Anne Subercaseaux

  Anne Subercaseaux finds substance in the insubstantial, in paintings that freeze the ephemeral patterns of reflection and shadow.  In her muted, almost monochrome palettes, images seem familiar but still elusive.  The precise silhouette of a bridge girder or a windblown branch moves into focus and out … Continue reading

Toni Gentilli

Toni's studio at The Compound

Toni’s studio at The Compound

Articiple: Over the past few years, I’ve watched photographer Toni Gentilli expose cyanotypes in the parking lot, make photo emulsions from plants growing in the alley, use blood sugar chemistry to create cameraless prints, and generally engage in a tireless practice of curiosity and re-invention. In Toni’s own words, she “combines anachronistic materials and techniques with contemporary sensibilities to explore the interrelationships between technology, nature, history, and identity.” Toni holds an MFA in Photography from the San Francisco Art Institute. She currently manages the photography lab at Solano Community College and curates the Studio Artists Gallery at the Compound in Oakland.  I sat down with her to hear more about her projects, and incidentally learned the words pareidolia and apophenia.

An update, October 2016:
Toni is leaving the Compound Gallery after 4 years, to become the Residency Program Manager at the Santa Fe Art Institute in New Mexico. We’ll miss her energy and vision at the Compound, but look forward to seeing what she’ll do at SFAI!


 Perihelion 2015, from the Evidence of Absence Series (Cyanometer Project.)

Perihelion 2015, from The Evidence of Absence Series. 2015, cyanotype on cotton rag paper. 6 x 36 inches.

Winter Solstice 2014

Winter Solstice 2014, from The Evidence of Absence Series. 2014, cyanotype on cotton rag paper. 6 x 36 inches.

Vernal Equinox 2015

Vernal Equinox 2015, from The Evidence of Absence Series. 2015, cyanotype on cotton rag paper. 6 x 36 inches.

Toni: This project is something I’ve been working on for a few years. I call it my Cyanometer project, but the actual title is The Evidence of Absence. The process involves a quasi-scientific recording of light and time, where I expose a roll of 120mm film in a series of partially overlapping exposures to recreate an 18th-century device called a cyanometer, that was used to measure the blueness of the sky. The cyanometer was a circular monochromatic scale of cyan made using Prussian Blue pigment applied to white paper, invented by a Swiss professor of natural philosophy named Horace-Bénédict de Saussure. The cyanometer was simply held up to the sky as a qualitative reference to determine its hue.

The cyanometer isn’t scientific. It was later proven that light scattering causes the sky to appear blue. I’m sort of reinventing that device. My pieces are linear instead of circular, so they have a feeling of time passing, almost cinematic, but they’re also pretty abstract. They don’t really represent anything from the physical world because I’m playing with the idea that people always expect a photograph is “of” something.

Articiple: Exactly. That’s what’s so interesting to me about your work. Photographs were originally meant to be documentary, but they’re also invented images.

Toni: Right. And in a way, my cyanometers are documentary. What I do to make them is photograph the sky the day before one of six annual solar events and then I process the film and expose it on the cyanotype-coated paper for the duration of the solar event the next day. So, however much sunlight there is for that day is recorded on the paper. Let’s say its vernal equinox, which is coming up next Saturday. I’ll go out on Friday, which is the last day of winter, and I’ll take pictures of the sky, then process the film and expose the entire roll in the sun for nine hours or however long between sunrise and sunset on the first day of spring. Through the cyanometers, I compress longer durations of time into smaller arbitrary segments.

Articiple: How long is each frame exposed when you’re shooting?

Toni: There’s an accumulation of exposures per frame. The first frame contains one exposure, and then the second frame contains two exposures, and so on. The amount of light that hits the film builds up the density of it, so it ultimately lets less light through when I’m printing it, that’s where the gradation of tones comes from.

Articiple: And whatever the shutter speed is set to is the exposure time?

Toni:  I use a Holga, which is a plastic camera that doesn’t even have a shutter speed. It’s not very technical or systematic at all. It’s just me clicking, one two three, so the shutter speed varies by how fast I click and so the way I advance the frames is somewhat irregular. The cyanometers are actually a series of partially overlapping exposures; a compilation of systematic irregularities combined into one project. I give myself these parameters to work within, but yet the process itself isn’t really controlled.

There was another version of the project I did at first. The frames were separate, rather than a panorama. The progression of the tones was more prominent, but the separation created an emphasis on movement, so I stopped working in that way. I’ve stuck with the version of overlapping exposures because I feel like it conveys more of the ideas I’m exploring: the relationship between photography and light, time and documentation, and the ways that a photograph is not always what we think it is.

Articiple: Right. It doesn’t translate into a replica of something observed. So is this an object in the landscape (in one of the images)?

Toni:  Yeah. Sometimes I’ll choose a subject and abstract it to look vaguely like mountaintops. The inventor of the cyanometer was a mountaineer. He would use his device at different elevations on mountain peaks throughout Europe. So that’s my homage to him, just interjecting that little reference, but my pieces don’t ever really identify what, exactly, is in the frame or where I am.

Articiple: Is the choice of site for shooting the film also part of the planned process?

Toni:  It’s pretty random. Ninety percent of the stuff I’ve shot for this project has been right around the Compound studios, because I do all my film processing here, I expose the prints in the parking lot, and I often walk from my house to the studio. There are some photographs in the project that were taken further afield. Two years ago on the summer solstice I was up in the redwoods near Eureka. I was developing film at my campsite, mixing chemistry on a picnic table, washing the film at the water pump, and hanging it to dry from a tree. Then I had my prints strapped to the top of my car, exposing them for the day. I think people thought I was cooking meth!

Articiple: Working with chemicals, living out of your car…people probably imagined all kinds of things!

Toni:  There are some photographs in the project that were taken in different locales, but most of them are from close to home. I’m trying to work out a way to present the cyanometers that offers some of the background information I record, like the time of sunrise and sunset, the angle of sun, the locations I shoot the film, and the dates I expose the prints. I’m working out a design to integrate the prints into a large mural reminiscent of a 17th or 18th century astrological map.

Installation mockup for The Evidence of Absence Series. 2015.

Installation mockup for The Evidence of Absence Series.

Installation mockup for The Evidence of Absence Series.

Installation mockup for The Evidence of Absence Series.

It’s rewarding to have a project that allows me to enjoy and reflect on the process. I spend a lot of time outside with the prints observing the sun and taking pictures of the sky as I’m exposing the prints. And it’s interesting because the chemistry really stands on its own as part of the work. You can see the color shifts that occur as a result of different exposure to sunlight and moisture, the density of the film, etc. There are all these things that affect the tonality and the color of the chemistry itself.

As part of my graduate thesis exhibition, I began experimenting with chlorophyll printing, a process invented by Binh Danh who transposes images directly onto leaves using photographic negatives. But I chose to use hand-drawn negatives made with India ink on mylar sheets instead.

Transplant: Islet of Langerhans grid of 6. 2012, chlorophyll prints from hand-drawn negatives on nasturtium leaves.

Transplant: Islets of Langerhans, selected prints. 2012, chlorophyll prints from hand-drawn negatives on nasturtium leaves.

Transplant: Lungs. 2012, chlorophyll print from hand-drawn negative.

Transplant: Lungs. 2012, chlorophyll print from hand-drawn negative.

Now, I’m also integrating the use of plant-made emulsions into my practice. I’ll collect different leaves and flowers, like nasturtium, and grind them up with my mortar and pestle and a little distilled water to make emulsion from them. There’s no other chemistry involved. I’ll coat paper or cloth with the emulsions and put negatives on top and expose them to the sun.

Anthotype process with nasturtium pigments.

Anthotype process with nasturtium pigments.

