CAITLIN KEOGH is a painter living and working in New York, NY. She is represented by Bortolami Gallery.
Interview with Caitlin Keogh
Questions by Emily Burns
When did you become interested in art or becoming an artist? Were there any early influences that piqued your interest?
My dad is an artist, a painter and printmaker. I spent a lot of time in his studio growing up, and we went to see lots of art shows, at museums, but also whatever was going on locally. My dad was pretty serious about drawing, he’s an excellent draftsman. He gave me drawing lessons as a kid and through high school, sometimes going to life drawing sessions or exercises to do with shading, line quality and observation. I enjoyed all of this. I liked how peaceful but also how mentally intense these experiences were. Despite all this education and immersion I didn’t think about aspiring to be an artist. It seemed like a thing to do in one’s spare time. That changed a few months after I graduated from high school, I was working full time at a coffee shop, really bored, and realized that I would probably like to go to college. I had really hated school for the most part, so it was kind of a weird realization. I figured art school would be where I would have a chance of getting accepted and meeting some interesting people. Of course as soon as I got to art school I was a little shocked at how totally intense and compelling it was.
Prior to art school, growing up, some of my favorite ideas about art came from illustration. I had pretty emotional connections to a lot of children’s books, which I think is normal, and I was kind of unsure why I couldn’t always have that emotional, fantastic connection in galleries and museums. I was into lots of fairy tales; Bilibin’s Russian Folk Tales, Kay Nielsen books, Maxfield Parrish, Chris Van Allsburg, Mercer Mayer fairy tales, Tomi DePaola, Lisbeth Zwerger. I think a Helen Frankenthaler show and an M.C. Escher woodblock print show both made a big impression on me in high school. Once I was in art school I got really into French Symbolism, especially Gustave Moreau.
Could you give us some insight into your process? How do you begin a painting?
I make a drawing and then copy it, enlarging onto the canvas using a grid. Sometimes I make a few drawings to figure out the image, and I make it thinking a lot about the size of the canvas it’s going onto, thinking a lot about how things will translate into another scale. I don’t think about color when I’m drawing, I work that out on the painting.
Does drawing play a significant role in planning your compositions?
Yes. It’s pretty much all the planning. I don’t really like using the computer, I do it by hand.
The line work in your paintings is so precise, and I read that you use a traditional sign painting technique. Can you tell us more about your introduction to, and interest in this technique?
I’m not trained as a sign painter, I’ve never learned the techniques of this beyond just the most rudimentary stuff. But my process, of using the grid to scale up, is a slightly outmoded way of transferring and it’s very useful for working at a big scale. The line quality in the painting comes from trying to make the experience of painting very similar to the experience of drawing. And after college I was working sometimes as a technical illustrator, which started to really influence how I thought about conveying information in an image, with a line. I worked as a studio assistant for a long time and having a steady hand was always necessary in that work.
You have a background in technical illustration, how did that path come about and how does it influence your current work?
I started getting the illustration work through a friend in school. In this work, it was really interesting to make a picture of something based on instructions, about materials, proportion, and also looking at things, drawing from observation. Shortly after making the drawing, the actual physical thing would materialize. It was very surreal. Like that drawing had this kind of conjuring effect. I was pretty interested in how this was all taking place in a world not connected to art, but connected to a kind of strange lust for material things, like a sense that someone somewhere “needed” this thing and better we could understand this need the more we would be making the “right” thing. That’s a space of fantasy and desire that I think about a lot in my work now. It feels very omnipresent in the world, and also like a very personal, intimate headspace. I’m of two minds about this desire: it feels sad/dark/constricting/vacuous and lovely/tactile/magical/generative. Regardless of this content it brought up for me, the work itself was really pleasant, like a very lucky way to pay the rent.
Annie Godfrey Larmon wrote in Artforum that your work echoes qualities of the Internet, but I would not have immediately drawn that conclusion from looking at your work. In a post-Internet context, is this at the forefront of your mind? If so, what interests you about the Internet and the screen in relation to painting?
This isn’t a starting point for me, it seems more like a given. I think about it from the position of the consumer, about how my eyes and mental image space are being constantly influenced by flatness, by an unrealistic uniformity of surface, about a probing, tracking gaze following everyone around.
In “On Unstable Grounds” Elisabeth Sherman and Laura Phipps wrote that your work revealed “sanitized trauma” which really resonated with me. Is there a connection with the representation of the female body and the “commodification of one’s identity” as written by Annie Godfrey Larmon? Are these themes changing now, in an age of social media?
Commodification and gender are big, charged questions for me. There are no answers and it’s all just really charged. And as a subject in my studio, I like that it feels like a question that painting, historically, has a gigantic blind spot about, that it always feels taboo if it gets addressed too directly. A couple years ago I read this great article, “The Legs of the Countess,” by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, about the Countess de Castiglione. She had a sort of performance art practice in a photo studio in the 1850’s and 60’s that perfectly prescribed social media and photography. The fetish of the photo as a fragment of visibility, and the fetish of the fragmented female body. I’m not so sure the prevailing ubiquity of these images changes the content.
