Katie Kirk is currently pursuing her MFA in Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Drawing on personal experience and social observations, her current work explores physical and psychological experiences of the body and the domestic environment. With a background in film production and scenic design, she activates space with fields of color and line to create works that fall in between object, painting, and sculpture. Kirk was recently chosen as an SAIC fellow for the 2014 Chicago Consortium for Art in Society.
I construct monstrous females. These forms find themselves pinned to the wall, constrained by their material. Oozing outwards from the flat wall, they stretch their limbs to navigate the physical and psychological barriers that surround them. My materials are domestic and ordinary—yarn, lampshades, gloves, tape—but like the Baroque vanitas still life paintings, my work speaks to images of ambiguity that extend beyond the everyday. Through my formal decisions, from the manipulation of scale to an emphasis on excess to the exaggeration of form, I seek to achieve grandeur.
I play with traditionally female supplies to question painting in unconventional ways. Lampshades fragment across the color plane reassembling in tortured curves to become a massive, hostile form. Frenzied yarn bursts from the canvas onto the floor as I question painting’s place on the wall. At first, my paintings seem soft and seductive, but sharp wires and construction materials bind them. Upon a second look, they become threatening.
A large part of my process involves searching for materials in the most exposed places of the city: alleyways, thrifts stores, discard piles. Some of the objects I use hold inherent personal meaning. I have visceral memories of uncovering hidden treasures in my grandmother’s sewing studio, running my fingers through luxurious fabrics and digging through the plastic perfection of spare doll parts. Other materials I use serve as generic symbols that represent both the restricted roles of women and the importance of craft to art making. Once assembled, the individual materials are stripped of their common narrative identities. Each piece as a whole emerges as something greater than the sum of its parts.
My work falls in between object, painting, and sculpture. Some paintings take the role of aggressor. Others become physical armors against pervasive gender cues I experience in the realms of home, media, culture, and work. I urgently strive to continue the conversation about painting as a viable means of expressing contemporary ideas. My paintings are imperative, both adjective and noun—crucial, commanding, essential, urgent things.
Hi Katie! You earned a BA in film and TV production. When did your interest in painting begin?
My interest in art actually began in ceramics. My mother took me to a ceramics class at the San Jose Museum of Art when I was about 6 or 7. This was my first exposure to art outside of the context of school, which wasn’t really much more than coloring. In middle school, I chose to take woodshop instead of home economics. I always found interest in being able to make something that was completely my own. Sometime around this time, I took a watercolor class, which I absolutely hated. It wasn’t until I was about 15 that I took an oil painting class and fell in love with the medium. I started out by copying the Old Masters and was mostly working representationally at first. I went to film school for a few reasons. One, I had an interest in telling stories, in people, and in the everyday. Documentary filmmaking was a great mode of representation for this. Two, I wanted to learn how to use film equipment and software—you can easily obtain canvas and paint, but it’s not that easy to get your hands on a 35mm film camera. Lastly, I saw it as a more practical choice than going to art school, and by the time I knew I wanted to pursue painting, I had just scratched the surface of figuring out what I needed to know about art school applications (portfolios, bicycle drawings, recommendations etc.). At Loyola Marymount I was able to take advantage of all the paintings courses anyway and did a lot with scenic painting the entire time I worked in film. I also had a great mentor, Professor Fr. Tang, that helped me prep for applying to graduate school.
Your work incorporates a great deal of sculptural elements—what inspired you to pursue drawing & painting as your focus in grad school?
I’d say that I think more like a painter and so I wanted to be a part of the painting dialogue. Even my sculptures are constructed in a more “painterly” way—taking things on and off, trying things out, working more intuitively, rather than executing a plan (this is a generalization of course). I also see myself more as a researcher. Lucio Pozzi wrote an essay titled The Inventory Game (Art Without Fear or Theme). In the last sentence he says, "I have also understood that to commit myself to one specific, preordained theme would reduce the discoveries that await me at the threshold of doing.” I think about this all the time. The form, subject matter, and material of each one of my pieces can be drastically different. Prior to my grad school portfolio I had been doing mostly painting. It just so happened that the concerns I was working from in the last two years lent themselves nicely to more sculpture/installation.
You are currently an MFA candidate at SAIC in Chicago. Congrats! Many undergraduate students struggle with the decision to attend grad school—what spurred you to pursue the study of art at the graduate level?
The biggest reason was I wanted to be a part of an art community. Since I didn’t go to undergrad in art, most of my friends were from film. I had taken a lot of continuing education classes in painting in Los Angeles to try to meet people, but it was hard to find other people that wanted to make a career out of art. It has been great to be around so many smart, creative artists at SAIC. Also, because I didn’t do my undergrad in art, I wanted to get a stronger theoretical foundation.
What are the most important elements of a successful studio/work space for you?
My favorite place to work is actually at home. I’ve always just made my apartment work as a studio, which has had it’s positives and negatives. There is never enough space in my apartment and I always have to be really careful about messing up the floor or walls, etc. But, the best thing is being able to work until I need to and then walk ten feet to my bedroom and go to sleep. I’m all about maximizing efficiency and the amount of time I have to paint (since working a full-time job and trying to have a career as an artist is hard enough already). Since I’ve moved to Chicago, it’s been really weird having a studio space. I hate that I live an hour from my studio and I’m also not so used to such a sterile white cube. Although, it has been nice to have the bigger space and being able to let materials get all over everything.
What is your process like? Do you create preliminary drawings or do you work more intuitively?
I usually work more intuitively. More often than not an image or sentence pops into my head while I’m falling asleep, or I see something that triggers a thought. I usually write these down in my sketch book. Every few months I take all of these ideas (after I have had some time to let them set in) and if I still think they are worthwhile ideas, I add them to this running brainstorm list. When I actually make the work, I might make a few quick sketches, but usually its a process of addition and subtraction on the actual piece. Although the process is more intuitive, it is important for me to be working from a set of clear concerns. This is one reason why my work has been so experimental in the last few months. I have changed my set of concerns so I am still figuring out what the best way to express them is.
In your statement, you talk about how the seductive elements of your work obscure the sharp and dangerous qualities of the materials below. What interests you most about the tension between the hostile and the alluring?
I think that I am always interested in dualities, regardless of what they are. Specifically, in my work though, I like the tactile tension that that duality creates. Materials, colors, and other traditional or formal visual elements are important to me, so I often look for ways of emphasizing these things.
What is a typical day like for you? Can you talk a bit about your studio practice, and how you stay motivated to create new work?
Every day is different for me right now since my school schedule is constantly changing. My ideal studio day starts out sometime in the morning. I usually like to grab a cup of coffee and just sit in my studio for a little bit. I spend about 20 minutes just looking around and thinking about what my priorities for the current pieces are. I work on several pieces at once, so I like having this time to digest what I did the day before and think about possibilities or different directions the work could go. Then I really just dive in and paint until I feel like stopping or until the material (drying paint, etc.) forces me to stop. Critique is also a really important process to me. I am in a stage of experimentation right now so I haven’t been having as many studio visits as I usually do. I need to be at a certain point of clarity with my work (mostly in what I am trying to communicate with the piece) before I get other opinions on it. Otherwise it’s hard for me to filter how a piece of feedback is useful to me.
What do you listen to while you work? Any music or podcasts we should check out?
I love listening to music, but am horrible at remembering musicians/song names. I usually listen to Pandora since we have internet access in our studios at school. That way I can change what I’m listening to depending on my mood or what piece I’m working on.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your work and talk with us!
To find out more about Katie and her work, check our her website.