Constance Mallinson In Conversation with Katy Crowe and Coleen Sterritt

Katy Crowe and Coleen Sterritt, Evenso, Harbor College Art Gallery; Photo Credit Doug Henry

Katy Crowe and Coleen Sterritt at Harbor College Art Gallery

Constance Mallinson talks with artists Katy Crowe, Coleen Sterritt and Ron Linden Gallery Director about their continuing exhibition at Harbor College

Constance Mallinson: The work in the exhibition seems to represent a “mature phase” of both of your practices. Can you describe what led up to this particular work with a bit of history of your formal and thematic concerns?

Katy Crowe: Abstract painting has been my path for more than 40 years and so this body of paintings is just the continuation of my painting process involving the accumulation, and expansion of my abstract vocabulary. My concerns have always been to make paintings that engage me visually and intellectually through color and form, metaphor and allusion to various architectonic and natural forms and systems. The painting is revealed through the process, although I will reuse and recycle old ideas into new paintings along with newer visual tropes. Color is intuitive and the element that completes the “chord”. Narrative has not played a role in my work.

Coleen Sterritt: The natural world as it relates to the man-made has been a theme in my work since the late 70’s. I’m interested in both physical and psychological dualities: balance/imbalance, organic/man-made, independence/interdependence, open/closed, separation/union, embrace/entrapment, part and whole, control and letting go. Over many years these themes have played out through the juxtaposition of different kinds of materials, forms, and their interplay. The physical relationship between forms, how they interact and what that interaction might suggest or reveal is important to me. The works in this show are a continuation and evolution of these ideas.

CM: Since we have the chance to see both a painter and sculptor together can you specifically describe what has drawn you to your respective mediums? I am always curious as to why an artist devotes herself most to one medium over a lifetime. What nurtures/drives your creativity?

KC: Good question! Who knows? How did I land on painting and then stick to abstraction. Is it early influences? Stubbornness? Painting always resonated. It’s now what I do and what I think about. I haven’t come to the end of the problem; a finished painting leads me to the next problem to solve.

CS: Maybe it was my uncle’s studio foundry, my grandmother’s garden, or that sculpture class way back in 1972 that pointed me in this direction but I’ve always loved making things and working with my hands. I love materials and forms. I like the challenge of making a structure work as I balance all component parts both physically and metaphorically. And the physicality of making sculpture is why I love making it. It’s always been very important to me as it has been a measure of my energy and commitment to the work, and it still is.

CM: What changes have you noticed in your disciplines over your careers? For example, as a painter I see less and less emphasis on technical virtuosity and more of an appetite for looser, “unskilled” painting. In sculpture likewise installations have had an enormous effect on how sculpture is approached with the highly finished object yielding to much looser definitions. Discuss how and if any of that influenced you?

KC: For me as a painter, my skill level has risen with experience. The application of paint and how to craft a painting is as important to me as it ever was. The looser elements of my more recent paintings are still controlled and the element of chance is contained and directed by me. These loose elements are usually balanced or combined with more static ingredients. I am not interested in deliberately “unskilled” painting.

CS: Technical virtuosity doesn’t necessarily equal good art.
I don’t think that the focus on installations per se is what caused an “unskilled” approach to sculpture-making but more the replacement of sculpture programs with New Genre in the early 1990’s when art school curriculums where jumping on the conceptual bandwagon. During that time there was little attention paid to fundamentals. You need to know the rules before you break them and from my perspective very little of that was being taught.

In the BFA program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, I was trained with a focus on formal and traditional skills like foundry work and welding. I excelled in those areas and became the first woman shop assistant for the sculpture dept. I was somewhat rebellious towards the idea that I had to do castings as I was more interested in the work of Jackie Winsor and Eva Hesse. Even back then I didn’t see the perfect casting as necessarily being a good sculpture so I made work using plaster, tampons, wood, latex, and cast metal which foreshadowed my long-term interest in and love of material possibilities.

And how do we define skill? In these many years in the studio, I’ve been working against what I know; working against how I learned to make sculpture the ‘right’ way. My best work has always come from not really knowing where I’m going. I had to learn to trust myself. My desire is to go where I haven’t been before. I might circle back to something familiar but I’m always trying to move forward overall. I want to get lost and find my way again.

CM: Similarly, ideas about relevant content have shifted with identity politics exerting a strong influence over art production. Do those preferences make formal manipulation –which dominates both your work-seem unimportant? How do you justify, say, abstraction when all the attention seems to be on promoting extra-art agendas?

