October 17, 2015

Interview, Part II: Karen Kaapcke on freedom in art, place and...

" I remember when I first started - the moment I laid down color I felt this extraordinary thing - that I could create a world! And that became invaluable to me as I would go into this world even in my mind throughout the day when I wasn't painting - all my feeling, all my thought, all my ideas, count in this world. They are unarguably true, they become the facts of the painting."

 

1178701_orig.jpg

1.8.15, oil stick, graphIte, scraped off wax 

 

 
How do you believe that you have impacted others or the world-at-large via your work or profession as a professional artist and teacher? Do you consider art as an agent to change or impact life?  
 
This is a difficult question to answer. I have heard people, whether students or others who I've encountered tell me that there is something about the honesty with which I work that affects them.   And then, this probably goes in several directions which affects people differently.  For example, many women (artists and non-artists alike) have told me that the way in which I approached my 50th birthday has helped them see aging in a different light. I think that the fact that I bring my skills to bear on my own body in a way that is not only not glamorizing, but where that is not even a part of the equation, has provided if not exactly a green light, then at least maybe an example of how all things are deeply worthy of the artist's regard, indeed of every regard, beyond the shallow judgement of 'beauty'.  Same goes for the facial self-portraits.   In general I think it is the kind of openness I seem to have that people respond to, to going places with my work that others feel they may not have the courage to go to.   However I do have to say, I don't feel particularly courageous or open - I am just working out of where I am.  In my training, I worked a lot on trying to have a very non-judgmental way of seeing, which is probably the closest one can get to seeing 'objectively', and I think if you work this way it seeps over into the rest of your life.  To me, this is one of the great reasons to train to paint in such a manner - there's almost a morality about it.  In learning to see this way, maybe there's a way one can also view the world, even just a little, in an open and non-judgmental way.  

 

1.6.15.jpg

 1.6.15, graphite and wax, 9x12"

 

Do you maintain a dialogue with other Artists and what sort of impact does that have on your work?

I spend large portions of my day alone, painting - and I find that I get into a kind of focus that is not always good to break out of.   Mixing with other painters - their ideas, their passions, their opinions - can sometimes feel a little dangerous.  But then that ends, and you want to go see what's up.   Lately I find Facebook to be a perfect solution to that middle place where you want to connect but don't want to break out of your work-zone, dipping in and seeing work briefly, and engaging in conversation at any time of day or night -- it's great.   I have a group of about 5 or 6 artists who I have known for years and years, though - and we do not need to get together a lot, in fact I see them only a few times a year.  One thing that has been very important for me is that a fellow painter and I have been trading poses for over a year - every week we meet and alternate who poses and who paints.  Our conversations are rambling and glorious, we never know where we'll meander.  It has been good to have this built-in to my week so that I don't get too remote, because in general I'm a very private person in terms of painting; I usually have to force myself to go to openings to be out and in touch.

I do have a number of friends in the other arts, and the cross-fertilized conversations that we have resonate deeply with me.  And reading about other arts - I just recently read a piece discussing Paul Taylor's process of choreographing while his dancers are working out a dance piece, and he took a head movement and changed it from a shake indicating 'no' to a less literal curving around of the head, making it both more graceful and ambiguous.  I thought about this for days.  

When I was a student  I was also like this - I was almost unable to socialize during breaks.  I always brought a book with me so I had an excuse.  I heard afterwards that people thought I was snobbish, but really it was that I felt that the zone I was in was so fragile - and also, I was so sensitive to being influenced by the other work.   I still feel that way and as I have matured, I spend less and less time looking at the work of contemporaries and more of my looking-time going back in history.  

 

4933718_orig.jpg

Phases of Lisa III, (oil sketch) 6x6", oil on panel

 

 You live in a major artistic center of the world, New York City, but also in a remote, rural village within the Loire Valley of France. How important is place for you?

