Phone Tag: Interview with Kate Newby

Kate Newby, They say you’ve got to live there for a while, 2016. Bricks, coins, white brass, pink silver, yellow silver, bronze, stoneware, porcelain, glaze, bottle top, paper clip, nail, glass. Courtesy of Michael Lett Gallery. Photo credit: Alex North

I speak with Kate Newby about her practice and current projects in this Phone Tag interview. From landscape and everyday materials, Kate brings a sensitivity to her environment to create what she calls “situations.” The New York-based artist is originally from New Zealand. However, she has been in Texas on a residency, and so we recently Skyped about how her approach to objects is informed by her surroundings, how art became a profession, life in New York, and her need for the female voice.

 

Phone Tag is a generative interview format, where I ask each participating artist five questions (plus others as the discussion meanders). At the end, I ask him or her to introduce me to a working artist whose attitude and work they find interesting and inspiring, who I then interview with the same five questions.

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Kate-Newby, Not this time, not for me2017. Mortar, concrete pigment, silver, white brass, bronze, porcelain, cotton rope, blown glass, glass, stoneware. Courtesy of Michael Lett Gallery (exhibited at the Sculpture Centre, NYC)

Linnea West: “So, you’re in Texas now for a residency. Could you tell me a little bit about what you’re doing?”

Kate Newby: “I’m in San Antonio at Artpace. It’s my first time in Texas. It’s also my first time doing a residency since I did one on Fogo Island in 2013, so it has been quite some years since I’ve been in a residency situation. I’ve only been here a few weeks, but I think the time is going to fly. The residency is set up in a way where you work in a studio for two months, which then becomes your exhibition space for the following two months. There are three studios and three artists in residence. So there’s the pressure of an exhibition at the end but I came down here quite conscious that I didn’t want to think about that, that I wanted to be more involved in the processes.

One of the things I do is, I work in clay. I’ve worked in clay for quite some time. It’s gotten to a point where I’m bored with it. Being down here what I want to do is to get outside more. Digging clay. I want to experiment with firings. Barrel firings. Pit firings, and building my own kiln. And I kind of think I’m more interested in experiences than outcomes, and I think work will naturally arise out of that process.”

LW: “So you’re trying to give yourself two months to breathe and explore?”

KN: “Yeah, I want to breath and explore. I’m realizing that that it is actually more work. I’m getting up at 6 am to do firings and other stuff, but it is good. There are people here who can help. In New York, I feel very singular; it’s just me. It’s nice to have people around who say, ‘Can we help? What can we do? Do you need this?’ ‘Yeah, I need a half cord of firewood, please.’ ”

Kate Newby, Ah be with me always2015. Colored mortar, brick, porcelain, bronze. Courtesy of Michael Lett Gallery (exhibited at Laurel Gitlen, NY)

 

LW: “Yeah, that’s a great thing to be able to say. From what I know of your work, I do see that you work a lot with clay, but not traditional ceramic vessels and that you work with other material as well. Could briefly describe what you make?”

KN: “Sure. I think what I do is, I create situations. I think about things like atmosphere and weather, being outside. Things that I absorbed and paid attention to, and I want to reflect that back out in my work. So my work is never a singular object. In fact, it might be several hundred objects in the case of some of my studies of rocks, or it could be as simple as using a piece of rope, which is what I just did at the SculptureCenter. I used 600 feet of rope to go from a puddle I had made on the ground, out of concrete, to weave into a tree, to weave across the building, and to hang down the very front of the building. I like to call peoples’ attention to these discrete actions. They don’t give a lot away, but they try to belong to a site in a way that is not too foreign. The materials I use, concrete and clay and rope, are never totally removed from what I’m looking at when I am installing.”

LW: “How site-specific are these? Would you reinstall the work somewhere else using the exact components or is it unique to that site?”

KN: “It’s both. It’s totally specific and I’ll use the same components anywhere. But they would change and I would want them to change and I would want them to be responsive. I think about site-specificity versus site-responsiveness—No, I don’t think about any of it. I just think about, what am I looking at? And what do I respond to, and what do I think is curious? I try to trust my instincts more and more. Just see what is happening and make works that responds to that.”

Kate Newby, Crawl out your window, 2010. Concrete ramp, rocks, crystals, cotton fabric, wall, yellow paint. Courtesy of Michael Lett Gallery (exhibited at GAK Gesellschaft für Aktuelle Kunst, Bremen). Photo credit: Peter Podowik

 

LW: “Now that you’re in this new space in Texas, what does an ideal day in your studio look like?”

