Spray On Symmetry

Keltie Ferris’ first solo show in New York delivers abstract works that are endearingly honest. NYAB found the artist to be much the same in an interview at her studio.

poster for Keltie Ferris

Keltie Ferris "Dear Sir or Madam"

at Horton Gallery (SUNDAY L.E.S.)
in the Lower East Side area
This event has ended - (2008-11-20 - 2009-01-17)

In Interviews by Alyssa Tang 2008-12-30 print

Keltie Ferris paints from that unfettered core in a way that is easier said than done. She is a natural at making her hyper, painted works with the purest of intentions. No ornate, hot-aired justifications needed here. Just as mother nature creates the most intricate and awe-inspiring landscapes, at the end of the day, a sunset is simply a sunset.

Ferris’ works have a rich tapestry of color, brush, layers, textures, and masking. Raw canvas creeps from behind smeared paint, textures of paint fold into skin-like wrinkles, and spray paint dots play like waterbugs on a lake’s surface. But as you look longer, there is a simplicity to her design in the connectivity of all its elements. Ferris explores the object’s need to define itself through its relationship to another object. And in doing so, she breaks down the familiar and forms a new visual language, riding the fine line between emotive tendencies and pure painted fact.

The artist, originally from Louisville, KY, now calls Brooklyn her home, and her current show is on view at Sunday L.E.S. until January 17, 2009. I was lucky to visit Ferris’ Bushwick studio one Sunday evening, where she greeted me with a bright smile. She poured me a steaming mug of tea, and we sat down to chat about her current works.

''Aviator,'' 2008. Oil, acrylic & spray-paint on canvas. 80 x 70 in. / 203 x 178 cm.

How’s this for a first question: How do you start each work?

I don’t believe in pure abstraction. I always have an overall structural plan for each painting. The idea is by and large planned out in my head, but sometimes that plan gets abandoned in the process of painting. I would have discovered something before, and then use it for a current work. Either I worked it out on paper or in a previous painting. It surprises me how much I use my past work.

Your problem solving is rather active and candid. Talk with me about the idea of choice.

Every choice is like not choosing 10 other options. The next painting can choose the other unchosen choices. There are endless possibilities. It is really mind-blowing. Some people think you have to come up with a brand new idea each time. But it’s just reshaping the same problem.

Do you come upon the same problematic patterns?

I like my paintings to have a pictoral “thingness,” as in something you might want to name in them. For example, one large object floating above one shape below…on the other hand, I want the figure and ground nestled into each other. I do all these things so that figure is tied to the ground.

So it’s like fitting and knitting into each other?

It’s always been such a basic formal problem. I don’t know how interesting that is to other people, but I always think about it. For example, a psychedelic background always fucks up the figure ground. There’s no canvas. There’s no blank. What’s the blank beginning? What’s the empty? What’s the carte blanche? What’s the backstage? What’s the behind?

How do you play this notion of behind the scenes? What’s your stage crew?

[Ferris grabs a large painting from a stash of works in the corner of her studio.] In this [past] work, I used raw canvas to emphasize the idea of blank. I think of paint as layers, creating paint as skin. I sometimes think of my paintings as people, with layers of reveals and non-reveals.

''Boy Wonder,'' 2008. Oil, acrylic & spray-paint on canvas. 80 x 70 in. / 203 x 178 cm.

So then do you think of your paintings as personalities?

I think of it more like, ‘I’ve been wanting to make this for so long.’ Often it’s a color thought. Like, ‘I need to make a yellow painting! I don’t know why. But I want to make a yellow and white painting, using the lightest colors of the spectrum.’ Sometimes it comes from great paintings, like a yellow work of Van Gogh, or maybe from some yellow signage that I’ve seen in the city. I’ve been making cloudlike forms for a long time. I don’t know why I do them, but I keep doing them no matter what.

Another idea I work with…is a shape of something turning in on itself. [Ferris shows me a drawing – a raw, hot pink sketch on black paper.] It plays with symmetry, pelvis, female productive system, an insignia for me.

Like your own personal coat of arms?

Yes, it is like my coat of arms. A lot of my works are symmetrical, and some of my works have that same diagonal…and I usually work in evenly deposited shapes.

What’s your process?

1) The canvas is painted with acrylic.
2) Acrylic spray paint. These acrylic steps are very free, and get the canvas covered up.
3) Oil paint, applied with a knife.
4) Spray oil paint. I make a recipe, and then use a Preval sprayer to deposit the paint.

I don’t use a lot of brushes. I almost always use a palette knife. I’m interested in looking at other ways of making an actively felt mark…that’s more up to date and feels true to today/now. The look of brush is so ’50s emotion and loaded. By avoiding brushwork, you can avoid all that loaded complicatedness.

Do you play with the idea of matte/shine?

In almost every painting, I use silver. It’s something to be wrestled with. Silver is such a loaded color…in cultural association, which really makes it exciting. My paintings change with time of day. It’s challenging. You have to make it happen in most lighting. Silver is like a white to dark gray transition.

''Stritch,'' 2008. Oil, acrylic & spray-paint on canvas. 53 x 53 in. / 134 x 134 cm.

Do you explore pattern?

I’d rather try for rhythm, a calculation of time.

Everything is always in conversation with what is there. To be open to all possibilities of interpretation. Anyone else’s take is valid.

How do you make your choices?

Some things you do, some things are just not a part of me, so I just don’t do it.

One thing I like about spray paint is that there’s a fuzziness. You sort of have to choose your tools because they fit you. You have to work with what you are best at, because you are best at things that resonate with you.

I work best with the active. I was a jock/athlete. As I get older, I’d imagine myself making smaller works and more drawings. Painting is revelatory of who you are. Mine are not an expression of angst. Except maybe Ragnarök, a work in the show, is the Norse idea of the apocalypse. It’s a great word.

What keeps you motivated?

What else would I do? Sometimes I don’t have a choice about what I make. You have to do something that feels really honest, that you would have done anywhere, if there was no one watching or to ever see your work. Because most of the time, I’m by myself making paintings. If I’m not motivated by myself, then what else is there? So fill up your time with motivation. At a certain point you are just going. Once you get it going, it just goes.

I work with patterns, like threads connecting to newness, but still calling back to the past. You only have a couple things to work with. Subject matter, things that want to be made. Shapes,forms…knitting them together. Finding new ways to be honest. I haven’t chosen what I make, it’s chosen me! I’m meant to make things positive in a certain way.

Honest?

I guess I do have some rules. I try to make paintings without excuses. A lot of art tries to justify itself all the time by important subject matter. I try to make something that does not need propping up. Like the old modernist ideal, no justifications.

It is an old cliché of abstract painting to think of it as music. I think of it more like dance….or more like someone walking down the street. Music is allowed to be abstract, emotive, or raw power. My work is more like strutting down a promenade. It’s 1) Visual, and 2) Art is tied to the person/maker, whether you want it to be or not.

What future projects do you have?

Oh, I’m just beginning all of this!

Alyssa Tang

Alyssa Tang. Her parents first met at a Chinese-American Halloween square dance. If you know Alyssa, this explains a lot. Born in 1979, this Boston-bred kid’s been drawing since the day she could crawl. She holds degrees in Studio Art & Psychology from Wellesley College, and Fashion Design from Parsons. Living by the "try anything once" mantra, she's worn multiple hats: muralist, community worker, event planner, graphic designer, textile designer, freelance stylist, and now fashion designer. With a penchant for discovering the unusual, she likes to wander, discover and create ways to put a smile on people’s faces. » See other writings

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