Studio Visit with Kate Abercrombie
By Anne Schaefer
Kate Abercrombie is a Philadelphia-based artist working out of her home studio in Fishtown. Earlier this month, I visited her and her studio assistant, Polly the cat, to see new works in progress and discuss her studio practice.
AS: One of my initial observations in your studio is the richness and density of color, form, and patterning in the paintings. Although pattern and density often provide the potential for an all-over-and-at-once experience, you seem to resist such an experience and introduce elements that build a visual hierarchy. There are moments when visual rhythms of the work shift, structures build or dissolve; often there are moments where the work becomes static or quiet despite the visual excess. Can you talk about how this is achieved and how it reveals your intent for the work?
KA: The shifts and disruptions are what I am most interested in. I construct places in the paintings on the edge of coming apart in an attempt to convey a particular tone for each work. Forms, color and patterning exist on an equal playing field– I don’t consider one more essential than another. I utilize subtle shifts in their interaction to form the paintings.
I begin by drawing and choosing a palette. The drawings are almost diagrammatic, both in their approach and in how they are used at this stage of the work. The material I often paint with, gouache, can require some planning because layering can be limited. More importantly I am interested in how pattern, repetition, and the relationship between forms can create tensions through interaction and color choice. The underlying structure of repeated forms allows me to make more intuitive moves that introduce new layers and forms.
The work relies on a kind of call-and-response of planning and intuition, each gaining validity when acting with the other. The scale of forms and the overall quality of the work relate to my interest in words on a page. I think a good deal about the viewing experience having a connection to reading. The size of the work often relates to this connection, but sometimes scale is dictated by the labor involved in the creation of the work.
AS: When you describe the paintings as having a relationship to language and reading, do you consider the use of color and scale in repeating motifs analogously to a noun augmented by different verbs, adjectives and adverbs? Do you align visual rhythm to cadence of writing or syntax?
KA: This is a tough question in a way because I am a dreadful writer but a careful reader, so I can only approach it speaking as a reader. I think that writing and art are both about communication and craft, which allows me to draw an easy connection between them. In both, I am interested in formal constructs. The way language is crafted, how the specificity of word choice can alter the rhythm of a written work is a definite influence on how I think about abstraction. I do not specifically associate to parts of speech in a nameable way as you described in your question. My thought process is more abstract and intuitive, but there are main elements with supporting forms. Scale, color and form are very much the vocabulary of the work and their interactions control speed and determine the visual hierarchy in the work.
AS: You brought up the labor involved in making your work. The scale and complexity of the forms, the layering of form, and the tightly controlled surface call attention to the time necessary to create the paintings. I find myself thinking about the connection to labor in the viewing experience. These attributes of time, layers and surface seem essential to an understanding of your studio practice.
KA: I used to worry about labor a great deal with the work. I was mostly concerned that it would become a gimmick in some way or would make the work seem quaint. I am kind of over past worries right now because the labor and time are necessary to craft the work. Because of the initial planning and drawing I do for each piece, the basic elements of the work are often set in place in the early stages, and a good deal of time can then be spent on subtle choices of color and clarity of form. Each of these has the potential to shift the work dramatically as I build the paintings by layering.
I tend to work on a number of pieces at once. Smaller, quicker pieces allow for more immediate experimentation. Working on multiple pieces allows me to step back from the paintings so I don’t get too finicky.
AS: When you are working on multiple pieces at the same time, are they related and/or do you see them as a series? Looking around the studio, it seems that there are re-appearing motifs. Does working with the same or similar motifs in a body of work help you to develop ideas? Additionally, related to motif, how do you work with referential imagery or recognizable patterning (Islamic tile, kaleidoscopic geometric forms, a faceted gem)?
KA: It is a mix. I feel some works are connected and constitute a series while other pieces I view much more independently. There is always a connection on some level because the work feeds from one piece to the next. When making a piece, new questions arise that trigger a need to make subsequent work. Also, while working on multiple pieces simultaneously, I think there is some crossover that naturally occurs – they are in dialog with one another in the studio. I repeat motifs to explore differing avenues of approach and to find how subtle shifts can change the work. I pull referential imagery from a variety of sources, but I tend to be drawn to imagery that has strong geometry and is often already quite abstract, although that is not always the case for all works. For example, the current work in my studio has a mix of imagery drawn from life with found imagery. I am interested in creating levels of visual legibility in both the source imagery and their interactions within the works. I tend to be drawn to imagery that may not be specifically nameable but is present in visual culture or has a recognizable quality. I think that this allows an entrance for the viewer to the work and can make the more dissolved areas in the pieces have a better support system.
AS: What is your relationship to beauty? Do you think that the aesthetics of the piece can similarly attract the viewer or provide a comfortable point of entry, just as some of the patterning you have just described does?
KA: I am lucky because I do not have much baggage associated with beauty. I am very interested in aesthetics. Although I do not have a stance set in stone, I lean heavily toward inclusion. Pleasure in work is something that I do not wish to shy away from. Much of my source imagery is predesigned to be visually inviting to a viewer, and my work is both an embrace of this as well as an attempt to complicate things.
AS: How do you establish a timeline for working? Do you visit the studio every day?
KA: Time is a constant struggle, but I think that is universal. I try to check in daily (this can be a few minutes to many hours). On some days, my visits are almost in hope that things have progressed or changed over night. It is easy to visit my studio since it is in my home,which is nice because you can work with your pajamas on. I work a full time job and do try to sometimes have a social life so time in the studio varies. Weekends are the best time for solid long periods. On the weekdays, I have to visit the studio before or after work. Sometimes I am super productive and excited to be in my studio while other days I force myself with the promise of mini rewards. I think that my experience is pretty common. I can only structure time in advance if I have a pressing deadline, at which point life sort of shuts down outside of my studio. Otherwise, it is a balance, trying to keep things moving and my presence constant.
Kate Abercrombie is an artist who lives, works and teaches in Philadelphia. She received her BFA in 2000 from Tyler School of Art and MFA from University of Texas, Austin in 2011. She is currently a Master Printer at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, PA. Abercrombie has exhibited at Philadelphia galleries Vox Populi and Fleisher/Ollman, among others. She has shown at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and has been the recipient of a Philadelphia Independence Foundation Fellowship in the Arts.