KN: “Hmmm, I know what an ideal of what that would be like… I don’t have a studio in New York; I have a small room in my apartment that kind of acts like an office and storage area. Now I have a huge studio that would be awesome to utilize, but I don’t quite know what to do with it.
I’m definitely a morning person, so I’m trying to get up at 6 am, which is actually a little too early for me, but ideally I would be up at 6, shower, eat, and be in the studio before anyone is around so I can get my head into it. My ideal day is to do everything. To have practical, hands-on work. It would be to finally do my taxes; it would be to do some deep reading and research. It would be to eat properly. But it’s never like that. I wake up, I have 30 good minutes, and then I’m just walking around with a bit of paper in my hand, just trying to fumble through the day.”

LW: “What about time for email, does that factor in?”

KN: “It’s funny because that’s something I do everything morning in New York, and here I don’t and I’m really behind on email. It’s chronic; it’s terrible. But I’m here now, and I just want to get out of the apartment. I just feel like I’m so excited to get to the studio and to get to work. And I’ve got all these time constraints because of firings and drying times. I’ve been very physical and doing all this other stuff, where in New York I do email all the time.”

Kate Newby, The January February March, 2015. Porcelain stoneware, earthenware. Courtesy of Michael Lett Gallery (installation view: Margaretville, The Catskills, NY)

LW: “That’s great. That sounds like freedom. When did you first think of yourself as an artist?”

KN: “It developed incrementally. I had this moment when I was 15 and I thought— ‘Oh, this is a way I can look at things and make sense of the world,’ and for the first time I intentionally became involved with art. It became my full focus when I was in high school and then I went to art school and then I went and traveled for several years. I wasn’t exhibiting—I wasn’t traveling as an artist. I was traveling just as a person. I was ironing sheets; I was waitress-ing; I was whatever. When I came back to New Zealand, I thought about it, and that’s probably the moment I became an artist, because that’s the moment I basically looked at art and thought, ‘What’s here, and what do I want out of it, and what do I want to do with this, if this is what I am going to do.’ Before then, art had been something that I carried around like a backpack. In my mid-twenties, it became something bigger and harder, and not so convenient. This is the minute that things became quite alive for me.”

Kate Newby, Try it with less pennies and direct light, 2017. Glass, Jute. Fabricated by Jake Zollie Harper. Originally commissioned and produced by Artpace San Antonio. Photo credit: Adam Schreiber

LW: “Is it more important for an artist to be in a big city with a strong cultural scene, opportunities to show their work, lots of people, etc. or to be in a place maybe more like San Antonio or even quieter where you’re just focused on making?”

KN: “I think it’s both. I’m from New Zealand and I grew up at a beach and in a valley with a lot of trees. I grew up with a lot of solitude and I really need that. Strangely I get a lot of solitude in New York still. But what I do really need is the landscape. I need my work to be involved with the landscape. When I think about my work, I don’t think about it in terms of galleries; I think about it in terms of how can I take it back outside to where it came from, and how can I work these elements that are so crucial to my thinking back into the work.

So, that’s not answering your question, but I’ve done some really remote residencies, like Fogo Island, which is off the coast of Newfoundland in Canada. You can get more remote than that, but it’s very remote. Once I was in a town called Worpswede in rural Germany, which is this tiny little village. I was there for 5 months alone while I worked on an exhibition in Bremen. It’s weirdly exhausting, because you just have so much to do with yourself. But I think it’s both. I love going back to New York. I wouldn’t change that and I love leaving just as much.”

LW: “I’m interested in this idea of landscape that you mentioned, especially if you’re going to such different landscapes and then going to a place like New York. Are you think of an abstract, generalized idea of landscape or does New York City as a landscape feed into your imagination?”

KN: “It’s just whatever experience I’m having. In New York, it’s a huge influence on me in terms of how I work, because I’m pretty obsessed with sidewalks and the residue from people and the residue from wear and tear of us just being alive. I’m not looking at nature too much in New York City, but what I am looking at is this experience that we have every day. Even the tilt of the sidewalk or something, I find these kinds of things interesting. I don’t know why, I just do. These tiny, tiny things. The first time I made them I put them in this community garden in Brooklyn because it was kind of protected and they could be outside. They lasted for several months and they didn’t break and they made a sort of gentle sound. I like this idea that my work is a collaboration with weather and with elements and with these things that come in to complete the work. I’m only half making the work and then I’m putting it in a situation where these other things might come in and infiltrate it and work with it. So, when I say landscape, sometime it is a big general thing, like being on a ranch in Texas, but it doesn’t have to be.”

Kate Newby, Let me be the wind that pulls your hair, 2017. Assorted clay and glaze, bronze, cotton, wire. Originally commissioned and produced by Artpace San Antonio. Photo credit: Adam Schreiber

LW: “Who has influenced your practice?”

