On the occasion of her traveling mini-survey featuring 41 paintings, drawings, and sculptures, which began last month on February 23rd at the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo, Rail contributing editor Joan Waltemath visited Karin Davie’s Lower East Side studio to discuss her life and work.
Joan Waltemath (Rail): Could we begin with a brief history of your past? How and when did you come to painting?
Karin Davie: Well, when I was young growing up in Toronto, Canada, maybe about 5 or 6 years old, I really wanted to be a dancer. So I took some classes in modern dance and I had intended to study it quite seriously, but at a certain point, it suddenly happened overnight—like a real phobia where I became very shy in performing before any kind of audience. I am not sure exactly what happened during that period in my life. All I knew was that I needed to withdraw from that episode. Only after a period of retreat did I realize that I still had a strong urge to do something similarly creative but in a more private practice. Interestingly, the content of my work has become about the complex conflict between the public and private realm. Although I would like to be able to resolve these two states I feel they’re ultimately irreconcilable. So painting, making art, seemed to be the right discipline and process for me. It actually happened in the following two years, when I was about eight years old, my parents took me to see an exhibit at the Ontario Art Gallery—I believe it was a big abstract color field painting show, which included a huge red stained painting. I’m not sure whether it was a Morris Louis or a Barnett Newman, but at any event, I do remember saying to myself, “This is it; this is what I want to do.” I had no idea what that meant exactly but it was serious enough as an experience in that it stayed with me until I decided to go to art school at Queens University in Ontario. It was there I became more aware of what was going on in New York and was making paintings under the influence of Neo-Geo movement, and it was serendipity, which took me to RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) for my graduate work.
Rail: When I first saw your paintings I understood that you were painting stripes as a genre though you had made a great deal of references to Trisha Brown. Could you elaborate more on that?
Davie: Well, I‘ve always been interested in her work because of the way she dealt with the mechanics of the body, the edges and where they lie, the sense of natural gravity that she uses and defies at the same time, and how she was able to extend all of that beyond the boundary of the stage, out of the concert hall into other alternative spaces like rooftops and walls as well as gallery spaces. I try to think all of that in relation to my painting in some capacities, not just the verticality of the stripes, allowing for the paint to drip but also the physicality and the property of paint, where the form bulges, bends, twists, and distorts. In some ways, I intentionally set out to use the stripe as something that everyone already knew. For some reason this was very liberating for me, and it was also a thrill seeking exercise, because I felt the stripe was so overdone and has been absorbed into the language of art. It almost has become a Pop icon in itself. I thought it had been emptied out of meaning, so if I was to take and carry it on, I have to add something else to it with some kind of representational meaning. I wanted to embody a certain image, but it wasn’t like I consciously knew what I was going to do. I felt an affinity to the form on a basic level. What I was interested in was using the body, bringing back gesture into my work, and it seemed appropriate to reduce it down to something like the stripe or the dot. These are the two things that I was thinking about and you could see them as reoccurring images in my work. There is a simplicity, which carries an inherent meaning and lends itself to repetition in mark making; I could use the stripe and the stroke in the same way or the dot and the dash—they can be synonymous. That’s really where it started for me.
Rail: How would you see your work in relation to painters such as Morris Louis, Gene Davis, Frank Stella, and especially, Bridget Riley?
Davie: I really feel connected to all of those mentioned, and to other artists whose work is extremely varied. But in the case of Riley, apart from her interest in creating a specific quality of light, the repetitive structure that defined such a precise degree of frequency and saturation, and the relationship between the image and the edge is very specific, ultimately her painting is more about pictorial constrain that could be achieved through mathematics, and mine is the total opposite. This is where I felt a greater kinship to Moira Dryer’s painting, simply because of the way she painted stripe that went beyond appropriation, and the meaning was somehow embodied in her use of the material. She often spoke about using different styles by means of her material, and in doing so she re-contextualizes them. Another artist who I thought of a lot was Charlie Ray. His early cubes, for instance, the field of oil, and the spinning disc piece on the wall, and his earliest mannequins as well. I was very influenced by his early sculpture.
Rail: The first time I saw your work was in your 1992 show at the Fawbush Gallery. I remember the feeling your works evoked for me—a sense of physical scale that was different than the whole Greenbergian notion of flatness, in that your approach to gesture opened up the space in front of the canvas through the awareness of the body. I saw it as a significant departure from the way gesture had been interpreted in Abstract Expressionism.
