A Conversation with Kristin Calabrese

© Kristin Calabrese and Figure/Ground
Kristin Calabrese was interviewed by Julia Schwartz by email in December, 2013 and January, 2014.

Calabrese_headshotBorn in San Francisco in 1968, Kristin Calabrese is a Los Angeles-based painter who received her MFA from UCLA in 1998.  Her paintings are imbued with multiple layers of meaning. Intentionally and intensely charged with psychological implications, the canvases eerily resonate on a subconscious level. Though in many cases Calabrese’s imagery seems at first benign, there is a troubling sense of apprehension that permeates her sense of play. Calabrese has exhibited with Gagosian, Leo Koenig, Saatchi Gallery, Susanne Vielmetter, amongst others, and is represented by Brennan & Griffin in New York. As well, her work has been included in exhibitions at the Seattle Art Museum, WA, The Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA, and the San Francisco Art Institute, CA. and is included in such prestigious collections as the Neuberger Berman, Saatchi, and the Armand Hammer Museum.

Kristin, thanks so much for talking with me. Let’s just jump straight in. Can you talk about the sources for the hole paintings? Did you conceive of it as a series initially or was it a single painting that then evolved into a series/installation. Having seen them in life, they are incredibly rich as paintings, but also significant on other levels. ‘Unnerving’ as the New Yorker says. ‘Ungrounding’ as a philosopher might put it. Recently I was looking at an exchange of messages we had back in 2011, when you had written:

What I’m really trying to do is make my thoughts, feelings and emotions into something Real, something physical and unalterable, like a monument, or a stand-in for me

I think about how our paintings convey something about our state of mind or state of being, or as you put it, as a ‘stand-in’ for you; painting holes can say so much. And of course the viewer, every viewer has an experience of the work, and interpretation or relationship to the work. The hole is a thing but also an absence, and so on.

Kristin Calabrese, installation of Hole paintings

Kristin Calabrese, installation of Hole paintings

It’s so funny. I can’t help responding to what people think about my work, or at least what I think people think about my work. Part of me wants to avoid being affected. I strive to make something that speaks to something more important than where my work is situated in the tides of public opinion. The other part of me readily engages in my perception of the shifting perception of the larger art conversation. Because I often paint hyper-realistically, I started to become aware that some people (who probably aren’t painters) were getting the idea that I was unable to paint in a more painterly way – which means with big brush marks showing. It’s always a challenge to make a good painting, no matter what style of brush marks you use, but the amount of sheer painstaking perfectionism and labor involved in hyper-realism is undeniable, and for me it is much easier and faster to make a gestural painting. I usually just can’t stand most painterly paintings – more if they’re mine though, than if they’re anyone else’s. Big paint marks in realism and even abstraction sometimes contain for me a repellent grandiosity – as if they’re saying “look at my SWOOSH!” My paintings have a more practical, earnest and when painterly, honest presentation.

Kristin Calabrese pretty hole, 12 x 12 inches, oil on linen or printed upholstery fabric, 2013

Kristin Calabrese pretty hole, 12 x 12 inches, oil on linen or printed upholstery fabric, 2013

Unlike many of my paintings, my hole paintings are painterly. I began them because I owe some artists paintings in trades and unlike my tighter paintings which can take up to 4 months for even a very small one like “First Kiss; Homeless on Venice Beach” or it’s later incarnation, “Punk Rock Fairy Tale”, I can paint a hole painting in a time span ranging from 20 minutes to two days. The first ones I made were from pictures taken from a google search. I made about four that way. What’s cool about painting a hole in the ground is that basically it’s a black circle in the middle of the canvas with brown around it. You don’t need very much to make it a hole. I also like that it’s the illusion of a hole going into a wall which doesn’t exist and most of them appear to have a hole which is deeper than the hole the painting is hanging on.

After the first few google image based paintings, I started asking friends for hi-res pictures of holes. I had some friends who really sent me a lot of pictures – some from as far away as London and Australia. I also started painting holes from life – bought a portable outdoor easel and set up a painting kit so I can paint from looking. What I noticed in doing that is that most of the pictures had greatly altered the light, exaggerating brightness and contrast, whereas on site sometimes the lightest light would be almost as dark as the darkest dark.

The other thing about the holes is that, when arranged in a grid, the black (spots which are the holes) relate to each other, making diagonal lines consisting of black spots over the entire installation. I really love that.

I’m still making hole paintings, working on an installation that is more planned out. I’m painting all of the new ones in real life.

I really like the way you speak of the holes being ungrounded. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but it does make sense – which is thrilling. One of my favorite things about painting is that I feel my unconscious speaks to me through the images similarly to dreams so it’s really exciting when I discover something about them. It’s like decoding another language.

