New York, Sept. 2012: For her second solo show “Fade” at Janet Kurnatowski Gallery, Kris Scheifele has made a series of sixteen paint-sculptures. Body-like and reminiscent of flayed meat, they hang from thin nails on the wall. They allude to the human form but they also suggest handbags, torn yoga mats, the friction-burned undersides of tennis shoes—plastic detritus in the process of breaking down, the kind you might find in a garbage dump. But they are beautifully made. They sag and droop and—juiced up with color—these lovingly (and maybe frustratingly) cut slabs of acrylic offer the viewer lessons about history and aesthetics. The most significant and exciting is: so much can be done with paint and color and gravity. “Fade” continues through October 7, 2012.
ArtSlant contributor Aldrin Valdez sat down with Scheifele to talk about her physical relationships to these paint sculptures, the excavation of cities and histories, and her love of transitions.
Aldrin Valdez: "Vinyl action figures," "moth-eaten," "lighter burns," "chiseling into linoleum for lino-prints"—I was jotting these words down as I went through your show. I was really attracted to the physicality of each “fade.” A lot of decisions have been made, some very subtle. Even the way the pieces dangle or hang from the nails on the wall feels very intentional. How did you begin making these "paint sculptures"? I guess that's another question to consider: are these paint sculptures?
Kris Scheifele: They're sculpted paint so they're two things at once.
AV: I suppose I was also wondering: in the past, what kind of works did you make?
KS: Every kind! Directly leading up to the Contortions, I'd just begun to add taped-off bands and blocks of very thick or layered oil into these paintings I'd been working on, which were a combo of real-ish and abstract elements on a support. Then I saw the work of Angela de la Cruz—her paintings from the late '90s. I was really attracted to their anthropomorphic quality, how beaten up they were after she'd spent so much time making them all nice. I thought: I wanna make work like that! This happened right before going to grad school. Among the many experiments there, I made some pieces in which the layered oil paint took over the entire canvas and then I chipped away at it getting a kind of distressed geometric abstraction. I also made some with crisscrossed X-acto cuts, which created a loosey-goosey grid that was easy to excavate. I picked out the rectangular bits, but each one came out on a different level, so the monochromatic top surface became kind of pixelated showing multiple levels of the differently colored strata. It looked topographical.
AV: So you started making these Contortions out of oil paint first?
KS: I wouldn't say that; I didn't make Contortions in oil paint. The oil work was something else; it was more about a temporal record and wasn't at all acrobatic or elastic. It came out of my fascinations with Jacques Villeglé and paint accretions in the city, like the encrusted steel beams you see on subway platforms. And also obsessiveness and mechanical activity: just painting and repainting a thing over and over until it's ridiculous. I would've done more of this work, but I was so pressed for time during school and the oils took forever to dry, so I got out some acrylics I had in the studio and tried that. When I got a good number of layers down, I thought: how the heck am I gonna do to this what I did to the oils—all the layers were fused. Because some of my layered oils had pulled away from their supports, I got the idea to pull the acrylic off the wooden panel. I got it halfway and then chickened out. This thing hung on the wall for a week; it looked like the painting was sticking its tongue out at me. It didn't seem like enough, so I pulled the paint off the rest of the way. That's when I saw what was possible. The different types of cuts grew out of the flexibility of the paint, from losing its rigidity. As I developed the work, all kinds of influences and associations crept in.
AV: And these became your Contortion pieces. With titles like Super Girlie Contortion and Grisaille Contortion, they poke fun at consumerism and art tropes. There are references to handbags, the human body, and to particular art historical ideas. It’s interesting how all of these elements come into play in your work.
KS: Yeah, the very first Contortion ended up in knots. That's when I thought about the performative capabilities of paint (or painting) and how acrobatic it can be, not only physically but also in terms of content. I was thinking about strategic artistic maneuvering, how style or technique can be tried on. When you're in school you're saturated with art history, and it's funny how everyone has very different ideas about what painting, or any kind of art, is going to do. Is it going to start a political revolution or a stylistic one? Is it going to put an artist in the history books or is it a fleeting trend? I was having fun with artistic conventions.
AV: You showed a second wave of Contortions at your first show at Janet Kurnatowski Gallery. Could you speak about the transition from those works to the works in Fade?