 

I find place extremely important - but I'm not always sure how, or it is not usually obvious.  As I mentioned above, I am rather private in my painting life - and this may be largely because there are so many distractions, many of them valuable, in NYC, but it can be difficult to focus if you engage with it too much.  My studio is very near my home, so I walk there - and this allows me to keep my world pretty circumscribed.   And when I'm in France, I'm similarly circumscribed, with a work space right next to my house.  But there is a big physical difference in terms of the quality of the space and the sounds that surround me. When I get to France, I revel in the silence. This almost seems more important than the space. I close my eyes a lot, and just bask in it. I do not usually fill it with music - whereas in the city, music fills our space a lot. And then, the ideas that come for painting are different in a way that relates to this.  For example, this summer I worked on a series of figurative paintings in which I noticed a lot of flight - this evolved out of a series of paintings that I did in the city before leaving that were about wind, and the aggressive feeling of wind.  But I noticed how in the country, in France, it was almost as if the wind found it's way into the figures, and they took flight. I am also aware right away of the distance that my eyes can travel in space when there, how I can just look out and out. This all feels extremely valuable, though I am never sure what it will result in.  An obvious difference would be if I painted landscapes while in France and urban scenes while in the city, but my work has gotten much more interior, and so the difference is more subtle - but the change of place is nonetheless very powerful.

"But there is a big physical difference in terms of the quality of the space and the sounds that surround me.  When I get to France, I revel in the silence.  This almost seems more important than the space.  I close my eyes a lot, and just bask in it.  I do not usually fill it with music - whereas in the city, music fills our space a lot. And then, the ideas that come for painting are different in a way that relates to this."

9433512_orig.jpg

5282098_orig.jpg

"Harlem - color study", 6x12", oil on panel (private collection)

 

How do you define 'truth' and what is it's relation to your work, or how does it exist within your work? 

Truth is, of course, why I began. As do most young painters I am sure.  In my answer to the question regarding the shift from Philosophy to painting I mentioned that the writing I was doing was increasingly distant from anything I felt was true, and in fact the words seemed to get in the way, to be a kind of scrim.   And I felt an immediate truth in the sense that the truth was felt in the sculptures of Donatello and Rodin, and the viewer felt it as well, almost simultaneously, out of time. The sense of it being felt, and the sense that it transcended time. In conversation, I often feel my words slip away from true feeling, or from what I may be trying to articulate,  or I generally will feel misunderstood -- not in any way particular to me though, but rather in a way I think is due to the nature of words.  Probably many many people feel this way.  But it is always so important to me, that I find a way to articulate what matters, and in painting there is a sense that the piece is something that's undeniable, you can't argue with it - you just look at it, listen to what it's saying. It bears it's truth that way. I don't know about any 'absolute' truth, I don't think that's the kind of truth art gets at.  I'm not even sure that 'absolute truth' make any sense. But the paradox of art is this, that when good it is both coming from this deeply personal kind of truth and also touching a corresponding recognition of a truth in others.  In that way it transcends being merely subjective or relative -- there is a kind of universality that can come when articulating something deeply, privately true.
 

"But it is always so important to me, that I find a way to articulate what matters, and in painting there is a sense that the piece is something that's undeniable, you can't argue with it - you just look at it, listen to what it's saying."


The problem is, I don't think there's such a thing as 'untruth' in a work of art. To any extent that there may be 'untruth', I think that then there is not art. And so, it is also hard for me to speak of truth. The closest I can get to a definition of 'truth' regarding work might be 'authenticity' but even that's problematic. When I see a work that doesn't 'ring true' I perceive it more as 'not good' and it feels very connected to a work being inauthentic, being made for reasons such as: to sell, or to please and gain accolades from others, or is holding back out of fear, and so on. And in my work, when I feel that it is 'untrue' it is very closely aligned with the feeling of being made for such reasons I just noted and is just not finished. A work of art is so completely true it makes no sense to me to speak of 'untrue' art. Rather, that would be bad or not finished work. But what's the criteria? Not a subjective authenticity but a kind of being authentic in your response to the situation, to everything about what you're feeling as you're working, what you're thinking, what the world with you in it is bringing to the work. So yes, it's very problematic to judge other's work and so I try not to.  I can though judge my own.  

