Kari Cholnoky received her MFA in painting from Cranbrook Academy of Art. She has had solo exhibitions in Detroit, Brooklyn, Berlin and Singapore and has shown in group exhibitions in Los Angeles, Austin, New York and San Francisco. Cholnoky's dimensional paintings have been featured on Art News and Hyperallergic, and she has participated in residencies at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin and The Fountainhead in Miami, FL. The artist lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
Interview with Kari Cholnoky
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Kari! Can you tell us about your process, and elaborate on working on canvas vs. with mixed media?
Right from the beginning I've just had no real interest in rendering an image on canvas. I've got no skin in that game. I've just always been drawn to material and to working it with my hands. I have always wanted to make an object, not a picture of something.
Where do you source your materials?
Most of the material I use today comes from the internet—the faux fur, synthetic hair, plastics and foams, epoxy putties, masturbators, etc. I get my paint locally for the most part.
How do you store, organize, and navigate through saved materials? Do you ever have to let go of items you have collected but haven't found a use for?
Ugh it's a battle against space, constantly. My studio usually goes through cycles of chaos where I will gradually pull everything out with no real sense of order until every surface is covered with material and parts of potential paintings. My partner Dante has referred to my studio in these situations as "a trap" because there is literally almost nowhere to step without crushing something breakable or injuring yourself by stepping on something hazardous or sharp. At the breaking point I do frantic cleaning phases where I put everything away. The cycle repeats. If I had more space I would love to just have stuff permanently stay out. I let go of stuff every once in a while if I've had it for a year or longer without really using it, but I usually not only use everything in the studio, but I also tend to cannibalize finished work if I have to look at it for too long...
As a maximalist painter, do you feel that you identify as a maximalist in other areas of your life as well?
I think the work is pulling from minimalism just as much as a maximalism—that interview where I talked about maximalism is more in reference to my studio process as being anti reductionist and against the idea that the work becomes more succinct or streamlined as time goes on. I don't think I identify with maximalism in my life in general—maybe just when faced with ice cream 😋
What is your process like? Are you working primarily directly on the work itself, or do you sketch or plan compositions beforehand?
If I do a drawing before a painting, which is super rare, it's a very basic geometric layout of a substructure of the painting. Otherwise my practice involves making many paintings at a time of various sizes. As I make paintings, ideas for more paintings come and I try to start them immediately. If I don't have enough paintings to work on at any given time I will touch one or two of them to death—smother it. So by giving myself a lot of problems I always have something to channel my energy into. I work about half on the floor, half on the wall. Sometimes the paintings are done in a few months and sometimes they are done four times over the course of three years. I destroy most of it, in the end. If I had more space I might save more. The paintings are taking longer and longer to make, it drives me crazy.
When seeing installation photos of your work, it’s remarkable how large some of the paintings are, which seems unimaginable when seeing a cropped photo of one work in isolation. Can you tell us a bit about some of the exciting aspects as well as the challenges of working at this scale?
Yeah it's funny it seems like my work in JPEG form just seems much smaller than in actually is. I don't know what about the work lends itself to this kind of scale bending. I love working at the size of my wingspan, that's my favorite scale. I feel an ease when working with something about the size of my trunk or my body. I can have a really direct relationship in making when I'm at that scale. For obvious reasons, it's a challenge with a small studio. When I visit friends studios and see three sets of shelves holding a hundred paintings stretched on canvas I'm jealous for sure.
In addition, your most recent work seems to share a common color theme, with read and yellow being the primary hues. Can you tell us a bit more about the color choices here?
Yeah the color has been hot for the most part. I just feel like blue is the most disgusting color—I don't know what to do with it. Or maybe it's that it's too conventionally pretty and I just don't want anything to do with it. I like painting lights over darks—I use a lot of yellow over black, like night light. I also tend to bring in either pastel pink or purple, and make them cold and chalky. When I think about these colors I'm thinking about heat-sourced imaging, poisonous natural material, camouflage, defense mechanisms, fear, and My Little Pony.
Can you elaborate on the presence of sex toys in your work? Has this been a theme in your work for a while or is a new direction?