Davie: One of the issues that I often feel is specific to those particular paintings is that I was always playing this relationship between the objectness of the canvas, as with the shaped-canvases, how the paint sat on the surface, the allusion of the curves and the bulging of the painting, against the more obvious illusionism within the painting or the pictorial space that’s created through color and line and a sense of perspective. All my paintings are really about trying to bring those two elements together and allow them to really coexist uncomfortably, so that you get this funny relationship between something that’s optical and physical while alluding to space and denying it all at the same time. I’m always trying to activate the space between the object that’s really about this flat surface on the wall and the space between it and the viewer, so that the viewer is engaged perceptually through the movement of the strokes, the opticality, and in following my body’s movement across the picture plane like a kind of mimesis.
Rail: So you don’t mind the kind of optical pleasure or retinal experience that your painting generates?
Davie: Yeah, it’s not like I think about those ideas preconceptually. In fact I certainly don’t seek to make something pleasurable to other people. I just thought it was really important that somehow the gesture can be brought back into painting, so in trying, I want to see whether there’s value in something that sits outside of the coding system which could be conveyed through gestures. Besides there is no such thing as non-objective! What does that mean anyway! It’s like there is meaning in everything, in the way that I was talking about using the stripe—it can’t be divorced from its own history and from how it’s come to us because it’s part of the language. At the same time I wanted to add to it something that hasn’t been seen before, so I work on both sides of the predicament. The only way I think I can even address this or understand it is that I thought, and I still do believe that there’s something interesting in the gesture and in the subtleties of how that material is manipulated and how you allow the viewer to see that, and so that it’s not devoid of the nervous system or expression, to use a familiar term. The earlier paintings were discussed in terms of op art. Op art to me was always this very scientific investigation and I thought it’s interesting to utilize something that’s maybe more cerebral and bring to it with something that’s bodily or physical, that steps outside of it’s being purely retinal or optical, so that you would see and feel at the same time this activity. Not to mention that I came out of a climate where the kind of painting that I wanted to do was not very popular; we weren’t exactly in a period where you saw a lot of gestural abstraction.
Rail: The group exhibit, “Project 63” at MoMA, which showcased your work along with Udomsak Krisanamis, Bruce Pearson, and Fred Tomaselli, was on the whole an attempt to create a substantive yet diverse offspring of pop art, which included many references to pop culture and psychodelia. But unlike the three of them, who for the most part have remained close to their initial stylistic discoveries, you have made significant changes in the last 3 or 4 years, not only in format from being vertical to horizontal, the increasing expressiveness in the gesture, but also the speed of execution. How did that occur?
Davie: Gradually. [Laughter] All of my earlier work, especially the diptych paintings, were made directly by walking up to the canvas and laying down marks. From canvas to canvas, it was about internalizing a physical knowledge—like memory. This show at the Albright-Knox gave me a chance to look at all I’ve done more introspectively. When I look back over my work I can understand something that has always run through my work, which is this desire to reveal something and conceal it at the same time. My earliest paintings were very much about taking this so-called stripe motif and use it to cover all of my body parts. There’s a kind of slapstick quality about my work, where the mark becomes like the image itself—like a parody. If I have to bend and bulge and stretch to make the gesture, that becomes what the image itself does. I’m looking for a way to make an image of my own process; when I began making these different paintings, all of those ideas became internalized. They became part of the new image. I wanted you to feel that the doubling that had happened more literally in the pairing idea was now in the painting itself. As far as the recent paintings are concerned, I did go through a period of serious struggle where I wanted to break out from what I was doing previously.
For the period before the “Interior Ghost” paintings, I was obsessed with making thousands of small doodlings but wasn’t able to transfer them directly onto the canvases. It was a matter of scale, and for a long time, I resisted the method that many artists had utilized by means of cartoon or underdrawing. This obviously entails the hand and the arm coordination in relation to whatever the size of the picture that you’re working with. It was a real revelation for me because once I did use the doodle directly, not only was I able to trust the new change that had to happen conceptually, but ironically the process allowed me more freedom with the image and something different to evolve. I mean this whole new relationship with the floor, the wall, the painted surface and me that I get to deal with simultaneously. In the new “Between My Eye and Heart” series, I have left behind the pre-drawn cartoon again in order to go back to something more direct and spontaneous between me, the paint, and the canvas.
Rail: True. But is there a reason for the brush strokes being so consistently maintained in their width and the pressure they’re painted on the surface?
