September 17, 2015

Interview, Part I: Karen Kaapcke on Experiential-Realism, Philosophy and more...

 

  "When I can make a painting about the weight of the night sky upon an aging woman, the particular pain of the infinite contrasted with the finite, mortal body as she looks up at that sky -- that is the kind of grappling that I think a good poet can work with, and which I can only (hopefully) paint."

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"Listening To The News On The 14th Day Of The Palestinian/Israeli War", charcoal and oil on linen, 24x48" approx.


Karen Kaapcke is an American visual artist and teacher based in New York City. She has studied at the National Academy of Design and the Art Student's League in New York as well as the Ecole Albert Dufois in Les Cerqueux Sous Passavant France. Karen holds a Master of Arts in Philosophy from the State University of New York, Binghamton. She is the recipient of major awards including winner of the top prize in the Portrait Society of America Competition. Many of her projects have received widespread attention such as her self-portrait series. Karen has created the label Experiential Realism to refer to her work. In her own words "experiential realism names a branch of painting that places primacy on the experience and allows the technique to respond, as opposed to viewing the painting or drawing experience through the lens of the technique and placing primacy on that technique

I had the fortune to meet her at her home in Les Cerqeueux Sous Passavant before she returned to New York City for the end of summer. 

 

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"World-View", 9x11", oil on panel

Can you tell me about the force or drive which led you to pursue becoming a professional artist? 

When I was heading into my final semester of grad school in Philosophy, I suddenly had a problem with writing anything that seemed 'right'.  I never had any difficulty with writing before, I was always able to write like I breathed, but I became more and more aware of how distant all my words were from anything that could be 'truth'.  And ironically, a large part of what I was working on was in the field of philosophy of language.    Not that I knew what 'truth' was or would be -- and maybe that was the issue.  There was a sense of finality to each written phrase, and that of course is all wrong.  For a break, I went downstairs to the Fine Arts Library and randomly pulled a book out of a shelf.  It was a book on Donatello's sculpture.  I was stunned, and pulled out several other books, all sculpture.  I recall Rodin also being in the bunch.  What struck me was that these guys were getting at 'it', at that elusive something that kept slipping away from my words.  And without a sense of closure or finality, but with in a way an active questioning.  I brought the books up to my office, and instead of writing I began to draw from the images.  And to make a very long story short, from there I had to figure out how to do what these artists were doing.

Can you share any further thoughts about Experiential Realism? Particularly on it's beginning?

For a while my work has seemed to escape labels, but often labels are necessary.  So I decided to come up with my own.  Experiential Realism seemed apt, because I am very connected to 'reality' when I work, but I don't believe that reality is monolithic - in other words, I think that whatever we consider reality to be, it is at least always surprising.  Additionally, I don't think that technique should be primary; I think that the world is primary and one's techniques are at the service of that world.   So, when I looked at my work, and at the variety of ways in which I work -- which I also found rare for artists who have been classically trained as I have -- I realized that this is indeed how I proceed.  I use all the kinds of training I have had as tools to respond to the experience of the world as it presents itself to me during a given period of work, with the hopes of letting that world speak as much as I speak with it.   Experiential Realism also has within it a kind of active sense, which I liked, painting -- even or particularly representational painting, as an experience.

 "I use all the kinds of training I have had as tools to respond to the experience of the world as it presents itself to me during a given period of work, with the hopes of letting that world speak as much as I speak with it." 

9838394_orig.jpgbrush, oil on paper, 4x6"

 

What role did Martin Heidegger's On the Origin of the Work of Art play on your artistic journey?   

The main thing is that I must've been already tending in this direction, because when I was reading in aesthetic theory/philosophy of art, it all seemed so far off the mark.  Really, just a bunch of words.  And I liked words.  Until I hit John Dewey's Art as Experience.  That work stood out as respecting the primacy of the making of the work.  But it was when I was reading Heidegger's work, that I felt: 'bam', this is it.    Because the thing is, art, or Art, is constantly escaping one -- but why?  And why does it compel a kind of uniquely unending thinking about it, and why does it compel one to make it?   When Heidegger talks about the Earth/World struggle, an active and unending dialogue between the irresolute 'thingness' of the work and the concomitant sense that the work has of being involved in a world of understanding, a whole web of meaning and references that are always pulling it beyond itself and peeling it open to more of itself -- at the time, that resonated.  This idea of Heidegger's 'world-making' aspect of a work -- I find myself thinking back on this over and over again.  That when engaged with a work, and when looking at work, there's a real sense in which the work (when 'good') creates it's own world.  In terms of painting, really good work is work that creates it's own criteria for judgment, makes it impossible to judge it in terms of anything else.  When I'm painting, and it's going well, I definitely feel that the work becomes more and more self-determining.  You have to more or less listen to what it's telling you.  You also have to keep listening to the referenced 'world' so that as you ask it questions, the answers may result in the work.  This kind of dialogue I think is maybe what Heidegger was getting at.  And when judging really good works, one ought not put one's own rules of 'aesthetics' onto it -- a really great work will make it's own rules, which it then plays by.   This is one of the ways in which aesthetics transcends 'taste'.  

 

"...a really great work will make it's own rules, which it then plays by." 

 

I continued along a bit in that direction while drawing more and more 'after hours', reading Gadamer on hermeneutics and play, and I ended up finishing my writing in a very non-academic manner, but one which perhaps heralded the idea of Experiential Realism.  I didn't let the idea of 'academic' writing determine how I wrote; rather, I let the ideas as they developed determine how I wrote them.  The writing created it's own rules.  I was astonished that my professors accepted my work - they actually really liked it and wanted me to go back to the University to discuss it.  But by then, when finished, it was time to go learn painting and drawing.  

