I didn’t care about mother and child, landscape, any of that. I was into the brushstroke, the luster of the paint, color, movement. The first paintings I saw were French Impressionists at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Impressionism is a relatively abstract genre, although, the way I see it, all painting is abstract; an abstraction of reality. Even when an artist paints “realistically” they are making an abstraction…
Maya Kabat: Things are left out. You only include what you choose from all that you see…
KK: Perspective, for example, is an abstract system of describing actual space.
MK: When you paint an abstract painting you are going for it completely; for your reality. Even in observation, each person’s perspective is so different, like different people’s memories of a crime scene. So in a sense you go completely for that subjectivity.
KK: My goal isn’t to be recreating an observed reality, but I am interested in the subjective properties of experience. And I’m pursuing some kind of mental freedom. I don’t have to reference any particular sources. When we talked about your work Joan, you start from real places, moments in time, landscape. I think my work is about qualities and relationships. That’s what I’m thinking about all the time, and when I’m painting.
Lately, I’ve been trying to get more of what I see around me into the paintings. But I don’t know if anyone can see what real things inspire me.
JW: What kinds of things are you working from lately? Your new work looks a lot different than previous.
KK: I analyzed the last body of work and decided what I liked about what I was doing, and thought about where I wanted to go. I’m in an experimental phase now.
I have studied graphic design and worked as a graphic designer to make a living for quite a while. I felt like I was using too many design tropes-- tricks of the trade--to make my paintings work. I wanted to let go of that and see if I really needed those things to hold the paintings together. I took out some of the complementary color palettes I had been working with. I now use what I call the “carnival” color palette. It’s inspired by the chaotic colors you might see out on a city street or commercial strip. I’m reflecting the signage, graffiti, the multiplicity of what I see out there.
I also started to use oil paint instead of acrylic. The thing I discovered immediately about oil is the dimensionality of it. The way the paint stands up. It holds the stroke and shows all the hairs of the brush and the direction of the stroke. It doesn’t go flat like acrylic tends to do. It seems to build a surface with strokes that I can weave together. Weaving the strokes is really fun and challenging for me, so I’m loving working with that quality.
I’ve also brought in spray paint, neon and metallic paint as well as starting to work on wood. So, I’ve been playing around a lot with materials. A big thing that happened was introducing tape into my paintings. I had been using tape on my last series, just to mask off parts of the painting I didn’t want to overpaint. I started to play with working the hard edge of the tape into the gestural brushstrokes and I liked the contrast. I saw some artists that used tape in their work that I really liked—Christopher Wool and Jacqueline Humphries for example. I always wanted to get some geometry or straight lines into my paintings. I’ve tried and failed in the past. Some awful buried paintings you will never see attest to that. But I think this taped line is really promising at the moment.
MK: How are you picking your palette and mixing your colors?
KK: I mix all my colors from the primaries plus black and white. Trying to mix my black, like you’ve encourages me to do, Maya. (Laughs) I just start with tubes of primaries. I mix all my own secondaries, tertiaries. I do a lot of grayed out, mucky tones and tints.
JW: You’re choosing color by instinct as you go? It must be difficult to forget what you know about color and color theory. It sounds like you’re trying to leave that behind. Is that hard to do?
KK: I just wanted to see if it would work. I asked myself, if I don’t use complementary colors to hold a painting together, what will hold it together? Will it hold together? It turns out that the darks and lights are holding it together, I think. The paintings are more off balance than ever, though. I have a high tolerance for chaos.
JW: Can you talk about your attraction to the so-called street materials-- the spray paint and the neon for example? Where does that come from? I mean here you are living up in this lovely, sylvan setting in the hills (Laughs)…
(Laughs) Well, I work in west Berkeley so I spend a lot of time down there and in industrial and commercial areas of Oakland and San Francisco, too. I just get all around and I like to use what I see. I love graffiti, signage. I like what I call vernacular painting; instances where paint is used, or marks are made, for non-art reasons. There is this building on Fifth Street where the janitors cover the graffiti with rolled on paint using whatever cheap color they can get. Then the taggers come back and write on top of that. Then the janitors come back and paint over it again. It ends up making a fascinating random composition. Down by the railroad tracks they spray paint neon arrows on the gravel. I’m not sure why they do it, but I love the way it looks. I see a lot of silver paint out there, in the graffiti, and on the ubiquitous electrical boxes.
MK: You’re enjoying things that are not precious. Things in the every day world.
