Sunday, August 1, 2010

ArtWord: Kristine Donnelly

Kristine Donnelly, Detail of Untitled (Fan Shapes)

This month, the Taft Museum of Art will open its second Keystone Contemporary exhibit. This annual series highlights the work of an emerging artist in the Tristate region with a small scale solo show. This year, the museum is featuring the work of Kristine Donnelly. While preparing for this solo show and working at the Cincinnati Art Museum as the Coordinator of Family Learning, Ms. Donnelly took the time to meet with me and answer some questions about her work.

1. Like many successful artists, you began as a figural painter. Can you tell me a bit more about your earlier work? What specifically does painting not allow you to do that your current medium does? And perhaps just as interesting, what challenge does cut paper provide (for you and your viewer) that painting may not?

I worked directly from life when painting the figure. I created life-sized multiple figure oil paintings. My work dealt with personal narratives and memories. I loved working with oils: the richness of the color, the opacity of the pigment, the transformative power that a simple color wash could have. When creating large multiple figure paintings, I was most interested in the act of composing. I began works with many preparatory drawings and studies, always moving things around and changing viewpoints and space. Even half way through a painting, it was always so exhilarating to scrap a canvas down and start again when I’d realize a new, more interesting arrangement. At times I was more interested in the directing of a painting than the finish work and details. I was also intrigued by negative spaces: the small abstractions of color, the forgotten, “unimportant” areas. I would spend weeks laboring over the contour of a nose or the flesh tones. However when a painting was finished I was usually most interested in the flat negative shapes that took only seconds to paint.Although I loved paint, a few years ago it became apparent that this medium was no longer the proper vehicle for my ideas. The figure slowly exited my work. I then created images of painted patterns and ornamental designs. Color became less important as I struggled to find crisp edges and dimension. Initially the move from paint to cut paper was hesitant. However I quickly fell in love with the new material and new vocabulary for making work.
I’m interested in the limitations of paper. It is both fragile and temporary. My works test the tolerance of paper. By cutting, pulling, stretching, sewing, and tacking paper, it is transformed. Failures are common as I try to create different forms. Ideas often result in discarded piles on the studio floor. Making work that is by nature temporary is very exhilarating. Knowing that my work eventually will expire (rip, crease, fold, etc,) makes me more likely to experiment- to take risks when making it.
Paper is pedestrian. It is encountered on a daily basis. Everyone understands paper. In my work the screenprinted patterns and cut paper designs transform the paper. However they aren’t meant to completely disguise it. It is still paper. I intentionally leave pencil
lines, mistaken cuts, and scraps. The work is often hung with thumbtacks.

Kristine Donnelly, Unraveled (Detail)

2. What fascinates me most about your work is the prominence of the organic form and your ability to tease these out of architectural spaces. So often, artists maintain the grid as subject of nearly every abstract exploration of architectural space. I see a connection between your figural work within the frame of a painting and your current organic forms within the architectural grid. What is it that you hope your viewer will see in these forms?

In my current work, the patterns I create are composites from a variety of sources: images of skin, biological cells, lace patterns, and architectural elements. Creating the pattern is painstaking and deliberate. My intent and thought process behind the patterns is abstracted and obstructed from the viewer. It isn’t necessary that that the viewer have full insight into the origin of the forms. Viewers will see structures both fragile and strong that can’t easily be defined. They’ll find connections to biology, craft and textiles. The cuttings also invite the viewer to question and redefine positive and negative space. Viewers can look at the pieces and through the pieces. Wall, floor, light and shadow become players in the pieces and bring new definitions.

3. The materials and tools you use to make your work are common everyday objects. Even what you do with this medium can be seen as something rather fundamental. I think of paper cutting we do as children to make paper snowflakes. This comparison is not meant to undermine or in any way minimalize you work, but to emphasize the universal that is your process,the materials, and finally the monumental impact your work achieves. Do you think allusion to (illusion of?) the familiar is the reason your work is so successful? Explain more your dance between the individual and the universal present in all of your work.

