You may know Kalen Hollomon from Instagram, where he shares photos of Céline heels held over unsuspecting subway riders and porn cutouts superimposed on everyday scenes. Since he began posting subversive collages in 2012, he’s gained traction within the fashion world — working with Vogue and other high-profile clients — and he now has more than 65,000 Instagram followers.
But Hollomon started out in L.A., where he studied painting and worked in film production. A move to New York in 2010 changed the scope and scale of his work: Unable to paint large-scale canvases in his cramped Brooklyn apartment, he began cutting up his girlfriend’s vintage copies of Vogue. An act that was initially “heartbreaking” has become standard practice for Hollomon, who now carries an X-Acto knife with him at all times.
In his most popular pieces — on Instagram, at least — he holds up magazine clippings to police officers, bored commuters, and businessmen. His signature cutout style emerged accidentally at his kitchen table, where he does most of his work. “I was shuffling through my backgrounds, couldn’t find exactly what I wanted, and then realized there were a lot more options outside,” he told the Cut.
Hollomon claims it’s been “embarrassing” to take the iPhone photos that garner him thousands of likes each day and says he’s not interested in deconstructing materialism — “I love the price of things!” Instead, he seeks to create “sexy, but unsettling” combinations of men and women. He talked to the Cut about blurring gender boundaries, how he seeks to subconsciously turn you on, and what he learned from Ryan Gosling.
A number of your pieces are composed on the subway, where you hold up a magazine clipping to a real person. Do you ever feel self-conscious doing that?
No matter how the photograph looks in the end, the act of standing around holding out a magazine clipping feels dumb. Initially, I was very embarrassed, but people online responded so well to it that I felt a bit better. Now I sometimes get paid to do those kinds of photographs, and that feels very good.
Your work seems to fit right in the place between SFW and NSFW. They’re erotic, but I wouldn’t call them pornographic. Is that intentional?
Yeah. I love vintage porn magazines and old lingerie ads — you get the weirdest looks on people’s faces. I wanted to pull that into my work without making my pieces overtly X-rated. Cara Delevingne is gorgeous, but can she make this man’s chest sexy? Or can I make her unsexy by adding a man’s chest?
Are themes of gender-bending a challenge for you as an artist, or are you trying to challenge your viewers?
It’s probably more of the latter. I’m a guy, but sometimes I feel like a gorgeous lady. I really hate the strictness around gender and sexuality. If you see something that turns you on that isn’t supposed to, that’s really fun. I’m interested in sexuality without gender; making two genders play for attention on one body is really sexy.
What is it about high fashion interests you?
I get to force the collaboration that happens between the designer and the person wearing the clothes. I used a photograph of a homeless man, gave him a pair of heels, and added the world Chanel. Suddenly, the guy looked fabulous. That’s what fashion does.
Instagram played a big role in your success. Do you feel any pressure to create pieces with the slick readability that makes them easily transferable to the internet?
I probably do more photo stuff now than I did before. And, yes, I make them mostly square. That work has been really popular online, and in turn, that’s what I’ve gotten hired to do. That said, if you’re sexy, you’re going to be sexy wherever you are in the world. If it works, it’s going to work wherever — online, offline.
Are you getting more recognition offline for the work you share online?
Yeah. Sometimes a company will come to me, present printouts of some of my images, and say, “We want this look, but here’s a Popsicle stick. What can you do with it?” The answer is not too much. I’m always surprised when people bring me really bland stuff and expect an explosion of sexual energy and creativity. I never said I was a magician.
I was looking at your T-shirt collection, and while most of them include sketches of dicks doing various things (spinning a basketball, wearing a center part and pigtails, hanging out), there’s that one photorealistic Ryan-Gosling-sucking-dick shirt that seemed a bit out of place. What’s up with that?
I wanted to add to the collection, and I thought, Who doesn’t want a blow job from Ryan Gosling? I got back the printed shirts and felt like, Why did I do this? I would never wear this piece of shit; it’s embarrassing. I think I was just trying to play to what other people want. There will be no more Ryan Gosling tees.
This interview has been edited and condensed.