Katherine Pickering's lean, stumble, spill, sway, fold exhibition is at the Vernon Public Art Gallery January 5 - March 8, 2017.
Composition by Association: The Recent Sculpture Paintings of Katherine Pickering
While preparing to write a text on painting I arrange my study to parallel what I have seen of painters’ studios, with my source materials lined up beside me like tubes of paint and a desktop surface that is not so much primed but wiped clean of bread crumbs and coffee rings. There, I think as I stare into the glare of my pine laminate “canvas” -- almost there. But where years ago I would place a blotter on that canvas, with a fresh piece of construction paper tucked into its puffy leather corners, then a typewriter on top of that, now it is a MacBook, whose lid I flip up and, as Katherine Pickering does when working late in her studio, select a podcast to both ignore and keep me company while I look through my books and print-outs, scanning their pages before “cutting” from these scans a few relevant passages, which I paste into a Word file, hoping something will emanate from them, much like tonight’s podcast on the kombucha phenomenon, how this fermented drink requires a starter, or a “mother”, as it is called, to keep me from sitting there, staring.
One of the books lined up for this text is not Frank O’Hara’s Art Chronicles:1954-1966, as I thought I had pulled from my shelf in advance of this writing, but a collection of his poems, one of which, “Why I Am Not a Painter”, I am familiar with but read again for fun. O’Hara visits the studio of Michael Goldberg, who is starting a painting. O’Hara says, “You have SARDINES in it,” and Goldberg says, “Yes, it needed something there.” When O’Hara next visits Goldberg the painting is finished, and O’Hara remarks, “Where’s SARDINES?” and Goldberg replies, “It was too much.” Time passes. O’Hara finishes a series of poems called “Oranges” without mentioning the word. “Why I Am Not a Painter” ends with the lines “And one day in a gallery/ I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.”
But Goldberg’s painting is not what comes to mind while reading O’Hara’s poem. This time it is John Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual”, which, like “Why I Am Not a Painter”, is canonized in Donald Allen’s 1960 New American Poetry anthology. “The Instruction Manual” begins with the young poet working as a technical writer in New York City. When not labouring over an instruction manual “on the uses of a new metal” he is staring out his office window thinking of Guadalajara, a city he has never visited but writes a poem about nonetheless -- “mothered”, as it were, by an instruction manual “that I wish I did not have to write.” The moral of this poem? Be thankful what you wish for.
While attending UBC Okanagan’s Summer Indigenous Intensive this past summer I visited Katherine’s on-campus studio to look at her recent paintings and to talk with her about her practice. In advance of my visit I read a conference text by her UBCO colleague Gary Pearson, who introduces Katherine as a Vernon, B.C. resident who studied at UBCO and later at Concordia in Montreal, where she received her MFA. Gary writes of Katherine’s original focus on landscape and the attention she paid to “transitory conditions of climate, colour and light.” Abstracted landscape painting was for the longest time the dominant style in British Columbia, from Emily Carr’s forest forays of the 1930s through Jack Shadbolt’s vibrant deforestations to Gordon Smith who, at 97, continues to find inspiration in life’s intricate snow-dusted brambles. Like some maturing artists, Katherine is her own “transitory condition,” and rather than refine her voice, perfect it, she has expanded it -- in this instance, by “alternating between the flat picture plane and the sculptural object.”
It is these sculpture paintings that I was eager to see as I drove to Katherine’s studio from my trailer at Six Mile one golden morning in late-July, the radio slowly losing its signal until the hitchhiker I had picked up at Little Kingdom -- a painter himself, he kept telling me -- plugged in his iPod and perfumed the car with Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (1959), which he spoke of as if it had just been released, in the way some young people do when filled with enthusiasm for what’s new to them, how great a player Miles is. And though I agreed with him about Miles’s playing, I added that as great as Miles is, so too is his producer, Teo Macero, who encouraged Miles to play whatever and whenever he wanted, and who recorded everything, cataloguing it, then cutting up the tape with a razor blade to make a track, or to add to one, sometimes two or three or four sessions later. This is what Miles Davis and Teo Macero were doing when Clement Greenberg was tracing abstract expressionism from Cézanne’s explorations of flatness and colour for an essay he would publish the following year, entitled “Modernist Painting”. Same too with the meticulously assembled digital podcasts that many of us listen to today, like Radiolab, with its spilt-second contextual annotations. But all this young painter -- this hitchhiker -- wanted to talk about was Miles. Miles, Miles, Miles, Miles, Miles.
Katherine’s studio was dark when I entered it, a darkness foreshadowed by Gary’s essay, where he spoke of Katherine’s “investigations into perception and light deprivation, specifically through observation of the phenomenal world under night time conditions,” Which is what Katherine had happening in her studio that day, with her windows blocked out and a bank of ceiling spots casting what felt like pools of street light. And floating on these “pools” were her sculpture paintings: some of them, like psychedelic lily pads, still in their preliminary flat state; others raised and held in place not by some invisible means of support but by the medium of their own making; still others on plinths, and in some cases, spilling over top of them. I asked Katherine how she made these works and it was clear from her description that she is a materials-oriented artist who does not simply begin with a canvas surface but a 100% cotton 12-ounce duck canvas surface, which she tells me has a tighter weave. From there she applies her acrylic medium through a variety of processes that include pouring, brushing and scraping. Once these applications suggest a shape, or better yet, a feeling, she cuts them out, drenches them in water and models them as a sculptor would.
Each of the three finished pieces on display in Katherine’s studio that day emanated an energy that met my criteria for an artwork that succeeds on the terms it sets out for itself -- that overtonal quality where the work is greater than the sum of its parts. And by parts I do not mean material and gallery-support elements, but gestures too -- in this instance, the artist’s modelling of the material, the shape it took after it was decided that it had arrived at something in its flat state and was ready to enter the third-dimension. For it is here, in this raised state, that the overtonal quality of the work is supported not only by the presence of the fold but by the dark recesses its folds promote. These recesses, with their lightless interiors, are in fact positive or generative spaces in the way Luce Irigaray speaks of the fold in contrast to the phallocentricism of psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, a fold that, as Gilles Deleuze has theorized, continues to unfold, both in life and in its landscapes (like that of the unfolding Okanagan Valley), but also in the imagination that underwrites life and land, a void space that invites more than it repels.
A couple months after my visit to Katherine’s studio I attended a talk by artist Liz Magor at the UBCO campus. Among those lucky to grab a seat was Katherine, who found one in the first row just before the lights went down. Those familiar with Liz’s work will recall her penchant for tucking everyday objects (often transformative elements like cigarettes and booze) into tree trunks and behind stacks of folded towels. Another variant of these works is not what is tucked into these spaces but what is suggested by them. One of Liz’s strongest material propositions is found in her latex clothing molds. In talking about these works, Liz told the audience that commercial molding companies do not generally mold objects with folds in them because a) it is cost prohibitive and b) the market, for whatever reason, does not demand them. As a result, we are not used to seeing these objects; but when we do, such as Liz’s super-realistic molded leather jacket, it is the jacket’s folds that hold us. Liz talks about this in sculptural terms as a union of inside and outside, an uncanny feeling that, when she mentioned it in her talk, was magnified further when I looked to where Katherine was sitting and at that same instance Katherine, who did not know I was in the back, turned her head and looked at what could have been me.
1. Gary Pearson “Reading Artistic Models and Cultural Codes in Contemporary Sculpture,” 4th International Conference on Artistic and Arts-Based Research, School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland, June 28-30, 2016, p. 13