How does your former education in philosophy inform your work?

In the most general way I think that the struggle to understand the human situation, or the non-human situation, or the connection between the two, is really at the origin of work.  It is, I think, so deeply pre-verbal that words mainly circle around it, or at least did for me.  I entered the field of philosophy with a drive to grapple with this unsettling kind of question that has seemingly always plagued me -- and I realized along the way that words were not the way for me.   When I can make a painting about the weight of the night sky upon an aging woman, the particular pain of the infinite contrasted with the finite, mortal body as she looks up at that sky -- that is the kind of grappling that I think a good poet can work with, and which I can only (hopefully) paint.

 

836633_orig.jpgLisa with Floating Phone, oil and black chalk on linen, 9x11"

 

Do you believe certain philosophies and ideas are valuable for artists to apply and pursue within their profession?

I do think that young artists need to read a ton, and widely; I think that however one reaches out to others both in the present and historically, is crucial - and usually it is philosophical and historical texts that can provide this historicity in a vital way.   We are contextual and communal and while we work in solitude, to touch others is to be situated historically.  And not just art history.  It is possible that a lot of younger artists focus on their studio work possibly to the neglect of broader reading, which is why I at one point (and maybe it cost me my job, I'm not sure!) advised my most talented students at Parson's to not go to art school for their undergraduate studies, but to go to a good liberal arts program and learn and read - and paint and draw on the side - and then afterwards, choose either a good graduate program or some good people that they wanted to work with, for their painting studies.   I don't think there's a particular philosophy or idea that is important, but I think the discipline of questioning assumptions, of kind of realizing how little one knows, and how as one grows how much less and less one knows, if that makes any sense -  is very, very good for painters.

 

 "We are contextual and communal and while we work in solitude, to touch others is to be situated historically. "

 

Can you share your thoughts about the notion of representation in painting from observation? How do you consider the "represented" or "reproduced" image in relation to the reality itself?

That is such a great question.  The need to represent, to make representational images, is such a mystery.   What I think is going on partly is that because it is a dialogue, because our very being-in-the-world is a dialogue, making work is a continuation of that dialogue.  It's a language that's learned, a technique, that enables those who use it to plug in, as it were.  There are many, many ways to plug in.  Athletes plug in.  Astronauts plug in.  

But  often when we talk about representation we make an assumption that the world is there presenting itself to us nice and neatly packaged, and then we just sort of sit down to 're-present' it.  I don't think this is how it goes; I think reality is relational, it is somewhere in the nexus of self and other, or it is a third thing that comes from our sensory mingling in the world -- in any event, it is not even apparent what reality is let alone what the representation's relation to it is.  So I think that we representational artists are actually making reality, participating in making a reality that fits for the maker.  This is kind of what I mean by plugging in.  There is a reason that most (all?) artists have at some point felt, or feel, at odds in the world - and making work - whether representational or not - is making, or trying to make, an appropriate world.   

 

 " The artist and viewer can not be said to be separate from the object represented; and this is why I think representation is always going to be meaningful, and has always been."

 

From the perspective of the 'object' (so to speak), when we talk about 'representation' there's the temptation to think of it as mimetic - as the artist copying a presentation of a thing - but objects, I think, exist also in a nexus, a context, a historical field, a physical world of potentiality, a web of meaning -- and this is what the artist paints or draws.   And by doing this, the artist participates in the reality of the object, grows it's nexus, becomes part of it's meaning, and the viewer as well.  The artist and viewer can not be said to be separate from the object represented; and this is why I think representation is always going to be meaningful, and has always been.    Sometimes I think of this as the metaphoricality of things -- I am particularly moved to paint something not because of how it looks, but when it suddenly speaks way beyond itself.

 

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"My Father (Rest in Peace)", 40x22", oil on linen (private collection)

 

Are there certain questions that you ask yourself at the outset of each work or project?

I do kind of ask myself a general: what's going on? kind of question, and throughout the painting in fact I keep asking this question.  I am starting to believe more and more that the act of painting is mainly a way of responding to these questions.

Can you share a few of your thoughts about colour, as related to your practice?  

I think that color temperature is essential.   In working observationally, I think it is the most difficult and important thing to work on mixing and mixing to get the odd, surprising colors as close as possible.  It is a part of the painting that gets you out of thinking you know anything!  So it's really important to stay tuned to that.  But in terms of moving away from observation, I think it's temperature that you take with you.   The interplay of warms and cools can read, can develop a reality regardless of what particular colors you use.  

 

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khaki shorts 2, oil pastel and oil sticks on foam core, 12 x 8.5"

 

How do women figure in your work? Do you consider certain sociological or cultural factors while painting women?


I paint myself a lot, so that has meant that the female form has figured strongly in my work.  But there are a couple of other things.  One is that I began to paint and draw my nude torso after an episode where I realized that my own body had become foreign to me.  I began to work from it to bring myself back home to it, in a sense - but I found that I need to keep working this way.  I am not ever really at home in it finally.  I keep catching myself in reflections, as I age, not feeling identified at all with my body, and the strangeness of this compels me to keep using myself as a subject.  I am also highly aware of how the aging female body is not really an acceptable thing, whether as a subject for art, advertisements or other media, or just in a general midriff-baring way.  So it is an important thing to put out there.  

 

Thank you Karen, I look forward to Part II.

 

Karen Kaapcke:

http://karenkaapcke.weebly.com/

http://www.unprimedcanvas.blogspot.fr/

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