Titanic on Piano
Plaster, cardboard and paint, 8” x 13” x 14”, 2011
Swim to the City
Oil on canvas, 20” x 16”, 2009
Oil and collage on canvas, 48” x 36”, 2011
Oil on canvas, 12” x 9”, 2011
Parting of the Seas
Gouache on paper, 10” x 14”, 2006
Man Under Water
Oil on canvas, 8” x 6”, 2010
Liner Soft Iceberg
Paint on wood, plaster and cloth, 20” x 12” 13”, 2010
A: I think about narratives when I look at your work….not so much written stories but oral stories. Because of the way you repeat symbols. Symbols and phrases are used repeatedly in the telling of myths and stories that predate books so that they would be remembered and passed down. But even still the story changes a bit each time. Do you use repetition as a means of remembering and story telling?
K: Well, you’re right, I love repetition. I do use symbols. I started out as an abstract painter - what you might call a mark-maker, then, some of the marks I was making started to look like namable things. I took them out because I thought of myself as an abstractionist - which is kind of silly. As time went on I let the shapes come in. Faces, legs, smoke stacks. And I thought “Oh no now what do I do!”
A: Was there a certain sense of guilt in moving away from abstraction?
K: Not a sense of guilt but a sense of being in foreign territory because I didn’t want to have to contend with the history of figuration. We all start out drawing the figure and life drawing, and I wanted to get away from that. So I had to invent a way for me to get a person into my work. My big attraction to Superman is that you can describe him by painting a blue shirt, red underpants, red cape and boots and it just starts looking like Superman.
A: And we know those blocks of color so well for being Superman’s outfit that you can really play around with it and still have the association.
K: Yes. I imagine that true comic fans and people who revere Superman might not appreciate what I’m doing because I’m being a little bit subversive—taking what we know about Superman and turning it on its head .
A: Well, he doesn’t seem heroic for one thing. In some of the pieces where he is flying, it doesn’t necessarily look like he is rushing over to save someone; he’s just flying for the pure joy of flying.
K: Yes. You talk about narrative and story. Well, I wanted to stop short of telling a “Superman story” so I’ve gotten it down to just Superman flying through the air because that’s such a great thing to do on a painting. That is what I’ve had the most fun with: isolating him in space.
A: On that note, one of the things I wanted talk about was the idea of freedom. The two main ideas about freedom, one being that you are free when you can do what you want, the other being that you’re free when you have no desire for more than what you have. I’m wondering how you see Superman or painting in general. Is Superman free when he doesn’t want to save anybody - when he can just enjoy the fact that he can fly?
K: That’s a pretty radical thought, I never thought of Superman just tooling around in the sky not saving people. It’s not part of the legend. But it’s a great idea, why not?
I think anyone who makes a painting in a way is talking about the possibilities of paint. So, you’re right, I think all these things I paint about: the boats, buoyancy, flight are all traced back to making a painting and all of the possibilities that entails. What appeals to me is thinking I can do anything I want. Where else can you feel that?
A: Oh yeah! Even in sculpture it’s a different kind of freedom than painting because you have to worry about gravity and the limitations of the material. Whereas, in painting - it doesn’t have to obey the laws of physics - it works a certain way because you painted it to. So maybe there is a bit more freedom in painting in that sense.
K: Well, that would be an interesting debate wouldn’t it? Which has more freedom and limitations.
A: You make objects as well, right?
K: I do. And I call them “Objects” too.
A: Why is that?
K: Sculpture sounds so serious and I’m kind of playing around.
I made the little pieces because I wanted to do some videos and they were my props. But I had them lying around the studio and people said they liked them.
A: Have you been noticing the lines between painting, sculpture and other disciplines blurring over a long period of time or are you really feeling it the most now?
K: I have been feeling and seeing it a lot recently. I’ve been writing on some of my paintings “ The Golden Age of Exploration” because I feel we are in a time of exploration and experimentation - and that is a great value in of itself. And I think it’s a term coined by sea farers who were going out and looking for new lands. That was the Golden Age of Exploration, and now maybe we are sensing that in Brooklyn.
A: Exploration is the greatest thing about the art process. It’s hard for me to start working without any kind of idea in mind; but it’s definitely the best when the idea is a starting point and you completely stray from it during the process. I love surprising myself.
K: I love how that is very much in the air now. Intuitive art making as opposed to conceptual art making where you have an idea and then you make something to illustrate the idea.
