Three times per year The Kiernan Gallery presents a solo exhibition of a non-photographic artist in conjunction with a photographic group show. Our Winter Featured Artist is Elizabeth Kauffman exhibiting her series Post Idiom.
What was the evolution of your style of painting? How did you begin your artistic career?
I began as a figurative painter. I have always thoroughly enjoyed the process of painting something that looks believable, but as a representational painter I had to quickly confront the questions inherent to the process of painting images. What does it mean to make an image? What does it mean to represent the “real”? Are images inherently corrupt as agents that potentially limit perception? Images have the power to act as social mediators, giving what seem to be realistic portrayals of how things are, or in some cases how they should be. I began working from images of women found in fashion magazines and of course had to deal with this basic question of the model vs. the real. The deliberate fantasy spun by fashion and its photography was of particular interest. I have since moved onto other subjects, like nature and landscape, but the basic issues are still the same: what is the space between reality and fantasy and how do images mediate that boundary.
Reed Camp on Lake Lila after Gary Wilson, 1906
Elaborate on the relationship of text and image in your work. How and why did you choose the phrases used and how do they relate to the idea behind the portfolio?
I find the relationship of text to image very fascinating. I am a very visual person, yet there is nothing more thrilling than finding a good book that fills your head with mental images. So in a sense, language is another road to the image just as representational painting is perhaps a more direct route. In my work I enjoying playing with those two paths and exploring where they cross. In this particular series, Post Idiom, familiar American idioms are combined with images of romantic landscapes. This combination speaks to the important juncture we are at as a nation, where our basic ideals about our land and ourselves must change to meet the demands of the 21st century. While in some cases the common phrases I use are as old as the imagery, their pithy and short form mimic the current shift in language caused by new technologies of text messages and twitter feeds. While some idioms I use have an “I told you so” ring, others offer an alternative perspective, such as “Go for broke.” Rather than a using these bits of text as censure I wanted them to represent an ambivalent point of view, because our present situation truly could go either way.
Lake Placid Rainbow after Joann Sandone Reed, 2012
Tell us about the history of these pieces. You are making direct reference to painters of the Hudson River School. What is your connection to their style and yours? What is the tie-in?
Some of the images I use are from famous nineteenth century landscape paintings by artists like Thomas Cole and Winslow Homer, and for me these paintings conjure a feeling of nostalgia for the American dream of living off the land. Like many Americans I was raised on that dream and still find those romantic ideals attractive, yet I realize we no longer live in that world. As Thomas Friedman described the 21st century, it will be hot, flat and crowded, and the dream of the bounty of the American wilderness will be quickly turned to nightmare if our ways do not change. Furthermore, that dream was made possible by the genocide of the first Americans so it was corrupt from the very start. All this being said, it is the romantic image of the land that has the potential to save us. Oftentimes our sympathy for nature, our desire to be “green” and protect our environment is provoked by romanticized ideas of it. Beautiful and idyllic scenes of mountains and lakes can remind us to protect our fragile resources so they can continue to inspire tall tales and sublime pictures for many years to come.
While most of my sources are oil paintings, I chose to paint in watercolor because of its essential qualities of fragility and ephemerality. If exposed to running water these images would literally disappear. These qualities are a perfect metaphor for the precariousness of our ecosystem. Watercolor also seemed to speak to one of the most recent effects of climate change that drenched the entire east coast while I was in the studio making this work: Hurricane Sandy.
Lake George after Jasper Francis Cropsey, 1872
Who are your artistic influences? Are there any particular artists working in watercolor of any other medium that have influenced this work?
Some of my recent influences include Mary Mattingly, Claire Sherman, and Michelle Blade. Mary Mattingly for her ambitious projects that envision a new way to live, as well as her beautiful photos; Claire Sherman for her awesome landscape paintings that use paint in a very graphic and interesting way; And Michelle Blade for her use of water media and surreal imagery. Adrian Piper, Annette Messager, and Andrea Zittel have also had a big impact on my work over the years. I haven’t deliberately sought out only female artists, it is just an interesting coincidence that the work I am most excited by is created by women.
Where do you see your work fitting into the contemporary art world?
I am very much indebted to contemporary trends that encourage interdisciplinary work, because I would not have been happy working in an era when you had to choose just one way. I do however suspect that I will always make paintings and have a studio, and this puts me at odds with the contemporary trend of the post-studio artist. I still have a desire to speak to the masses, so I strive to make work that is both interesting to me, an insider in the field, as well as intriguing to the general public. This goal does not seem particularly encouraged within the upper strata of the current art world, and therefore I imagine my work will never end up at the Whitney or the Guggenheim. I also choose not to live in New York, and despite the years of cries for a decentralized, more regionally relevant art world, New York is still the place to be. Perhaps as the internet and new technologies change our lives this too will change. Here’s hoping.
Ausable River after Samuel Colman, 1869
Finally, we ask this of all of our artists, what does success in art mean to you?
For me success is continually growing and evolving in my work. This might seem like a given, but making new work is driven by things outside the self. Having a supportive studio environment as well as artist friends and colleagues to encourage exploration is one important driver. Another is having the ability to show and sell your work. The art world measures success in part by a long resume list of shows. I would agree that this means success, but not because of the shows themselves, but because of the evolution of making that it supports.
Post-Idiom is on view through January 31, 2014. To view the exhibition online visit kiernangallery.com.