I met up with artist Kaitlynn Redell at her studio in Downtown L.A.’s Arts District to talk about her work and her process, but also to explore some of the more practical aspects of her life as an artist, such as grad school, the necessary evils of making ends meet, her collaborative practice with artist Sara Jimenez, and the creative devices she employs to push her work to the next level.
N: I’m always interested in the reasons artists have for going back to school. Sometimes it just seems like the next logical step, but some people are looking for very specific things in terms of their art practice, which I think applies to you. It can involve a lot of sacrifices, including taking on a lot of debt. Can you talk about your reasons for getting your Master’s, and what you had to do to make it happen?
K: One of my reasons for going back to school is that I felt it would keep me focused on making work and pull me out of doing the same type of gestures over and over again. Before grad school, I had a whole body of paper cut work that was very successful, but after a while it became repetitive and I felt like I was making a product. Part of my motivation was to find new ways of working and challenge myself to take a new direction. I was extremely lucky not to have any debt from undergrad, so the reality of having to take out massive loans for the first time didn’t seem quite as scary; had I been in debt, I probably wouldn’t have gone. I got my Master’s from Parsons, which is a private art school, so finances and the reality of loan payments were on everyone’s mind; the only people who weren’t really affected by this were non-U.S. students on Fullbright scholarships, or those with a system back home where their country pays for their education. For a middle-class American in private school, that kind of funding really isn’t available, even with merit scholarships.
N: At the time you were living in L.A., and you had been in a serious relationship for some time, but you actually ended up in NYC. That’s no small move. How did that work, relationship and all?
K: Yes! Well I sold my car, packed everything up and moved to Greenpoint, Brooklyn. My boyfriend was just about to start a new job and moved from L.A. to Orange County to be closer to his work. I’m lucky that he was so supportive; we talked about it a lot before making the decision and he was actually the one who pushed me to go, because he saw that I was stuck and needed to work things through. We saw each other every other month; it was a sacrifice, but we were both so busy that it wasn’t as big an issue as we had anticipated. We’ve also been together a long time (almost nine years), so we were solid; it would have been a lot harder early on in our relationship.
N: Was it worth it?
K: It was totally worth it. I needed to look at the structure of my work differently and grad school allowed me that space to experiment without being too concerned about the outcome, which made a huge difference for me. I needed to learn to allow chance into my process and not be so controlled.
N: Can you talk about how your work has evolved? I’m curious as to how you got from point A to point B. How has your process changed through grad school, and how did you arrive at your current body of work? You talked about being tired of the cutting, but I do see evidence of it still.
K: It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do the paper cutting anymore, but it became a formula that I knew exactly how to execute, and I got bored and felt stuck; it’s a terrible feeling when you know there’s so much more to an idea or concept. I’m a very controlled person, and I realized this was becoming detrimental to my creative process, so I had to devise methods to work against my natural inclinations. I consciously set up my daily practice in ways that were uncomfortable for me and forced myself to do experimental things without any planning. It was paralyzing to start a new project because the old way of doing things was kind of a crutch, but it was also liberating because the work started to become more interesting to me again.
N: I want to get back to the evolution question, but it’s interesting to me that your personality is more controlled, and that you need to set yourself up to have accidents in order to open up those creative possibilities. I think the tendency (or perhaps the stereotype) is for artists to be overly laid-back, whereas you know you have to make yourself uncomfortable in order to get what you want out of the process.
K: It’s uncomfortable, but I have to setup parameters for myself in order to not fall into my old ways of working; I’m still functioning within a structure, but it’s one where things happen spontaneously. For example, I’ve been using Duralar; it’s plastic, and you can score and fold it in different ways, but it’s very unpredictable. When you put ink on it, it will do strange things like pooling, and drying differently every time, so you can’t predict the outcome, but I really like that. Avoiding predictability is good for me because I’m such a control freak, so I have to create opportunities for random occurrences to take place in my work, otherwise it becomes really tight.
N: So back to the lineage of your work… how you got here.
K: When grad school started, I was working with different mediums, doing a lot of self-portraiture, taking mugshots of myself and asking my family members to do the same, then manipulating the images together digitally and cutting them…
N: So a mixture of photography, digital work and physical cutting.