I seem to be going down the rabbit hole of researching about nasturtium in particular. It’s a plant that is all around me, in my yard, at the studio; it’s pretty much everywhere in the East Bay. I didn’t know of it before moving here. I never saw it in Arizona or Wisconsin, where I lived previously. Initially I found that it had good leaves to make chlorophyll prints on because of their broad flat surfaces, but after researching the plant, I learned all these great things about it. The whole plant is edible. It has medicinal properties. Because of the mustard oils in it, it’s an antiseptic and an antifungal. Bioengineers are interested in the waxy surface of the leaves because they repel water. And there’s also its colonial history. Nasturtium originates from Peru. It was taken over to Europe, and then it came to North America. It was named by the botanist Carl Linnaeus.

Christina von Linne. 2012, anthotype from hand-ground nasturtium pigment on paper.

Christina von Linne. 2014, anthotype from hand-ground nasturtium pigment on paper.

This is an image of his daughter, Elisabeth von Linné. It’s from a hand rendered negative I made in India ink on mylar of an historic painting of her. She thought that the nasturtium plant emitted sparks at dusk. This was around the time that electromagnetism was being investigated. But what she was actually seeing was a contrast of green and orange in low light. This phenomenon was later proven to be an optical effect; there’s no actual electricity being emitted by the plant, of course, but it was recorded as a legitimate phenomenon by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences at the time. So I made anthotype portraits of her using pigments crafted from orange nasturtium flowers, and green leaves.

Articiple: So the pigment itself is photosensitive?

Toni:  Ultimately it’s a process of fading. I put the pigment-coated paper and hand-drawn negative in a contact print frame and place it out in the sun. In the case of the plant emulsions, whatever’s behind the black of the negative will retain its original tone and everything around it will fade and lighten.

It’s really not a photographic process per se in that there isn’t a chemical reaction, but there is a light reaction. This process of making prints, called anthotype, was invented by Sir John Frederick William Herschel, who also invented the cyanotype process. Herschel provides a common thread through many of my projects.

Articiple: You’re retracing the early history of photography.

Toni:  Yeah, I think what really what started me on this path is that so many early photographers were tinkerers and chemists and astronomers. They were trying to invent photography for practical purposes of reproducing images more easily than hand-rendering and etching plates. So there’s this trajectory, a relationship from drawing to printmaking and then photography.

One of the famous stories about William Henry Fox Talbot—who invented the positive/negative process—he got into photography because he was a poor draftsman! Ironically, I’m going the opposite direction, doing everything manually.

Articiple: Returning drawing to the process.

Toni:  Right. I could very easily render these images digitally and print digital negatives, but there’s something I really enjoy about the idiosyncrasies and process of making them by hand. Everything I make tends to be really labor-intensive, but the process itself allows me to mediate on the things that I’m investigating and what I’m learning about them.

Articiple: Is the anthotype process very durable? Will these prints maintain their color?

Toni:  They’re completely ephemeral. They’ll fade away over time. That’s something that also really engages me, is their impermanence. The capacity for the image to fade back into the source (light) from which it came is something that’s intriguing to me.

Articiple: The reflection of time in the artifact itself.

Toni:  Exactly. Working with anthotypes and Herschel’s other processes, I can observe and participate in some of the rich, multi-layered connections between science and technology and the history of photography. I’m really getting into those themes and dissecting them and reassembling them into something I can make sense of.

In addition to experimenting with chlorophyll printing and emulsions made from nasturtium and other plants, I’ve made black and white photographs in my darkroom by putting the plants directly in my enlarger or plant emulsions and other natural materials on microscope slides or in petri dishes in lieu of negatives. It’s my variation on another early photographic technique called cliché verre, which involved sooting a plate of glass over a candle so that it was totally blackened, then sgraffito drawing on it and using it to make a contact print on paper. That’s the best way I can describe this technique of putting objects in my enlarger instead of negatives. There isn’t really a name for that.

Articiple: And printing from the slides of the plant material?

Toni:  Yeah. The way I work with photography is usually experimental, so I do some documentation of my process because it is so important to me, but the documentation is all rather rough, mostly captured on my iPhone, so I’ve never integrated it into a project. I guess I also worry about being overly explanatory—I don’t want to just say, “This is how I do this.” and give away all of the mystery.

Articiple: But there’s so much back story in your work that’s important to know! It’s all part of the project. Like the Transmutation series, where there’s a connection between alchemy and body fluids and your own history and the history of photographic processes, and so on.

Toni's MFA installation

Toni’s MFA installation, with Ouroboros (left), Transmutation (right), and Transplant (foreground.)

Toni:  That’s something I struggle with, how to convey that information, what information, how much, and in what format. I think it will be an ongoing issue for me because my brain is full of ideas and information, and I don’t necessarily know where I’m going with it all! In my mind, it’s all inter-related, but how to convey that to others is a challenge.

There are two interrelated psychosomatic phenomena that interest me. One of them is called pareidolia, where you see faces in random patterns. That’s part of where my ink blot-inspired works in the Mimesis project come from. Most of my work is abstract, and I like to play the line of offering information to viewers but in such a way that they can come up with their own conclusions. I feel like abstract work allows for that more so than representational work, but even with representational work, everything is left up to subjective interpretation, regardless of the artist’s intentions. Art is a dialog between people really. My use of abstraction and patterning is partly a commentary on the nature of art, but it’s also about cultural and physiological influences on perception. That is the basis of my Mimesis series.

Mimesis, selected prints. 2014, liquid silver gelatin emulsion on cotton rag paper. 4 x 6 inches each.

Mimesis, selected prints. 2014, liquid silver gelatin emulsion on cotton rag paper. 4 x 6 inches each.

I make the images in my darkroom using liquid silver gelatin emulsion, which I pour, drip, and draw onto paper, fold in half, expose under the light of my enlarger, and then develop like a photograph. I continue to manipulate the emulsion as it is drying. So, the process again entails equal measures of randomness interjected by the materials I use and how I use them, and control resulting from my deliberate interventions with the materials.

The related phenomenon called apophenia is where people perceive patterns in data and experiences when none exist. There are neurological, cultural and social factors that all contribute to these phenomena. Pareidolia and apophenia are actively being studied by anthropologists and neurologists who are debating over what aspects of perception are physiological and what’s cultural or social. I think it’s fascinating!

At some point I’m hoping all the ideas, techniques, and materials I’ve been playing with gel into an anthology of inter-related projects. I envision putting my work together literally as a book, but also as a website that draws connections between all of my research and artistic experimentation. Whether the connections actually exist or I’m making them up, I want to map out the tethers that I’m following from one thing to another. I am a self-proclaimed apopheniac!

Articiple: I’m interested in the archaeology aspect in your work. What you just described is archaeological— you want to put this body of work together that tells this history.

Toni:  Yeah, that proclivity stems from my former career as an archaeologist, and I just can’t give it up. I’m constantly researching, reading books, learning about different natural, cultural, and social phenomena. I’m never bored, that’s for sure!

Articiple: Since we’re on the history of photography—did it emerge only in Europe, or were there other parallel developments somewhere?

Toni:  Funny you should ask. Simultaneous invention is something else I’m really interested in, because it’s so prevalent in the Victorian era and the history of photography specifically. But there wasn’t anything related to the development of photography in America or Asia that I’m aware of. There was knowledge of optics and light, and how images project through a pinhole, as early as circa 500 BC in China and Greece, then later in what’s now Iran and Italy. But creating a device itself that could capture an image and transfer it onto a substrate that would make it permanent was a French and English innovation.

Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, a Frenchman, and William Henry Fox Talbot, an Englishman are usually credited for inventing photography, but there was another Frenchman, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, who made the first fixed image that we know of in the late 1820’s. He created a photochemical process using a pewter plate coated with bitumen of Judea. It’s similar to the asphaltum used in lithography and etching (Niépce was a lithographer). He put the plate into a simple box camera and made a several-hour exposure out his window. Then he processed the plate with lavender oil. The bitumen not hardened by the sun washed away. It created a positive image on the metal plate.

