Interview with Ken Weathersby
By Tracy DiTolla
From Ken’s Bio: Ken Weathersby’s paintings were on exhibit in 2015 in “Off the Grid” at Pierogi Gallery, in “Textual” at Odetta Gallery, in a three-person show at 57w57 Arts, and in a two-person show (with Li Trincere) at Key Projects, all in New York City. His work travelled internationally in “Therely Bare (Redux),” a group show which opened in Leiden, the Netherlands, at I.S. Projects in spring 2015. Weathersby’s works were seen in 2014 in the exhibitions “Off the Wall” at Parallel Art Space, “Pierogi XX” at Pierogi Gallery, and the Aljira Fellows exhibition at Aljira Art Center. Recent solo shows include “Strange Fit” at Pierogi Gallery in Brooklyn (2012), “Silent Opera” at One River Gallery in Englewood, NJ (2013), and “Cache” at NIAD Art Center Gallery in Richmond, CA (2013). His paintings were also included in “Post-Op” at Mixed Greens Gallery in New York (2012) and the National Academy of Art Museum’s 183rd Annual: An Invitational Exhibition of Contemporary American Art in New York. Weathersby received an MFA in Painting from Cranbrook Academy of Art.
Tracy DiTolla: When did you first decide that you wanted to be an artist? Was there a specific clarifying moment for you?
Ken Weathersby: In high school I was hanging around with people in rock bands. I was interested in drawing, writing and music, most excited by doing creative things. By my first year of college I was depressed and desperate because I didn’t have a sense of what to do with myself in the future. Becoming an artist wasn’t particularly visible as a path. I couldn’t see any path that interested me. In retrospect I understand that growing up in the south, in Mississippi, gave me limited exposure to cultural possibilities. At the University of Southern Mississippi I eventually took some studio classes from a professor who told me I had a “damn gift” for art. He also challenged me with an ultimatum: that I should either get serious about art (I was just drifting) or get the hell out of his class. That was a turning point. I didn’t get the hell out. Instead I got really involved with painting. After college I went on to graduate school for painting at Cranbrook in Detroit. After completing my MFA I moved back to Mississippi briefly, but after a couple of months I packed up and moved straight to New York City.
TD: You often cut out or cover certain parts of images or of the canvas. What leads to your decision to take things away and replace them with other images or materials or geometric designs?
KW: I want to make a thing that does something particular and specific in relation to your act of looking at it. The way the parts of the painting are arranged might deny you full access to what one would assume is made to be seen, like when the painted face of the canvas is hidden. Maybe a painting is foregrounding something that is normally just a non-visual support, like the wooden stretcher or staples. It could be transposing its parts in a way that presents like a puzzle, or messing up your perception of a pattern with slight displacements, like a grain of sand in an oyster. Generally each painting is doing something different. For a number of years, I was doing this in a visual language that was geometrical, abstract and material, but excluded representation. Occasionally I borrowed human shapes from sculptures or paintings from art history, but they would be barely recognizable as figures the way I used them, just contours filled in with painted pattern. More recently, though, I’ve been introducing collaged images into that situation. Usually they are photos of heads or figures from ancient sculpture. The presence of these entities speaks to the act of looking in different ways. They can become a kind of proxy for the viewer, reacting to some abstract thing within the painting which they connect to with their gaze. So they model or re-enact our encounter with the painting itself. Or sometimes they are bursting into the middle of an abstract painting, as if they had opened the wrong door by mistake. It’s another angle on the idea of an encounter. The through-line in all of it is looking at an unknown thing or situation and pointing to the space of not knowing.
TD: The painting, 256 (girl swimmer), seems to be a good example of your recent practice. Can you talk a little about this piece?
KW: The two collage elements are photo illustrations that I found in old books. The one on the right is the image of a girl resting near the water and looking off toward the center of the painting, where there is an oval of abstract pattern painted in contrasting colors. Below the photo you can read part of the caption, which identifies her as a “girl diver”. I changed the description a little to “girl swimmer” in my title. On the opposite side of the painting, mirroring her position is a photo of a classical sculpture. Its head is missing, but the body is at the exact same scale and in the exact same posture as the girl. It is a mirror image of the girl, but it is a boy. It too would be looking toward the abstract form in the middle of the painting, but it lacks a head, and therefore can’t look.
TD: What is the reason for the titles of all your works being numbered?
KW: I title them with numbers as a practical way of keeping track of them. It distinguishes them from one another and the numbers represent the order in which they were made, so I can know chronology. I tend to avoid more evocative titles because I want to leave people’s responses more open-ended. I don’t want to over-direct interpretation, which, for better or worse, is up to the viewer. I sometimes add in a parenthetical title, if one emerges organically while I’m working. If I want to add one of these titles to the number on a piece, but think it would be too much, I will compromise by reducing that part to just initials, a kind of code.
