Hole Fish Bowl, underwear, encaustic, silicone, liquid rubber, plastic sheeting, thread, spray paint, annealed wire, shredded fabric, hot glue, 16 x 15.5 x 2 in., 2021.

The answer I generally arrive at is yes. I make sculptures out of underwear and of children’s toys and silly cowboys with their dicks hanging out. I make inflatable dolls and kitschy animal rugs. I’m in the market for big bright colors and well-worn iconography that most people would say are overused. This feels pretty stupid. But I should be more specific with my language. Stupid isn’t quite right. My main concern is whether or not my art is frivolous, and as a follow up, is that okay? More and more I find myself answering yes.

Shapiro 12 CosmicPair copy

Kenny Shapiro, Cosmic Pair, underwear, encaustic, silicone, liquid rubber, spray paint, plastic sheeting, thread, 15 x 16 x .5 in., 2021.

I am weary to rant about the state of the world when others can do it so much more eloquently than I possibly can, but suffice it to say the way things are unraveling in Maine, the US, and beyond leaves me enraged and heartbroken every day. We live in a state of increasing scarcity and increasingly manufactured scarcity. Much of this suffering is by design and those in power methodically and cynically seek to squash joy as a tool of political control. In light of this, the frivolous has become radical to me. I am deeply moved by things that are saccharine and over-the-top and silly. Play and hedonism in all their forms, from children’s games to sex, from ice cream to cigarettes, are a way of pushing back against these forms of control. When an abhorrent amount of wealth and resources are hoarded by a greedy few, claiming an aesthetic of abundance is not just a choice, but a necessity. Leaning into fluff isn’t head-in-the-clouds escapism but an act of resistance and a way of envisioning a world I want to live in. Not to be that guy, but dare I say that play is political?

Shapiro 7 CloudPuppiesOnLockdown copy

Kenny Shapiro, Cloud Puppies on Lockdown, socks, encaustic, silicone, liquid rubber, spray paint, acrylic, annealed wire, plastic sheeting, shredded fabric, hot glue, 24 x 16 in., 2022.

So when those feelings of self-doubt creep in, I use this logic to buoy myself. If I’m going to be cloistered away in my studio, at least I can root my work in the visual language of play, joy, and hedonism. I make sculptures of toys because I loved my toys as a child. I wasn’t the most cheerful or socially well-adjusted kid, but I was happiest when I was playing with legos or singing into my Fisher Price light up microphone. I still have tremendous affection for bright colors, shiny plastic and big dumb iconography. Even if I now craft these objects to interrogate, among other things, the dysfunction of my childhood, I still love them. And so if I sculpt clouds that look like the same clouds a five-year-old could scribble with crayons, it is partially because it helps me tap back into that joy and curiosity. Perhaps it’s a fool’s errand but if I can imbue my work with the palette of a child maybe I can imbue myself with the wonder of a child.

My sculptures aren’t all bells and whistles though. I attempt to marry this sense of play and frivolousness with the everyday and extraordinary violence we experience. To me this coupling underscores the chaos and preposterousness that undergirds both of these poles. There is an absurdity in the over-the-top sugar rush of screaming children playing that feels to me equaled by the absurdity of overly macabre and abject experiences and images. This parallel serves to accentuate the ridiculous quality of each while each provides a lens to examine the other.

Shapiro 10 Portholes copy

Kenny Shapiro, Portholes, underwear, encaustic, silicone, liquid rubber, 14.75 x 16 x 1 in., 2021.

I don’t draw this comparison to diminish the harm violence causes, but to try to make sense of it. My interest in the abject isn’t so much the shock value of horrific imagery but in the odd specificity of violence and bodily decay. There is a strange and uncanny sensation in something like tasting your own blood or getting a deep cut that, at least for me, can feel so bewildering and disorienting as to be almost silly. This odd marriage captivates me and is what I’m trying to emulate with my clothing sculptures. How can I capture the body horror of something like seeing our flesh wounded and ourselves woefully fragile while also drawing attention to the cartoonish absurdity of it? When something as strange as watching your own skin tear open happens, throwing your hands up and laughing feels like an equally appropriate response as crying out in revulsion.

Shapiro 8 TwinSet copy

Kenny Shapiro, Twin Set, T-shirt, encaustic, silicone, liquid rubber, shredded fabric, 34 x 51.5 x 7.5 in., 2021.

The depiction of the abject falls often—frequently intentionally but sometimes not—into the comical. I can’t help but think of the over-the-top blood spray of slasher movies like Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street or the absurd grotesqueness of David Cronenberg’s The Fly. These films are emotionally affecting and deeply smart while still leaving me laughing more than cowering. Their horror is so visually bizarre and maximalist that their violence is abstracted into a whole new visual language that feels purposefully silly and fun, not to be taken too seriously. Films like this collapse the bounds of the macabre and the frivolous in a way that I really marvel at.

