Friday, January 12, 2007

Art Space Talk: Kate Kretz

I recently interviewed artist Kate Kretz. Kate has achieved 'worldwide fame' with her painting- 'Blessed Art Thou'. The painting depicts Angelina Jolie as Madonna with Child floating on clouds above the fluorescent-lit aisles of Wal-Mart. The painting became an overnight sensation (The third most requested image on Yahoo.) and has caused a stir throughout the world. However, Kretz has had a long career as an artist and educator... there is more to her than this painting.

Q. Your newest large-scale painting, "Blessed Art Thou" (image above), featuring Angelina Jolie as the Virgin Mary, was exhibited at the Chelsea Galleria booth at the Art Miami Art Fair. This image caused a stir and was featured on Yahoo! news. What are your thoughts about this piece? Did you expect it to cause such a buzz?

A. "From the beginning, I referred to this piece in my studio blog as "the piece that needed to be made": I kept thinking of reasons why I couldn’t/shouldn’t make the painting, and finally, it kept pushing its way to the front of my consciousness, and I realized that I had to do it.

People are telling me that the painting hits a nerve for them. Americans have a fascination with celebrities; they have replaced our traditional role models. People who might be a bit more reflective have admitted to me that they too have this fascination, but have an added layer of shame, because they simultaneously realize how strange this phenomenon is. Jerry Cullum, Senior Editor of ArtPapers magazine, wrote a very articulate description of the phenomenal response to this painting at

I have not really had time to process what has happened. Millions of artists produce millions of paintings every year, and there is no reason to believe that something like this could ever happen in response to a painting. You just make what you make, and hope that people will appreciate it. There is a lot of powerful work out there. The buzz surrounding this work is just a result of a strange confluence of circumstances."

Q. What can you tell our readers about your 'psychological clothing’? What are your thoughts behind these pieces?

A. "For a long time, my work has been about vulnerability, showing one’s self. At one point, creating a two dimensional image became too distanced. I wanted to get inside, so I began to create psychological states that one could "wear". I was drawn to the idea of working with fabric, an appropriately fragile and mutable medium. We normally use garments to construct an identity, a conscious choice of our own "packaging" presented to the world. I am interested in the notion of creating clothes that reveal psychological states rather than camouflaging them."

Q. You also create hair embroideries... what can you tell our readers about them?

A. "The series of bed pillows embroidered with my own hair disclose nocturnal revelations. The embroidered mouth is positioned where the dreamer’s mouth would be, but this position could also suggest the mouth of the subconscious whispering into the ear of the dreamer. The scale and materials are intimate: the process of weaving creates an intricate vision, composed of material that rivals the fragile threads of the imagination. I have recently begun to make some embroideries that are framed in oval Victorian-type frames and convex glass to emphasize the relic-like nature of the pieces."

Q. When did you first discover that art would be an important part of your adult life?

A. "In 12th grade AP English class, we were reading "A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man", and the teacher gave a lecture on artistic temperament: all of my feelings and anxieties were articulated in that lecture, and I knew where to steer them after that."

Q. How has society influenced your art? Are there any social implications in your art?

A. "I have not really watched TV with any regularity for 20 years. I avoid shopping malls at all costs, and never bought a tabloid until I started research for this painting. I think my distance allows me to see the absurdity in things that others might miss, as if I am from another planet and seeing this world for the first time, remarking upon its curiosities.

Some of my previous work has addressed gender and class issues, but with the exception of a painting done in response to the O.J. Simpson thing, I have never really addressed pop culture. There is, however, plenty of kitsch in my previous work, such as my Jesus Nightlight painting."

Q. On average, how long does it take you to create a piece?

A. "Anywhere from 3 to 12 months. It seems as though I am incapable of whipping things out… a personality disorder of sorts. Sometimes I work on several pieces simultaneously."

Q. Has your art ever been published?

A. "I have had many reviews, interviews, and exhibition catalogs, no books. One of the hair embroideries will be in a textbook to be published soon."

Q. What was your most important exhibition? Care to share that experience?

A. "Probably the solo show that I had at the Frost Museum in Miami last year. I have been doing several different series of work over the past few years: I have always thought that they worked very well together, and I was pleased that the curator agreed with me. Often people want to show just the paintings, or just the clothes. I was proud of the exhibition and the catalog."

Q. Do you have any 'studio rituals'? As in, do you listen to certain types of music while working? What helps to get you in the mood for working?

A. "Sometimes I listen to music, and sometimes I paint in silence so I can think: it depends upon the task. I have noticed that I can only listen to music that I already know while working: unfamiliar music is distracting."
Q. If you could pinpoint the characteristics of people who collect your art, what would they be?

A. "They know what they like, and do not look for outside approval. They are interested in well-crafted, obsessive work, and they can appreciate a little kitsch thrown in sometimes."

Q. Discuss one of your pieces. What were you thinking when you created it?

A. "Despite the superficial success of "Blessed Art Thou", I still consider "Fate of a Technicolor Romantic" (image above) to be my magnum opus thus far. It took me a solid year to paint… the technical process is documented on my website on the "process" page. It is an excellent example of how (because the pieces take so long to make) the meaning of a work changes through the process of creation and beyond.

The concept for the painting began when I was talking to another art professor from a working class background. We were discussing how, no matter what successes you achieve, your sense of self is still tethered to your origins. My father was a French and Latin high school teacher, so, with five children, we were very poor, but we were constantly reading and discussing books and film. The painting began as a cluttered, lower class, dysfunctional living room, one that could be easily dismissed as being "worthless", but scattered in the space were all of the valuable books and films that helped to form my core belief system. I soon realized that I was making a self-portrait. In my work, I have always used light as a vehicle to convey meaning: I began to focus on creating a war of light between the idealized blue light of TV (all the Technicolor films that I watched as a kid that taught me how the world was "supposed" to be), and the reality of a dim 40-watt light bulb (my actual upbringing and experience in the world). "Fate of a Technicolor Romantic" ultimately depicts a cycle of idealism, disillusionment, shame, and, I hope, transcendence."