Now I know what you’re going to say to me: Do you know what you’re going to paint before you start?
A: haha, I was going to ask that
K: it is an interesting question because I can say no, I don’t because I start painting by just putting paint on the surface. However, after you’ve been painting for a while you have a vocabulary of reoccurring shapes and themes. Even though I’m making it up as I go along I’m using the same symbols over and over again. That’s a very reassuring feeling; I can remember as a young painter that horrifying feeling of “ what to do?”
A: You don’t feel that anymore because of the symbols you use?
K: Much less because I have so many leftovers. It’s like being in a kitchen and you just have so many leftovers that you can throw together a whole soup.
A: I think it further illustrates the idea that it doesn’t always matter whatthe image is but how you make it because people are all so similar that the particulars of the story don’t always matter because at the core it’s all very much the same.
K: you think we’re all so similar?
A: I guess I’d like to think so…
K: well, a lot of art has been made that addresses the differences between races and genders. I don’t work with that at all.
A: You don’t?
K:…Well, maybe I do. ..the male/female thing. It wasn’t important to me to make Superman look male, and some people thought he looked female. And one reason I like making Superman is that because of his costume I don’t have to worry about his skin tone so much.
I do a lot of paintings of swimmers and I always think “Oh no, all these swimmers are the same skin color” And then I have to decide if I want to make them all different colors, and which colors, and it becomes a statement about race.
A: Well, you paint them all in a kind of pink color - and that’s not necessarily a real skin tone at all, it makes them funnier.
K: That was such a breakthrough to me -to realize I can use humor in my work.
A: It’s a relief to strive to make yourself laugh when you’re working. You can get a message across more clearly sometimes and with more delight for you and the viewer if you use humor - but it can still be incredibly serious underneath.
K: That’s a great word: delight!
A: That word really comes to mind in your work - I think it’s because of this incredible sense of light in your paintings. It’s so hopeful.
K: I’m so glad. I had a show at Edward Thorp Gallery in Chelsea and the review in the NY Times mentioned a sense of “joie de vivre” in my work. I hadn’t paid much attention to that or done it on purpose but now I’m thinking about it because I value it.
A: Are the paintings a struggle to make?
K: ha ha ha yeah…sometimes it can be pretty awful! Years ago, my younger sister told me that my paintings were really horrible - dark and serious. And she said to me, “Kathy, I really think you should sit and watch I love Lucy reruns before you start your day in the studio.” I never did do that, but I got her point - which is to get into a zone where life is ridiculous and absurd and funny!
A: One of the things I think is really funny about the work is in the pianos - I can’t stop thinking about in cartoons when there is a piano flying through the air and landing on someone’s head - the way it’s dramatic but O.K because they spring back up like an accordion. Is that kind of drama and comedy in your head when your working?
K: Hmm, my pianos aren’t flying through the air…
A: I was thinking of the object you made with a piano jutting out of the wall.
K: oh, yes! This one right here, it’s got a little ocean liner on it about to crash into an iceberg.
A: And that’s like taking the Titanic and making it comedic!
K: I know, my dealer did not like that. He didn’t want me to show these - he said “But Kathy, people died!!” He wanted me to stay away from it. I don’t know what I would say if someone asked me why I made it funny…
A: Well, what were you thinking when you did it?
K: Visually! I was thinking visually! The black piano, the black ocean liner, the white iceberg, the tension between the two, the beauty of the open sea at night.
A: And it’s so beautiful to imagine the black sea and black night sky looking like one endless shape.
A: There is also a strong contrast between almost immanent peril and entertainment…
K: I see what you mean, like someone is about to get a pie in their face and that’s funny…
Oh God am I talking about that with the ocean liner? The Titanic disaster happened 100 years ago; but, in a way, it’s very close to 9/11 in the sense that something fell apart that was never supposed to fall apart.
A: But the obvious difference is that the Titanic is man vs. nature, as opposed to man vs. man.
K: or man vs. culture.
A: The boats you paint occupy space in a very different way than the swimmers, for instance. The boats are huge and frontal; whereas, the swimmers feel small and fragile. There is one piece on your website with a single swimmer with this orange skin against a beautiful blue sea. He looks so limp and delicate. He looks so weak as opposed to the structures we create to try to triumph over nature. I think it shows that without the things we’ve created to put between ourselves and nature, we are much more —
K: Vulnerable. I think vulnerability is a powerful emotion to bring out in art. I think the boats,the swimmers and Superman are all vulnerable in the way I’ve painted them.