K: It all stemmed from the same ideas I was interested in before, but on a more personal level: how I’m perceived because of the way I look, how that changes when one side of the family is around and not the other, also issues of gender… my dad has a huge beard, so manipulating our faces together created visuals that referenced both racial and gender identity. At the same time, I started doing a lot of research on Anna May Wong, an actress from the 1920s. I grew up watching her movies and she became a really interesting figure for me. She was born here in Chinatown, but she was continually cast in these very stereotypical foreigner roles. I started taking production stills of her and trying to mimic her poses in self-portraits. I would then cut out some areas and create new figures; that’s where my current drawings actually came from. When you see the drawings, there’s hints of that but you can’t really tell. I became interested in these abstract, anamorphous forms that seem human and organic, but don’t necessarily allude to a specific gender or race.
N: In your recent work, I see a lot of references to hair. Where does that come from?
K: When I first started making these drawings, people didn’t necessarily associate them with hair; it was organic material, muscle tissue, fabric… I like the fact that different meanings surface for different viewers. I think a lot of people who know me personally immediately go to hair because they know I’m also a hairdresser, and I’m totally OK with that too. The most important thing for me is that it has an explicit reference to the body, but at the same time it’s not entirely identifiable. I’m also starting to work with a very distinct pattern I’ve noticed in a lot of Anna May’s photographs, which looks like lattice or some kind of chain link fence. It’s interesting as a visual structure, and it got me onto this idea of foundation or a supporting structure that could also be very delicate and fragile. I think it parallels how the roles and terrible stereotypes she was entrenched with as a celebrity icon inevitably became the structure that defined how people viewed her, and “others like her” (aka anybody “Asian”).
N: Your most recent series is titled Supporting as Herself; is that a callback to the structure, or does it refer to Anna May’s film career?
K: A lot of the artwork titles come from Anna May’s actual movie titles. So, yes, it refers to the lattice structure, but it’s also about her continually being cast in supporting roles. I’ve been developing these sculptural pieces as part of the series as well; they are made of intricate drawings and collages on delicate paper structures that will be demolished as part of a video performance. I like the idea that the paper structure could potentially support, but also fall apart.
N: Amazing that she’s the starting point of all this.
K: Being so close to Chinatown has affected me too, because she grew up right here. I’ve been thinking of doing something in relation to the physical places where she lived and worked. I have photos of her life as a public figure and some of her civic activities in Chinatown. I’m interested in her life outside of film as well; I see her as something tangible that opens up so many avenues in terms of racial and gender identity. Her image in my studio also creates really odd conversations. I’ll have people over and they’ll see pictures of her and say, “Oh, is that you?” Sometimes I ask myself why I’m still making work about identity, then someone will make that sort of comment and I’ll remember exactly why! Not only is it the wrong era, but we look nothing alike. It’s an interesting commentary on how race is perceived.
N: *Facepalm* LOL!
K: Yeah, awkward!
N: I’m going to change the subject and ask you a question that artists hate, but it’s one that always comes up. You obviously found ways to maintain a studio practice, but we all know it can be difficult to make a living as an artist. Do you do anything else?
K: Thankfully, I’m fortunate enough to be in a relationship where if I work part-time, we’re financially OK. I knew after grad school that I never wanted to have a regular full-time job because it would suck the life out of my art practice. I’m very lucky because of my partner’s support, and because I’m able to find flexible work on the side. I do freelance fashion illustration, I teach in K-12 private school and after school programs, I’ve been doing paper cutting workshops in addition to hair styling and teaching at the Getty… I think it’s important to be creative and proactive when it comes to getting jobs that you like and will support your art practice. Some people have the drive to work a nine to five and switch back into art making mode, but I know I have to structure my time very carefully. I have to have free time, studio time, and time that I work.
N: You show in galleries pretty regularly; do you have representation, or do you sell work independently, or online?
K: I don’t sell work online but I do have a website that I manage myself. In the past I’ve sold through gallery exhibitions, but I don’t have formal representation. Of course I’d love to have representation, but there are also advantages to not having it because you can work with collectors privately. Gallery representation is still really important though because you’re taken more seriously and your work is exposed to more curators and collectors.
N: Do you feel that school sufficiently prepared you to handle the business aspects of your art practice?
K: Actually, both Otis and Parsons really taught me how to structure the business aspects, and my professors at Parsons were very specific, even going as far as talking about how to price video art, which was a mystery to me and my collaborative partner Sara (we make a lot of video work). Sometimes, young artists learn the hard way, through terrible situations where they get exploited or sell their work for a lot less than they should. It’s important to understand that your pricing sets a precedent, and to know the difference between lowering the price of your artwork and giving a discount. The price you set is the price; if someone wants to pay less and you agree, you can apply a discount, but you never reduce the value of the work. Otis was also very good with all the little practical things every artist should know, like how to hinge, framing, exhibitions… I feel lucky to have had such great professors who really broke down the nitty gritty of the business side.
