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Mykki Blanco
Photography Travis Bass

Mykki Blanco is rebuilding the bloodline between lost AIDS artists

The multidisciplinary artist is engaging in an act of preservation through Acne Studios’ collaboration with Larry Stanton

People might rankle at the prospect of a countercultural artist being hawked in a luxury store, but posthumous collaborations aren’t always an act of toothless greed. The truth is, nobody knows (not really, anyway) how an artist might react to their image being atomised decades after their death. The scrutiny aimed at Basquiat and Frida Khalo collabs is well-documented, but in most cases, the estates of even the most celebrated artists rely on commercial link-ups to keep going. “It’s circumstantial,” says Mykki Blanco, who is performing at the launch party of Acne Studios’ collection with the estate of Larry Stanton: a lesser-known New York artist whose figurative portraits of friends, family, and hook-ups rival Hockney, Matisse, and Picasso. “It’s a mechanism of cultural production within late-stage capitalism, but there’s a real element of preservation involved.” 

Fans will come to their own conclusions on this sort of thing but feelings are further complicated when their favoured artists were neglected by the establishment and left to atrophy in hospital corridors from AIDS-related illnesses. People like Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, and David Wojnarowicz, whose anti-establishment politics sluice against fashion’s consumerist bent. And yet, some 40 years on, the fashion industry has become a worthwhile (albeit unlikely) executor of their legacies. Particularly for those who, like Stanton, have gone unrecognised for their contributions to culture since dying in the 80s. Most people consider fashion too superficial for the art world, but Stanton’s hurried, lovesick vignettes are worthy of an audience. “I don’t think you can dictate what modes of preservation are correct or not. It’s all relative,” as Blanco notes.

“One of the most unfortunate things about an artist of Stanton’s generation (and of all the artists that passed away during the AIDS crisis) is that not everyone gets entry into the canon. Who do we mourn? Who gets forgotten?,” they continue. “We may never know some of the most vibrant, transgressive artists because of how the United States handled that plague.” Stanton rarely exhibited during his lifetime and – for a while – his portraiture vanished along with its subjects. Blanco had seen mention of the artist’s name only once before (in a 2021 edition of Apartamento) which has since given rise to a cultural rediscovery of Stanton’s naive, emotive sketches of a New York that no longer exists. His work was featured in the latest issue of Acne Paper and will now be housed in a travelling exhibition curated by Fabio Cherstich alongside a one-off collection of cotton t-shirts, foulard scarves, and jacquard blankets. 

On the face of it, there are few similarities between Stanton's and Blanco’s practices: one is a fine artist and the other a pop star. But where Stanton abstracted his lovers with crayons and pastels, Blanco blurs their own margins with music and performance. “I’m invested in building out real dimensions of my own identity and perhaps Stanton was doing that when he was capturing people with his pencils and paints,” they say. “My early work came from this pressure cooker of being in New York where people of colour were responding with all this electronic music and queer rap. The more I learn about Stanton’s work I really get it. He was a staunch New Yorker.” In a 2022 tome dedicated to Stanton’s work, David Hockney said, “people make their own faces, and Larry knew this instinctively”.  And so too does Blanco, who has spent a career shapeshifting between their own multitudes (riot girl, cyber rapper, cross-dresser, art freak). 

This has played out extensively with gender and self-presentation, with Blanco stretching themselves like plasticine across a spectrum of artistic mediums. Coached at the School Of The Art Institute of Chicago and Parsons School Of Design in New York, “Mykki Blanco” originated as a performance art project – but it’s only recently that Blanco has been drawn back to the visual arts. “I didn’t pursue it in my early days in New York because I was poor. I was so broke, I could barely scrape enough together for food and a subway fare. And so the past few years have been about seeing how far I could push my celebrity into the mainstream.” Sell-out tours and record-breaking albums have afforded Blanco the freedom to invest in their own creative studio, but these have come at their own expense. “There are certain aspects of the industry, like touring, that I have become strained with. Truthfully, I want to move beyond that, and I want to take my visual art really seriously.” 

Unlike most commemorative projects, which jettison AIDS to the annals of history, Acne Studios’ collaboration with Larry Stanton acknowledges the long shadow it continues to cast over the world – bolstered by Visual AIDS, a contemporary art foundation that advocates for HIV+ people. It’s something Blanco knows well. “I made the decision to come out as HIV positive for myself and it was one of the best things I ever did. There was a point when multiple people would Facebook message me after finding out they had HIV and it happened every month. I would be the first person they told when leaving the clinic,” they recall. “I came out for my own emotional and psychological well-being but I think that did more for people than I realised. It might sound arrogant but I think that was a watershed moment around HIV awareness and pushing the conversation.” 

“His portraits are cosy and welcoming in a way that doesn’t seem popular now. They would have needed to be louder, more ‘internet’” – Mykki Blanco

Where so many lives were systematically erased, the relationship between Blanco and Stanton helps to restore the bloodline between the past and present. It helps, too, that Stanton’s work feels uniquely tender, particularly when queerness has become such an overblown entity within the mainstream. “His portraits are cosy and welcoming in a way that doesn’t seem popular now. They would have needed to be louder, more ‘internet’,” Blanco says. As we end the call, I ask how Blanco would feel if a fashion brand released a posthumous collection based on the work they made while they were alive. “People would look at my legacy and see that I’ve collaborated with so many fashion brands on so many instances. Be it with Marni, Gucci, or Acne Studios, I have a history of working with fashion through performance,” they say. “I don’t know if it would affect me.”

Acne Studios’ exhibition of Larry Stanton’s original portraits, super 8 films, photographs, and artworks, will be on show at Acne Studios’ Greene Steet store until February 23.