Kate Beck is a Maine-based artist whose work is inspired by her environment and exquisite insights. When I first saw her work online http://www.katebeckstudio.com/, I knew I had to chat with her. She has a brilliant mind which clearly shows in her work. Here’s our cool chat …
“I don't feel for a moment that people need to be prepped to experience art. It should be subliminal; natural. My goal is to entice the viewer on a human level, to override all of this.”
MICHAEL: Hi Kate, First off, your work is so minimal, disciplined and elegant. Your canvas works appear to be like landscapes that have been abstracted, stretched and perhaps digitized and now they're hip, sophisticated paintings that hang for my enjoyment. No?
KATE: Hi Michael. Yes, thank you for really looking here! Landscape is an apt analogy -- but I guess I like to leave it at that. Perhaps landscapes of the inner eye. My drawings and paintings are certainly informed by nature, but they are created as a reaction to space and materials - so they are actually non-objective. They do not reference a particular place or thing. I love your concept of a "stretched abstraction." I live and work from an incredible vista on the coast of Maine, where the sky is very broad and literally reaches out over the ocean for miles. I often feel that I work within that incredible space between; the ether. The expanse is all about light and I'm just here … taking notes. Definitely for your enjoyment!
MICHAEL: Do you see your work as "spare" and "minimal" or is this simply the result of inspiration that flows through you? I ask this because as I get older, I'm realizing that I need less and less of "things." For example, I prefer pure chocolate brownies to brownies that are full of nuts or M&Ms or even with chocolate chip cookies on top. The celebrated essence of things seems to be the simplest yet also the most sophisticated somehow.
KATE: Life is more complex every day. Contemporary painting is complex! In the work, I strive to entice the viewer to look. This is my goal, my true objective - to capture the viewer's eye; to create a work that captivates and draws one in. Because I am giving them a very abstract lead-in. There is never anything that suggests a 'real thing' in my surfaces. My enticement is created through a manipulation of light and space. There is a shifting of these elements within my surfaces, which becomes a place for the viewer to enter and to gain an experiential foothold, I guess -- a viewing point. This lack of reference allows the viewer more room to personally explore and connect. I mean, we all have our own personal visions - histories, associations, physiologies even. Our eyes are indelibly unique. Mr. Josef Albers pointed this out so elegantly. But I cannot determine the meaning of my works. Light is color, and the color I see is not the same color you see.
So perhaps in this sense my approach is spare. I'm giving away a lot of information here, but none of it is referential. At the same time, though, the works are definitely not minimal. I make them within an additive process - material is continually added, subtracted and re-added. I am not paring anything away. Quite the contrary. I am allowing the work to evolve; to become self-evident almost. The paintings and drawings are quite loaded in this sense actually!
MICHAEL: Why do you think that so many people look at abstract expressionism and think it's "easy"? For some reason, many people don't see the complexity, layering, coloring and everything else involved.
KATE: We've all been in a museum or gallery and overheard on-lookers muttering "I could make that!"
It’s a paradox that the complexity of creating a strong finished work depends on its allusion to simplicity. I mean, I'm not that interested in making certain that my audience is aware how difficult it is to create a vibrant, luminescent and self-sustaining surface. Of course, that is the great challenge! I'm more concerned with attracting them to the finished work. I want them to want to look; to actually need to look; to make it a challenge to pass by...
Abstraction is the unknown and can thus be potentially intimidating. I think it's a natural response to seek familiarity and representational works can provide a comfortable and more immediate attraction for some, particularly if a viewer is not used to the setting. Some venues are simply more friendly than others, right? There could be a fear of 'misunderstanding' the artists intent, a fear of not recognizing that which 'should' be obvious. I don't feel for a moment that people need to be prepped to experience art: it should be subliminal; natural. My goal is to entice the viewer on a human level, to override all of this.
MICHAEL: Tell me more about Maine. It seems almost like a fantasy place to me. How do your surroundings actually inspire your work? Also, what's your daily routine? Do you paint every day?
KATE: Phew, Maine. It is so deeply within me and yet so difficult to grapple with. I grew up here, around the ocean. I've been walking rocky beaches and swimming in cold water my whole life! I've spent a lot of time in northern Maine, too, in the woodlands, mountains and lakes. My father and grandfathers were great fishermen and my brothers and I were introduced to it all. Fly fishing along Dead River in Carrabassett with my father when I was so small - walking the stream, seeing the fish in the water at my feet, dappled light through tree branches overhead. Being at Sugarloaf Mountain in deep, heavy snow winters when there was no lodge, just A-frame huts! Skating the wide lake in winter in complete solitude, bumping along the frozen surface, sky above ... Stillness. Time in nature alone. Yes, it's been an influence.
I live on the ocean now and my studio is here - facing southeast, with a vantage point that projects out over Harpswell Sound about 10 nautical miles to the horizon. This place is the light. My studio is comfortable and easy - which allows me to work fluently, a natural rhythm in my life. Years ago, I had a warehouse space, but being here has allowed my work to become more intimate, more personal. It's better. I draw every day and I write every day. And I read. The work rests nearby in the studio when I am not physically engaged. I am always acutely conscious of it. So the practice is strong and developed, I feel good about that. I have confidence that I can make the work, but Maine is challenging. The economy is tough, the natural resources are so vulnerable and professionally, most of my livelihood happens out of state. I am frequently in New York and Europe. So I have to be able to come and go freely, which is an expense of both time and money. And, the work must ship - a total nightmare, mostly!
MICHAEL: Do you come from an artistic family? When did you first become aware of yourself as an artist? What's your first memory of art?