How has fashion influenced your work? Where did your interest in fashion begin?
Aside from the perfunctory influence of drawing shoes and handbags, fashion magazines have always been a source of pleasure for me. Actually, not really anymore. When I can get a my hands on a copy of a really special one it’s great, but that’s harder and harder to find. I grew up looking at W magazine. My mom started subscribing in about 1992 and I was glued to it. We didn’t have TV and I didn’t really care about boys very much so Seventeen didn’t register for me. But W was amazing. Whole spreads of Sinead O’Connor wandering around the countryside dressed like a priest, or Marianne Faithful and Kate Moss going camping, or Isabella Blow wearing Philip Treacy hats. Basically a slightly more realistic version of my fairytale illustration fixation. I shouldn’t discount that I’m from a family of incredible seamstresses so everyone was very picky about fabric, whether it was your socks or your curtains. I love to sew and knit, but I’m kind of limited. My mom and my sister and my brother can really sew a whole ensemble. And we’re all really critical. Perfect for being into fashion.
What is a typical day like for you?
It’s a little amorphous. I wake up, sit around and eat and read or go to the Y if I’m ambitious and have time. I go to my studio in the late morning. I work for a short or long day depending on how much I need to get done. Less than five hours doesn’t really feel like a studio day. I go to openings in the evening or just take the bus home to eat dinner and watch TV shows. I love watching Poirot.
Do you feel that it’s necessary to get into a particular headspace when in the studio? If so, how do you get there?
Not really. I’m not temperamental about this. I like to make the practice as not-superstitious as possible, to be very pragmatic and task-oriented. There are lots of moments of magic with mixing colors, looking at references, reading, talking to friends on the phone while I work, but those just happen in the mix with everything else.
What are the most important components of your studio?
The window, the high ceiling, headphones, a good heater, that it’s close to my house.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of your practice?
Right now I’m listening to tons of podcasts about foreign policy. This is only important in that it keeps me company, but I wish I wasn’t quite so sad and wound up about our corporate two-party system taking advantage of seemingly everyone. We rule the fucking world, invading all over the place, and leave shit up to the electoral college. I better take a break soon. I love audiobooks. Music is good but sometimes it just feels too nice, it’s too much to come down from.
What are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
It’s pretty all over the place. Courbet and Magritte and Ingres all have a lot of paintings that I look at on a regular basis. And Botticelli. I’m looking at a book of Pierre Klossowski drawings today. I’ve seen some of them in person, so I feel like I’m remembering as much as looking. I’m looking at a lot of William Morris wood carvings and tapestries right now, as well as Book of Kells reproductions. I liked seeing the Jo Baer paintings in the new biennial. Christina Ramberg, Sonia Delaunay, Claude Cahun, and Peter Hujar and Marsden Hartley are all artists whose work I think about often while I’m working. They all have ideas about the body and it’s feelings that I’m interested in, about how to narrate the experience of making a picture. For thinking about more formal things, like space and color and surface, I’m pretty into Patrick Caulfield, Daan van Golden, Tom Wesselman, Katarina Fritsch and Philip Taaffe.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
Reading Marguerite Duras about ten years ago had a big impact on me, the slight of hand in it. It felt like it was more in my imagination than on the page. Like her language had a kind of conjuring element to it, while also taking on really slippery ideas about gender and memory and power. And reading Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, for reasons that are obvious to anyone whose read it. It just changes reality.
I’m reading an Aby Warburg book called Images From the Region of the Pueblo Indians of North America, partly about the significance of the snake in Pagan art, and I’m reading the second volume of the Hilary Spurling Matisse biography. And I’m excited to start Eileen Chang’s Love In a Fallen City. I’m going to Hong Kong soon and a friend recommended it.
What is the best exhibition you have seen recently?
In the last couple months, probably the Yuji Agemetsu show at Miguel Abreu Gallery. And the Hanne Darboven show at Dia.
What is your relationship with the computer, the Internet and social media?
I do image searches all the time and get loads of stuff from museum websites, so it’s really connected to my studio practice. I try to use Facebook sometime but can’t really deal. Instagram is fine, it’s so blatantly about selling ideas, about images as commodities.
Do you have any news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I’m going to Hong Kong for a group show. I’ve never been to Asia, very much looking forward to this. I’ll have some paintings in a big show at White Cube this summer, about women and Surrealism. I’m very curious to see it. And I’m just finishing a book about recent paintings and drawings, and I’m really happy with it. It has a beautiful poem by Charity Coleman which she wrote as a sort of interpretation of the images. It comes out in June.
To find out more about Caitlin and her work, check our her gallery's website.