The plate was lost for a long time, but it was rediscovered in the 1950s and technicians at Kodak made black and white prints from it. This is the version of Niépce’s photograph you will likely see on the internet, but there are various permutations of the original image. That kind of iterative copying is something that I’m interested in too. I used asphaltum and gum Arabic to create a drawing of a digital image of Kodak’s silver gelatin print of Niépce’s metal plate on a lithograph stone which I printed.

Preparing stone for Lithograph After Niepce.

Preparing stone for Lithograph After Niepce.

Lithograph After Niepce. 2012, lithograph on paper.

Lithograph After Niepce. 2012, lithograph on paper.

Anyway, the origin of photography is definitely rooted in Europe. Sir John Frederick William Herschel, who invented cyanotype, lived in England. Herschel also discovered fix, the chemical component that allowed Fox Talbot’s photographs to be made permanent. This was the primary quest of early photography. There were several people involved in this quest before and around the same time as Herschel and Talbot, like Thomas Wedgewood, who documented his creation of photographic images using silver salts, but he was never able to fix the images he created.

Articiple: They figured out something was light-sensitive, but they couldn’t preserve the image?

Toni:  Yes, most of the first photographic images were fugitive. They would over-develop or fade away with time. It was Herschel and his discovery of sodium thiosulfate, or fix, which allowed photographs to be made permanent. There was preexisting knowledge of light and optics that came before photography, and there were a number of people other than Herschel attempting to produce permanent photographic images, and oftentimes these individuals were in conversation with each other or working together. In our contemporary minds, however, we usually simplify history and attribute inventions like photography to one person on a specific date, but its way more complicated than that.

Articiple: What did that chemistry come out of? How did the discoveries come about?

Toni:  Herschel’s chemistry is predominantly iron-based, the discovery of which happened partly by accident through several different stages. About 100 years before him, during the 1700s, the first synthetic blue pigment, called Prussian Blue, was made serendipitously using potash containing iron from animal blood. This is a huge deal because the color blue rarely occurs in nature. Today we’re finding out that most plants or animals that appear blue look that way because of structural color, or reflected light; the things themselves aren’t actually blue. Over time, through experimentation, different people using Prussian Blue for various applications realized that it had light-sensitive properties, but it was Herschel who ultimately transformed the chemical constituents of the pigment into a photographic process.

Articiple: I know you also have a couple of residencies coming up.

Toni:  Yes. I have one residency in June at the Lucid Art Foundation, outside Inverness in Point Reyes. It’s a beautiful place with a long history. Gordon Onslow Ford, a surrealist painter established his studio up there. He and another painter, Fariba Bogzaran (she teaches at JFK University) shared ideas about art and consciousness and eventually they established the Lucid Art Foundation to support other artists investigating those ideas. So, I’ll go up there and stay in the woods for three weeks and have Gordon Onslow Ford’s amazing studio to work out of. But what really drew me there is that they have a pigment garden!

My plans for that residency are fairly open, just me continuing to experiment with some of the techniques that I described earlier. The Lucid Art Foundation supports people who make non-objective work, with some level of automatism involved in what they’re doing. So, I’m primarily going to engage in the process of experimentation more so than a content-driven project and see where it takes me. I’m hoping my focus on natural materials and process will help to further develop some of the ideas and methods that I’ve been dabbling with over the last couple years and maybe provide a springboard for something new.

Alleleopathic Talisman 1. 2015, mixed media on paper, including the artist's blood, insulin, cyanotype photochemistry (undeveloped) and other materials.

Alleleopathic Talisman 1. 2015, mixed media on paper, including the artist’s blood, insulin, cyanotype photochemistry (undeveloped) and other materials.

In late July and early August, I have another residency at a place called Chalk Hill. It’s a fairly new program, but again, it’s on an old property that has a lot of great history. It’s on Warnecke Ranch, which includes a working winery with about 500 acres on a bend of the Russian River up in Sonoma County. I’m really excited about possibly using some of their grapes to make pigments, but the project that I proposed for that residency is more specific and conceptually based. It utilizes multi-media, which is a new way of working for me, realizing within one project permutations of an idea in different media. It’s going to be an investigation of the landscape that references old technology and blends it with contemporary technology. I’m using the idea of reflection and the Claude Glass (a small tinted mirror used in the 18th and 19th centuries for viewing landscapes, named for the 17th century landscape painter Claude Lorrain.); I want to look at the iPhone as the contemporary Claude Glass.

Articiple: Right! The way we’re always mediating what we’re looking at through that screen.

Toni:  Exactly. My project is about the mediated experience of the landscape, and uses reflection as a metaphor. Those are the concepts that I’ll be playing with. What I intend to do is to take the iPhone and make an enclosure for it that’s like a traditional Claude Glass with a velvet lining in a wood case.

Iphone as Claude Glass. Proposal for Chalk Hills residency for summer 2015.

Iphone as Claude Glass. Proposal for Chalk Hills residency for summer 2015.

I have a vintage wooden tripod and I’ll mount the phone onto there so that it doesn’t have to be hand- held. Then I can photograph it embedded in the landscape, and take close-ups of the landscape reflected into it. I’ll use a separate digital camera to photograph the reflections in the iPhone. Then I’ll translate some of those photographs into drawings on mylar for use as negatives and I’ll print them with Van Dyke chemistry in the sun out in the landscape itself. I’m also going to process the Van Dyke prints in the river, so I’ll integrate elements of the landscape itself into the work. I chose to use Van Dyke brown because of its tonal relationship to the history of 18th Century landscape paintings, which is what the Claude Glass was made to replicate. And also because it is a process invented by Herschel! So again, I’ll be creating a compression of time and history into one project.

Claude Glass case for iPhone. Proposal for Chalk Hills residency for summer 2015.

Claude Glass case for iPhone. Proposal for Chalk Hills residency for summer 2015.

Articiple: Also, the way that people in more urban parts of the Bay Area (and tourists from everywhere, I guess) see Sonoma County and “wine country” as a pastoral retreat–that goes along with the history of the Claude Glass as a way to view landscape as a curated aesthetic experience.

Toni:  Right. I’m also planning to capture short videos and still images on iPhones, and then display the devices with the imagery on them. This will further incorporate current digital technology with the analog photographs I make from my drawings which reference an historical genre of painting. It’s going to be a multi-faceted commentary not only on landscape, but on how a subject or place is experienced through technology like the iPhone, and how contemporary photographs are transmuted across the internet into a million different versions of themselves, and nobody ever knows what reality is.

Articiple: There’s no original.

Toni:  Just simulacra! So that’s the project. The residencies will be really great because they’ll provide concentrated time away from work, and laundry, and walking the dog, or whatever else, and not be distracted. I almost look at them as spiritual retreats. I feel especially lucky and I’m very excited for what’s on the horizon.

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Kate Rhoades

Required Skimming (based on Forgetting the Art World by Pamela M. Lee). 2014, video still.

Required Skimming (based on Forgetting the Art World by Pamela M. Lee). 2014, video still.

Kate Rhoades’ video Artist Statement opens with the line “My current work is an exploration of the role of the artist, the institution of art, and its discourse,” but only after taking us through the hair pulling, swearing, and second-guessing that go with trying to jam an artistic practice into a few sentences.   The video is buried inconspicuously on Rhoades’ website, but as a capsule summary of her practice it’s on point. Rhoades makes videos, paintings, performances, and other work that jostle the institutional complacencies of the art world through humor, sly guilelessness, and a cheerful willingness to include herself in the joke. I saw Kate’s mixed media exhibition at the Mills College 2014 MFA Exhibition and immediately wanted to talk to her.