Davie: There are very slight deviations in the brush width within one painting, but, for the most part, it’s quite minimal, so that it reads as an overall image that sits right up on the surface. As far as a reference to a Greenbergian kind of formalism, where you always want to show the viewer that it’s only paint on canvas, a flat object as one with a compressed pictorial space, I like the idea of the objectness of the painting pinned against the idea of illusionistic space and so on. I’m sure that I’m not that comfortable with such doctrinaired and formulaic ways of thinking. It’s true that my earlier paintings had a very compressed image—the diptychs actually depict a very repressed image and then the “Interior Ghosts” become more hyperbolic—but they’re about the idea that we’re not quite able to see what we think we’re seeing. If it’s not an image covered up, then it’s one that’s distorted—the irrepressible image. I think the way my mark making develops references those ideas, so that the earlier ones were much tighter, although there’s never any taping. There’s no hard edge, it’s the actual paint difference. I was using slightly different paint, different kinds of mediums. They were tighter and as I go along my marks have changed and become more spontaneous perhaps and also the brushes that I use are very different, intentionally. In the newest paintings, I wanted to specifically create very tubular strokes, so that it gives these clues to its representational quality.
Rail: I notice there’s a relatively even and thin surface in spite of their painterliness on the canvas. In other words, they don’t appear to be the kind of paintings that demand the surface to be built up gradually over time.
Davie: Yes, I’m conscious of the result that I’d like to get when I can, even though I’m not always that successful at it. But if it doesn’t work out, I’d just wipe the whole thing out and do it all over again. It’s a difficult thing since I want both to create depth with one continuous gesture and maintain the flatness of the picture plane. At any rate, one can always detect where rupture occurs in the end of the brushstrokes or the drips as if it’s part of my breathing process.
Rail: Your recent work has a pronounced expressionistic pathos; as you once claimed, ‘I am a closet Expressionist.’ Among the Abstract Expressionists, to whom do you feel most related?
Davie: Definitely Pollock. Roberta Smith said something really fantastic once in a review. She said that, "Unlike Pollock, whose brush never touched the surface, mine seems to never be able to leave the surface." I just loved that because I think that’s very, very true to the way that I paint and very specific to the kind of image that I’m trying to make. I’m interested in pairing these two opposites again—this idea of the sleight of hand and this sort of off-handedness, where it seems seamless, and it’s almost as if I’m trying to make one continuous long gesture. At the same time I want a rawness, where there are drips, stops, and irregularities of marks—or the way it slows down, or speeds up, or things get slightly out of control, pulling and distorting, so that you see struggle in the image.
Rail: One thing that really strikes me in looking at your work is a focused articulation of light and the way the color palette has gotten complicated in its chromatic hues and gray scale over often strange fluorescent pink, bright red and green in the background.
Davie: Painting has always been about light, and in my paintings in particular, I’ve always wanted to depict some kind of internal light source. The way I used color in the earlier paintings is much different than the way I’m using it now. It’s giving me a different quality of light, but there’s always been a sense of the light being internal. It’s within the painting. In the diptychs and in the “Interior Ghosts” series and the “Pushed, Pulled, Depleted & Duplicated” series I wanted these very high-keyed, almost verging on synthetic and neon colors played up against colors like these flesh tones and these more naturalistic colors. I wanted everything to feel super saturated and high keyed—and “UP”. I thought of them almost as if they were like fake states of emotions, where you’ve got this fake smile or some other kind of façade—another form of concealment—I thought there’s something interesting about the idea of an expression of an expression. So I was playing around with ideas of expressionism, in a pun-like way. Years earlier I had been tracing clowns’ faces—studying representations of states of emotion. ‘How to make a painting with an all-over composition’ had been circling around in my head for years and years and years—I kept thinking about Pollock’s paintings and de Kooning and some of the early Joan Mitchell’s and early Guston and thinking about how I could make a painting using this all-over composition with deep space without them falling into something that was completely derivative and conservative. Perhaps I’ve done that.
Rail: I think so. There are means to abstraction that have become genres, like the monochrome is a genre and the stripe or brush stroke painting is a genre. This understanding of abstraction allows for both the possibility of breaking new ground and at the same time acknowledges those who came before who have carved out the territory in the first place. At any rate, when did you begin to make sculptures and how do see that they’re related to the paintings?
Davie: I’ve always made sculptures—though privately and sadly many of the ideas just remained in my head or in sketchbooks—as early as 1991. Most of the work that I have exhibited have been drawings that had sculptural components. I liked the idea of experimenting and testing the limit of what a drawing can be. There’s also a relationship in terms of the material and process in this work which itself creates content. I’d done some drawings that were made out of poured rubber through paper, and poured mirrored glass on paper, which in a way has the same function of the stripes and the dots. Ultimately, this obsession with the three dimensional form has to do with the viewers relation to and perception of the representational properties of the material and form itself. Although I never wanted to make sculpture that looked like my paintings, there is a formal relationship between them. As for now, I just want them to evolve on their own. And for the future, we’ll just have to see what happens.
JOAN WALTEMATH is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.