Shapiro 4 DarkHorse copy

Kenny Shapiro, Dark Horse, plastic sheeting, thread, flex seal. 14 x 5 x 15 in., 2023 (photo: Jenny Ibsen).

Shapiro 6 AmberHobbyHorse copy

Kenny Shapiro, Amber Hobby Horse, plastic sheeting, thread, jute twine, liquid rubber, mica powder, agar bio-plastic, rubber bands, hardware, found wood. 28 x 25 x 4 in., 2023 (photo: Jenny Ibsen).

This absurdity and playfulness then also serves to neuter the violence. This doesn’t diminish the harm that this violence can cause, but it makes the perpetrators of it less convincing, pathetic, and in that way approachable. I aspire for my art to do this. To wield frivolousness and humor as a way to make sense of violence and those who commit it. To get up close and dig in. I’m not saying my goal is to just make violence palatable. I have no intention of making it all so slick and shiny as to be ignorable or dismissable. We have a duty to look at the horrors of the world and to feel the suffering of others. Rather, I think that silliness and humor can function as a Trojan horse, baiting us into letting our guard down. I might be feeding you something sugar-coated but I hope there’s still some bitterness as you swallow.

Shapiro 1 PapasPrizedRug copy

Kenny Shapiro, Papa’s Prized Rug, marine vinyl, taxidermy rug shell, thread, clay, wooden blocks, 83 x 74 x 29 in., 2023 (photo: Jenny Ibsen).

In my work this violence generally appears as expressions of toxic masculinity. My sculptures are littered with trite symbols of machismo: cowboys, arrows, horses, chains, penises, bears, the list goes on. This puffed up hubris is ultimately a leaky balloon, though, deflating at the slightest prick with nothing more than a whimper. My cowboy has a small dick and is drooped over in defeat. My bachelor pad bear rug is covered in colorful children’s blocks, reduced to the background decor of a kid’s playroom. Rather than symbols of conquest or passion, my horses are shriveled up with their tongues out in exhaustion. The characters of my sculptures may be destructive but they are also laughable and pitiable.

Shapiro 3 ScarecrowCowboy copy

Kenny Shapiro, Scarecrow Cowboy, plastic sheeting, jute twine, trash, hot glue, wood, concrete, pail, dowels, faux leather, vinyl, thread, shirt, acrylic, threaded rod. 51 x 53 x 42 in., 2023 (Photo: Jenny Ibsen).

Shapiro 2 ClotheslineOutBack copy

Kenny Shapiro, Clothesline Out Back, clothing, encaustic, silicone, liquid rubber, pvc, faux leather, thread, acrylic, spray paint, clay, annealed wire, shredded plastic, dowels, vinyl, shredded fabric, hot glue, 2023 (photo: Jenny Ibsen).

It is this mixture of play with the inherently abject qualities of our bodies—the hair, the bodily fluids, the odors, the bruises—that also attracts me to making art about BDSM. I’m fascinated by the blending of pleasure with power-exchange, pain, and consensual degradation. How the binary relationship between pleasure and suffering is complicated. How subservience can lead to an emotional and physical sublimation and a greater understanding of self. While the colorful aesthetics of my toy art might feel out-of-place or inappropriate in this context, to me they represent a curiosity and sense of play that undergirds any type of erotic exploration, whether there is pain involved or not. Moreover, the visual signifiers of my more whimsical work do have a home within the world of BDSM. The harnesses and reins of a child’s hobby horse—decked out in all the leather and hardware you would expect—become, well, harnesses for a person trying to get off. My sculptures of garments out on a clothesline are hokey and nostalgically folksy while still suggesting an aspirationally kinky disposition. I make tighty-whities with chastity cages and socks with silicone-plastered holes that resemble orifices as much as they do Nickelodeon slime. Sex, abjection, and play in all its forms are inextricably linked. I find that imbrication wonderful and enlivening.

Shapiro 5 Muzzle copy

Kenny Shapiro, Muzzle, annealed wire, cotton fabric, processed plastic. 10 x 5 x 7 in., 2023 (photo: Jenny Ibsen).

Through all this work, I am hopefully figuring out something about myself. I don’t think of my sculptures as self-portraits but maybe avatars: outsized and outward projections of my emotions, desires, and perceived flaws. The colorful, lighthearted, and aspirational elements of my work aren’t just about aesthetics, but an attitude and approach to self-reflection, self-exploration, and the cultivation of this childlike joy. Undergirding any critique I’m trying to make is ultimately a search for awe. On my mopiest of studio nights I try to remind myself of this.


Image at top: Kenny Shapiro, Big Sky Graphic Tee, T-shirt, encaustic, silicone, liquid rubber, pvc, thread, acrylic, spray paint, hot glue, 30 x 32 x 1.5 in., 2021.