 

6349990_orig.jpg

Mattresses with Two Tables, acrylic, charcoal and oil on paper, 14 x 18"

 

Self-Portraiture appears to be an important theme within your work. Can you share why?

Self-Portraiture began for me as a way to ground myself. The first one I did was motivated by being cut off abruptly from a gallery that I was involved with at the same time as I was coping with a difficult health diagnosis. I realized in that moment that I could either spiral out of control, or I could sit myself down and look at all this with eyes wide open. Which of course, being a painter, meant to paint it.  I did a large, rather classically painted piece, which took several months to complete. The time spent doing this, sitting there and looking, was grounding, yes - but it also was the beginning of what became a characteristic way of working for me: of taking what can seem bad, or unfortunate, or unsettling - and using that as my subject matter, and in that way transforming it. Transforming it into something neither good nor bad, but something beyond judgement and into something that has it's own intrinsic value - the constant task of painting something being to see it this way.  

"...what became a characteristic way of working for me: of taking what can seem bad, or unfortunate, or unsettling - and using that as my subject matter, and in that way transforming it.   Transforming it into something neither good nor bad, but something beyond judgement and into something that has it's own intrinsic value - the constant task of painting something being to see it this way. " 

After this I committed to doing a self-portrait a year, so that I would maintain the habit of looking at myself in this way.  Some time into this I turned 50 - and the only thing that made any sense to do on my 50th birthday was, again, a self-portrait. But this time it seemed that it wasn't a moment that I needed to ground myself with - it was the very passage of time, the movement - and so I then made a commitment to doing a self-portrait drawing every day for that year. A lot could be said about that, which would take up way too much space - but I will just add that this evolved afterwards into a series of self-portraits of my torso. After working with my face for the year, there was a moment (after turning 51) when my body seemed utterly foreign to me - and I took to bringing myself back into a relationship with my body by drawing and painting it, by looking at it in a way beyond judgement and towards its own intrinsic value. Indeed, when once my son said to me that I had better try to get rid of my 'love handles' I said to myself that I ought not to do that, for this is my subject matter.  I need my body, as it is. It is of value.

 

1160277_orig.jpg

1.5.15, graphite and wax

 

II'm interested in the idea and experience of freedom connected to art. Do you believe that art is emancipatory? For Schopenhauer and Kant, this potentiality has: "A particular power which enables it's possessor to leave his own interests, wishes, aims entirely out of sight and thereby free himself to create a world in imagination" (Hofstadter and Kuhns, 1964, P.447).
 
Freedom is one of those words, like 'objective' and 'subjective' that while they make sense, don't really refer to a concrete entity in the world. They exist as ideas, as ideals - but are no less important for that. When I was learning to draw and then to paint, my teacher (Ted Jacobs) spoke over and over again about how one needs to clear one's mind of all preconceptions, to be able to observe objectively what is in the visual field.  But yet at the same time, we only are able to perceive because we have pre-conceptions that contribute to our ability to make any sense of anything; we are never going to be free of our preconceptions; there isn't any objective perception of a chair without our perception of it, which is a relationship. But having this as a functional ideal, to strive to rid ourselves of our preconceptions can accomplish several things, not the least of which is to make you aware of your preconceptions.   You will work and train hard, getting ever closer to this goal - yet will never reach it. This in no way undermines its importance as a goal; likewise with freedom. Does the notion of an absolute freedom make any sense? Freedom is always situated: freedom-from or freedom-to, and yet it is probably very important to strive for absolute freedom of both kinds in one's work, knowing all the while that one will never attain it.  
 