KS: The name of my first solo was Cast. I wanted every piece to feel like a very different character in a theatrical production. The Fades are more about seriality and repetition than they are about variety. Over the course of working on that group of Contortions, which included a great many more than appeared in that show, I made a couple that were actually Fades; they're even more about cycles in life. I just honed in on certain aspects. Formally, the Fades don't include any straight through cuts; they only have the deliberate decay—the clustered oval cuts—none of the long cuts that create the strap effect. Also, the paint layers transition smoothly, rather than alternating randomly between colors in a palette.
AV: As a title, Fade feels very appropriate for the change of season. It's the end of the summer and the weather is getting cooler. You've also mentioned, briefly in a note to me, that you were thinking of political changes. Could you talk more about this?
KS: Fade is always an appropriate title because things are always changing, and it's not meant to be sad. In the email you're talking about, I was thinking of historical shifts, all the talk about the decline or end of American empire. When I need a break, I like to watch historical documentaries on Netflix; it's very good for blowing your mind thinking about all the thriving cultures that are buried deep in, say, the Indus Valley. They were such prosperous, busy hubs full of people building up this and tearing down that. Sometimes remnants of all this activity are dug up, but a lot of it is lost even to history. I guess this was the background chatter in my mind while I made this series: the constant movement and need to adapt. One day the boomtown goes bust; the weather changes or a new mode of transport develops and people go somewhere else. If you live long enough, you see it in your own life—things come and go, good stuff and bad, so don't get too attached to any of it. Can you tell I'm a huge fan of Marshall Berman's All That Is Solid Melts into Air? I've also spent a lot of time editing video professionally, and the fade, as a video effect, is a great metaphor—fade up, fade to black, cross-fade. It's a beginning, an ending, and a transition. It's life.
AV: These forms, hanging on the wall like they do, bring up a lot of associations with the body and with decay.
KS: They're delicate, sensitive little buggers and they need to be punished. [Laughs] Just kidding! A lot goes on after I've done my thing; they respond to gravity, touch, temperature. The stretchiness of the acrylic really adds a lot in terms of a sense of impermanence. Despite what the media would have us believe, bodies do actually sag and wrinkle—I've seen it myself. And it's the suppleness of the body that's so great, but it's a double-edged sword. So in some instances, my pieces can feel very much like flayed skin, and because some drape like fabric, the association with clothing also brings things back to the body. The scale does this too. Also, your skin, your surface is like clothing; you inhabit it temporarily and it's an arena [in which] to perform your identity, or identities, over time. I think the cuts, the kinds that look like aestheticized decay, lose any kind of gravitas because there's a lot of jubilant color. It's like, yay we're rotting!
AV: They're also very plastic. They're acrylic, which might suggest that they won’t break down and they’ll be around for centuries.
KS: That's where the cubed paint chips come in. I'm really conscious about the waste this work creates and how permanent this material actually is despite the fact that it's a bit of a shape shifter. I try to use “every part of the animal,” so to speak. Maybe it's a detail that speaks to the constancy of embodiment; we haven't figured a way out of it—yet—except death. I also like the way plastic ages; the way it gets discolored and cracks, which is funny when very futuristic design gets that crappy, worn-out look. It makes me wonder what my stuff will look like in a hundred years, but I'll never know.
AV: Could you talk about your process of choosing color combinations?
KS: There's that great book Chromophobia by David Batchelor; I suffer the opposite condition: chromophilia, I guess you'd call it. I've always been into abundant color and its symbolism; as an undergrad I wrote a big honkin' paper on color in James Joyce's Ulysses. For my work, I've tapped everything from art history to everyday life for ideas as well as nature, sunsets, flowers. I like the way color can identify a whole country or a brand or a person or a certain time period; how colors go in and out of style. Like avocado, rusty brown, and orange: that's '70s kitchen, for a lot of people, and what does that conjure up? I like that these kinds of associations are cultural, making it possible to share them (not that everyone thinks of the same thing when they think of a '70s kitchen). '50s Fade is an example of this kind of thing. It's a cold, pale pink fading into black. It's the sock hop, the drive-in, Leave it to Beaver, but it's also gender and race inequity and all kinds of yuck.
