How Painter Rae Klein Leveraged Her Instagram Following to Launch Her Art Career
Twenty-seven-year-old painter Rae Klein doesn’t have the typical art world signifiers: she never went to graduate school, or moved to New York (or any other big city for that matter). She does have one thing the art world covets these days: more than 99,000 followers on Instagram.
Now, she’s landed a solo show at Jessica Silverman in San Francisco.
“She’s not even from Detroit, she’s from Holland, Michigan, which is this small city,” Jessica Silverman told ARTnews. “It was really curious to me how she was able to engage with audiences in such an expansive way from a city that didn’t really have a big arts community.”
But Klein’s lack of a coherent arts community is exactly why she’s invested so much into her online presence.
When Klein was young, she liked drawing, but didn’t make anything of it. The idea of living as a working artist was a dream with no roadmap. Her father was a heavy equipment operator for Holland, a small city on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, who would plow the snow off the roads in the difficult Midwest winters. Her mother is an administrative assistant at a company that makes test chambers. When Klein graduated high school, she decided to study nursing at Eastern Michigan University, even as she sensed it wouldn’t work out.
“I was in nursing 101 and looking around at all these people, and I was thinking like, these people are going to be really good at this. And I’m starting to feel like maybe I’m not,” Klein told ARTnews the day before her exhibition at Silverman, titled “The Comfort in Calamity,” opened.
Just after starting college, she began working as an illustrator for campus dining, which included such tasks as drawing the school mascot eating a grilled cheese. The experience opened her eyes to the idea that art could be a legitimate career path, so she enrolled in an art class.
“That was my first experience with painting and it was such a weight off my shoulders to be like, Okay, maybe this is a real thing,” said Klein.
Once Klein graduated in 2017, she began treating her painting like a second job after her shifts at a box-making factory and, eventually, from her job at what she described as a “touristy town gallery.”
“It was good there, I got a lot of experience in like, how to act,” she said. The experience, she went on, taught her how artwork is measured and priced, the expectations of a gallery setting, and how relationships between gallerists, curators, artists, and collectors work. She was mulling over the idea of going to grad school when she started promoting her work on Instagram.
“I kind of figured that all the people that I would like to be in contact with, that’s kind of where they are,” she said.
Even in the image-saturated world of Instagram, Klein’s work stands out. Her paintings feature recurring, electrically-charged motifs: shells that contain oceans, candelabras floating in empty space, two-headed geese, gems that sparkle irresistibly from an open palm, or the maw of a dog’s mouth, lit from within. Distant, lush, blue landscapes — the kinds that you see in the backgrounds of Renaissance paintings —are painted onto the blank face of a sphinx or haunt her portraits of semi transparent subjects. The constellation of objects and landscapes she pulls together are like the points of a witch’s pentagram, transporting audiences into a parallel, mythical world.
Klein found an enthusiastic following online, and her follower count has swelled as a result. She began selling her work for around $100 to whoever DMed her first about a particular piece. As interest increased, she started organizing drops of paintings and prints. Her art career, up until recently, has been DIY: she marketed herself, learned how to ship artwork, and to placate and vet unruly buyers. Ultimately, she was earning enough to make painting her full-time job.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to spend even more time on their phones, Klein gained even more buzz and galleries checked in. She landed her first exhibition, a group show, at the Valley, a gallery in Taos, New Mexico. Shows in London, Antwerp, and Amsterdam followed, as well as in Los Angeles, with Nicodim Gallery, which now represents her.
“Not having gone to grad school, right, and not really having connections to people in the art world, it’s like my feet are a little off the floor of the pool,” said Klein. “Having representation is a whole new world for me, I’m used to doing everything by myself.”
Klein no longer sells work on Instagram or on her website.
All the while, the artist had been on Silverman’s radar for some time.
“I very rarely look at work online but a friend tagged me in a post about Rae’s exhibition in Taos,” said Silverman. “I found the work uncanny.”
Silverman did a deep dive on Klein’s Instagram and website, and noted that they were both Michiganders. Silverman DMed Klein and expressed interest in her work, and the next time that Silverman visited her family in Michigan she made time to meet Klein in person. “It became clear to me how excited I was to work with her,” said Silverman.
While working on “The Comfort in Calamity” Klein was also preparing for her show at Nicodim, “YOU ME ME YOU,” and Silverman was concerned that Klein might’ve stretched herself too thin.
“I was like, are you going to be okay? And she said not to worry, that she had two totally different shows in mind,” said Silverman. “She’s so young but she already has so many different bodies of work, it’s impressive.”
The works on view at Jessica Silverman feature a new series of paintings that Klein has made of curtains — whose images she sourced from old Sears catalogues — that are bordered in a stark, harsh red. The curtains and the views that they reveal are typical Klein, and yet there is something less dreamy and a bit more contemporary about these pieces.
“I’m very interested in like power, moments where you might feel powerful or powerless and the moments when that changes,” said Klein. “Now, I’m trying to say more with less. Can I just say one thing? Can this curtain have just as much power as my previous work?”
Klein is clearly at a turning point in her career. She’s moved into a new studio in Michigan and is looking forward to working on her new series, but things might have to change even more. Silverman noted that while someone like Klein doesn’t need an MFA, moving to a bigger city might be a step she has to take, if only to be closer to collectors.
But Klein isn’t worried. For now, she’s just happy that she can make big paintings and won’t have to worry about how to ship them.