Thinking in terms of freedom from influence in the absolute sense can lead to a vacuous kind of emphasis on 'novelty'; we are always historical, our work and our selves, and there is a sense in which we are both historically influenced but moving into the future with our work in a new way at the same time. On the other hand, leaning too far back into history can lead to a repetition of a kind of value and work that may lack in relevance, and interest, and meaning; striving for a freedom from this while recognizing one's connectivity is important. Similarly, freedom to work is  - particularly these days - very important. The freedom to make anything of meaning may mean not needing to occupy oneself at all with concerns with censorship whether that censorship comes from oneself or one's family or one's state. In an ideal sense, the lack of a sense of freedom to make particular kinds of things can result in an inability to produce anything of meaning.  But this, again, is an ideal; we are, again, historical as we make - situated both in history and in our contemporary realms, and there is always the question that must be asked consciously regarding how much of something to show, how much to say, where to say it.  Sometimes it's important to push a lot, sometimes not as much.  But the freedom to make that decision - essential.

In my paintings of my nude torso, for example - my kids (teenage and pre-teen) are not so keen on them.  They have asked me not to have them around the house, and one of them de-friended me on social media for posting them.  We had a very interesting discussion about how I felt that they were important to make and put out there, nobody should influence what you feel you can make, should censor you; but I said that I recognized their discomfort and would set up a separate page for posting them, so that unless you 'like' that page you won't see the work, and also, that I would only hang them in my bedroom or in my studio, not in the other rooms of the house.  And they noted to me that they were not telling me not to do them, just that they were bothered by them.  In fact, I think it has been very important for them to see that I require the freedom to make these pieces regardless.    

I think that just the ability to BE an artist is a freedom that is continually challenged by the forces of convention and the market in our 'democratic' country, let alone how difficult if even possible it is to be an artist elsewhere. Particularly for women. Because of this it is a responsibility. A huge responsibility - when one manages to gain any kind of a voice, whether it's making scratches on paper with a stick to painting chapel ceilings: to make with deep care, to make what matters. 

 

"...when one manages to gain any kind of a voice, whether it's making scratches on paper with a stick to painting chapel ceilings: to make with deep care, to make what matters. "

 

Regarding how I paint, there's a kind of painterly freedom that one has now that relates to the very label "Experiential Realism" which I've coined (discussed in Part I). The ability to respond to an experience with one's techniques, while placing a primacy on the experience, depends upon an awareness that one has of every tradition of painting being at one's disposal. We are not bound by patron or church constraints, or by a cultural world view, or by existing in a particular moment in art history that would dictate what counts as art or as even being an artist. Many painters do choose to remain within a particular language of painting, and abide by the 'rules' of that game. But I think there is a sense in which we are truly at the 'end of history' in painting, meaning that we are kind of transcending the notion of genres that might describe history's march - one is always aware that there are countless completely legitimate ways of painting. And there are so many 'non-histories', ways of working that never made it into a larger narrative. So for me, the result is the release of a kind of play of categories.  This makes things difficult, not easier - and for many reasons. The best difficulties are mainly that one has to generate one's own rules -- so that the free play in painting does not mean that there are no rules, but rather, as I mentioned in another response, good work generate it's own rules, it's own criteria for what counts as 'good'. It is also very difficult because there are so many languages to learn -- what comes with this kind of painterly freedom is not that notion of 'anything goes', and this is very important -- it is the most difficult of projects, that one know many games, with many rules that guide each game, in order to play with this freedom in the larger sense, in order to respond to experience with painting.  

Yes - I feel the experience of freedom when I paint. I have always in fact gone to painting for a kind of freedom. I remember when I first started - the moment I laid down color I felt this extraordinary thing - that I could create a world! And that became invaluable to me as I would go into this world even in my mind throughout the day when I wasn't painting - all my feeling, all my thought, all my ideas, count in this world. They are unarguably true, they become the facts of the painting. The rules of my painting while generated with the painting are however my rules. I think if one can access this freedom, to make a world - that yes, art enables us to feel this, quite deeply. It's a freedom that is the result of learning so much of one's techniques that then, finally, the two worlds: the world of the work and the world that the work enters, commingle. 