KC: Identity issues have nothing whatsoever to do with my work and I don’t anticipate that ever being an issue for me. It’s a privilege to be able to practice making art, and everybody can do whatever they want, but it doesn’t mean we all have to like it. Why not abstraction? Extra-art agendas? I don’t even know what that means. I don’t have an agenda, other than making paintings that satisfy me, and hopefully others.

CS: Who decides what is relevant? I’m devoted to abstraction/ non-representational work and to my formal considerations whether the art world is interested or not. For me, meaning is in the making. I embrace uncertainty, chance, and my intuition with the resulting work being a reflection of my lived experience.

Katy Crowe and Coleen Sterritt, Evenso, Harbor College Art Gallery; Photo Credit Doug Henry

CM: Could some of the humor that surfaces in your work (Sterritt’s very whimsical and sometimes hilarious juxtapositions and impossibilities and Crowe’s revisiting of Modernist iconography ) somehow be a response to the dead seriousness of all the political art today—comic relief perhaps?

KC: Yes, Coleen’s work subverts and re-defines her material’s original purpose or definition, with her process driven joining of the unlikely. “Revisiting” Modernist iconography misconstrues my intent, as it’s all a part of a visual vocabulary that is continually used and reused and re-interpreted. I don’t know about comic relief, but I do like to be surprised, to surprise myself and to hopefully surprise the viewer. In my opinion much political art fails both in message and as visual art.

CS: I know my work can be seen as lyrical and absurdly humorous and but as a comic-relief antidote for serious, political art? I don’t think so. I’ve “followed my nose” so-to-speak and arrived where I am at after forty years of pursuing my love of materials and form. I’ve never made work as a response to what was in vogue and I don’t believe that Katy has ever done that either.

Ron Linden: A sense of humor is an essential element of critique – a foil to romanticizing or mourning.

CM: Besides your long term friendship, what made you want to exhibit together? How do you think the work converses with and supports each other? For example, I think of the Primary Structures Exhibition years ago where a Donald Judd shown next to an Ellsworth Kelly further elucidated and expanded the scope of Minimalism. Absent any major movements today, where do artists such as yourself draw your strength and advocacy?

KC: Ron invited us to share this show. We exhibited together almost 20 years ago in the same space, so it is an interesting ongoing conversation. I believe that color is a unifying aspect of our work. My painting is more reductive and Coleen’s sculpture is not contained in any conventional way. Painting is flat but there has often been a spatial aspect to my work that reveals painting’s history.

We find our support wherever we can, and that is often from other artists. Ron has been particularly supportive of both Coleen and me, and by the same token, with less opportunity, we are supportive of him.

CS: Katy and I exhibited together twice in the past, first at SITE in 1997 and then at LA Harbor College in 2001. Ron offered us a chance to exhibit again in this beautiful space so we said yes. It has been interesting to see that even after all this time our work still resonates together. We are both keen observers and share a love of many things, color being one. Katy’s inventive sense of color has deeply inspired me over the years. We also use a similar methodology where the work is found in the process of its making.

As artists we continue to support and advocate for each other when we can. Ron should be especially noted in this category. He is a champion of the under-represented and unrecognized. Both Katy and Ron are artist heroes of mine and this 3-way has been a very rewarding experience.

RL: This curatorial pairing was based solely on Katy and Coleen’s shared artistic concerns, commitment, and authenticity. Our long-term friendship played no critical role whatsoever. My curatorial choices often arise from readings outside of “art writing”. As I wrote my introduction in the press release for Katy Crowe and Coleen Sterritt this excerpt from Ben Lerner’s intro to poet Michael Palmer on making art in dark times came to mind: “…something like Wallace Stevens’ “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” (“It must be abstract.” “It must change.”) – pushing himself to work against his unmatched fluency, trying to hit an off note given his perfect pitch. For it can be wrong to get song right if, like Palmer, you are suspicious of any glib resolution or false consolation, if you are committed to exploring the contradictions of art making in dark times, if your paradoxical task is to represent what escapes representation.”

CM: We are in the midst of the national shutdown and just as your show opened it was forced to on line viewing only. This might represent a long tern trend. How do you feel about your work being seen in images only? (Maybe there’s an analogy to the “threat” object makers felt when Conceptualism wanted to dispense with the art object altogether) If it’s a more permanent situation as galleries close and there is intense pressure on museums to show only superstars, will your work be forced to change as well? How? Is that a positive or negative for you?

KC: Conceptualism never really got rid of the object. The art market made the conceptual object marketable, so that was a bust.