A: They’ve all just had a dose of kryptonite.
K: Exactly. And the people who make art are vulnerable too. I like to see that. I like to stand in front of a work of art and feel that whoever made it had to make a series of decisions and wasn’t sure of what they were doing but persevered anyway.
A: I agree completely, I would much rather see an earnest artist fail than a more sly artist succeed without struggling. I prefer failure to feeling like someone is trying to outsmart me.
So you paint the sea and sky a lot in your work. I think those are such beautiful things to paint because they imply a kind of infinity. Plus there is so much mystery. I heard that supposedly we know more about outer space than we do about the deep sea. Is it the sense of mystery that attracts you?
K: Well, if you paint the sea or the sky it’s very forgiving. When I put the paint on it starts to quickly look like water or the sky. If you’ve ever tried to paint a cloud - you can almost do anything and it will look like a cloud - which goes back to the notion of freedom. I like being in an area that gives me a lot of room to experiment and invent. And that’swhy i don’t think I could be a portrait or figurative painter. It’s much more narrow in scope; although I’m sure someone like Alice Neel would disagree with me. But as far as I’m concerned I like to have my options wide open when I’m painting. That means having a wide open field where a mark can be anything.
A: So can you talk about your relationship to images? Some of the pieces I get the feeling that you paint directly from life.
K: You think I paint from observation? Hardly. I was never very good at painting from observation; I couldn’t stand life drawing. I would always start doodling instead. One thing I definitely paint from is other paintings. I tear images from books or print them out from the internet and I look at them while I’m painting.
A: What turned you on to making art?
K: I was living in Maine. It was the 70’s and I got to know other artists. I saw what they were doing which was amazing because I don’t think I reallyknew before that. I saw this intense relationship that artists have with their work and how all encompassing it is. I realized then that that was what I wanted.
A: I get a strong feeling of finding a sense of identity through a place, Is there any aspect of your work that is based on national identity or maybe just identifying with New York?
K: Well, certainly not an ethnic identity. Although there has been so much great work about that. But, I started to paint in Maine which is a very soulful, maritime place where there is a great deal of wonderful art that was made by people like Winslow Homer or more recently Alex Katz that has to do with water and boats and swimmers. I’m sure I was influenced by that. When I return to Maine in the summer I feel like it’s part of my identity, my home. It’s a very beloved place. There are about a million paintings of Maine because of this quality.
But you know I identify with Brooklyn and New York too.
A: Me too. I feel instantly at home in New York because mostly everyone came here from somewhere else, so you don’t feel like an outsider or a newcomer for long.
K: It’s very diverse which I like.
People often bring up children’s art, folk art and outsider art when talking about my work and I have to own that.
A: Do you identify with that?
K: I love folk art,that sits well with me. Outsider art is a misunderstood term - I’m not quite sure what it means. Children’s art is terrific but then you get into that murky area with contemporary art and the “my kid could do that” syndrome - which is tricky. But what is most important to me is a direct and simple expression going from me to the painting.
A: Well, that’s why outsider art actually didn’t come to mind because your work is incredibly rich with art history. So somebody who also knows art history can pick that out and enjoy the work from that angle, or someone who knows nothing about art can enjoy it simply because of the marks and image.
K: I identify with blunt. And awkward. Now there is another word I like. I remember a critic called my work awkward and my kids were rushing to my defense and I had to explain to them it’s not such a bad thing in visual art.
A: Well, its such a tense, embarrassing and wonderful place to draw work from. It’s easy to relate to but it is difficult to paint.
K: The situation of awkward is very rich. It implies a struggle. I think all artists identify somewhat with awkwardness and being a little outside the main stream. Maybe that’s why they originally became an artist.
A: On a different note, has having children changed your work at all?
K. I’d say being around children can bring out your sense of play and your sense of the absurd. It can also make you really value your work because when you are raising children your time to make art can be quite limited.
A: what did you study in college?
K: Art history and political science, so I came to making paintings later in life. I imagine that being an art student must be a lot of fun and I regret missing out on all of that. But there are many ways to become an artist. Maybe the most important thing, and I think many people would agree, is to surround yourself with a community, be they poets, musicians or visual artists and hopefully these people will keep you working and keep you honest and true.