KN: “That’s a tricky questions. I don’t know. But I will say that less than a year ago I went on a trip from Los Angeles through Nevada up to Utah and I saw a lot of these land art pieces. I was blown away by this Nancy Holt piece called Sun Tunnels, which was phenomenal but also really challenging. She worked on it for four years and she was out there in the desert working on this thing. It’s a totally deep meditation. I come to a site and I could bang a work out in a day, that’s the way I work. It was interesting to think about what if you just made one thing but made it really, really well while keeping it simple. That was the thing, it was just really simple. She’s come to me at a really good moment—it’s making me question things a lot more. Especially in New York, where I feel like I’m exclusively making work that could fit in my backpack.

Roni Horn is really interesting. She also has a type of this deep awareness of what’s going on. I want to be careful about that, because the last few years for me have been very busy and I’ve had to perform for these deadlines. I just want to be aware, keeping an eye on my work in a way that the thoughtfulness, the considered rigor of both of their practices is something that I absorb and keep in mind.”

LW: “Is it a coincidence that they are both women, or is that something you think about as well?”

KN: “It’s something I think I need; I really want that. I listen to a lot of music, and more and more I want female voices around me. It’s because they make phenomenal work and it’s because I need more female voices around me.”

Kate Newby, Let me be the wind that pulls your hair, 2017. Assorted clay and glaze, bronze, cotton, wire. Originally commissioned and produced by Artpace San Antonio. Photo credit: Adam Schreiber

 

LW: “What’s next—you have two months in Texas and then you’ll be back in New York—what does your upcoming future look like?”

KN: “Someone mentioned to me years ago, ‘Kate, how are you going to keep working like this? Turn up somewhere, make a show, and move on. How are you going to keep doing that?’ My next year is already feeling a bit like this. But I’m doing things I really want to do. I’ll go to Stockholm for an exhibition at Index, which is great, which is phenomenal, and the project is the second extension of a project I did two years ago at the Arnolfini in Bristol, by the same curator Axel Wieder. He’s doing the second chapter of an exhibition called The Promise, and it’s all in the public space—that’s a dream come true—when you can gain permission to work in public space and have support to do this. You’re not making necessarily public sculpture, but you’re able to work outside with the support of an institution. How do you utilize that? I’ve just got a lot of questions. How do I keep doing things with integrity? That’s the stage I’m at. How do I maintain this, and how do I keep it honest? Funnily enough I have a second residency this year in Texas at the Chianti Foundation in Marfa. I think this will be an interesting opportunity to re-visit a lot of the ideas that I may open up while working here in San Antonio.”

LW: “But that’s a great place to be, because it’s a sign that what you’re doing is working, right?”

KN: “Yeah. I think so. I’m just aware that the work has to lead. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but this time here is good.”

LW: “Well, thank you. This has been great.”

KN: “Thank you for talking to me.”

Wind and Stone: Seung-taek Lee at Levy Gorvy Gallery

Seung-taek Lee, Installation view at Levy Gorvy Gallery

An exhibition at uptown gallery Levy Gorvy surveys the career of Korean proto-conceptual artist Seung-taek Lee, whose inventive careers argues for a reconsideration of the development of Korean modernism as well as some outright swooning over the sensuousness of works that embody both materiality and ephemerality at once. The epynomous solo exhibition features some 40 works by Lee, including a 1960 Non-Sculpture and several Wind paintings from the 1960s through the present. It is the artist’s first solo show in the Unites States, and well worth a visit.

Seung-taek Lee, Wind (1972/82), Rope on canvas

The works on view felt immediately accessible to me, although they arise from a particular context. Born in North Korea in 1932, Lee has been living and working in Seoul since the Korean War. In the 1950s, when Korean artists began to explore ideas of Modernism, Lee early on embraced the idea of an experimental art practice that was uninterested in abstract painting. Working largely independently, he developed a diverse practice, often influenced by Korean traditions, materials, and folk culture. He has worked in mediums ranging from sculpture to performance to land art, using materials that consciously speak to Korean identity even as his formal vocabulary easily slips into the simplified forms of a broader international Modernist paradigm.

Seung-taek Lee, Godret Stone (1958), Stones, rope, wood

Lee’s work with stones that curve inward as if they had waists, known as godret stones, are among his best known. Godret stones are traditionally used for braiding mats in a particular region of Korea. The artist was originally attracted to the stones because they were not art materials but the common tools of artisans. Through suspension and binding with ropes or wires, Lee plays with the potential for transformation–from soft to solid, floating to weighty–that these works inhabit at once.