The trajectory of the art world will not affect me or my work going forward. Nothing is likely to change for me. Of course it was hard to have a show that looks so great not be seen in person by anybody. It is ironic that possibly more people have seen it in digital form than would have seen it in person. And there already is art that is made for and from the internet.

I do think it will be hard to not be able to view work face to face; the internet is a sorry replacement for physical experience when it comes to work that is made of concrete materials and not digital to begin with. Galleries and museums are so important to the experience of visual art, but I do think that we could all take a break from the art fair. It’s hard for me to envision an entirely digital art world. How does that work? And as tragic as it is that so many galleries will close as a result of this pandemic and economic meltdown (and maybe the misguided LACMA project will be put on serious hold, now that the old buildings are gone…) I don’t think a reset for the art world is a bad thing, just as its not a bad thing for the economy as a whole to get a serious reset. So I am hopeful (unrealistic I know) that instead of the art world continuing to mirror the extremes of economic distribution between the .01% and the rest of us, with so few getting recognition as it is, that it’s a chance to rejigger the whole picture. Not likely.

CS: So sad that no one has seen this in person! I don’t like the idea of images only as it so completely flattens the experience- and I don’t mean just dimensionally but flatten in the sense of not much there. That said, more people have probably seen the work online than would come to the gallery just as what’s happened with Instagram.
Do I feel a threat or a reason for my work to change? Not because of these events; maybe shifts will occur due to issues of storage! Seriously, we are just at the beginning of this situation- who knows what the conversation will be 6 months from now.

RL: The essential, rich materiality of painting and sculpture are all but lost in digital presentation – the degrees of separation insurmountable in my opinion. The best that can be claimed, “It’s better than nothing at all.”

CM:. Would a post-COVID or climate change art world possibly offer some new insights for your practices as well as opportunities you might never have expected? Where might you see a more unorthodox approach taking hold in your practice? (Example: on site work, paintings in non traditional spaces, etc.)Is this a path for art retaining its cultural relevance or will artists like yourselves keep trying the older trajectories of accumulating gallery shows with the hopes of a museum retrospective?

KC: To start with, I let go of the notion of gallery representation leading to Museum recognition a long time ago. I don’t want to be dismissive of anyone’s pursuit of art, but in order for me of have gone forward with my art, I had to let go of that fiction. It was healthier for me.

I haven’t really thought about alternative approaches to my work, but the idea of making work that is non-permanent, not an object, is appealing. I could see making temporary work in alternative temporary spaces. The pop-up is a wonderful thing. Certainly in the era of cleaning out our lives of clutter, having a lot of work to store is an issue when you don’t sell much. Does one change their art making direction because of climate? I suppose if you are flying all over the place to make your alternative installations then maybe you change your direction. I realize that many make art that reflects current social and environmental issues and I don’t want to disparage that. It’s just not what I do consciously.

CS: The art world needed a shake-up. Alternative approaches to exhibiting vs. the traditional gallery/museum path is essential at the moment. I’m very interested in showing and curating in pop-up spaces. No matter what happens we still will need to have the ability to see art in person, somewhere, somehow.

CM: Since this is a college exhibition there would have to be some educational purpose in the exhibition. Artists such as yourselves play a role in inspiring future artists. How do you see the show (at least as originally planned where you could give artists talks to students) as an important one in that regard?

KC: I did not become a teacher so my views on this will be different in some respects from Coleen and Ron. I do believe that exposure to culture is vitally important to society, and especially at a college where most of the students probably haven’t been exposed to contemporary art, whether it be abstract or figurative or whatever. All discourse is good and the conversation with students would have benefited all of us, so it’s a loss.

CS: Student artists need opportunities to see and discuss contemporary works especially in the community college setting where those situations might not be easily accessible. This kind of dialog has always been a worthwhile experience for me. As someone whose been teaching for close to 35 years I can honestly say that working with young artists continually inspires me and gives me hope for the world.

RL: Artist talks are an essential component of LAHC’s gallery program, and, in each iteration, have proven effective vehicles for enhanced understanding of and appreciation for art and artists of various persuasions. Our schedule goes something like this: After a brief introduction of the artist(s) and curatorial considerations directing the exhibition, artists address issues relevant to their practice and production as they choose. Seldom, if ever, I may interject on behalf of artist or audience. The open Q & A proves most revealing and informative to all participants.

CM: What would each of you like viewers to most take away from the on line exhibition?

RL: A curiosity and appreciation leading to closer reading – in real time, space.

KC:I concur with Ron on this, he has stated it perfectly.

CS: I agree with Ron as well… “A curiosity and appreciation leading to closer reading – in real time and space.”

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