They've always been interesting to me—I can't tell you exactly when I became aware of them and started looking at images of them. Maybe around 2007 or so? I never actually bought one and held it in my hand until 2013. One of those situations where the thing is so bizarre and alien that you forget that for $8.99 it can be yours, in discrete packaging and everything. Anyway, when I did actually buy one and hold it I was blown away because there's so much information you don't get from the image. For example, they're usually covered in powdery shit that leaves nasty residue on your hands forever and they stink like a mixture of perfume and cancer and that smell sits on your hands all day too. They're also ridiculously gloopy and that immediately makes them comical because their movement is so clumsy and uncontrollable. They're interesting to me for all of these physical reasons, and also because, to me, they are one of the most direct manifestations of the abstracted body that exist today. I like imagining a group of people in a room with a block of Play-doh asking themselves "what have we not had sex with yet", and coming up with things that will go on to be called "The Sexflesh Trifecta", or "Tracy's Dog Male Masturbator Pocket Pussy Realistic". It's easy to see how, at some point, these just become sculpture....
My interest in the masturbators is sort of a metaphor for my interests in general—they perfectly encapsulate an object that gives some people real, meaningful, romantic satisfaction (where they may not be able to accomplish the same thing with actual human beings) while at the same time absurdly mangles the human form into something almost teratoma-like. They are potentially helpful and harmful simultaneously. And even further, they are fetish objects made of toxic material by people fetishized for living in historically "exotic" places where the effects of globalization and capitalism have resulted in hazardous work environments devoted to making abstracted human form with which people pleasure themselves. It's an insane loop.
What is a typical day like for you?
I'm a studio assistant, so an average day for me is going to work, coming home, eating a bowl of Cocoa Krispies standing up and working in my studio. Pretty straightforward.
Who are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
Most recently I've been looking at Lygia Clark's early work. I don't look at anyone particularly "most often" but the people who really challenge me in the studio are Lee Lozano and Lee Bontecou.
What are a few of the stimuli or experiences that get you really excited to get back into the studio, particularly if you have been experiencing a spell of tepid inspiration?
Because I work five days a week, being in the studio is what gets me really excited to be in the studio hahaha. Anyone who spends most of their time doing something that isn't their work knows that there is just no replacing consecutive days in the studio. Your mindset and focus on the third day is incomparable to the first day. It's tough knowing that, most of the time, you don't get that level of depth and invention because you can't focus that much consecutive time on just thinking about the problems the painting presents. When I can get those stretches, I'm always looking for that moment that I surprise even myself with something. Those moments of wonder and the feeling of possibility are why we keep doing this shit when it probably isn't rationally such a good idea.
Who are three emerging artists making some really exciting work right now?
I am always really eager to see the work of Amy Brener, Andrew Ross, and the Bobo NYC crew.
If epiphanies occur for you, where and how do they usually happen? Can you conjure them by planning for this catalyst?
Epiphany is a strong word :) Images of unborn paintings float in and out randomly. I try to see paintings when I'm falling asleep at night and I'm in a kind of semi lucid state. I never make drawings at night or write ideas down—maybe some day when my life is a little quieter and I have the peace of mind I will.
Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your groove or energy in the studio?
Yeah, I can't really listen to music in the studio—it's incredibly distracting for me. If it's upbeat, I'm upbeat—If it's depressing I get depressed and the paintings are affected as a by-product. So annoying. I exclusively listen to podcasts, which allow me to fully focus on the story being told and stop over analyzing what I'm doing to the painting. I put myself in a kind of cruise control, it feels really good.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
Not I by Beckett—still, every time I watch a video of the performance of that piece it fucking terrifies me. It reminds me of a recurring night terror I had when I was a kid. I can't really remember what was in the dream, just how it started, but the feeling of it was similar. I'm reading Paul Virillio right now. His writing on speed, politics, technology and war seems highly relevant to the concerns of my work.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
A lot of "Bev-isms" from my mentor in grad school, Beverly Fishman... that success should be defined within the studio first and foremost. And if I ever get down I just remind myself that a very sophisticated man from Denmark once told me that my work should stop "shoving it down his throat" in my studio and that lifts me right up.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of your career as an artist so far?
Having a studio big enough to make and store work. It's hard not to feel like my work is becoming physically constrained as I continue to make it in my apartment, and stunted in its development as it's hard to feel like anything is possible in a space packed full of old paintings. I've always felt like I'm the kind of person who can make it work no matter what, so I guess I'm putting that theory to the test.
How do you navigate distraction in the studio and in life?
I'm honestly so eager to get out of work and into the studio that I don't really have problems with distractions. If anything, I have a hard time choosing to be social instead of being in the studio.
Do you have any other news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I'll be in a group show at Regina Rex opening September 14, and I'll have a solo show at Safe Gallery in spring 2018.
To find out more about Kari and her work, check out her website.