Kate also co-hosts a podcast, Congratulations Pine Tree, with Maysoun Wazwaz (Program Manager at the Mills College Art Museum.)  It’s a serious and entertaining and very listenable take on the same things we talk about here.

Articiple: Your MFA exhibition made me want to ask you questions that can’t really be answered, even though they need to be talked about over and over. Like: how can artists resist the cooptation of the market and work for communities based on self-determination?  In particular I wanted to talk to you about—well, pretty much everything in the exhibition, and how things all played off each other.  Such as: those precise, mostly small paintings of the behind-the-scenes operations of the art institution—a copy machine, somebody on a scissors lift, the back (once front) door of the Mills Museum—all with a lot of blank space, like the gallery walls had been sucked into the paintings.

Daisy in the Ceiling. 2014, 0il on muslin on panel. 9″ x 12″.


Lawler Installers.  2014,  oil on linen on panel.  48" x 36".

Lawler Installers. 2014, oil on linen on panel. 48″ x 36″.

Kate: All those paintings are based on things and people that were around me when I worked at the Mills College Art Museum. When I was working on them, I was also taking a class taught by Julia Bryan-Wilson and Darcy Grigsby at UC Berkeley on the histories of photography. One of the readings I did for that class was an essay by Rosalind Krauss called Photography’s Discursive Spaces. She talks about the gallery wall as a charged space which lends new meaning to whatever is displayed on it. Many of those little paintings that I made have large swaths of white, empty wall. The white cube is supposed to be a void where art work can speak for itself without interference, but we know now that the white wall has its own significance, and is no longer a totally neutral space, if it ever was. Also when I was making those paintings I was thinking about color field paintings, and then putting the figures in some of them was making it as though they had wandered into an abstraction to do their work.

Articiple: The Required Skimming videos are like spoofy Cliff Notes for art theory, especially theory about the codes of power that control art institutions and perceptions of art and perceptions of artists themselves.

Required Skimming (based on 9.5 Theses on Art and Class by Ben Davis), 2014.  Video still.

Required Skimming (based on 9.5 Theses on Art and Class by Ben Davis), 2014. Video still.

Kate: I wish they were proper cliff notes, so I could actually understand anything Hal Foster has written. His were the hardest texts for me to make videos from, because I can’t fucking understand them at all. I tried to get some of the art historians I know to talk to me about them. I would ask them if they could sum up The Return of the Real for me in a couple sentences. Everyone declined, and I couldn’t tell if it was offensive for me to ask people to sum up important work like that, or if no one could do it because his work is so inscrutable or complicated. I think the people that appreciate that series the most are people who feel they’re getting revenge on the readings after having to grapple with them in school. For me, that series is an excuse to force myself to at least casually familiarize myself with those texts. I had been reading Andrea Fraser‘s essays since I was in college, but her writing is also very dense and references a lot of these other writers, like Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh, and Pierre Bourdieu. I thought if I could just immerse myself in this kind of theoretical writing I would be able to understand Fraser’s writing more. It turns out her writing is pretty easy to understand compared to some of these other writers.

Anyway, yes, most of the writing I’m interested in has to do with art and power, or art and class. These are the issues that I think are most important to the field of art right now. I gave a lecture recently about my work to a college class, and I talked about the idea (this is also something Andrea Fraser always talks about) of the artist as a rebel who speaks truth to power versus the reality of the artist as a producer of luxury goods for the super wealthy. That contradiction is something I try to address and work through in my practice. After I said that, one of the students told me he didn’t have that conflict at all. He thinks of himself as basically a glorified wall decorator. It seems that this is becoming the standard attitude for contemporary artists now. I think artists don’t expect as much from art as they used to, say during Dada or Surrealism. I don’t know too many young artists interested in “the art which has been visibly shattered by the explosions of the last week, which is forever trying to collect its limbs after yesterday’s crash.” Not that I think my work is so earth-shatteringly radical, but I am interested in art that contends with the conflicts happening in the places where it’s shown and in the audience engaging with it.

Articiple:  Outside Jokes, the zine about the exhibition,  made it seem like you’d be friendly and funny to talk to.

Outside Jokes.  2014, photocopied zine.  8-1/2" x 5-1/2", 12 pages.

Outside Jokes. 2014, photocopied zine. 8-1/2″ x 5-1/2″, 12 pages.

Thanks, I love talking to people. I hoped for the zines to give some explanation or context to people that might not be art-world regulars, people like my mom.

 Articiple: The furniture you used to display the videos and zines looked like it was made of plywood from old art packing crates.

Installation view, Mills College 2014 MFA Exhibition.  2014, mixed media.

Installation view, Mills College 2014 MFA Exhibition. 2014, mixed media.

I decided on housing the video screens in actual crates that had been used to ship work to the museum, because I was thinking of the essay, Why Does Fred Sandback’s Work Make Me Cry by Andrea Fraser (published in Grey Room, 2006.) She talks about the museum as a source of indoctrination. We go to the museum, and then we become the museum. We replicate the values and hierarchies that the museum represents. So in my show the crates are shipping information to the museum in your head. That might be kind of a stretch, though. Here’s my favorite part from that Andrea Fraser essay:

We are all here members of cultural fields. We carry, each of us, our institutions inside ourselves. There’s a museum in here, inside of me, with the Corinthian columns, the grand staircase, and the mezzanine. There’s a system of organization: the way I see things. There are objects and images, and there are texts, and there are voices explaining. There’s an archive that also contains my memories. And there’s a basement where I keep the things I don’t want to show.

Just as art cannot exist outside of the field of art, I cannot exist outside of the field of art, at least not as what I am, which is an artist. And this is also the limit of institutional critique. I can attack those internal objects. I can rip at the walls of my institutional body. But I can’t tear it down completely, and I can’t leave it, because I would then not only cease to have an effect within the field; I would also cease to exist.

Articiple: You’re shining a light on some of the whitewashing and cooptation that goes on in the art world, the ways that art is used to shore up wealth (financial capital) or status (cultural capital), and the ways art is contained within elite or esoteric social strata.

Kate: Again, I want to direct people’s attention to another reading that talks about all these things way better than I can: 9.5 Theses on Art and Class by Ben Davis.

Articiple: Punks, Guerrilla Girls, 70s downtown performance artists all confronted this in their way, but every era has to reinvent the wheel of autonomy or community.  So… how does it work in 2014?  How do we make art right now that can’t be immediately co-opted for wealth or status?

Kate: I don’t know if art alone is going to reverse neo-liberalism, but one thing that I think will help make art less dependent on wealth disparity is paying artists fees for showing in non-profit institutions. If artists weren’t totally reliant on selling their (very expensive) work they might be more inclined to make work that is challenging to the ideology of the ruling class. W.A.G.E., Working Artists and the Greater Economy, has been pushing for this and is actually having a fundraiser right now to help jump start their certification process to establish standardized fee payments to artists for their labor. If anyone wants to donate, here’s where you can do it:

 Articiple: A big part of your practice is about online media and popular, accessible formats like YouTube.  Is the user-curated internet the portal to artist autonomy and self-governing communities?

Kate: The internet has definitely made artists rely less on galleries and museums to create a viewership for their work. However, I also get called a douchebag more on the internet than I do in galleries, so it’s kind of a trade-off.

Articiple: Institutions and money are so much a part of getting the art out into the world—on a very basic level, like the way so many galleries rely on MFA graduate programs to deliver the next crop of artists to them, and artists rely on gallery support to have a living.   So…where is that sweet spot where artists can get the resources and support they need to do their work, without colluding with an art market that exists mainly to expand wealth in the hands of the wealthy?

Kate: I’m just going to plug W.A.G.E. again here:

Articiple: And about the state of art and artists in San Francisco: independent galleries and all the artist support that goes with them are being priced out of the city center.  At the same time, SFMOMA is expanding at a cost of over half a billion dollars, in part to showcase the Fisher Collection of mostly midcentury American blue chip artists.  So I guess my question here is, what do institutions like SFMOMA have to offer artists who are working against the cooptation of art as an investment commodity?  Is there a useful way for artists to be in dialogue with places like SFMOMA?  Guerrilla exhibitions in the restrooms?

Kate: There are still many independent art spaces in the Bay Area, though their positions are more and more precarious. As we were talking about before there will always be artists finding alternative channels for distributing their work, like through the internet, zines, etc. My friend Eli Thorne did a guerilla performance at SFMOMA a couple years ago where he had a loud spiritual communion with a Jay DeFeo painting. I videotaped it secretly, which was one of the most stressful moments I’ve ever had in an art museum.

I’m not sure what the best practice is for dealing with a museum that has Charles Schwab on its board of trustees. Of course we also have to realize that most non-profits, arts-related or not, are getting money from places that we may not want to think about. It is particularly problematic, though, when you’re making work about the life-threatening working conditions of sweat-shop laborers in Bangladesh and the venue where your work is being shown is sponsored by the Gap. I don’t have solutions for these problems, because to be totally honest if Janet Bishop or Rudolph Frieling came knocking down my door (highly unlikely) tomorrow asking me to be in a show at SFMOMA it would be very hard for me to turn them down. I think highly-publicized withdrawals from shows have been effective for sparking dialog about the injustices that institutions perpetuate. For example, when the YAMS collective withdrew from the 2014 Whitney Biennial over Joe Scanlan being one of the other exhibiting artists. Or when artists involved in Creative Times’ Living as Form exhibition boycotted over the show touring in Israel. These aren’t easy decisions to make, though, and it’s hard for me to begrudge any artist for taking whatever scant opportunities are coming their way. Again, I think these problems are rooted in neo-liberal capitalism and until we address that, not just in art discourse but in larger conversation, I don’t think much will change.



Mel Prest

MIrror Zigg+.  2013, acrylic and metallic acrylic on panel.  28" x 22" x 2".

MIrror Zigg+. 2013, acrylic and metallic acrylic on panel. 28″ x 22″ x 2″.


Mel Prest is a San Francisco-based painter whose geometric-patterned works of charged color create such energy, they almost seem audible.

Mel’s past exhibitions include solo shows at Gregory Lind Gallery in San Francisco and B Sakara Garo in Sacramento.  In October 2014 her solo show MoonBrightChime/Portmanteau will open at Galleri Urbane in Dallas.  Mel is also a curator and art instructor working with numerous arts organizations in the Bay Area and throughout the world.

Articiple: The color relationships in your paintings carry so much energy—colors chase each other around the surface, reverberating in one area and then another, changing with the lighting, the viewer’s position, or even a tilt of the head. Of course color is inseparable from pattern in these pieces.  The basic elements of the patterns seem simple at first—diagonal lines in parallel, intersecting and overlapping—but they get more complex the longer one looks.  The patterns create alternating areas of density and openness, rest and activity, that move around the paintings.   The color/pattern dynamics continually animate the paintings and undo any fixed sense of composition.

Crossed Arrows

Crossed Arrows. 2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 14″ x11″ x2″.



Crossed Arrows. Side view.


Music for Limbo. 2014, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 14" x 11" x 2".

Music for Limbo. 2014, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 14″ x 11″ x 2″.


Music for Limbo.  Side view.

Music for Limbo. Side view.


Mel: Even though I stick to color and line in painting I feel like I’m constantly being surprised by what can happen. I don’t think it shows so well in the photograph but this piece with the fluorescent yellow so bright that makes the white look gray/ beige/ violet made me really excited. Just something so simple can be sort of magical—sneaking up on me while I work.

More Thought Work. 2014, acrylic on panel, 14″ x 11″ x 2″.


I painted in sets of parallel lines for many years, and allowing the lines to cross and meet has made the work much more alive. I’m most excited by glitches and where the pattern starts to break down—subtle things like reloading the brush with paint or a momentary jitter become visible and affect the work immediately.

Crossed Arrows Apocalypse OK.  2014, 28" x 22" x 2".

Crossed Arrows Apocalypse OK. 2014, 28″ x 22″ x 2″.


RF Arrows. 2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel.  12" x 12" x 2".

RF Arrows. 2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 12″ x 12″ x 2″.


Reverb.  2013, acrylic , interference, metallic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel.  14" x 11" x 2".

Reverb. 2013, acrylic , interference, metallic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 14″ x 11″ x 2″.


Articiple: A few years ago you shifted from oil to acrylic paint, and recently you’ve been including phosphorescent and metallic paint in some works. What has that shift meant for you?

Mel: Now, using acrylic, I feel I can do anything. I paint over things all the time and can get much stranger colors and physical effects. The glow in the dark is the most fun—it’s something that’s culturally attached to 70s black light posters and crafts, so using it feels naughty. I mean I was trained very classically and so things like metallics or fluorescents weren’t available in oil paint, or if they were they weren’t found on the “Master’s palette.” The best thing about these paints is that they shift with lighting conditions and proximity. It’s weird but I think working with acrylic has reaffirmed that nature is one of my strongest reference points—I’m looking and finding the effects of late afternoon sunlight flooding through a stand of trees by using silver, for example. It flashes at you when you walk by silver lines—goes from light to shadow instantly—like the sun going behind a cloud.

Falling Indigo Diamonds.  2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel.  14" x 11" x 2".

Falling Indigo Diamonds. 2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 14″ x 11″ x 2″.


Falling Indigo Diamonds.  Side view.

Falling Indigo Diamonds. Side view.


SF Radiation.  2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel.  36" x 36" x 2".

SF Radiation. 2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 36″ x 36″ x 2″.


SF Radiation.  Lights off.

SF Radiation. Lights off.


Articiple: The British artist Bridget Riley seems like a sort of artistic soul mate—your engagement with perception, your use of rhythm and variation, overlap in a lot of interesting ways.  I’ve also been thinking about Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, the Hard-edge work of Helen Lundeberg, even  Agnes Martin, as possible influences or co-travelers. Do any of these resonate for you?

Bridget Riley, "Cataract 3."  1967, PVA on canvas.  87" x 87-3/4".

Bridget Riley, “Cataract 3.” 1967, PVA on canvas. 87″ x 87-3/4″.


Bridget Riley, "In Attendance."  1994, oil on linen.  89" x 65".

Bridget Riley, “In Attendance.” 1994, oil on linen. 89″ x 65″.


Mel: I like Ellsworth Kelly, Bridget Riley and Agnes Martin! But I was profoundly influenced by Robert Irwin—I remember walking into Dia:Chelsea and seeing his Excursus: Homage to the Square3 installation and being transported.  And his book Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. It was a book I read annually for a while and it got me super un-stuck in grad school. I like his approach—still—to his work, to phenomena, and to seeing. For me, he is the most important artist in my life.

Robert Irwin, "Excursus: Homage to the Square(3)."   1998.  Installation, dimensions variable.

Robert Irwin, “Excursus: Homage to the Square(3).” 1998. Installation, dimensions variable.


Agnes Martin, her stubborn kindness in discussing work, and her own work, is exciting. I relate to her focus with line, and to the very direct work—no mediation with a straightedge or representation. The quality of the work being that it is what it is—how it is what you bring to it—that there is no story, only what you see. I also appreciate her writings and how they speak so directly, plus address Zen Buddhism.

Agnes Martin, "The Islands."  1961, acrylic and graphite on canvas.  72" x 72".

Agnes Martin, “The Islands.” 1961, acrylic and graphite on canvas. 72″ x 72″.