Yes! For me this is pretty much how I see the painting process, much like dream work or an analytic process. 

Also, concerning my proclivity toward realism –

I think realism is particularly important to me because I was raised in a dysfunctional family where all the players acted in typical dysfunctional ways. An extreme example – my Dad was physically and explosively violent towards me. Weeks, days or even minutes later, my Mom would deny that the experience had ever happened. It was like that with everything. I was constantly told that something hadn’t been said that had; something hadn’t happened that had indeed happened.

For me, painting is a concrete monument to the thoughts, ideas, and feelings that I put on the canvas. The viewer cannot say something isn’t there or true or didn’t happen because it’s right there in plain sight.

Kristin Calabrese  Art as Bandaid, 2011 oil on linen 84 x 84 inches

Kristin Calabrese Art as Bandaid, 2011 oil on linen 84 x 84 inches

The more we have talked about this especially while I’m looking at your work, the more profound that is. Art and in particular, hyper- realism is life-saving more than perfectionism and skill or technique (well, it’s that, too.)  But it’s a kind of protection against annihilation or being erased  like parents who said ‘oh that didn’t happen.’ Also, the more I get this about the work, the more moving it is. I think that’s why I ended up moved to tears at the installation in Westwood where you had done all those paintings of walls and corners. 

You’re so nice. What you say, I agree with. It’s complicated though. There are so many simultaneously complimentary and conflicting reasons for everything in the paintings.

It’s disturbing to read what you write about the paintings in the Westwood house. I have some pictures of those actually but haven’t posted them anywhere because it’s a work in progress. It’s a real treat to get to write to you because of your clear-eyed angle on things.

Why is what I said disturbing? that’s interesting. Are you saying that someone has a reaction to your work and that affects you and then there’s a ricocheting effect on your work that affects that work …? And why am I nice? 

I guess I’m saying you’re nice because you’re open and artwork moves you but also because you’re looking at my work, thinking about it, and telling me what you see. 

Oh. Got it.

Can we talk about your art education?

My early training in painting (undergrad at San Francisco Art Institute) was very formal. By formal I mean we talked about how a painting was constructed in terms of composition, paint application, flatness of the picture plane or pictorial illusion, and surface quality, but almost never about content. My paintings have always been sort of idea driven. Sometimes I start with a fully formed picture in my mind that comes in a flash; sometimes I think of some sort of conflict or situation that I want to describe – usually in a way that visually describes some sort of analogous system of relationships and then come up with an image; and sometimes I have a sentence in my head that either becomes an image or sometimes gets an image to go with it but remains a word on the canvas. Anyways, what I’m trying to say is that I feel like I get understanding from the paintings, but I don’t go at them necessarily knowing what they mean, so it’s very nice that you are translating some of the images for me.

This is why I was disturbed to read that you looked at the paintings of the corners and the walls in the Westwood house and said they moved you to tears because there were so many corners and wall. When the opportunity came up to spend time painting in the dilapidated Westwood house, all I thought upon first visit was that I could paint it plein air like I was painting the holes and it would be fun. I wasn’t thinking about any heavy content. I was just thinking formally. As I was painting them it did start to become clear that I was making particular decisions. The house had a lot of original decor from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, which reminded me of the interiors of the houses I’d grown up in. I used to sit and stare at areas where patterns would line up. While choosing areas to paint in the Westwood house, I came to realize I was choosing areas  I would have stared at and played eye games with if I had lived in that house when I was a kid. It never dawned on me that there was some kind of content in the paintings relating to being cornered or up against a wall, which I did realize when I read what you wrote – which was disturbing. It made me think that all of my paintings are sad – and it’s true, they are sad, but I’m not particularly sad. I’m joyous when I have an idea for a painting to make.

I don’t go about it all thinking about the viewer all the time though. I also just paint what I want to experience in a painting as well – stuff that seems fun. I get a thrill when I figure out an image for a painting. I love it when other people love it too. My husband loves all my paintings though, so that’s helpful.

Or maybe as a kid, I was also looking at a lot of walls and corners… 

What you are saying about how you go about setting up and creating a situation for the viewer to experience your uneasy feeling dovetails with the next question about routines. 

Do you want to talk about your process and the nuts and bolts of making a painting now? I keep looking at this painting Depth of Field. 

