Interview with Caitlin Keogh
Questions by Sarah Rose Sharp
Can you say again how art, for you, gets to be the antithesis of what it appears to be?
So, if you want to be culturally seen as an artist, you’re having to defend your choices at every level. That involves existential questions that a lot of people choose to avoid in life.
Well, a lot people don’t seem to think about why they do anything.
Exactly. So then, if you want to get into a discussion about art, and I start with philosophy, it’s like, “Well, wait, aren’t we talking about...objects? Pretty color choices, formats, and materials. And it’s like, well, yeah, but now what?
I think you’re somebody who really sees all of those things as mechanisms, but it always starts as ideas for you.
Yes. And all the ideas have to be is of interest to me. I don’t have any external qualifications. It doesn’t really matter to me what’s relevant or not relevant, other than to myself.
You can’t just look at what’s good on paper and expect to have a happy existence with it.
I think that’s why I don’t have a set, branded aesthetic. I have these trains of thought that I let evolve, and I don’t stop one and then start another. Being a little ADHD, I can shift focus, but then the OCD part of me gets involved in the work—so I get this back-and-forth that actually works with my mental structure.
To be overly attached to one kind of delivery mechanism or one kind of process, or even one kind of outcome, is futile.
Well, I think the idea, too, can evolve—like the Tyvek pieces. When I was preparing for the MOCAD [Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit] show, I had an idea for the work—well, when I ended up wrapping those pieces in Tyvek, to protect them during transportation, that was another evolution of that same work. But I was already limited by the write-up for the show, there were cards published. It was one of those first times when I felt I couldn’t take an idea to that next evolution. I love the work I showed but the work evolved even one more step on the way over to be installed at the MOCAD. It comes down to a question of time and expectations, whether they are mine or others.
That’s the allure of watching something keep going.
Yes! And it can evolve to something so completely different than what you thought—but those are the magical moments. And then I realized the Tyvek work are portraits of my environment and really abstract landscapes which represent the change in the city’s physical structures.
Unusual for a long time, here in Detroit.
The other thing, too, that I didn’t realize until in hindsight about these abstractions that I’m making out of the Tyvek pattern—if you look at a building covered in Tyvek, there’s what they cut out, the windows and the doors. When I did the Nothingness paintings, those were directly influenced by windows in Paris, which is sort of a sister city to Detroit. So I find it interesting that subconsciously, my abstracted Tyvek paintings look like the cut-out holes which will be windows. The fact that in both cases it’s a view that you don’t see, is interesting.
An obstructed view.
Yeah, so I’m taking what was the obstruction and making it something to be seen.
I totally understand your earlier point about seeing the work take this step forward that you can’t follow in that moment, because you’re committed to this earlier iteration—but I think knowing your process, you wouldn’t have been satisfied. There was still a lot more to go with the Tyvek.
Oh, absolutely. But it’s a catch-22, because it can always go further—I guess I’m always looking further down the road. It’s an existential balancing act.
The work that you present doesn’t feel gestural. It’s not impulsive. You have stabs of inspiration, and then you hone those down really razor sharp.
It’s usually again, a very OCD approach, and then taking an ADHD application. Those things combined elevate the work.
Well, maybe broadly speaking, good art has some kind of inherent tension that has to do with oppositional forces. So that scatter-focus and that really obsessive focus might be it for you. Work that is all in one direction, like a very neat idea presented in a very neat way—it doesn’t have the same kind of dynamic.
So with the Nothingness paintings, I spend all this time obsessing over the surface, which is a long, laborious process—and most people don’t see it at first - if at all, they think I just slapped some paint around. We’re at a moment in time when attention spans are so short, that nuances of the art get lost, especially with things like Instagram and blogs. People are just assuming that representation of the art is fact, rather than seeing the art in real life.
Sure, or even really having curiosity—it sort of goes back to the first thing we said, which is that a lot of people don’t think about what they do very much. Artists, I think, largely and on the whole, think very hard about what they do. It may still come from a really instinctive or impulsive place, but then you unpack that impulse.
Right. I think that’s the key of trying to find that sweet spot of the idea and the impulse. In a lot of cases, I have ideas in my head, and I almost don’t want to do them. It’s already in the past. That doesn’t make for much of a career, though, as far as trying to establish a canon of work, or to be a relevant part of the art scene. But it really is this weird path of having that idea and then keeping that spark all the way through. When you make something, and that spark is there when it’s made, as much as it was there when it was thought up in your head, then you know you’ve got something. And when I talk to other artists or people in the art world, there’s always this idea of critiquing art, and I just don’t buy into it. Latching onto this lightening bolt of energy from when you knew that piece was done needs no defense.
Right, as soon as you’re hanging it on external factors, you have lost your confidence. And it can only come from you.
You have to decide what is important. Is it the object? Is it the idea behind the object? Is it the overall presentation? There’s a lot to be decided upon, on an individual basis, that most people shun the responsibility of deciding. And that is something that never occurred to me would be that problematic as an artist, because I’m always up for the challenge, and most people are not. They want to just get the answer and move on. The most important things in life, there are no right answers.
And I think you really embrace that, even in the bell curve of people who are thinking about how art connects with the world, you go way beyond the frame of your paintings. You’re going into gallery space and lighting and audience and dissemination medium of images, and how you’re putting all those things into the world.
I see it as needing something because the show’s not done yet. The objects in the show are done, but the show itself is not done. It’s maybe more in tune with musical performers—they record, and there are the songs, but then they have to play onstage. Some people take that to the extreme, let’s say somebody like David Bowie. The stage presence was as important as the music.
That’s a really good metaphor. The difference between making art and making a show—the show being a whole exponentially different element.
Right, and so I’ve always looked at things as this progression. And it’s why I generally want to be inspired by the space, because the space needs to coalesce with the idea of the show, as best it can. I constantly try to continually evolve the work with its presentation. For me, feeling good about the show before anybody walks in is where I get my satisfaction.
Do you want to talk about the duct tape paintings?
Sure. The duct tape paintings, along those lines of the OCD and ADHD—I use Baltic birch as the substrate, and then I prep it in a meticulous way. Then, I apply duct tape in a pattern. Before I “scar” them, they look very pristine and very nice, and then I manipulate the surface to have this serendipitous destruction—which is playing with the notion of what’s damaged and what isn’t. Using damage as an aesthetic. And it really motivates me, because once I start sliding these around on the skateboard ramp, I lose control of that surface, up until the point I say it’s done. So I can be loose with the aesthetic at that point. Much like with the Nothingness paintings, there’s an incorporation of chance to the outcome, which frees me up from the obsessive-compulsiveness of the final image.
I keep thinking of the phrase “ghetto Rothko.”
Yeah, yeah, or ghetto Stella. Or punk rock Agnes Martin. And what I’m doing, round about, is just philosophically asking, would it be worth more to the viewer not-damaged? Are the ones that are more damaged even better? What does that mean to other works of art? The assumption is, if you get a condition report from a gallerist or an auction house, the better the condition, the more valuable. I would love to see a condition report of these [duct tape paintings] in 100 years, and if they get damaged in transit, I think it would add to the value.
Ooh, this piece was caught in a fire. It’s one of his best works.
Yeah, right! As an artist, being open to continual evolution, I think is important.
Well, and is sort of a broader life lesson anyway.
Exactly. When you think about these things, and people talk about the longevity of materials, I’m like, look, everything is going to be a pile of carbon at some point. Why not make something where that journey to the pile of carbon is as aesthetically pleasing as possible? Saying, no, this isn’t damaged, this is evolving.
To find out more about Greg and his work, check our his website.