Seung-taek Lee, detail, Untitled (1959/81)

Just as Lee can make a rock appear soft and pliant, so in his hands a rough rope can become a sinuous line for drawing on canvas. The undulating lines become mesmerizing and suggest subtle movement and depth, yet the effect is created solely through their material nature. At the same time, their placement is indexical, suggesting the trace of the gesture as much as emphasizing a particular form. In this case, rather than the artist’s hand, the curving lengths of rope are meant to give shape to the ephemeral movements of air. This interest in the elements would lead Lee to other works that traced wind or smoke through the air, such as the Wind-Folk Amusement (1971) performance, photographs of which are on view in this exhibition.

Seung-taek Lee, Installation view

Lee’s work is often talked about in terms of “non-sculpture,” an idea that the artist himself has encouraged. Just as he moved outside of traditional art materials, he has described seeking anti-concept or anti-art in his practice. Lee sees his works as creating ruptures in the discourse around art in a very direct way, and in fact considers them as a clear rejections of the traditional notion of art. At the same time, the artist very much views this experimental practice as an art practice (in contrast, say, to the portrait commissions in realist style that he has taken over the years to support himself.)

Seung-taek Lee, Tied Knife (1962) and Tied Knife (1962)

In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist in Flash Art in 2013, Lee said: “I would like to advise young artists to learn social science and philosophy as much as possible, because I think art is a game of high intellect; the more you understand the better the work comes out. Skills to make something perfect don’t have meaning anymore.” Lee suggests that art is the conceptual gesture rather than the final product, an approach that has shaped his long career of experimenting outside the bounds of the Korean art scene, for which he only came into recognition later in life.

Seung-taek Lee” is on view at Levy Gorvy Gallery through April 22.

James Turrell’s Meeting at MoMA PS1

James Turrell, Meeting, 1980-86/2016

“Wordless thought” is how American artist James Turrell has described the experience he seeks to create, suggesting a kind of perceptual knowledge discovered as much through the body as through the mind. This goal underlies even very early works, from light experiments in California in the 1960s to the breakthrough 1980s ‘skyspace’ Meeting that Turrell recently worked closely with MoMA PS1 to renovate. Meeting was the second skyspace that Turrell constructed and the first in the United States. He  has continued to work with similar types of ceiling cut outs in the subsequent decades. Turrell worked on Meeting for roughly 6 years, cutting out the original ceiling to make way for the sky and then adapting the room to increase the viewer’s perception of the space until the sky seems to rest directly on top of it. The title and the simple wooden bench that runs around the walls recalls Turrell’s Quaker upbringing. In its original incarnation, Meeting was a simple opening to the sky with modest lighting to create a kind of glowing inner chamber that subtly allowed you to become aware of the changing light and sky. The renovation, unveiled a few months ago, includes a multi-colored LED lighting program that adds a mind-bending flair to the work.

Before, the viewer who was in the room at sunrise or sunset would notice the changing sky as it hung suspended like a flat surface on top of them. Now, a lighting program synchronized with the sunrise and sunset dramatizes such subtle perceptual shifts in sky and interior colors, dramatically changing the color of the sky from pale to dark and warm to cool, through the use of intense LED lights. It feels like a trick of the mind to watch what you know to be the same patch of sky shift through gradations of color. At the same time, it is so subtle that you can’t pinpoint the moment when the color slips from one hue to the next. The incredibly crisp edge where building meets sky and lack of depth markers create the flat appearance of what could be an exercise in geometric abstract painting. The fresh air and the changing colors–whether artificial or in the passing of clouds over the sky–constantly remind your thinking mind that that is not the case.

It’s an experience that is impossible to capture in an image, although many people tried while I was there recently. It’s literally impossible because the room is wider than any one field of vision, but also because the art is located in what feels like a living space that extends out from you into a much bigger world. It requires patience. Around dawn and dusk, an approximately 40-minute light show enhances the changing natural light, ushering in the transition from day to night and night to day. But it requires patience not just to sit through a quiet show of changing lights and marvel at the effects of the sky, but to open yourself up to the experience of looking. Relaxing into the experience and allowing your vision to adjust to it, you become immersed in changing fields of color. Lacking depth perception, the sky which you know to go up and up into space seems to jut into the room like a 3-dimensional shape, or the shaping mechanism of the square cut out seems to shift dynamically into a diamond the recedes or comes forward. The eye tells you that such things are possible even though the mind knows they are not. Such an exchange of perceptual and mental knowledge is perhaps what wordless thought is like: not judging as your perception becomes unlinked from reality and wondering if there isn’t a special kind of knowledge in that.

Meeting is on permanent view at MoMA PS1, weather permitting.