Kristin Calabrese Depth of Field, 2013 Oil on linen 78 x 66 inches

Kristin Calabrese Depth of Field, 2013 Oil on linen 78 x 66 inches

I sort of think of that painting as a feeling of something that I call “the soul wind”. It’s a feeling – energy rushing through you. It’s actually in some ways supposed to be sort of the opposite of another painting that I made, also of flowers, called “Hold Your Breath”, but it took on a whole bunch of contortions in the making of it – exaggerations and I backed away from using real spray paint on it, rather trompe l’oeil spray paint cutting behind the flowers towards the bottom.

I also read all these fantasy books when I was maybe 8 or 9 or 10 or so by Anne McCaffrey about dragons in a mystical fantasy earth where, I can’t totally remember, but in one quest the protagonists were traveling towards the place where the land ends and maybe there’s nothing beyond it. I think of that painting like that too.

So about the formal qualities of the painting vs. the imagery – I think those are really just separate things in my mind. The formal content of the painting certainly does give the imagery weight in particular directions, but the places in my brain that think about these things are separate. Maybe that is why painting operates like dreaming for me, making a space for the images to be but not having to go after the images in a linear way – instead focusing more on the more formal aspects of how to construct a painting.

I really love Depth of Field because it is beautiful. I used mostly Williamsburg paint for the really saturated background colors and their colors are luscious! The deep pinks and oranges are just a color that can really be felt. It’s painted on super special portrait linen that I ordered special for it from NY Central Art Supply that was primed maybe three times with rabbit skin glue. The portrait linen is very smooth, but not as smooth as sanded gesso. It’s a relatively absorbent seeming surface, so you have to use a lot of paint even to get what doesn’t seem like thick paint. I paint on all types of surfaces with a lot of different kinds of brushes and paint, not just one type, so the one I painted before that was on gessoed canvas, so it’s noticeable the first few days on a new painting with a new surface. There are huge differences in how much medium the paint needs and how much paint you have to use.

For that painting, I made a still life that was 30 feet long. First I bought a bunch of flowers. Then I put them in vases until they started to rot. Then I hung them upside-down under plastic so they could dry and not smell. I wanted them to become naturally black with mold and dry straight, but unfortunately they dried brown so I had to spray-paint the flowers black. Then I set them up in vases in a line that spanned about 10 feet, ending about 15 feet in front of a wall that I set up to lean at a 45 degree angle that was painted with bands of color that was to serve as the backdrop. Because that wall is at a 45 degree angle, the sunlight from my windows that are 10 feet in the air fall on the wall and make the backdrop have lighting effects that make them sort of like a real sunset. Thinking about it now, the color saturation of that painting is a little bit like the color saturation in one of the James Turrell pieces – obliterating the viewer’s ability to see space – whether it’s shallow or flat it’s impossible to tell – the space goes on forever or doesn’t go anywhere – basically it makes the viewer unable to see. Here’s a picture of the flowers set up from the side – just ignore my bicycle and the ladder and the other stuff…

I can see a James Turrell connection not only in the color but you are immersed because of the size of the painting, not so completely enveloped as with a Turrell piece but you are in a color experience, like a memory, an embodied experience.

I also thought of James Wellings’ work, in particular the video ‘Sun Pavilion’ and the series he shot at that house- it’s so much to do with memory and emotion, and the colors and sound are completely transporting for me. That is a piece that never fails to move me.  

Also, I love your story about how much effort was involved in getting those flowers prepared. The flowers themselves took me back to my obsession with collecting dead roses in college.

One thing I want to say that comes as a surprise to me though, is that despite the vast difference in how our work looks in outcome or appearance, there are many similarities: the role of emotion, unconscious, memory and childhood, dream, situation, state of being or state of self, and especially how we get understanding from making the painting.

I still collect dead roses, have them hanging from my loft. I don’t have that many though.

There’s this piece I’ve been doing, called “Some Weirdo.” I photograph people with a small canvas sign that says “Some Weirdo.” I’ve been posting them here: http://someweirdo1.tumblr.com/

There’s a writer who writes for Hyperallergic, Alicia Eler. She came to visit me a while back. She’s going to do a piece about it. We had a phone interview earlier today. It’s funny because it’s one of my side projects that I feel a little weird (weirdo) about, but I guess it’s okay to let it out – exciting even.

I work structurally, in some ways, formally maybe. I pay attention to the structure and that makes the content. Earlier I’d said something about working from images unbidden in my mind. I also sometimes have an idea of some kind of conflict that I want to figure out how to paint about in a way that I think will make the viewer have the same kind of conflict I’m having – it’s maybe an old way of thinking now, ab ex or something, but I don’t want to illustrate something. I do want to set something up though.

Are there any colors that you think are ugly?