I've been in a lot of bathrooms in that color combo that were tiled during that era. It makes me think of the American dream as it was defined back then, and how that's undergone some adjustments. I guess this sounds like a lot of heavy lifting for a little abstract painting, but this is what's going through my mind. More simply, Money Fade is just the color of money: silver for coins and green for paper money. Lots of people have been watching their dollars fade over the past several years, that's for sure. And then there are a lot of pieces that aren't so specific; I'm just going for a general mood, but I get suggestive with the titles. I particularly like color transitions that create entirely separate colors, not just purple slowly turning white, but yellow turning into green before it's blue. I like when the transition is its own thing, not just on the way to somewhere else. I'm also into gross combinations like lemony puke green and peach, which I actually saw someone wearing this summer.
AV: In addition to Angela de la Cruz, which other artists do you see your work being in conversation with?
KS: Well, of course Lynda Benglis and Linda Besemer—her acrylics off the support. But it's funny, I didn't tune in to their work until after starting on the Contortions. Also, Supports/Surfaces, the French movement from the '60s and ‘70s. And Eva Hesse, especially since her work continues to deteriorate much to the chagrin of art conservators. I'd like to think my work has something to do with Allan McCollum's Surrogate Paintings and James Hyde, but that might be wishful thinking on my part. I think I share the sentiment Matthew Deleget expresses in his bashed, wooden panels, but maybe I'm just starting to list work I like. I want to learn something: who do you think?
AV: I was thinking of your work when I saw Oliver Arms’s paintings last year. I think his paintings also take a long period of time to make, since he’s working with oil paints and sanding into them to reveal layers of color. His paintings remain on rectangular supports, though. They’re more like wall surfaces than bodies, but sometimes the supports warp, maybe from the heavy handling they take, and they remind me of something very organic.
And recently, I saw Carolyn Salas’s wall-based works, which also seem to be dealing with crossovers between painting and sculpture. Really exciting use of cement-like materials and pigment.
KS: Carolyn, yeah, her cast Hydrocal things, which remind me of James Hyde and Stacy Fisher a little bit. She definitely has some Supports/Surfaces action going on. Her fringy, unraveled canvases are pretty great. Jess Fuller unravels canvas too and it's free of a support. That's totally up my alley. When I was working on my thesis in 2009, I even wrote about incorporating frayed canvas into the Contortions. So now I'm reminded that I have to do that. Thank you.
AV: I like this idea of “excavation,” of digging and discovering. I think in viewing your work, I also take part in the excavation, through the layers and folds, and the wonderful colors you use. “Excavation” also reminds me of the Willem de Kooning painting, with that title. I think he was also looking at how materials accumulated on urban surfaces, like graffiti and posters.
KS: The urban surface is pretty rich: everyone leaving their mark whether they intend to or not. That's why I like Villeglé's excavated posters. I also identify with de Kooning's process. It's like knitting a sweater everyday and unraveling it every night, maybe for different reasons than Oliver Arms, but they both build things up and tear them down. I do that. I spend a lot of time building up my layers, then I cut away at them, sometimes to the point where there's barely anything left, like in Hate Fade. What eats away more at you than hate? Fear maybe. I'll have to make a Fear Fade.
AV: You’re also a writer. How does writing inform your art?
KS: There's so much to learn and knowledge is a use-it-or-lose-it thing for me, so writing is a really good way to stay very active and engaged with all kinds of subject matter, not just art. How can that not make it into the work? Writing about art, I also make connections and have experiences that don't happen if I just breeze through an exhibit. For me, writing is about the process of making associations, which can be pretty slow. That’s what happened with this almost bland work I've been making. It really has a moment when it's just a monochromatic slab painted with the same amount of effort you'd put into glazing a ham or something. I'm not interested in making illustrations; I like an interpretive smorgasbord and one with a good deal of freedom in it. Writing makes me realize what kinds of content I'm attracted to, and because I have to go out and see as much work as possible, I can also respond to what I see through my artwork, not just the writing. And I can steal ideas [laughs].
AV: What are you currently working on?
KS: Even though I've been doing this acrylic paint work for about five years now, and this has been the only work that's hit public awareness, I think I'm the kind of artist who shifts gears from time to time. I'm just into a lot of different things; I don't want to get backed into a corner. Right now, I'm in that place that's scary and exciting: I have ideas for new projects, but I haven't gotten started on anything yet.
With this second solo show up right now, I'm taking a breath; I mean, I was making Fades up until a few days before installing. I think whatever it is will have something to do with the challenging and complex reality of having a body or the strong attachment people have to objects and possessions: more transience and probably full-on sculpture. Maybe. I'm embracing uncertainty.
ArtSlant would like to thank Kris Scheifele for her assistance in making this interview possible.