As I said earlier, I hope that the universal material brings understanding and approachability to my work. The labor and delicacy is meant to confront and engage. Certainly my work could be made in a fraction of the time by using technology. It would be perfect and flawless. However my work is by choice laborious. The images are hand screenprinted.
The openings are hand cut. Cutting the shapes of a repeated pattern is much like a choreographed dance. My hand knows the designs so intimately. It moves almost without thinking from one curve to the next. It is quick and meticulous. Economical and deliberate. It is a quite and meditative act, this repeated cutting. It’s interesting because the idea of “cutting” is violent and frightening. However the cutting used to create my work is very calming. The delicate process of cutting is central to the pieces.

Kristine Donnelly, Enclosure (Detail)

4. As an MFA student, you studied the work of Tara Donovan. When she was here at the CAC, you had an opportunity to work with her. While I imagine it was pretty exciting for you to work with her, I’m sure she was equally thrilled to work with you. What exactly did you explore in her work prior to her visit to Cincinnati? Did your ideas about her work change after the CAC exhibit?

I had the opportunity to work on the installation crew for the Contemporary Arts Center’s Tara Donovan in 2009. It was very surreal to no only meet this artist, but to assist in creating her pieces for an exhibition. At the time, Donovan’s work challenged every definition I had for what art should be: permanent, archival, recognizable, narrative, etc. I loved how she made art from everyday objects. I loved how her work was both feminine and masculine. How it evoked aesthetic responses in both artists and non-artists. I felt that her work was in dialog with French landscape paintings, but in 21st century terms. How pencils and buttons became topographical maps and plastic straws looked like wrinkles of skin.
It was exciting to work with Tara and her crew and learn about the creation process and discuss the site-specific nature of her work. The pieces changed shape and stature within the different exhibition spaces. The unique architecture of the CAC played a prominent role in the shaping of Donovan’s work. It was interesting to hear how her work was developing and changing from new materials to processes.

5. While you both may use similarly recognizable materials, Donovan’s work seems to rest more on the unit that is repeated. We easily recognize the Styrofoam cup or plastic straw, for instance. Your work though requires one to look closer in order to identify the unit; to note repetition or pattern. Explain how pattern and repetition in interior decorated spaces is the focus of your work, yet not necessarily immediately apparent to the viewer. Do you run the risk of the viewer simply loving the look and texture of your pieces as interior decoration only?

The screenprinted patterns in my work are taken from organic (cellular) and architectural forms as well as established patterns and motifs from historical wallpaper and lace. I combine different sources to create a composite image that becomes a pattern by repeating it via screenprint. I take long rolls of paper and repeatedly screen print the motif. The repetition is lessened when I begin cutting into the paper rolls. The patterns are compromised with new openings and negative shapes. When the cut paper rolls are combined to create a larger form they are often twisted, layered, rolled, and piled. Thus the patterns are further abstracted and obstructed. The screen printed patterns and the cut paper openings then become the vehicles for design. They play off the existing architecture, both exposing and covering it. They create a new definition for the work. The viewer is invited to investigate the detail and texture of the piece as well as the space it resides in.
Certainly my work has a dialog with decoration. I’m interested in wallpaper- how it can recede subtly in the background or loudly overtake a space. It is a cheap impermanent way to assign a space an “identity.” I’m also interested in draperies- how beautiful forms are created to serve as a covering. Delicate curtains are intended to conceal things and bring privacy. My work explores the function and forms of decorative elements.
When invited to make work for the 2010 Keystone Contemporary Exhibition at the Taft Museum, I was immediately excited about exploring the Taft’s interior decoration. The draperies, walls, and floors, were central to creating work for the exhibition. I relied on the Taft’s interior architecture, patterned designs, and color palette.

Kristine Donnelly, Cover Up

Kristine Donnelly: Paperwork will open at the Taft Museum of Art on August 6, 2010 and will be on view through October 24, 2010 in the Keystone gallery. Ms. Donnelly will give a talk at the museum on August 22 with a reception following. See here for more information and to make reservations for this talk.