I like how Ellsworth Kelly uses shapes, and also the possibility of chance, like Dada poetry, cutting and re-forming the image/work. La Combe is based on a photograph of light and shadow on a Parisian stairway that inspired a wellspring of paintings (like these and these.) This seriality that he uses—mining an image or an idea over and over again—is also something I hold close, admire and relate to.

Ellsworth Kelly, “La Combe I.”  1950, oil on canvas.  38" × 63-3/4".

Ellsworth Kelly, “La Combe I.” 1950, oil on canvas. 38″ × 63-3/4″.


Josef Albers’ work is thrilling too—the idea that color is always deceiving and must be in relationship (to other color) to be truly seen makes me think of color as phenomena and experiential. His book Interaction of Color reads like poetry.

Joseph Albers, from "Interaction of Color."  Published in 1963.

Joseph Albers, from “Interaction of Color.” Published in 1963.


I love Bridget Riley—and I so appreciate that you picked up on her in relation to me/my work. I like that much of her color relates to viewing nature and phenomena. Also that her iterations are visible—I see different versions of similar works and imagine I can see what she was seeing.

Bridget Riley, "Saraband."  1985, oil on linen.  54" x 65".

Bridget Riley, “Saraband.” 1985, oil on linen. 54″ x 65″.


And I have really fallen for Katarina Grosse’s work lately.  I feel like her work is always about to fall apart and that the color holds it together. Her large-scale pieces on erratic and non-traditional surfaces have been rolling around in my mind so much lately. I like that they feel too big to understand somehow.

Katharina Grosse.  2009, from exhibition at Temporare Kunsthalle, Berlin.

Katharina Grosse. 2009, from exhibition at Temporare Kunsthalle, Berlin.


I also like Mark Grotjahn, because he pushes the work till it becomes kind of ugly and also kind of like a ceremonial object—like it’s been carved or woven or somehow “built.” Also El Anatsui—how all the small objects add to a whole, creating different viewings/ perceptions based on distance; how all the small parts flow together rather than create so much pressure or feel picky. I think I could go on for a long time thinking about artists I like and for all different reasons.

Mark Grotjahn, "Untitled (Black and Cream Butterfly."  2006, crayon and mixed media on board.  48" x 35".

Mark Grotjahn, “Untitled (Black and Cream Butterfly.” 2006, crayon and mixed media on board. 48″ x 35″.


El Anatsui, "Gravity and Grace."  2010, aluminum and copper wire.  145-5/8" x 441".

El Anatsui, “Gravity and Grace.” 2010, aluminum and copper wire. 145-5/8″ x 441″.


I’ve also become interested in space or spatial relationships within 2D works that create and crush spaces. On a personal level I think this comes from the way I see, which, like many artists, is non-stereoscopic. I also see this in looking at West African fabrics from Senegal and at Japanese landscape painting. And living in San Francisco, where you are constantly looking At, Through, and Around layers of things—space contracting with fog, folded by hills and unfathomable at the ocean’s edge. Looking at nature has become a really important part of seeing—that it is constant and at the same time always changing—seeing trees that bloom, dry up, drop their leaves and those veils of leaves removed revealing an altered space.

I feel like there is a big push by artists within this space now. I’ve curated a couple of shows that dealt with this strange space between 2D and 3D, and having these contemporary artist colleagues and friends whose work relates helps me stay on my path (details here and here.)

Doppler.  2013, group exhibition curated by Mel Prest.  Parallel Art Space, Brooklyn.

Doppler. 2013, group exhibition curated by Mel Prest. Parallel Art Space, Brooklyn.


Kimberly Rowe

Dots in Other Spots.  2014, acrylic on canvas.  60" x 48".

Dots in Other Spots. 2014, acrylic on canvas. 60″ x 48″.


I took a painting class with Kimberly Rowe this past spring, when I was feeling it was time to get my hands back on some brushes after a couple of years of printmaking.  I discovered a personality as energetic and irrepressible as her art.  So I corralled her briefly to find out where all that energy comes from.

Articiple: Something apparent to anyone who sees your art is the sheer exuberance.  You seem to really stay in the moment as you work with a color, a form, a gesture.  There’s a sense of immediacy and unrestrained expressiveness.  At the same time, there’s structure, balance, symmetry–or purposeful asymmetry—in the finished pieces.  I’d like to hear about how that all works for you.  How do you move back and forth between the need for sustained thought and concentration, and the need for immediacy?  This is a question about process—but the answer might also have to do with what music you’re listening to or what coffee you’re drinking as you work!

Old Brown Show.  2014, acrylic on canvas.  60" x 48".

Old Brown Shoe. 2014, acrylic on canvas. 60″ x 48″.

Kimberly: It’s funny that at the end of this question you mention what music I’m listening to.  I have heard some people say that the music they listen to or environment that they are in does not influence their work.  Both do for me, for sure.

I love music and it is an important factor both directly and indirectly in my work.  I am a big proponent of silence, too, because I believe that we have to allow ourselves to hear ourselves think.  But often I end up realizing that I am singing some crazy made-up songs even in the presumed silence so I have come to force myself to stop and turn on music just to give myself a break from my own voice!  It’s a relief!  And that is a true strategy, both in creating a certain mood, but also to get myself out of my head and stop thinking too hard.

I used to act, and I used to play the piano and violin, and I still love to dance.  All of those things can be similar to painting.  I study and research and look and think about art (and music, and theater, and literature, and all sorts of inspiring things in the world) much of my waking (and probably sleeping) life.  By doing that it is sort of like rehearsing.  Whenever I perform I cannot spend time thinking too hard while I am “on”.  The piece comes through me as though I am a channel or conduit.  I fill myself with possibilities but I do not plan my paintings and do not know what combination of elements will appear.  A painting is not as fresh if it is stop-started throughout the process.  Rather, like in acting with memorizing lines and creating a backstory that provides a sense “memory” from which to drive my responses, I have to go into the making with the confidence that I will know what to do when I come to it and then allow that to happen.

Kiss.  2014, acrylic on canvas.  20" x 16".

Kiss. 2014, acrylic on canvas. 20″ x 16″.

I listen to a lot of different types of music, but in the last year or so I have become a huge fan of the Beatles.  I had never heard whole albums of theirs before.  I am in total awe of what amazing innovators they were and how their work shifted over a short period of time.  I am blown away by their musicality and the complexity of many of their songs, yet how simple they can seem.  They are structured, but the structures change, breaking things up in ways that can be perplexing, which is the Beatles’ genius.

I think deconstructing music influences my work.  I constantly think about challenging myself to mix things up and take risks, to do things that surprise even myself.  I have been told several times that a lot of my work “feels” musical.  I am really into rhythm, repetition, rhyme, pattern, scale, and, of course, color.  I dance while I paint.  I hope that shows!

Articiple:  I know you resist representation or resemblance in your work.  I’ve heard you say that you’ll paint something out if it starts looking like a painting “of” something.  I think that’s an interesting insistence, that the painting needs to exist fully in a space by itself.  Of course abstraction is as old as art, and we could talk for days about what abstraction means or where it comes from.  But I’d like to hear, for you, why abstraction is compelling.  What are the particular problems or possibilities that keep you interested in this genre?  

If I Fell.  2014, acrylic on panel.  60" x 48".

If I Fell. 2014, acrylic on panel. 60″ x 48″.

Kimberly:  Hmmmmm.  I think I may have been saying that, for me, it is important to know how something may be read even if it was arrived at unintentionally.  That is not to say that I am a proponent of censoring my work, nor that representation per se is bad, nor that I need to control what the viewer may think they see in it.  However, if I inadvertently put two eyes a nose and a mouth in the middle of what I have meant to be a nonobjective painting and I don’t want it there I would likely choose to paint some or all of it out.  On the other hand, never say never.  I have a wry sense of humor and have been known to stick something trompe l’oiel, like tape (pun intended), on top of a perfectly nonobjective surface and turn things on their head.  I am not a purist, especially if messing things up makes a better painting.

Abstraction is compelling to me, because it makes me think in a certain way.  Of course there are incredible representational paintings as well as amazing conceptual works that move me.  And I used to make both representational and conceptual work.  But when I think through the annals of my art memory, nonobjective work has been something that is not too sentimental nor too clinical but is just right for me.  And within that realm, I tend to favor painterly abstraction, even if it is very structured and not gestural.

Tomorrow Never Knows.  2014, acrylic on panel.  12" x 9".

Tomorrow Never Knows. 2014, acrylic on panel. 12″ x 9″.

Pulling apart layers and edges, sinking into color, reading a piece as if it is poetry or a song, makes my heart sing.  Perhaps I am a more abstract thinker and that is why I studied Psychology, Philosophy, and Religion, particularly eastern teachings.  I want to dig deeply, but the answers are always elusive.  There are no cut and dried answers. It’s like the adage that “What I am searching for I am searching with.”  My own mind peels away at this thing that is really just paint on a substrate and comes back with new discoveries every time.  It’s like reading a book or seeing a movie or listening to an album and finding out that I understand it more deeply this time than the last.  And the thing about a nonobjective, visual surface is that there are no real clues.  A great abstract painting serves as a mirror; I am like a parakeet pecking at my own distorted image.

Articiple:  You’ve said Allison Miller is an important influence.   I see a number of similar concerns in your work and hers: patterns masked by more dominant shapes, a purposeful disorientation in the figure-ground relationship, an overall energizing of the surface.  What else can you tell us about why Allison’s work is important to you?  What other artists have been formative in your work?  [Thinking of ‘If I Fell’, and Allison’s ‘Lean’ or ‘Repeater.’]

Allison Miller, "Repeater."  2013, oil and acrylic on canvas.  66" x 60".

Allison Miller, “Repeater.” 2013, oil and acrylic on canvas. 66″ x 60″.

Kimberly:  Well, first let me address your question about other influences:  besides Allison’s work, there are several other artists whose work has informed mine, but there are a few key ones.  It began with Robert Rauschenberg.  I love his intellect and humor and profundity and rawness all rolled into one.  His use of materials is amazing.  I love Richard Diebenkorn, too.  His layers and edges and angles have taught me invaluable lessons.  And Keltie Ferris is a contemporary favorite.  Her work is big and powerful and layered and super colorful.  Luckily for me, she has become a friend, but even before that I loved her personality.  She was the first artist I had ever heard giggle and bask in the glory of her own work while she gave a lecture, without sounding egotistical.  She genuinely loves making her work and I celebrate her audacity and generosity of spirit.  It makes me want to be a better artist and person.

Allison Miller’s work has changed a lot since I first discovered it.  The older paintings seemed much thinner in their material quality.  They were more like drawings and looked a lot like they were made with markers.  She used to use small brushes on large panels or canvases, resulting in marks that recalled the coloring posters I used to buy as a teenager.  I spent hours filling those in with felt tipped pens.  Her paintings were playful and that really spoke to me.

I think Allison’s work affects me on many different levels.  The older work didn’t have so many layers, but it often revealed residue from below while also remaining direct.  It was simple but not easy.  It was abstract, but felt like it had personality and a non-narrative “story”.  It tackled space without, for the most part, using perspective or illusion.  It was super colorful and fresh.  And it was formal but not merely formal.  Plus it was made mostly of acrylic paint.

Over time, Allison’s work has become more painterly and more dense, with a greater variation in texture and pattern and paint application.  The  more I paint and try to do certain things with paint, the more I appreciate and learn from what she has done as she further develops her work.  Looking at her paintings, especially in person, is like taking a master class.  I have become a better painter by studying her work.

Castaway. 2013, acrylic on canvas.  30" x 24".

Castaway. 2013, acrylic on canvas. 30″ x 24″.

I am very fortunate to have become friends with Allison in the past few years.  Not long ago, she told me something while we were talking about another artist’s work that I think is a recipe for success.  After having seen photographs of an artist’s paintings and imagining what they might really be like, Allison was very disappointed in their actual quality when she visited a gallery and saw them in an exhibition.  These aren’t her exact words, but she said something to the effect of this:  As a painter, you have to give viewers something to look at; you owe it to them.

I understood what she meant and took it to heart.  In other words, it’s not enough to just make a cool composition.  As a painter, I have to really make a painting!  Give it body; give it life!  Really use the paint and build the surface.  Make viewers have to look, again and again; cause them to want to keep coming back.  It’s an edge next to a pattern, hidden by an opaque patch, set against a thick glob.  It’s three different blacks, one made of several mixed colors, two from the tube, one glossy, one matte, one in-between.  Why is there dirt in Allison’s paint? Because it pushes the envelope and makes yet another texture.  Remember the Beatles’ songs that I mentioned in the first question?  It’s a little like those.  The way to remain unfailingly fresh is to give viewers enough to allow them to keep experiencing something new and wanting to come back for more.

Articiple:  You teach painting, and your teaching style is as energized as your art.  In a class I took with you, you really pushed students to stay in the moment, take risks, let go of anything “precious” to take the work somewhere unexpected.  It was almost like having an aerobics coach!  You’re generous with your energy and your insight.  How does teaching feed your practice?  What’s your vision of an ideal teaching or mentoring situation?

John and Yoko (diptych.)  2013, acrylic and acrylic spray paint on panel.  Each 14" x 11".

John and Yoko (diptych.) 2013, acrylic and acrylic spray paint on panel. Each 14″ x 11″.

Kimberly: I taught high school art for six years.  I quit teaching in 2007, after my first year of graduate school.  This year I began teaching classes again, but at the adult level.  And I love it!  Not because of the adult part, but because the students really care about painting.  They are coming to the right person if they want someone to cheer them on.  I know what you mean about my being almost like an aerobics coach.  And that’s not far from the truth.

I take group yoga and dance classes, because I find it to be more fun to let go of some of the responsibility of pushing myself so that I can become immersed in the moment.  And that is what I am offering in my studio classes.

I want to help my students to become fearless.  I want them to be able to let go while they are working, rather than making constant, consciously calculated decisions the entire time, which can literally stunt their growth.  I can’t always do it myself, but I know what it’s like to throw caution to the wind and what amazing things can happen when I do.

When I was a freshman in college, my drama teacher gave us a motto to live by: Dare to be bad.  Sometimes when we are left to our own devices we kill all the spark by thinking too much and trying to do things perfect and right.  In my studio classes I try to take the pressure off my students and get them to take risks.  Like my dad says, “Do something, even if it’s wrong.”  It’s so easy to stop short of an epiphany just by trying too hard.

I am ravenous when it comes to learning.  I am one of those kinds of people who takes loads of classes and reads and researches constantly.  I figure I have enough information to share.  Why not give it away?  It gratifies me so much to help others and watch them bloom.

I want to see my students succeed.  So I offer the opportunity to come into my classes and have a chance to be pushed past one’s comfort zone.  The best way to get better fast is to drop our control and just “do”.  It’s so exciting for me to watch my students let their guards down and make paintings that surprise them.

Recently a student came to my studio and we worked together for about eight hours straight.  I taught her how to make a really extensive palette and use lots of new colors and unexpected combinations.  I pushed her to be fearless and ruin her precious marks and be responsive over and over again until her paintings felt good to her, not overworked, but fresh and exciting.  In eight hours she made two awesome paintings.  I worried that maybe I had driven her too hard, but she was elated to have moved beyond her paralyzing fears to where she could paint on her own with a new perspective.

Of course, teaching isn’t only about being in a full-blown production mode.  I get as much out of listening while my students discuss ideas and concerns, as I do coaching them in the studio.  I love every aspect of mentoring, and hope to get to continue to do it both in groups and one-on-one.

