I don’t know Tyler Lee Childress. I don’t know much about him either. What I’ve gleaned from his feed (and internet details are scarce) is that he probably rolled with some art people for a while, possibly in Los Angeles, then returned home for a long, strange sojourn in Appalachian Tennessee. Most of his images— his photos, drawings, photoshop collages, clips, freezeframes— serve as a scope onto contemporary (instead of folksy and Foxfiery) Appalachian culture and also as a personality projection of one its lankiest, most inscrutable sorcerers.
If this brings to mind Harmony Korine, or some brand of hicksploitation, you couldn’t be further off base. Even Bruegel the Elder, with grinning depictions of rural peasant life, would be a poor comparison. Tyler is too intimate with his subjects. He ennobles them, and many are obviously his favorite people on earth. His work might be lurid, it might cut from psychotic, rap-metal and B-movie, No Fear and Mountain Dew imagery— like I said, contemporary Appalachian culture— but even when his still-lifes are just a shoe, a gun, a can of bugspray and evaporated milk, they still seem like the best of their tradition, illuminated by Heavenly grace. Or put another way: nothing here is easy or kitschy despite commercial or pastoral sources. The landscapes are undeniable. The photoshop collages may use a warped truckstop aesthetics, but they’re too brutal to register as kitsch. Even the merest snapshots inside his kitchen, or the local Bojangles, burn for me with the impress of life.
So when the “about” tab of his website fesses that he might be something of a “naïve artist,” I just don’t see it. I guess I get what that means. His drawing style is very “maximum security.” But my point would be that “naïveté” is the wrong word here. What exactly would Tyler be naïve of? Scrolling through, I find a sensitivity to several wavelengths at once— a sensitivity that gets Appalachia, gets prisoners, gets pro wrestling, gets art, gets Los Angeles, gets family, gets demons, gets landscapes, gets life. If “naïve” means “untrained,” then don’t bother. This is already high artistry, already eminent style. If it means “operating outside of art circles and art institutions” or something along those lines, this only underscores the fact that apparatuses like Instagram actually do make the ruralization of culture viable. Maybe even preferable. I look at this and ask myself whether something like this could exist in Brooklyn. No way. Never. It’s laughable to even ask. This isn’t Virgil guiding us through Hell; this is Beatrice beckoning us to Heaven.
So far, Jess is on her third account and it probably won’t be long until she burns that one to the ground too and moves onto a fourth. A general survey would likely rate her as “too real,” and I pass that along as the highest possible compliment in an Instagram universe straining to be even passably candid. Her account runs against all criteria of easy likeability: she floods the feed, repeats things, posts no like-bait, no gimmes, gladly sheds followers, has meltdowns, talks about suicide and other thorny topics, and occasionally even confronts own commenters: “I don’t even know you. Do your own thing!” She is independent, oppositional, worrisome, cathartic, and totally refreshing.
Like Tyler, she has returned home for a while, to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, but could be anywhere since most of her images are taken inside of the same bedroom. Or of a computer screen. Or a screenshot. Or multiply nested screenshots piled on top of one another. She takes hundreds of self-images in front of the mirror— with none of these self-images being “selfies” in any true sense. Selfies are inherently networked images, posed and taken to be shared. They are forms of self-presentation. They are image-statements, however true or false. Jess’ self-images, on the other hand, are strictly image-questions. Her self-images are taken in the same manner that we look in the mirror when no one else around: inquiringly, self-assessingly, getting closer, then further away, focusing on blemishes, using her own reflection as a conversational partner.
Same with the captions. I remember this one pic— from @jessicaciocci2, I think— of white-painted toes popping out from beneath a blanket. Below it read: “my breasts will swell and my nipples will enlarge to feed another human being LOL.” Many of her pics are followed by an impressive fury of word-schrapnel: “Pro sex and not into memorializing suicide… sex means LIFE … Fuck fake art… I hate bad music…”… “ Hey, I’m not a terrorist or am I… I just hope Americans & Europeans don’t start and keep being racist towards the anti-Christian (muslim/’black’) bc of this, which I’m sure they will bc I have little faith, bc most ppl r really stupid, especially in the south… Also interested in art and freedom and love above all else… Looking like an idiot. As usual… I wish I wasn’t so ugly and unlovable… just kidding I love myself… (but I look like deep dogshit in this photo)… and so on.”
I remember seeing, somewhere deep in Jessica’s feed, a quotation from Mark Twain: “When in doubt, tell the Truth.” Jessica is definitely undergoing a period of doubt (as we all do) and has decided to take Twain’s advice all the way to the end. Lucky for me. I’m desperately on the hunt for more accounts like hers— accounts that drive a wedge between visibility and likeability; that are courageous enough to let grey paint on grey until something interesting happens; that allow themselves the actual shitty and unpleasant parts of life rather than the cute, stylized shittiness that almost everyone else is willing to display (and you know what I’m talking about). If something like Instagram is ever going to help make sense of everyday life— and theoretically it could; it’s right there; it’s “instant”— we can’t let likeability become the supreme good, the sole criterion determining what is seen and heard and how— determining the “distribution of the sensible.” The fact that it has become the dominant criterion on so many networks helps explain the basic conservatism and safe-ness of the culture emerging from them. We owe a great deal of gratitude to people like Jessica that will say it and mean it: “FUCK YOU!”