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!
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.
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?
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.
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.’]
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.
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?
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!