TD: You have said your work is very concrete and is all about the physical aspect of it, but you often incorporate images from ancient and medieval art history into your pieces – are the choices of collaged images you include in your work based solely on aesthetics or does their original meaning and context play a role as well?
KW: Before, I was playing the physical against the optical. It was the material structure of the thing played against the abstract painted image. Now I’ve added in the images of human beings by way of these photographic reproductions of historical sculpture, taken from art history books. It’s a convention of the medium of painting historically to draw upon classical figures in composing a painting, as, for example, Manet did in composing “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe”. I am using that convention but in a more blunt and contemporary way. Usually I pick these images based on what they are doing, their gestures or movements, and especially on how they seem to be casting their glance in a particular direction, and the nature of that glance. In cinema there is the basic mechanism of the eye-line match. A figure looking in a certain direction relative to the frame of the screen will make a strong connection in the viewer’s mind to the thing shown in the next shot, after a cut. I am working with cuts too. Cutting into the canvas surface literally, and also in the sense of putting things side by side that might seem to exist in different spaces and times. But the eye-line makes a connection. Since the particulars of the situation differ (each figure is different, each painted pattern is different and their placement in relation to each other is different) different implications emerge.
TD: The figurative, collaged elements in your work are, in part, to direct the gaze of the viewer – is it important to you to have some control over the viewer and how they look at your work?
KW: It’s not about controlling how they look at my work, but about going into something that isn’t always explicit in art. This is the situation and space of looking. When I first started painting, I was interested in op art, and my first paintings that worked were about optical effects, grids of calibrated color that were retinally active. That kind of painting throws the viewer back on their own acts of looking. They can become aware that what they see is tied to their own eye movements and other visual apparatus. That is stuff we are usually free to ignore when looking at other types of painting. It implicates us in the experience and ties us to the object in a conscious way. In addition to that, in my work now, I am placing different spatial dynamics side by side with the abstract and optical, and giving you the dissonance between them as something to experience. On one hand, there is a frontal space, where the grid or abstract geometric image is projecting out at you, and generally doing some of the stuff I mentioned above. That is happening in a perpendicular axis, between you and the painting. Opposing that is what I call a diagetic space, where the eye-line (or sometimes other elements) promotes a lateral reading within the space. That tends to create a slightly fictive or even narrative space while the other type of space is more iconic. In historic art there are precedents for this. For example, in a Duccio altarpiece, you have an iconic Madonna or whatever in the center staring out at you, confronting you as you confront her, while around the rest of the painting you have angels or other figures looking at each other or moving laterally through a depicted space. The two things co-exist but are contradictory and it provides a certain energy to the painting.
TD: You seem to have an interest in texture, what brought the change in your recent work – stark, white canvases from the black canvases with random brushstrokes, and the backward canvases and pieces with wood?
KW: I do like texture. I think of that now mostly in relation to how something is made, and that it is made by hand. I don’t go out of my way to produce a certain texture, but I allow my methods of putting things together, using wood, paint, linen, graphite, old photos on paper, etc. to show, and to have a level of roughness as well as a level of precision. The relationship of those two things co-existing (looseness and an idea of perfection) can be interesting. It’s not my main concern but it is part of how I work now. On a certain level, having little runs in the paint or visible layout lines of graphite, or spots of glue just gives the viewer something to see when looking at the work closely, a reason to zoom in. It gives clues to how things were made, but I’m not committed to an earnest idea of truth to my materials and processes either—sometimes I play with that situation to “lie” with the material structure, to let it look like it is put together in ways that it is not. That’s just more of what is happening in my work generally: playing around in various ways with the ambiguities of looking at a thing or situation.
TD: Being an artist myself I understand how frustrating it can be to try and combine “real life” with the time that is necessary to develop and create your own art. How do you deal with that situation?
KW: I guess “real life” for one thing means making a living. I teach, and as much as I might enjoy just going to the studio all day every day (and I do really enjoy that at times), I get a lot of energy, ideas and satisfaction from teaching art students. Part of my teaching life includes directing an art gallery and curating shows, and that is also rewarding. As for other aspects of real life, for me it mostly connects back to my interests in art. My wife Michele Alpern is also an artist, and we go to films and music events as well as exhibitions. The friends and people I’m in touch with day to day are mostly involved in those same things. There are lots of things I don’t do, other possibilities that I sacrifice, and I am not complaining about that. In a way, I’m working on art all the time but I feel very lucky because it’s the work I want to do.
For more info about the artist: www.kenweathersby.com