As the second installment of my artist Q&A series, last week I had the chance to catch up with artist Kathy Sirico in her studio. Her work addresses a wide range of themes, including but not limited to topics of feminism and textile traditions, environmental issues and staring down the chronicled canon of painting, itself.
Read on for the full interview.
Valerie Thompson: Now, I’ve seen your work before…but it sort of challenges the canon of painting…do you want to talk about that?
Kathy Sirico: That’s something that is one of my sub-themes that I’m interested in. Mostly in the way that forms are structured, or paintings are structured…like thinking about what happens if you take the grid, which is such a masculine, minimalist …sort of negation of what painting was before that. And what happens if you use something like fabric, and you use weaving, which is traditionally women’s kind of work – well it is women’s work – and weave it together in a box weave so it looks just like a grid. And then use that…what happens if the frame is exposed, when that is used to be something that is behind the painting and the painted surface is really just a skin that goes on top of that. So I’ve been thinking what if vinyl becomes skin… because it really does looks like it, the kind I’m using. Just thinking about movement off and on a painted surface, and what happens when roles are reversed.
VT: Yeah, so it’s kind of sculptural, kind of painting…would you say its more sculptural or more painting, or do you not even like people using those terms?
KS: For a long time, I was so attached to painting that I was like “ok it’s a painting.” And then I started calling it sculptural painting. And I think more I want you to look at it like its painting. Or consider it like you would consider a painting. But I also am thinking of this as a mash-up of sculpture, painting and textiles. Although it is quite sculptural when you are looking at it in space, I still am seeing it as painting.
VT: …and you present it in the form of painting…
KS: Right, yeah. On the wall where painting is supposed to be.
VT: So you talked a little bit about it in the last question, but what do you want your work to address – and that changes I’m sure.
KS: Yeah it does, and that’s something that I’ve been sort of wafting between. There is definitely that aspect of playing with painting, historically. But that’s not really what I am trying to do. It’s just a method of doing that. So a lot of the things I think about is – yes, it has the feminist elements to it, but its also for me really about the arctic and capitalism and the environment, which is something that is not something that you see right away, and it is something that I am trying to show more. That’s a big part of my life. And I’m very enraptured by these ice landscapes and they’re just like…its so sad what’s happening and nobody cares, you know global warming. “Oh the ice caps are melting!” but when you’re in that environment it is so incredible and amazing and watching it fall apart is …heartbreaking. And so I’m thinking about using these elements of challenging painting and there are elements of bodily things and its sort of my perspective of how I feel about it, and the whole body pull into this world that I love and that I want to be in but once its gone, it’s like that’s the end of nature, to me. And that’s really sad. So its sort of a round-about way of doing it…its more about encounters in space, I would say.
VT: Encounters in space that cause you to think.
KS: Right. Cause you to think, cause you to feel. And it might not be obvious, it might be more about the other elements that I was talking about, you know about the female body and the grid and the painting history – it all kind of goes together in a very abstract way.
VT: I guess I never thought about how you use so much blue and white…
KS: Yeah, it is true, those are my two main colors… Blue, to me, is the best color because it’s the most mysterious; it’s the most emotional. It’s something that you can’t really grasp. It’s like the un-graspable, mysterious color that just leaves you down a rabbit hole…it’s like the “blue of distance” kind of idea. You chase it, and its not – its like the presence and absence kind of thing. And it is the echo of the blue landscape, and the arctic, and the ice –for me. And the white… white, to me, is a very violent color. I know we’re used to seeing it as “pure,” where in other parts of the world white can signify death, but for me its like a “whitewashing” effect. Like, covering up history, covering up…cycles of violence, and washing away culture. And so I use it as a form of “void-ness.”
VT: I never thought of it that way, but it makes sense. When we want to cover something up, we cover it with white, or we cover it up with white before we cover it up with the other color.
KS: Yeah so for example, that piece over there, I’m dipping that in the white house paint, so it is immobilizing it, so it is not allowed to be what it was or what it wants to be. And the white is sort of like whitewashing…. entombment is the word that I think about. Immobilizing, yeah.
VT: So, a bit of a background question…what led you to your art-making practice?