In July (2014), I am teaching a two-Saturday intensive at CCSF’s Fort Mason campus.  And in the fall I am teaching a semester-long course through SFAI’s Public Education program, at its Chestnut campus.  I’m really excited to see what my students will make!  I learn at least as much from them about painting as they do from me.  And that’s a big thrill!

Sara Dykstra


Rift. 2014, oil on linen. 60″ x 72″.

I first saw Sara Dykstra‘s paintings at the California College of the Arts 2013 MFA Thesis Exhibition, and again at the Root Division Introductions 2013 Exhibition.  I was struck by her subtle mastery of color–seemingly achieved without glazing–and by her mysterious, tissuey forms that were neither completely opaque nor transparent.  

Sara’s solo exhibition Revolving Around You is on view at Patricia Sweetow Gallery in San Francisco from May 6 through June 21, 2014. The artist’s reception is Saturday, May 31, from 3 to 5 p.m.

I asked Sara about her process, her color palettes, and the space between things.

Articiple: In your current painting process, you create fragile sculptural installations that serve as models or points of departure for the paintings.   The paintings’ diaphanous shapes hold a tension between precision and ambiguity.  Can you talk about your interest in that space “between”—between life painting and abstract painting, between resolved and unresolved forms?


Arnolfini. 2013, oil on linen. 60″ x 50″.

Sara:  The space between things emerges in many ways. One way is, as you mentioned, the space between abstraction and representation. My installations are abstract, yet the paintings allude to the light and space of the set. So I don’t know where the work ultimately lies, and that is welcome in my practice.

Once the painting is done, there is a tension between knowing that I’m looking at something that exists, because it’s resting in space and its form is illuminated by light, but not knowing what it is. This is the space of ambiguity that interests me—the uncanny—something which is foreign, yet oddly familiar.


Revolving Around You #2. 2013, oil on linen. 40″ x 40″.

Articiple:  In recent paintings such as the Revolving Around You Series (2013), there’s an overall effect of controlled exuberance.  Colors are complexly layered yet distinct.  Shapes have ragged but discernible edges.  The paintings have unified, soft matte surfaces.  There’s a quiet certainty to each composition that I’m sure belies the effort behind it.  What can you tell us about your process that is not visible in the final paintings—the dilemmas or struggles that go into the work?

Sara:  Each painting begins with a process of discovery that takes place while I’m making the still-life. I never really know how it will turn out. I sometimes have an idea or a color in mind that I want to begin with, but they always end up looking completely different than imagined. This part of the work is done intuitively, so it seems as though the set-ups have a life of their own and a direction they follow outside of what I think will happen, or try to make happen.

The still-life, the subject-matter of the painting, is then painted from life. It’s never ready until there’s something unusual about the light, color or sense of space that makes me want to paint it. My still-lives are almost completely made of translucent material. I layer transparent color or form upon form so they can be seen through to the back of the set-up, then they are lit from various angles.


Chroma Key. 2013, oil on linen. 50″ x 60″.

Ultimately, I want the work to emerge unbidden. This is a difficult task because it’s easy to get caught up in the mechanics of the process, such as getting the values and hues of the painting right in order to create the illusion of transparency. Sometimes I spend hours struggling to get one color right, painting it in and wiping it out. The color I think I see in the still-life and on the palette might not necessarily work in the painting. An optical illusion takes place on the canvas once the color is surrounded by other colors. So, the color that doesn’t necessarily make sense to me optically on the palette, might actually make sense in the painting. There is a lot of trial and error in undoing one optical illusion in order to make another one work. I’m amazed every time this happens and think a lot about Josef Albers.

Articiple:  The dis-Integration Series (2012) includes portraits with faces partially concealed by aluminum leaf.  The decision to step away from fully figurative work is pretty clear.  What lay behind that decision?  How did the dis-Integration Series set the stage for your recent work using sculptural installations as models?


dis-Integration 1. 2012, oil and aluminum leaf on canvas. 20″ x 20″.

Sara:  The dis-Integration Series marks a clear transition in my work. It was an important series of paintings to go through. I’d been painting the figure for quite some time and sensed I was getting ready to move on to something different, but didn’t know what or how to get there. During periods of transition I tend to work serially, painting the same thing over and over again in the hopes that I will discover something new about it that I hadn’t seen before, or a new way of painting it. In this instance, I was working from a model. I did several paintings of her from the same vantage point and in the same pose to the point where I could not go on without making a change. I then built a screen made out of scrim fabric and situated her chair behind it. I did paintings of her looking through one, then two, then three layers of fabric. I wanted to create a situation with the screen such that each time I painted her it was as if I was painting her for the first time. The fabric visually altered her, so every painting was a new challenge. When it became impossible to see her, I began to cut holes in the fabric. I became interested in how the paintings were about my experience of sitting with her, my own subjectivity, and what I thought I was learning about her even though we were mostly silent during our sittings. Ironically, the more difficult it became to see her, the more the portraits began to resemble myself. After a few months, I began placing objects behind the screen. I made small still-lives of things found laying around my studio. From here, the screen expanded into a large theater and the possibilities became endless.

Articiple:  In the Revolving Around You Series and many of your works from 2013, there’s a unified color palette—neutral mid-tones are set against assertive hues of cyan, orange, or magenta that feel almost like geological intrusions.  The palette derives from the materials you used in the sculptural still-lives.  It seems to have a connection to the skin tones in the dis-Integration series and earlier work.  What motivated your color choices in these 2013 works?


Revolving Around You #1. 2014, oil on linen. 40″ x 40″.

Sara:  I try to allow my color choices to be unconscious. Perhaps because I’d been working from a model six months prior, various skin tones stayed with me. In making the Revolving Around You series, I was still thinking about subjectivity and the idea of looking at the same subject matter, but from multiple vantage points and how different and complex it can be as a whole.

I’m sure living in San Francisco also has an impact. The vibrancy and color of the city becomes part of you, as does the incredible geology of this part of the world.

Articiple:  In some of your recent work, like Cave (2014), there’s a color shift to deeper blue tones.  A “cave” suggests a retreat or shelter, but also an exploration into the unknown.   Is this new palette motivated by any of those associations?  What else does this palette mean for you?


Cave. 2014, oil on linen. 30″ x 30″.

Sara:  Some of the paintings are beginning to look like places or landscapes to me. I see the figure in others. However, I never pre-plan any of my installations. The installations unravel on their own and are in a constant state of change for about a week. There were probably three different versions of this one. This piece took on the feeling of a shelter or cave and the colors came about naturally.

Articiple:  For your pieces in the recent exhibit SURVEILLANCE: Everyday (at Studio 110 Projects), you said that you were thinking about the experience of being surveilled—the emotions of vulnerability or even shame that arise when we realize we’re being watched.  It seems like these paintings, and the installations that preceded them, take on an almost narrative quality—characters (however slight or minimal) respond to something in their environment.  Do these new works feel like a shift to something more story-like in your work?  Or, has there been an implicit narrative element there all along? 


Exposure. 2014, oil on linen. 20″ x 16″.

Sara:  The works all have the suggestion of a narrative running through them, but the SURVEILLANCE: Everyday exhibit was different because the entire show had a theme and the work was made with that in mind. I was asked to make works which respond to the idea of transparency and being watched. So, I began these pieces differently than I normally do. I wondered, how would I show an element of curiosity, secrecy and intimacy between two things? What would it look like if they suddenly realized someone was watching them? As a response, I made two paintings, “Exposure” and “Cover Up,” which create a mini-narrative. The forms in these paintings are figurative and much more emotive and animated than in previous works. Body language was on my mind. This was an interesting and fun way to work.

Cover Up

Cover Up. 2014, oil on linen. 20″ x 16″.


To learn more about Sara Dykstra’s work, see her website at