Q. Do you have a degree or do you plan to attend school for art? If so, how did it help you as an artist? What can you tell us about the art department that you attended?

A. "I attended art classes in a Paris while I was working as a nanny. Then I got my BFA at Binghamton University, and grad school at UGA in Athens, GA.

I had a wonderful mentor at Binghamton, a man who told me that I could, indeed, be an artist. I had another painting professor there, Don DeMauro, who is an amazing painter, and I would study his paintings for hours at every faculty show. There was one woman on faculty at the time, serious and dedicated, and she was a personal inspiration. In Athens, GA, during grad school, our class was told repeatedly that we were an exceptional class in terms of the strength of our work, but also because of our comraderie and support of each other."

Q. Why did you choose the medium(s) that you use?

A. "When I get an idea, I create work in the medium that is most appropriate for the concept I am trying to convey. This has led me to work across many disciplines, though the imagery often carries across from one medium to the other.

This is career suicide, because the art world likes to be able to pigeonhole artists and turn them into another recognizable luxury "brand" that can be bought and displayed. The work becomes cultural currency: some collectors want people to walk into their house, and immediately say "Oh, what a beautiful Currin!

Artists are not one-dimensional beings who should be locked into seeing the world through one lens for the rest of their lives. I have paid the price (obscurity and a modest career) for being a slave to what the work wants to be, but I don’t have a choice, I don’t know any other way of working."

Q. Where can we see more of your art?

A. "At, or on my blog. I recorded the progress of "Blessed Art Thou" on the blog, but you have to wade through my daily thoughts and minutiae along with the images."

Q. Are you represented by a gallery? Do you have any upcoming exhibits?
A. "At this time, I am represented in Florida by Chelsea Gallery in Miami. I have a show coming up at ArtSpace in Raleigh during the month of May, and at the Belger Arts Center in Kansas City, MO, in June. I am currently working on having a presence at a venue during Basel Miami next year."

Q. What galleries have you exhibited in? Can you provide links to their sites?

A. "Chelsea is my first commercial gallery. I avoided commercial galleries for many years, preferring to show in university galleries, non-profits, and small museums. Chelsea showed interest in my work about a year and a half ago, and I was a bit scared, but I thought I would check it out, and try a different way, to see what would happen. The gallery is at"

Q. What trends do you see in the 'art world'?

A. "Well the youth obsession that has been going on for quite a few years now has been very discouraging to people like myself who have been plugging away in the studio for decades. This might be shifting, though: I was heartened to see the attention that Marilyn Minter has been getting since the Biennial. I am starting to read that the market for emerging artists’ work has become so outrageous that many collectors are beginning to look at mid-career artists.

I see a trend towards a kind of Neo-Romanticism, as lots of young artists are discovering predecessors like Caspar David Freidrich and Fredrick Church.

I see lots of defiantly "bad" painting techniques (and envied these artist’s boldness), also lots of naive drawings that are "fresh" looking, as if they had torn out the page of someone’s high school notebook.

I have been saying for years that because our daily lives are getting more virtual and glossy, human beings are naturally going to hunger for the tactile and handmade. For that reason, I have always thought that fiber-based work fulfills some sort of essential need, and now I am beginning to see quite a bit of fiber art in the fairs and galleries."
Q. Any tips for emerging artists?

A. "These are the rules that I follow, though they might not guarantee success in the art world:

-Maintain integrity in your work: avoid compromise at all costs.

-Keep checking in with yourself, to see if you are making the important work that needs to be made, not turning into an assembly line.

-Never allow the Art Market to influence you in your studio, but once the art is made, switch hats and make sure the work gets out there for people to see it. Many artists are shy and do not know how to promote their work: they long for success, but still think that someone is going to come knocking on their door to discover them. If you have invested so much in your work and you think that it says something important, why would you not make an effort to get people to see it?

-Sincerely support other artists as much as you can if you believe that their work is strong: the good karma comes back.

Q. Has your work ever been censored? If so, how did you deal with it?

A. "My work has never been censored, but it has been censured. I am receiving a lot of hate mail and even a few scary phone calls these days."

Q. What was the toughest point in your career as an artist? Have you ever hit rock-bottom?

A. "I have hit many rock bottoms. I have always had a strong belief in the power of my own work, but have been so disheartened by the art world that I often thought I would quit showing. I knew I could never stop making, however: at those moments, I remembered the Audrey Flack quote: "If the Art World is making you crazy, give up the art world, but don’t give up art.""

Q. In one sentence... why do you create art?

A. "I would go insane if I did not make art: it is a compulsive activity that helps me process & deal with the world."

Q. What can you tell our readers about the art scene in your area?

A. "Well, I do not feel qualified to answer this question, as I only recently relocated from Miami to a small town in NC."

Q. Has politics ever entered your art?

A. "Only in the form of social psychology, or issues of class and gender."

Q. Does religion, faith, or the lack thereof play a part in your art?

A. "I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools my whole life. Although I do not practice (because I have grave differences with the church regarding their views of women and gays), I believe that I retain many of the positive values taught to me in that context. The imagery of Catholicism is a very deep current in my work, in ways that I am not even aware of, I’m sure."

Q. Is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the 'art world'?

A. "Just that art, in its purest sense, seems to have very little to do with the art world. The more I get involved in the art world, the more convinced of this I become."

I hope that you have enjoyed my interview with Kate Kretz. Feel free to critique or discuss her work.

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

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