JW: It’s interesting that your work comes out of Abstract Expressionism which was at one time the dominant art movement with its gods and pantheon. There was a feeling of purity and spirituality there. You went from that and added a pop sensibility, and its cultural elements like the neon or graffiti. Your paintings are unique because they play with both Ab Ex and Pop.
KK: I do play with both. I ‘m not sure I agree that AbEx was interested in purity. Modernism was, but Abstract Expressionism? Not so much. Ab Ex was into movement, even violence, perhaps.
MK: Physicality. The body.
KK: Yes, physicality, like JW’s favorite, Joan Mitchell.
JW: She wasn’t much of a purist (Laughs)
KK: Right. I’m not into purity. I’m into pollution. I like to show the way things really are, how the game is played, the compromise we have with it. How you try to live within it. Because it’s not going away any time soon. (Laughs)
JW: You’re not trying to go to any transcendent place. You’re right in it.
KK: I have a feeling that maybe you can transcend by becoming one with the chaos. I try to embrace the messy totality to access the unity. It makes me think of the transcendent moments I’ve experienced in my life. One of the best is on the dance floor, where a chaotic, disparate group of people are all flailing about but eventually they all start to move together to the music and each other’s energy. The whole thing elevates and unifies and the crowd loses themselves in the common experience which somehow holds them together for a short time.
JW: There was a lot of angst in AbEx, but I don’t get a lot of angst in your paintings.
KK: You’re not the first to say that, but I think I have angst. (Laughs)
JW: Let’s hear about your angst. (Laughs)
KK: Maybe I don’t know exactly what angst is. Doesn’t it mean fear?
JW: It’s like agony, the existential pain of individuality.
MK: I think it’s about anxiety. I feel a lot of anxiety when I paint, and a lot of ego. Do you feel that stress and does that work its way into your painting?
KK: I have felt that painting is sometimes a channeling of anxiety. In the new work though, there is a process with the taping, so it’s different now. I’ve never had that process to work with before. It alleviates some anxiety because you know something of what you are going to do. But the process itself still works along with a lot of improvisation, and venturing into the unknown. I like to see through the security to the insecurity—and back again.
JW: Let me define it further. I think of the decision to be an artist as angst-filled. There is the mainstream and then there is the subculture of the artist as outsider.
KK: Would that show up in your painting?
JW: I think for a lot of people that struggle shows up in the work.
KK: I don’t like being in the mainstream and I don’t identify with it, so I’m happy to be outside of its definitions as much as I can be. I never felt I fit into it all that well by my nature.
JW: It’s almost joyful for you.
KK: Yes, it’s joyful, not a problem. You may have convinced me that I’m pretty low on the angst-meter.
JW: Some people are making a social statement about alienation, but you seem to be making a statement that everything belongs.
MK: I love that. All the parts have become equally important.
KK: Formally, I think that the scatter composition I do now expresses that dynamic. Previously, I did more figure/ground things which were elegant and ordered, and in that way they were not satisfying me. Lately the background and foreground are equalizing. To me, those are the kinds of abstract components of a painting that I’m interested in working with--opposites and their relationships. I look at how elements work together within this rectangle. I weave them, they interlock, interpenetrate. Sometimes it’s like a patchwork. I do search for a unity but I don’t want to force it. But yes, everything has to belong.
Like this painting here is one that Maya saw before and thought wasn’t working because the background and foreground were not integrated enough. I’ve finally got it working, I think. The background, which happens to be a very flat, neon yellow, acrylic paint, really comes forward and engages the foreground, which is dark, lush, gradations of oil paint.
JW: It’s great the way the background pops forward, then back. There’s an incredible vitality and movement with that.
KK: I like to work with push/pull, but in this painting there’s a little cheating because the neon pushes so hard. It’s funny, it sort of cracks me up. It’s like minimal and maximal are going head to head.
MK: The neon screams. You’re working with such polar opposites here. The neon is so bright and flat, and the foreground is these dark and muddy colors.
KK: Is there any angst in that? (Laughs)
JW: Some people looking at it could feel a tremendous sense of anxiety because first of all, abstraction makes a lot of people very nervous. (Laughs) But this painting plays with disharmony and shock value. I’m liking it myself.
MK: It’s like an E flat. I wouldn’t say there’s anxiety in it, but there’s tension.
JW: It’s more like an argument, rather than a compromise.
KK: I should call that one “Death Match”, or maybe “Angst in my Pants”. (Laughs)
JW: In the spectrum of this body of work, there seem to be some paintings that are more harmonious and integrated and some have sharper contrasts.
KK: I am experimenting right now. I feel like I might use this effect again, or not. I think I might use it in a smaller dosage. (Laughs)
JW: Can we get into a little about your personal history? You were born and raised in Oakland. There’s that big city influence.
KK: It’s a wonderful place with a bad reputation. I’ve always liked Oakland and the funk.
I went to Catholic school for twelve years, but I didn’t have the right temperament for that kind of strictness. I resisted the control and it was often traumatic. I think that’s why in my painting I’m searching for what’s real, and trying to look beyond what I’m told to think or do. My family was pretty conservative and of course the church and school institutionally were very repressive but at the same time I was growing up in the Bay Area in the 60s, during its most radical, progressive period. I can remember being in the play yard at my grammar school, which was on Alcatraz Avenue in Oakland, and looking out through the fence at the Hippies and Black Panthers going by and thinking, “There’s obviously something else going on in this world, other than what they’re telling me in here. I gotta get out!” (Laughs)
I went to high school in East Oakland, then I went to art school for about a year and a half–I went to CCA--but I really couldn’t afford it. I transferred to UC Berkeley and finished my undergrad there. I studied with some great painters who were there at the time—Joan Brown, Elmer Bischoff, David Simpson. There were also some lesser known painters that were influential—Sylvia Lark and George Miyasaki. They both did some beautiful underrated abstract painting in the late 70s, early 80s.
Then I went to work. I did graphic design, advertising design and marketing for agencies and publications in San Francisco all through the 80s.
JW: Did that infringe on your artmaking?
KK: I didn’t make art during that time period. I was kind of ambitious (in a slacker kind of way) as a designer for about ten years. Then I had my kids and was sticking closer to home. In the late 90s it occurred to me to get back into making personal work again. I did some collage and stuff on my own and then a woman I knew from the kids’ co-op preschool said, “You’ve got to come to this painting class at the JCC. There’s this great teacher there.” That’s where I met Janet Lipkin who really was a great artist and teacher. I made the first paintings on canvas since my college work, in 2000, in Janet’s class.
JW: You have been very integral in the formation of Mercury 20 Gallery and you seem to have a strong commitment to the cooperative way of doing things.
KK: I love DIY. I don’t know if you know this about me but I love rock music, and of course punk rock music, so the DIY sensibility is very meaningful to me. I love the whole punk rock ethos: shit stirring, negativity, etc. (Laughs). But the other thing is the do-it-yourself ethic. It’s the best thing to just get together with people and run your own show. It’s hard, but like with Mercury 20, people can do anything if they have the time and the will, so it’s amazing that we’ve all gotten the gallery together and it’s such a joy.
JW: I wanted to ask you about music and its importance to you in making your work. Tell me about that.
KK: I’ve been a music lover ever since I was eight years old listening to KFRC on my transistor radio. I’m always listening to all kinds of music and try to keep up with new developments and trends. What musicians are doing and why seems very important culturally. Again it’s where art meets the street. Luckily I have my two kids who help me keep up with music and cultural ideas in general because they’re both all over it.
I love punk and new wave music which was the music of my youth. I went to the Sex Pistols last show at Winterland, you probably wouldn’t think that by looking at me today (or maybe you would). When I was working in the City I was going to all the clubs of the day, the Mabuhay, the On Broadway, the I-Beam, the Stud. Music is just so inspiring to me. People usually don’t analyze songs, they celebrate them. I’d like to make paintings that are as immediate and expressive as a song.
I am calling my new show “Slipping (Into Something)” after a song by The Feelies. It also refers, in my mind, to De Kooning’s comments about “slipping” in painting. That when he’s slipping, or off-balance, he gets a glimpse of his content and finds the way to something interesting. Abstract expressionism meets punk rock?
MK: It’s kind of sexual.KK: That too. And it’s about fluidity. I don’t know what the song is really about to tell you the truth, but the lyric goes, “Slipping into something, and out of something else.” Moving from one thing to another, experimenting, exploring conscious and unconscious boundaries.
interview with Joan Weiss & Maya Kabat
portrait by Peter Honig
June 24, 2008
Joan Weiss: My first question is about your clear commitment to abstraction. It’s an interesting position to be in. Can you talk about why you do abstraction and how you got here?
Kathleen King: When I first encountered painting when I was young, I feel like, even then, I was more excited about the abstract qualities of paintings rather than the subject matter or the description.