KS: Lets see. I was always doing art; I think we were all always doing art. I was very interested in art history, and that’s what I studied mostly in undergrad; mostly French medieval architecture. So I was really into – and still am into – cathedral architecture and stained glass and sacred spaces – also not just in France, but in that world – and in Greece too. Places people go to worship and the buildings that they build…the sacred is something that I’m interested in, so I’ve always been sort of looking at that and I think the stained glass thing really hit. But my work with fabric…after college I spent 2 years working for this interior designer who sold window treatments, like curtains and things, so I spent a lot of time with fabric, and a lot of time watching things being draped. So I think that sort of crept up into my head without me even noticing. So I decided I wanted to do art after I did an internship…a curatorial internship…and I was like “I don’t want to study them, I want them to study me.”
VT: I’ve had a little bit of that, myself…in internship capacities, I’ve always been on the other side of it…
KS: I think it’s great to know both perspectives, to have the background.
VT: Well you definitely have a good grasp on what your influences are, and they’re always changing…but you can talk about your work, which probably has come from the other side of it.
KS: Probably, yeah I think the art historians tend to think of things as fixed, and we see them as changeable.
VT: Fluid, yeah definitely.
VT: So in terms of process, how do you go about starting a new individual piece?
KS: Umm… (Laughs.)
VT: Do you have like a set of steps you typically go through?
KS: Not really, I sort of see things in my mind a lot, and they always change in the way that they physically manifest later, but I’ll get an idea about a color or a form that I want to use – when I say color, its usually blue but its different kinds of blue. I spend a lot of time thinking – because now since I am doing more experimental work, it kind of just comes to me and then I do a little bit of everything. And a lot of times I get into this frenzy where I just throw it all together. So it’s more of a chaotic but very intense kind of moment.
KS: Yeah I think about it all the time, I’m a little too…I don’t know, overachieving.
VT: Do you ever have those moments where you’re not here and you have that idea and you have that itch to just do it but you can’t because you’re not here (in the studio)?
KS: Yeah. Oh my god, yeah. So I’ll write it down or I’ll just be like “oh god!” …I’ll make a plan of when I’m going to go to the fabric store or something, you know.
VT: On the other side of that, do you ever go through periods of…
KS: The “shit what am I going to do” kind of moment? Oh yeah. Well I’m in this furniture class this semester, and every project I’m like “oh my god what am I going to do?” but when I have that I just end up making little, stupid material studies. And then it will turn into something eventually. Like I have a ton of them around, just little things that I start and then I abandon…and then later I kind of use them in some way.
VT: That’s great, it sounds like you work from what’s in your head, but you don’t get stuck in your head.
KS: Yeah, no I try not to. Because a lot of times when I really want to work and I’m here, if I don’t have the materials, I’ll just find something in my studio and re-purpose it, and it might be a little different but it’s…I like the idea of recycling all this stuff that I have.
VT: That’s – again – very environmental thinking.
KS: Yeah, like a form of recycling. Obviously, I have to buy fabric and materials, but I do like re-using things in different ways. I feel like its messy here, but its sort of like a scavenger hunt… I have things that I could find that I could use.
VT: So. Kind of a broad question…where do you see yourself going in the next few years?
KS: I want to just make a ton of art. I want to do residencies. I mean like in my wildest dreams I’ll be in the MOMA (laughs.)
VT: Hey, never say never…
KS: Dream big, right? It’s one of those things I hear if you say it out loud, it makes you believe in it more. So I would always be like “oh, I’ll probably teach…” …I like that idea, that sounds cool to me, and residencies and all that stuff…I don’t mind working in museums either…but I’m trying to say it out loud so it might happen (laughs.)
VT: Ok so a bit of a cultural context question… what does it mean to you to be an artist living and working in San Francisco right now?
KS: …well I think I’m incredibly lucky. First of all, I think we all are. Just like damn. The ability to do this is just wild. But was does it mean? Well San Francisco is changing and a lot of people are talking about that. And it’s one of those things where I think ahead, but a lot of times forget the middle steps. So a lot of people are like “I’ll be in San Francisco, but then I’ll move” but I don’t know where I’ll be, but now I’m here. And its more just like this place is really inspiring. You know, the landscape is incredible…at 4:30 – well now it’s more like 6 – the golden light comes in, and everything is beautiful and I can look at the water every day, and I live near the ocean, and I think that’s an amazing thing to have. But more in a social context, I think San Francisco is… more on the eco trend than a lot of other places. Like Pennsylvania is not – that’s where I grew up. And yeah, everyone’s into recycling…it depends where you go, but I think just having the water here and thinking about the drought, and thinking about social implications of the drought it’s really…on my mind, a lot.
VT: The time and space that we live in, as artists, has a lot to do with our thinking.