KATE: I grew up in a Victorian sea captain's house with my grandparents. My grandmother played the piano and so did I. My first memory of art is books. I was read to so often as a child, which I really loved. The visual impact of the words on the pages and the voice of my grandmother reading them, telling me the stories. It defined my sense of place, of being. Many of our books were old volumes; Arabian Nights, for instance and Robert Louis Stevenson, volumes of older, classical stories. The illustrations were print-like, which I loved to look at and into. I still have most of these books. You can see where I marked into the pages with a pencil when I was very small.
MICHAEL: I can relate. Believe me.
KATE: So my love of drawing really comes from there. I drew everything - replicating the pictures in the books and making my own pictures on paper and especially on a large chalk board that was on a wall in our kitchen (which I have in my studio now ), even outside on the pavement. To this day, drawing, both line and tonal hue, makes my heart beat faster.
MICHAEL: So many people see art as this somewhat mysterious, luxurious thing that's separate and alien from their own lives. When they do encounter it, they feel they have to decode it. What do you think about this?
KATE: People want to feel included in the action of looking and seeing art and they want to feel that they are part of the artists' created space. They don't want to feel as though they have to pick an artist’s brain in order to get there.
So much of what we hear and read via mainstream media regarding contemporary art, particularly abstraction, falls short. There is a catching up, a snagging on terms like, "seductive, lyrical, atmospheric, quiet," all rather suspect monikers with regard to non-referential art and thus, rather daunting as a perceived, 'prerequisite' for viewing art. The light use of description is, in the end, burdensome, and a bit dangerous.
I am not creating works out of thin air. If there is a chasm between the artist and the viewer, that is the alienation. Then art is seen as a luxury, and the artists take on a rather elitist social role, separate from the mainstream dogma of contemporary culture which I feel is inaccurate. If anything depicts the current state of our society, it’s artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians. This is, of course, separate from the media maven's rabid focus on art and money.
MICHAEL: Which brings me to my next question. What do you think about the art world and art market and how they function? Dead, famous artists continue to grab attention while living artists, many of them, not all, are struggling.
KATE: It’s such a big question and multi-faceted issue. And there's a lot of very excellent writing going on in New York right now. I don't have a problem with dead or famous artists, I need them too. But I do have a problem with the subculture that this massive secondary market sets up, a kind of impermeable cultural smoke-screen. It’s dangerous to the existence of contemporary artists and thus contemporary art - the potential absence or presence of which is the ultimate determinate of our future generations; the history of our times.
The bottom line is that poverty imbues the lives and careers of so many artists, and no artistic aesthetic, however pure, can be expected to survive within the dead zone that is being created by the big market houses and cemented on the streets of New York right now. The art market is synonymous with real estate: property values, rents and sales, eventually lending to a scenario of survival-of-the-fittest that is even more loathsome in terms of race, gender and class bias. How does artistic purity survive within this?
MICHAEL: Art as real estate. Yes, that is what it has become. It's like being priced out of any hope of living in Manhattan, London or San Francisco. That alone is really killing contemporary art. And so, what's an artist or budding art collector to do?
KATE: It’s tough to keep a pure focus within this context. We must keep making the art; the collectors must keep collecting. I still believe in people and I think that the more personal our professional relationships can be, the more we can relate not only on the business level, but also on a humanistic level. I feel so fortunate to work with a good dealer in New York. I mean, the highs and lows of marketing persist, but he does believe in my aesthetic and offers continued support. And he's a nice person. I think the closer we keep to the curators and writers, too. I have an incredible cache of artist friends whom I love and admire and depend on. This keeps me going - all of us, I think. It really helps, these micro-systems of support - which are macro, actually!
MICHAEL: Finally Kate, where do you think contemporary art might be headed? Does it matter? Where do you want to go with your work in the future? What message do you want people to get?
KATE: Where contemporary art is headed? It is so hard to go there. It is difficult to keep one's reality at arm's length. I torment about the world, about people, economies, the vulnerabilities of our time. I have children. What matters most is that I'm able to keep making the work. I have to keep my inner longings accessible. I have to keep my studio viable. I have to keep myself in front of the surface. And that is the great challenge because none of it is rote exercise. Everything must be right, the moment must be right and if it’s not, that must be respected too. So much dicates a successful outcome.
MICHAEL: It’s the same with the writing process.
KATE: In my new paintings, I am discovering a return to color that was unexpected, but feels very right. I'm just letting it happen. I'm not a stranger to the potential of scale or shifting scale and the entrance of color. In this new way, it seems to bring renewed meaning to the surface which is immediately gratifying for me. I'm not questioning it. I recently completed a large (156 inches x 108 inches overall) oil on aluminum panel triptych as a private commission in Boston. It’s quite publicly visible and receiving positive response. I designed it with particular sensitivity to a complex architectural space within the entrance foyer of a beautifully renovated historical building. The painting is visible at street level through a glass wall. With this painting, an axis of space between the pictorial and the architectural presence of the panels seemed to just 'arrive.' But then, geometrics are parallels to nature and the white field has always had all of my attention. There is a longing to uncover more of this in the new work.
So, I think there is this - that one's cultivation must come from within. It is all nonmaterial. We have our intellect, our experiences, learning. But it is the life and the looking which make the difference; pad the curve. The value of the work is not formal. Who really cares about theory or appropriation of form and content? To embrace this is to embrace one's life with founded sensibilities and meaning. This is a reason why living apart from the city is good for me - even though I crave the street and the culture, I am free to cultivate my own life on my own terms and bring that to my work. This is what I grapple with in front of the surface, in life. You put one thing next to another again and again until the light emerges and you find your way in.
MICHAEL: Thanks Kate. You are a substantial lady. I LOVE your work!
KATE: It has been such a pleasure working on a conversation with you! Best wishes.
Check out Kate Beck and her work at http://www.katebeckstudio.com/.