What you say about conflict is interesting: like you want to elicit a feeling, or maybe have a say in what a viewer feels. is that a traditional way of thinking- ie AB Ex? I have never had a sense that I could consciously control that, or of being able to manipulate the outcome (I don’t mean manipulate in a bad way).

I ask because once I got an interesting comment about a painting; someone said about a work of mine “Your painting is too contemporary; it assumes …” and then there was a set of statements attributed to the painting: “It’s too this, it’s too that.'” On the one hand it seemed excessive, attributing motive and capacity to an inanimate object. Then I thought, fantastic! That kind of power being held by a small piece of wood slathered in colored oil?   We are in an amazing profession, to upset people, to move people, to enrage or engage. Fantastic.

With regard to color: I am very color sensitive. I don’t think colors by themselves are ugly or do I? hmm.  Some I don’t respond well to, or they elicit reactions, particularly combinations of colors, or when work is all crazy with color combinations.  I’m reading Lady Painter (the Joan Mitchell biography) and I can relate to her color sensitivities and synesthesia, although I don’t think I have it necessarily.  Once at an informal crit while looking at someone’s work, I had to leave because the colors and paintings made me feel sick. 

What about you? 

I want to set up a situation that creates for me the same kind of conflict that I’m feeling.

You know how empathy is really difficult for someone who hasn’t walked in another’s shoes –

For example someone who’s never been poor wouldn’t know what it’s like to have to sell your food stamps for less than half what they’re worth because you need tampons. Someone could illustrate that with a cartoon – narrative story – or try to figure out some combination of image, paint handling, scale for a painting that might cause someone to have that same feeling like they’re experiencing it themselves. I think that’s part of how therapy works too:  if someone reads all the books and intellectually understands some dysfunctional defense mechanism, they maybe still can’t get rid of it until they have a flash of insight. It’s not exactly the same, but maybe similar.

I might be trying to manipulate an outcome, cause an uneasy feeling, make someone queasy by making the horizon line slightly askew – I use a lot of formal things, certainly scale is very important which is why a painting seen on a computer is a poor experience, better than not seeing it but not the same as it’s relationship to the body.

When I say Ab Ex, I’m saying that those guys wanted to make paintings that were an experience in themselves and not an illustration of a story.

This person who said that quote to you – I don’t know. How contemporary can painting really be? You’re not hanging a folded piece of canvas on some wood sticks like those last-year-ontology-of-painting types. Sure, modernism happened, but you make images and possibly even poke at surrealism. I feel like advertising pushes me into a corner I didn’t consent to. We are greatly affected by everything – everyone is. Painting seems pretty harmless, but somehow it does somehow seem to lend conventionality. Something on a painting could be very shocking when if it’s on TV it would be no big deal. I think that’s because painting is attributed to the voice of one artist speaking indelibly rather than some TV studio or something and when people look at a painting (that’s presence implies its author) —- people believe that paintings are honest. I think they carry that with them – the voice of an individual (not a corporation) – so there is pressure to conform or lay low within the painting – to even make the painting and have it be seen requires being vulnerable.

I think every color can be useful sometimes. I might like all of them, but it’s the context that makes it ugly. However, there was one of those fancy Arches watercolor blocks with a pink color – and even though it has the same paper as the brown covered one, and I didn’t really need a pink one – I just had to have it because it was pink!

I have a lot of reactions, but want only to address this now:  When you say “paintings are shocking when TV is not” that is both amazing and profound, and shocking in itself, that something so small (even a big painting is small) made by the hand of one person, has that power. Courbet’s painting shocks, there are other obvious ones to think of, but it’s a pretty interesting point. And it doesn’t require giant gestures- although there is that, like performance pieces. I am probably more affected by smaller gestures than grand ones. But I remember the Hans Burkhardt Viet Nam painting(s) being very moving. I have never thought of it that way before.

TV can be totally shocking, graphic, extreme example procedural forensic or Law and Order- Special victims unit all about rape and incest, but paintings communicate the thoughts and feelings of one person. Paintings carry the presence of an artist. If you’re standing in front of a Picasso, you’re standing where Picasso stood, looking at what he looked at.

Kristin Calabrese, Fear of the Poor, 2005 oil on canvas 78 x 96 inches

Kristin Calabrese, Fear of the Poor, 2005 oil on canvas 78 x 96 inches

Can you describe your rituals and routines in your studio practice? 