KS: Yeah, definitely, and just being on the streets, walking to school or walking wherever…you get a sense of how people live in a city, in their space…and thinking about encounters in space, and water issues, and the bay and the ocean, and you can’t swim anywhere right now because the algae has taken over. I don’t think a lot of people are aware of it, but probably in San Francisco more people are than in other places…and the fog, I love the fog. San Francisco is most beautiful in the fog.
VT: So, does your work address questions of feminism, given that you’re a female artist working with what is “textile traditions?”
KS: For sure, I think a lot of my response to things is through my body, even though that might not be apparent in the way …you don’t see a body, but the folds, the bulges, the kind of slumpy-ness is bodily, to me. And, you know, the weaving, the textiles…I think a lot about abandoned women in Greek mythology…they cry and they have their textiles, and they just wait for their husbands to come home. …Yeah, I mean the weaving, it’s apparent; textiles, fabrics – its all there. Yeah, definitely.
VT: Do you draw from your personal life?
KS: Yeah, totally. My obsession with the arctic – I went to Alaska last year and it was the most amazing thing. My grandpa was an environmental scientist, and he was stationed in Antarctica. So …he came back with pictures and slides, and I recently found a whole bunch of slides of him the arctic, years ago – I think in the 50s. So that’s always been something that’s present in my family’s life. And I definitely have that gene – that I’m like I see the ice, I see the ocean, I see water and I want to just like throw myself into it, because I love it.
VT: Wow, that’s really cool.
KS: He actually fell down a crevasse…he had a cane…when I was little I was like “oh he’s old, he has a cane” but a couple of years ago they were like “oh its because he fell down that crevasse.”
VT: In the ice?
KS: Yeah… I guess his team was able to pull him out of it and he didn’t want to tell the government because he didn’t want to leave, so he just had a cane for the rest of his life. He had crazy knee problems.
VT: So what artists have had the most influence on you and your work?
KS: It’s tough. I think a lot of things. I have this art history brain, and I see so many things all at once. Obviously, like Eva Hesse, those kinds of women who are painting, and I love Ana Mendieta so much but I also love old Chinese landscapes and cathedral architecture. Like, it all is in there… there’s tons of people working now who are really great, and the kind of New York scene in the 60s, everyone re-using materials…there’s a lot. There’s a lot…
VT: Yeah? You’re like a sponge.
KS: I am a sponge. My sister always tells me to “be a filter, not a sponge.”
VT: So do you have anything new in the works? I mean I’m looking at something right now…
KS: New, yeah. These are all strung up (motioning toward piece)… they’re going to go on the sides and possibly inside that box that I made. There might be light, there might not be. I’ll see, once I get those up, what it needs next. But it’ll be hung on the wall, just like a painting.
VT: If you’ve got a good thing, then go with it.
KS: Yeah, I’m trying to make each one a little bit different from the last one. I’m trying not to repeat myself.
VT: I don’t think you are. There’s works of yours that talk to each other, certainly, but I think that no two are the same.
VT: So you’ve studied overseas…
KS: Yeah, I have.
VT: …did that shape your practice?
KS: I think it helps, you as a person, grow – a lot. Yeah, I spent a semester of my junior year in college abroad in Paris, and I was in this French immersion program, so we didn’t speak any English and I had a host family, and I studied…one of my classes, we just went to the Louvre. …I had this class at the Sorbonne that was about medieval French architecture… after class I’d be like “oh I’m going to go and see that,” and Notre Dame was right there. It was amazing just to see all that. The first time I was in Notre Dame I cried because I was so overwhelmed at how beautiful it was, and all my friends made fun of me.
VT: So you sort of got to go through all of those art museums in Paris with a fine-toothed comb…
KS: Oh yeah, all of them. I actually stumbled upon a Basquiat retrospective there, and it was like the luckiest thing that has ever happened. So, I tried to really throw myself into the city and see a lot of things.
VT: So how do you see the blending of mediums changing the art world…do you think people are taking more towards this (mixing multiple mediums)?
KS: I think it’s really cool that you can kind of do what you want, now. It could be a phase, but I hope it’s not. I do still appreciate really good paintings, or really good photographs – something that does one thing – but I like doing this kind of thing, I get more excited about it.
VT: I think people are starting to question the rigid frames…
KS: Yeah, I think they’re breaking down a lot. And then probably they’ll be put back up, you never know.
For more information on Kathy’s work, check out her website here: