Painter Kat Lyons was 10 years old when she saw a horse break its leg on the racetrack.
The incident interrupted what was an otherwise pleasant, sunny afternoon before the Kentucky Derby in her hometown of Louisville. A macabre ritual was promptly set in motion, ensuring that the interruption didn’t last long: a truck rumbled onto the track and dragged the animal away.
Lyons turned to her father, who explained that the horse would likely be put to death. For its owners, who had bred the animal for a very specific purpose, its care was no longer worth the cost.
Two decades later, Lyons, 30, has made a name for herself creating paintings that explore humans’ complex relationships—sometimes spiritual, other times exploitative—with animals. At a moment when a New York court is considering whether to legally define an elephant as a person and most city-dwellers have very little idea where their food actually comes from, her images seem to have touched a nerve.
The artist’s first show in the U.K., at Pilar Corrias Gallery in London—her largest solo outing to date—sold out in January, with half the pieces purchased by “international foundations and collections in England, the U.S., France, and Asia,” according to a spokesperson. Her work has also been acquired by the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, and Yuz Museum, Shanghai.
Consider the Horse
Over video chat earlier this month, Lyons identified that afternoon before the Derby as the inspiration for one particular painting in her recent London show. In neon red oils, Portrait of Lonely depicts a retired racehorse waiting out its last days in a field.
For her, it’s a complicated image. Horses, she explained, are a symbol of her hometown. But she has to balance that with “knowing about the ethics of their usage, how seemingly disposable they are, their short lifespans and the reality of where it is that they go after their career is over,” she said. “It brings up all these questions about identity and how we value the labor of something bred for a particular use.”
Bulls, sheep, and ants all had starring roles in the Pilar Corrias show, “Early Paradise.” Their lives and deaths are dramatized in visceral scenes that call to mind mid-century surrealists like Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, and Frida Kahlo, as well as the animal rights artivism of English illustrator Sue Coe (a personal favorite of Lyons’s).
It doesn’t hurt that this style also aligns with the market’s current taste for dreamy figuration. But Lyons’s pictures are far from eye candy.
In Earthward Love (2021), a giant cow whose body has been everted looms over a lea while smaller bovines graze among its entrails. In Colostrum (Bloodline) (2021), a pig spurts milk from turgid teats. On farms, Lyons explained, some healthy sows escape slaughter in order to reproduce. It’s a common eco-capitalist catch-22: They get to live, but their bodies are nevertheless used and abused.
“I’m interested in how we relate to animals as both physical and symbolic capital and how those relationships shape their world,” Lyons said. “To emphasize the magnitude of human alteration—the meat industrial complex, mass deforestation, large-scale use of pesticides—there needs to be a simultaneous conversation about what is lost by those systems, placing focus on the spiritual essence or life stories of nonhuman beings.”
“We will never and should never know that realm,” she continued, “which makes imaginative exploration all the more important.”
Life on the Farm
Lyons was speaking to me from her apartment in Brooklyn, but she hasn’t spent much time there lately. In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, she went to live on a diversified livestock farm in Connecticut.
It was a transformative experience for the artist, and not just because it was there that she created all the work for “Early Paradise.” Painting every day in a converted studio surrounded by a field of chickens, Lyons had her first “real communion with an ecosystem.”
Up to that point, her life had been largely suburban and urban: childhood in Louisville, college at the Kansas City Art Institute and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
Lyons studied printmaking in school, but after graduation, when she moved to New York, she found the medium too expensive to maintain. So she switched to painting instead, relying on YouTube tutorials to round out her skills.
The switch was difficult. Unlike printmaking, a multi-stage process often done at a group studio, painting is solitary. She missed the community.
Eventually, she found it again—first at the prestigious Skowhegan residency program in Maine, and then at the farm in Connecticut. “It was stupidly magical,” she said of the latter experience, recalling the friendships she forged with the farmers and animals that called the land home.
It was also a place steeped in grief. Death is a daily reality on a farm, both by the human hand and mother nature’s own. Chickens are eaten by hawks, piglets are crushed by the weight of their mothers. “It can be difficult,” Lyons said, “to create a sensitive connection to an animal that’s going to be cold the next day.”
How others on the farm chose to grapple with that emotion varied. Many abstained from eating the animals, while others felt that raising and killing the creatures themselves was the best way to honor the relationship. Some believed that death, no matter its form, was a natural finality and therefore beyond morality.
“I have always been somewhere between all of those things,” Lyons said. (She declined to state her own dietary practices on the record in order to avoid coloring viewers’ interpretation of the work.)
One Painting, Many Views
Bigger than the Pilar Corrias exhibition for Lyons was another presentation of her work, which came earlier—and on a much smaller scale. After nearly two years painting in Connecticut, she invited the farm’s employees to see what she had been working on.
“I think it was really important to talk to them about it because they know the beings in the portraits,” she said.
Looking back now, “the difference in dialogue between the farmers and the people who were visiting the gallery was profound.” Whereas gallery-goers saw in her work a kind of moribund, Cronenbergian theater, the farmers found soulful considerations of creatures that rarely enjoyed such a treatment—in art or otherwise.
She points to Winter Womb (2021), her favorite piece from “Early Paradise.” In it, you and I will see a large, shadowy hog looking back on itself as a trail of smaller, ghostlier pigs float from its belly to the overcast sky. The farmers, for their part, recognized Jo-Jo, a sow that recently had a hard farrow. Not all of her young made it.
“Ultimately my goal in the paintings is to complexify our conversations about nonhumans, [to make us] talk about the ways humans significantly alter their lives,” Lyons said. “It’s not an easy conversation and it never will be.”