N: Do you accept commissions?
K: I would do commissions, but only if it was something I was interested in, and only if I had creative license. I would never sell unfinished work at a buyer’s request, or agree to breakup a series that’s meant to be shown together. There’s also a distinction between my art, and the work I do as an illustrator. When it’s an assignment, the pricing is different and the client sets the parameters and owns the work. So I draw a very clear line between what I consider my art, and what I consider a job.
N: Do you spend a lot of time promoting yourself and approaching galleries? Does social media play a part?
K: In terms of approaching galleries, that’s still strange territory for me. I’ve been lucky with my individual work, and with the collaboration, things have snowballed and opportunities have been coming to us pretty naturally. I’m not an outgoing person, and the idea of approaching galleries or curators out of the blue makes me very uncomfortable; there are so many dos and don’ts. But I do apply to open calls, grants, and residencies. I’m really bad at talking to people at gallery openings; it’s always awkward for me. I’ve had to force myself to be social, but I don’t want to say hello to someone just because I know they would be a good network connection. In terms of social media, we do use Twitter for our collaborative work but not very frequently. Otherwise, I do things through Facebook and Instagram and find out about a lot of opportunities that way. I also have a mailing list and I send out monthly updates. It’s helped me stay in touch with other working artists, and when you spend time in a particular circle, opportunities show up through word of mouth, friends of friends… I’m more comfortable letting it happen like that than schmoozing galleries.
N: Can you talk about your collaborative practice with Sara Jimenez? Also, what’s next for you in terms of projects or exhibitions?
K: I went on a trip to China with a group of Parsons students, and that’s where Sara and I started our collaborative practice. We’re very similar in that we like to have set schedules, so we work really well together. Collaborating is great for me because it makes me accountable to someone else, which forces me to get things done. Sara is based in NYC, so we have a Skype meeting once a week and we send materials back and forth. Our work is mainly performances documented for video and photography, but we also have an active drawing and writing practice together. She’s a lot looser than I am in the way that she approaches drawing, so it makes me loosen up as well, and it creates a push-pull between us where unpredictable things happen. We’re planning a performance in San Antonio in November as part of the Luminaria festival; I believe it’s in its 5th year, but this is the first time they’ve curated it. They’re trying to establish it as a fine art version of South by Southwest.
N: Thanks for meeting with me Kaitlynn; looking forward to seeing more of your work.
Select pieces from Kaitlynn’s most recent boy of work are currently on display at DAC Gallery as part of the Lore: Temporal and Sublime exhibition, until September 4th, at 431 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90013 | www.dacgallery.com
Kaitlynn Redell was born and raised in Santa Cruz, CA. She received her BFA from Otis College of Art and Design in 2009 and her MFA from Parsons the New School for Design in 2013. She has participated in numerous exhibitions in the US and internationally including at NYCAMs (NYC), Rush Arts Gallery (NYC), A.I.R. Gallery (NYC), El Museo del Barrio (NYC), Western Project (LA), DAC Gallery (LA) and Museo Laboratorio – Ex Manifattura Tabacchi (Italy). Redell has received funding from such institutions as Otis College of Art and Design, The Ebell of Los Angeles, Peter Goulds Fine Art and The New School, and is a recent recipient of the Oscar Kolin Fellowship Award. She lives and works in Los Angeles, CA. | www.KaitlynnRedell.com
Kaitlynn Redell and Sara Jimenez are multi-disciplinary artists who have been engaged in intense collaboration since attending Site + Sight, a visual research project in Beijing, China and The Gobi Desert. Since forming Redell & Jimenez, they have presented their work at Hunter College’s Focus and Motivation, were published in NYU’s interdisciplinary journal “Anamesa” and were artists-in-residence at the Wassaic Project in Wassaic, NY. They have participated in numerous exhibitions in the US and internationally including at NYCAMs (NYC), Rush Arts Gallery (NYC), Fowler Arts Gallery (NYC), ABC No Rio in Exile @292 Gallery (NYC), A.I.R. Gallery (NYC), El Museo del Barrio (NYC) and Museo Laboratorio – Ex Manifattura Tabacchi (Italy). This past April, they had a collaborative text piece included in the publication, “I” (in conjunction with the exhibition I scarcely have the right to use this ghostly verb, Arnold & Sheila Aronson Galleries, (NYC) and currently have work included in the 2014 Wassaic Project Summer Exhibition, Seeing the Sky. | www.RedellJimenez.com
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