I get up, put on coffee, either do or don’t take a shower. If I take a shower, I then sit in front of the mirror and apply hair products. Then I go over to the painting I’m working on and work on it. Most of my paintings take between 6 and 9 months to paint, maybe 14 hours a day most days. If the phone rings I avoid it. My computer is next to my painting, so I listen to music, news, or tv shows most of the time while painting. I also do some exercises – a 7 minute work out with jumping jacks and stuff – about 4 times a day, so my legs can continue to become straight. There have been times I haven’t left the studio, not even to walk across the street, for more than 6 months. I paint sitting in a chair. I really only move my right arm, except when typing, so when I have grueling deadlines it starts to get difficult to stand up. Since I’ve started my exercises, I don’t have that problem. I have coffee and herbal tea all day and in the evening I have caffeine free diet cokes with a teeny bit of whisky in it. I like popcorn. I live in my studio – I guess that’s obvious. Often I’m a real night owl, going to bed when the sun comes up. I don’t really plan when I’ll go to bed or get up. After a while I just find myself getting ready for bed, sort of without thinking about it.

I don’t know if this is really a ritual, certainly routine. Sometimes I only look at my phone once a week. I like interacting over the computer because it feels less disruptive.

Also about the word “ritual”, I don’t see it at all as ritual. I just work like a machine, methodically. More fetishy painty type details:  when I have to mix a palette, it often takes up to 4 hours. My palettes are Reynolds freezer paper wrapped around a piece of plywood, so I can fold them up and throw them away when they’re done. I don’t go in for scraping glass or using lots of cleaning solvents, just to avoid toxicity. I mostly paint in oil – almost only, and mostly only paint, only occasionally make drawings (usually serial type drawing projects when I do). I sometimes do photo or performance projects as well and I like to string beads when I’m anxious and I’ve curated a lot of shows – mostly large painting shows.

Just before bed I wrap my palette in saran wrap and put it in the freezer so the paint will stay wet. I also wash my brushes in silicoil fluid. I also have a few oil painting secrets that I only share with people one-on-one.

Kristin Calabrese Blending In 2011 oil on canvas 96 x 48 inches

Kristin Calabrese Blending In 2011 oil on canvas 96 x 48 inches

I am fascinated by the relationship between the machine-like, methodical way that you can work and the non-machine-like way that emotion and unconscious plays a part in the way a work comes into being. How did that routine come into being? Was it like that always? Was that for a deadline; and then once that’s over, what happens then? Also, what happened to your legs?

I think Francis Bacon and Agnes Martin and Monet and many other artists whose work we know about and love worked that way. My legs are fine, but If you spend 6 months sitting in a chair and not walking more than 50 feet a few times a day, it makes your legs stiff, and super long hours like that for days on end. Actually when painting my bandaid painting that I showed with Susanne Vielmetter, I was painting for 60 hours in a row and then taking a 2-4 hour nap on the couch and then getting up and taking a shower and pretending it was morning. Working on that show, I didn’t sleep hardly at all for four months straight, other than two hour cat naps on the couch every few days – seriously, I’d paint 24 hours and maybe feel very tired at 23 hours but by hour 24 have a second wind and then keep going for another 36 hours. Yes I mean a deadline for a show. I always think I can paint a lot faster than I can, but hyperrealism takes a long time and a lot of focus, so I’m always months behind on shows. Some years I get a lot of paintings finished, but it’s usually only because I started them the year before. The show I just painted for Brennan & Griffin, I actually slept every night at least 5 hours, although that deadline was tight too. I have to do that or I really wouldn’t make enough work.

In my bathroom, I’d written on the wall something like, “Take as long as it takes to make the perfect thing.” I actually just painted my bathroom, so I can’t give you the exact quote. After I finish a show, I usually have a month or two of working a little bit differently. Sometimes I might travel for a month or so. My recent show in New York, I did pretty much jump right back into working, although the schedule is still a little loose right now – which is why I painted my bathroom. I also had drywall put on one of my walls to go the full sixteen feet of my ceiling because I’m working on the new hole painting installation that extends fourteen feet in the air. As you know, the new holes I’m painting are all painted plein air, so I’ve been staying at other peoples’ houses where there are lots of animal holes, so that’s different and pretty fun. I feel lucky that some of my work has gone in the direction of letting me go outside. Also, I just beaded a bunch of necklaces and bracelets. I’m pretty obsessed with vintage glass beads, so while I was working on my last show, I built up a pretty large collection of beads just buying a few sets of beads every day on ebay. Now that my deadline is past, I’ve spent the last few days just stringing them, which has been pretty fun.

My work isn’t all prison really though. I love painting. I’m happy when I’m painting and time goes really fast. That’s probably another reason I have to work such long hours, because the days really fly by when I’m painting. I also love not going anywhere and waking up and knowing exactly what I’m going to do.

I don’t really see a conflict in working with emotion and intuition while working like a machine. I do sort of control when I’m having lots of ideas though. If I have ideas while I’m painting, I write them on the wall. There have been times when I had too many ideas while working on one painting and ended up with a ruined mess. Most of the paintings have quite a few ideas in them simultaneously, but I usually know pretty much what I’m going to paint before I start. Sometimes I paint myself into a corner and don’t know where to go next. Then I might make drawings with cut pieces of fabric and glue – so I can’t get too fastidious – and maybe make 2 or more collages a day for a month or so to cycle through ideas fast so I can get to some ideas I like. If I start getting too precious before I start a painting, thinking it has to be the best idea ever, that can make it difficult to even make a painting. My default answer to myself when that happens is, “it’s just a painting – it doesn’t REALLY matter – it’s not like the world will end if I made a dumb painting.” Also, when I was a young girl and my Mom would take me clothes shopping, she would tell me that you really can’t tell if something is good or not until you try it on. I had teachers in undergrad who said similar things, only regarding painting. With painting, you just have to trust your instinct or that flash image in your head and just take a leap of faith.

Can you talk about your first projects/ exhibitions? And talk about a significant success? Or a noteworthy failure that was an important turning point in your career? 

If Mary Weatherford hadn’t introduced me to Dave Muller who had been curated into a group show at Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills in 1999; where he, in turn curated a small room of artists into one of his “Three Day Weekend,” shows, I would probably still be a web developer to this day.

Robert Shapazian, Larry Gagosian, and Charles Saatchi really liked my paintings. Robert Shapazian later told me that he had consulted about me with Dean Valentine, who had bought one of my paintings the year before from Brent Peterson, when he had that gallery at 6150 where the new part of ACME is now. Anyways, I was given a solo show at Gagosian, and not long after that the Saatchi gallery in London – that was a group show, but I had something like ten huge paintings in it – 8 x 8 feet and larger. I quit my web job.

Most of those paintings of mine were burned in the Saatchi fire a few years later. They had all been bought by Saatchi, so it wasn’t a financial loss, but it was sad – it was at least three years of work. Working through Gagosian, I had a few other solo shows, specifically one with Michael Janssen in Cologne and one with Leo Koenig. Mary Boone had wanted to work with me, but I was told that Gagosian would never work with me again if I worked with her.

I’d gotten a reputation for paintings of abandoned interiors with new furniture and plates and things painted in them. These for me represented my family of origin – dysfunctional in the regular alcoholic abusive dad, mother the enabler, brother the lost child and me the one that acted out alternating with the overachiever. Anyways, my childhood was terrible, manipulative, confusing, and everyone went on like everything was okay. That was the main metaphor for the abandoned building paintings – nails, burned out floors, signs of flooding, broken glass, with new bedroom slippers, a glass of wine on a table. There’s one painting I made of the corner of a bed seen through an open doorway, called Happy Birthday. I used to imagine going into my parents room while my Dad was sleeping and using one of his many guns to shoot him. That would have been the view.

Kristin Calabrese  When Life Gives You Lemons, 2003 oil on canvas 114 x 102 inches

Kristin Calabrese When Life Gives You Lemons, 2003 oil on canvas 114 x 102 inches

Anyways, I didn’t really want to paint these anymore, even though there was a pretty good demand for them. This is really ancient history now, so I feel pretty silly talking about it, but I knew how to paint them, I knew what I was exploring, I loved those paintings, but I also felt like the house imagery was a crutch, something people understood too easily and sort of an indirect way of painting my content, which was also changing. I’ve been becoming less and less interested in my family of origin over the years, which I think is healthy. Also, if I would go to a party or something, people would say to me, “How are you? Are you still painting interiors?” and that would sound to me like some sort of indictment. I didn’t want to be one of those artists who paints the same painting over and over again for years. However, doing the interiors for such a long time did make the paintings become deeper. Not changing the overt subject matter did cause me to sort of burrow into the painting and make other kinds of decisions which caused them to be richer. I’ve really always been interested in composition though, which carries phenomenological meaning – the way a large area with a small area can make you feel, how to make a painting feel like it’s tearing itself apart, other things.

To break away from those paintings that I’d been working on so long, I spent a couple months making, as many as two to four a day, to cycle through ideas fast so I would be able to find something compelling to make new work from. The resulting paintings still sold well and got reviews – actually the reviews were getting better than the scathing ones from London that said things like, who is this silly girl from California who’s trying to make big paintings and isn’t very good at it.

Then there was the Saatchi fire that burned 8 of my paintings – huge 8 x 9 and 9 x 12 foot paintings – more than three years of work. After the Saatchi fire, and after many years of painting alone in the studio for crazy hours weeks months on end, I started not wanting to finish paintings so I could keep them, not wanting to let them out of the studio. I also wanted to be around other people sometimes and not just alone in the studio. I started curating shows and became involved with the LA Art Girls. I also started making paintings where the realism became super anal. I was painting homeless people and I didn’t want them to look like clownish drunks, but real people whose shirt had been lived in for more than a year. Realism is relative. You could paint a shirt out of one thick line with two smaller lines for sleeves on it on one end of the spectrum to large brushmarks for light and shadow on a wrinkle to shirt for the mid-range realism to a shirt with dirt and sweat, holes and transparent worn areas. The most realistic kind of shirt takes a long time to paint. With the homeless individuals I was painting, out of respect for their specificity and individuality, I wanted to represent them with full texture, as a real person with a real life. In my teens and early twenties, I’d been a street kid, which is another reason the homeless people and abandoned buildings resonated with me. I loved abandoned buildings because they were places I could be me and I felt unseen and free and somehow full of life. I felt that way at night as well, when everyone else is asleep, I would feel energy, like I was at the center of a tornado.

Kristin Calabrese First Kiss, Homeless on Venice Beach, 2006 oil on canvas 20 x 16 inches

Kristin Calabrese First Kiss, Homeless on Venice Beach, 2006 oil on canvas 20 x 16 inches

So I started painting slower, still painting all the time, also curating, but always making art in some way or another. I started putting off  Gagosian – not that they were knocking that hard or anything, but when they did I would say yes you should come for a studio visit, maybe next month (or the month after)? I did that for quite some time. Then the director, Robert Shapazian got sick. First he retired; then he died. That was a couple years ago now. I was going to do something with Gagosian maybe four years ago, had been working towards a show with Sarah Watson, who took over after Robert,… Sarah’s nice enough, but I think she never really responded to my work. Still there was talk, but trying to finish paintings for them, sending some paintings to group shows, also ducking the gallery because I couldn’t paint fast enough, and the other problem of not being satisfied on the few occasions I hired an assistant – having to paint over whatever they painted, etc. So Gagosian just sort of faded away. Losing Robert Shapazian was a great loss for me, personally. Professional whatever aside, he was a very important person in my life.

When it became clear that I wouldn’t be working with Gagosian anymore I thought about what galleries I did want to work with. On the top of my list was Sister Gallery, run by Katie Brennan and Susanne Vielmetter Gallery. Sister because Katie has interesting artists – good artists, who are my peers, who’s careers she launched – and because Katie is fun to talk to and charismatic and Susanne because she also shows lots of my friends and has always been nice. Coincidentally, James Griffin, who had been Katie’s assistant for years and was in the process of becoming Katie’s business partner, suggested my work to Katie for inclusion in a group show in Chinatown. I jumped at the opportunity. At the same time, I had invited Susanne Vielmetter over who wanted to give me a solo show over the summer. Katie and James wanted to represent me and moved their gallery to New York – forming Brennan & Griffin. I had a solo show there in 2011 as well as at Susanne Vielmetter. The show in New York did a lot better than the one at Vielmetter, so I’m only working with Katie and James now – anyways, some of the whole history. Everything’s a lot more complicated than I can really write.

A very recent success is that the Armand Hammer Museum (possibly my favorite museum), acquired my painting “Surrender”. I cannot wait to see it installed!

Kristin Calabrese Surrender, 2013 Oil on linen 52 x 67 inches

Kristin Calabrese Surrender, 2013 Oil on linen 52 x 67 inches

First, congratulations on the Hammer; that’s terrific news!

That is such an intense story. People might think it would be a great problem to have- Gagosian gallery knocking at your door- and yet, you write pretty eloquently and honestly about the process of feeling trapped to a degree- “I didn’t want to be one of those artists who paints the same painting over and over again for years”- even if you were making headway in your work so it was deeper and richer. That can lead to something like ‘dead’ paintings, something we spoke about once in your studio (meaning paintings that are not coming from that authentic personal and ‘alive’ gesture).

“Dead” painting was your concept and not quite mine. Rather than looking for paintings that are not dead, I look for smart paintings or paintings that look dumb but are smart – paintings that have many layers of meaning. For example:  a mark, while just a mark, might also refer to something else. I also like paintings that ask me questions; can’t be readily identified; masquerade as something else; can’t be explained; and paintings with a composition just somehow has some sort of soul feeling, a sigh, a reaching – I think a painting can be many things at once. Some people would call these “painters’ paintings,” – I think because it takes most people the investment of actually painting to know what’s possible and want more. I want paintings that stretch my ability to understand. I guess in a way that’s almost like saying I want a painting that’s alive, because it’s communicating with me.

I did learn that art can be fickle and that losing people, paintings burning, and all sorts of feelings that I have but don’t really understand can really have an impact on my work. I always show up at the studio though, whether I’m painting only a couple inches a day or a ten-foot swath. I sometimes question my very early decision to become an artist, but I’m here now and I’m really too weird to be anything else.

I don’t know about being too weird to do anything else, but I do really get the feeling from talking with you and from visiting your studio and painting together that you really love painting. That really comes through. What are you working on now?

As far as the new work, I seem to be in a fertile period and I’m making lots of new stuff. It’s a little scary, because it feels totally different and totally new, but it’s probably not as different as it seems. I was watering my friend, the amazing Kenny Scharf’s magical garden yesterday. His place is amazing and I was alone with my thoughts. A friend of mine had emailed me about getting together and somehow it triggered an avalanche of thoughts that lead to some new ideas. There is this voice in my head (not an actual voice that I hear, but my mind’s voice) that sometimes comes, that I know will be new art. Anyways I got some sentences in my head from the voice along with a picture of some paintings. The paintings are the pictures of the feelings. They will act as the scaffold for the words. The words will be the titles. There will be four paintings.

The four paintings will be all different sizes. The 6 x 6 foot one I just put the first coat of gesso on. There will also be a 5 x 7′, a 5 x 5′ and the fourth size I haven’t figured out yet. For the paintings I will make a still life. The still life will be a piece of heavy fabric that I will dye black and then paint with wax and then iron up the dried wax onto newsprint. This will make the fabric sort of stiff and shiny – ish in a waxy sort of way. I will fold the fabric so it gets creases. The creases with be haphazard, like it was left in a heap. Then on the 4 canvasses, I will render in paint the look of the dyed, waxed, black fabric. I will flatten out the fabric so it’s the same as the picture plane and paint it in the same scale, not paint it in a heap. Although maybe I’ll paint it in a heap too.

The paintings will go in a specific order, related to the titles, because the titles have a specific order. The titles will be:

1. Don’t Look at Me

2. Just Give me Money

3. Leave Me Alone

4. But Think of Me Fondly and Don’t Leave Me Out

The entire project will also have a title, which is:  Message to My Mother (the World)

Do you want to talk at all about inspirations, influences, mentors?

Francis Bacon – his dark life and dark and disturbing radical paintings

recently – Spencer Lewis over at Edward Cella Gallery right now in a double solo show with my husband Joshua Aster

Alexandra Grant, also for the fierceness and bravery of her practice – I LOVE LOVE LOVE her “I hate myself” series and also how strange her later “I love myself” paintings read when “I LOVE MYSELF” is written huge and reflected in a rorschach.

Charles Irvin – for his work on intimacy and, well, Freudian type stuff that is also personal

Claude Monet – specifically the Chartres Cathedral paintings and snow scene plein-air paintings – wow

Yoyoi Kusama – not so much the nets, but the more recent, super strange paintings with eyeballs and fish and other strange drawings

the writings of Louise Bourgeois – strange writings about her interior life with regards to her thoughts and feelings about her family – wow again – shocking!

Vuillard for the lost in the pattern – I aspire to be a tenth as good as his best paintings.

Sol Lewitt

Lichtenstein for the way his late paintings have such spread out analytic perspective

Edgar Payne’s little books on classic landscape composition

Barnett Newman for his gorgeous, dramatic huge zips

old tv shows like “All In the Family” for the complicated politics – awesome

Sue Williams early paintings

Christopher Wool

Joan Jonas – I might  read her work wrong, but it seems like emotional areas that together form a feeling whole

Henry Taylor – the installation he did upstairs at Blum and Poe a few years ago with bottles, chairs, and I think some broom sticks – wow!

And most of all my husband, painter, Joshua Aster, whose brilliant ideas blow my mind every day.

Do you have any advice for future or emerging artists?

Stay beautiful, be shiny, try not to take things personally!

Also, everything changes, so don’t worry too much about what other people think.

Do whatever it takes to hear your own voice.

Art-wise, every idea is good if you follow it through.

The rules don’t apply to you, whatever they are, because you are an artist!

Kristin Calabrese- studio

Kristin Calabrese- studio

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kristin Calabrese and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Schwartz, J. (2014). “Interview with Kristin Calabrese,” Figure/Ground. January 1st.
<  http://figureground.org/a-conversation-with-kristin-calabrese/ >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at ralonlaureano@gmail.com

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