Kayla Guthrie

Words By Kari Rittenbach

One of the earliest sonic images that I can recall is derived from that order of histrionic apocalypticism meant to install fear in the living and cleave the sacred from the eternally damned, a desolate biblical darkness from which can be heard, only, the “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In the several decades before cable internet and online streaming services, it was, for the child of rural backwaters and boredom, the first synesthetic exposure to doom metal: the intimation of a kind of discordant, multitudinous keening several octaves above a growling rhythm, crashing thunderously together in a hellish clamor. Acoustics are, above all, environmental, and so naturally minor keys and melancholic tonalities derive disproportionately from remote lands (cold, intemperate, thickly forested) less governed by clear rationality or modern convenience.

Here one might summon the worn jadedness of Dennis Cooper – “how cool would it have been to live back when the wind and birds and avalanches sounded like Black Sabbath…” – even as he restores a distinctive aural register to the terrors of the sublime.


The artist and musician Kayla Guthrie hails from far western Canada, a sister to the wiry conifers, wild scrub and long nights of Vancouver Island: where a young woman’s quiet rebellion consists in cold six-packs and tolerable older boys who race four-wheelers across moonless dirt roads. Eventually, she quit the island for the seedy Vancouver metropolis and the bosom of art school. Stifled by the critical legacy of a certain dry regional conceptualism, Guthrie also abandoned academic painting altogether, and instead sought refuge in the nascent post-punk/experimental music scene of the mid-2000s (at The Emergency Room, a D-I-Y venue and converted parking garage), fronting local bands mostly performatively, however intensely, and DJ-ing underground parties. “I really had no idea what I was doing then,” she muses, describing the sort of rowdy, smoke-filled jouissance of nights culminating in blackout and bleary waking afternoons.

After a brief stint in Philadelphia, Guthrie moved to New York City and set to work writing. At first, essays and interviews for art magazines, then informal musical side projects, and finally, as unapologetic art practice. While recent tendencies in conceptual art writing conform to the de-centered yet hyper-articulate streaming consciousness of Bernadette Corporation – well-matched to scattershot forms of digital expression – the affect of Guthrie’s poetry and prose is that of harnessing psychic energy: neither overtly confessional nor cloyingly sincere but true, in terms of tone and mystery. Words can certainly codify the experience of life under capitalism; Guthrie remains invested in the surreal alterity and “spiritual discharge” they might still have power to conjure.


Her 2012 solo exhibition at Young Art in Los Angeles, “Book of Shadows,” presented six early diaristic texts and a minimal mise-en-scène that doubled as a staging ground for live performance. She has also sung in darkened loft spaces, on New York City rooftops, at hardcore and low-slung grunge venues, and in the manicured spaces of art galleries surrounded by works other than her own. Guthrie’s contemporary collapsing of visual art, poetry and music, categorically, recall previous (also disconnected) eras of constructive interdisciplinarity and a particular resistance to encapsulation or objectification: vocal performers like Laurie Anderson, Julia Heyward and Meredith Monk; Occult poet Marjorie Cameron; rock-artist Niagara (Destroy All Monsters), disinterested Nico, No Wave’s Kim Gordon. The irreducibility of the singularly seductive, subversive voice ties Guthrie to these formidable female forebears, even while setting her stylistically apart from them, and defies easy assimilation to genre.

When Guthrie began writing songs again, she traded spontaneous or drug-addled improvisation for a more methodical structural intention, without betraying the somatic effect of rhythm or the density of sonic vibration characteristic to noise and drone. Her Blue EP (Mixed Media, 2014) is a mature condensation of several years of practiced performance and certainly, lived experience. Her cover of Garbage’s #1 Crush (made in collaboration with Hunter Hunt-Hendrix) grew from precisely this pattern of rehearsal and personal revelation:
“I ended up having a breakthrough when setting the song in the past tense. I realized I didn’t want to invoke the energies of the lyrics in the present moment, I wanted to sing about leaving emotional dependency behind.”


Guthrie’s composition process bears loosely on the beat, and commingles mystic lyric and foggy instrumental (midi, and captured or recorded melodies) simultaneously. But the songs themselves are dramatically modulated by her (mostly) untrained voice. Guthrie’s skillful manipulation of this primal, corporal instrument produces thrilling visceral contrasts, by turns funereal, rasping, shimmery. The power of her vulnerability repudiates cynically canned auto-tune concoctions (not to mention, Pop), a fact pressed into her record and viscerally felt in performance. It recalls the unconstrained appeals of the Sirens of Greek mythology, tempering heroic ambition with mortality, and so condemned of lawless malevolence by the histories of men. What she considers the “auratic” nature of presence – what made the Sirens so dangerous – is the means to invoke a spectral realm beyond the merely audible. A quality other than style, or even an expressionistic or representational politics, that resonates through all the depths of “medium.”

Guthrie’s latest publication to date, Sunsets Working (2015), is a hand-lettered long poem that traverses urban interiority, from mundane to ecstatically pleasurable and inventively immaterial. However influenced by Baudelaire, the text maintains a gloomy reverence for the sometimes minor, sometimes violent discontinuities of the untamed world. The poetic “I” written here forms it’s address particularly, enveloping the lonely reader in unmetered drift. In contrast to the complex texture of her music, Sunsets reads nimbly, as if carried by a single melodic line. In this sense, the writing reveals the whispering bones of a skeleton of thought that her embodied voice retains the rich capability to bear out.

Photography:Topical Cream
Photo Assistant: Tyler Brooks
Stylist: Bobby Andres
Hair:Brittany Mroczek for Oribe Hair Care
Designer:Top By Bobby Andres, Necklace by Arielle de Pinto

Kari Rittenbach is a critic and curator based in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in Afterall, Artforum, Art Papers, Flash Art, Frieze, May Revue, Paper Monument, and Texte zur Kunst. She has organized exhibitions and events at SculptureCenter, Triple Canopy, Artists Space Books & Talks, and at other non-profit institutions in New York, London, and Berlin.