 

3169714_orig.jpg

Two Mattresses on 9/11, gesso, acrylic and charcoal on paper, 12x18"

 

I think that Kant's notion of the free play of the imagination and 'lawfulness without a law' really does express the paradox that I think is inherent in creating and that I very much feel to be the case. I have always felt both a complete freedom when making work while at the same time knowing all the while of the need to learn, and once having finished my studies of the need for 'rules' -- rules which, however, are then subject to your will as the creator. It's a grounded concept of freedom - not pure freedom. The freedom of the imagination is always spring-boarding off of something and the laws that it doesn't need end up in the work in a way that synthesizes, that holds together, that speaks, that then has it's own lawfulness. This is possibly the unique freedom of art, it's ability to transform conventional concepts via play into it's own world. Lawlessness can not be art, can not make a 'work', and rule-governed work cannot be 'work' either, really - once you move beyond the realm of studying. The feeling of freedom when making is full and glorious - the way knowing a language can then lead to singing! And yes, from the perspective of making you do leave everything to the side. But neither the rules, nor your subjectivity are really gone of course, they're just not felt. Those interests, wishes, aims -- for me they are absolutely not operative (in fact if I feel them when I'm painting the work never comes out); whatever rules I've learned are similarly not operative -- but you can't head into the work without all that.  And in the end the painting is what's always actually telling me more or less what's been going on. The other day I was working on a kind of portrait, for example - and I started to get a sense of mass heavier at the top, and as I worked I realized I had to chuck whatever notions I had that may have been governing my work until that point, whether it was the idea of a conventional kind of portrait, or what the head ought to look like, and so on - and I painted up more and more into this mass, and painted out everything underneath her chin, in fact I started finger-painting - and then, that is when the painting started to speak and shortly after announce itself as finished. There was that unique kind of freedom then, in painting it - that it was, as my work, absolutely subject to my every whim - but on the other hand, it had to hang together and it had it's own lawfulness that I really had to negotiate with.  But they weren't my rules, and I had to in fact break those rules to release the painting into it's own and to hear what it's rules were.
 

"There was that unique kind of freedom then, in painting it - that it was, as my work, absolutely subject to my every whim - but on the other hand, it had to hang together and it had it's own lawfulness that I really had to negotiate with." 

I'm excited to see any new work that you may be working on. Is there something that we can look forward to?

Since last spring I've really been diving full into working figuratively but without a model. This started during the end of the year of self-portrait drawing when I found I was no longer looking at a visual reference when I drew. This ended up being a real turning point for me, to the extent that I now work mainly without a model, though I do work from life once a week. This has opened up vast narrative possibilities, with narratives that resonate much deeper and more metaphorically than how I previously worked. The work I did over this past summer touched on re-seeing certain myths - I did two "not' paintings, a "Not Icarus" and a "Not Ophelia", and right now I'm working on the story certain figures are telling around a couple of mattresses. 

The final "mattress" painting is one I just completed; it's called "Mourning", and the title hopefully is self-explanatory. And coming up in November is a show that I was asked to participate in at the Flannery O'Connor House in Milledgeville, GA that will be presenting paintings inspired by her writing.  The piece I am putting in was begun from sketches that I did at the die-in protests in NYC last year - as I was building it up, I became increasingly involved in the spiritual dimension that I noticed at some of the die-ins, where gospel songs were sung and the 'hands-up' became more of a swaying of arms - the spiritual mingling with the notion of a kind of 'street justice', or calls for justice taken to the streets, evolved into O'Connors pained spirituality in Wise Blood.   The painting is called "Crossroads".

 

 
crossroad (1).jpgCrossroads
 
Mourning.jpgMourning

 

Thank you Karen.

 

Karen Kaapcke:
 

www.karenkaapcke.weebly.com

www.unprimedcanvas.blogspot.com

https://www.etsy.com/shop/KarenKaapcke

 

Hofstadter, Albert, and Richard Kuhns. Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1976. Print

 
 
 

Archives