Contributed by Debbi Kenote / “I see myself as a figure painter,” Kate Liebman tells me as I sit in her Bushwick studio, where the floor is covered with dirty paint tubes and reckless spatter. She walks me through her process and sources, touching on topics like distance, viewer insight, and political responsibility. One of the sources for her recent paintings includes a drawing of a photograph taken during the Holocaust in Buchenwald, Germany. In addition to painting, Liebman writes about art, contributing essays and interviews to The Brooklyn Rail and Two Coats of Paint.
DEBBI KENOTE: I first saw your work at Bushwick Open Studios this fall, but in the craziness of the event our conversation was too brief. So let’s start with materials. You are primarily a painter, and you use oils, correct? And always on canvas or paper, or do you use other surfaces? And how do you use sewing?
KATE LIEBMAN: Yes, I primarily use oil, and always flat. I make a lot of drawings too. Those have ink and charcoal and gouache and pastel. The sewing is more recent and a way to push against the flatness of the painting.
DK: Would you mind walking me through your process/ sources, or how you came to this current body of work?
KL: Last October , I did a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. I was feeling really stuck in the studio for a month or two before that, and then it was the big lunar eclipse, and Pope Francis was in New York. And people were really excited about him, and I was too. And I was like, you know what, the whole point of being in a new studio surrounded by new people is to take time to do what you want and to not feel constricted by what you’ve been doing.
So, I made some paintings of Pope Francis, and then I made paintings of all of the Popes of the 20th and 21st centuries. I was thinking about color, and how it organizes the church. The cardinals are red, the pope is always in all white. So purity is represented by pure color, and it turns out that from a mistranslation of the bible in Leviticus, joining types of fabric together was considered bad, and was used as a mark for criminals and serfs in medieval Germany. So then I started thinking about mixed fabrics and stripes and pattern, and I ended up making works using photographs of Holocaust prisoners. I made an ink and charcoal drawing of these prisoners who were lined up for a daily count at Buchenwald, and I have just been working from that one drawing ever since. I’m finding all these weird shapes from the original drawing. I guess I’m trying to take it apart.
DK: And what is your personal tie to Christianity, Judaism or Jewish heritage?
KL: I am Jewish, my whole family was in America at the time of Holocaust, on both sides, which might actually be pretty rare. So it is this collective trauma that I feel attached to but has been deferred by my personal circumstances.
DK: So the construction of the paintings then, you’ve been working off a drawing or a photograph?
KL: It’s a drawing from a photograph, and then I don’t use the photograph but instead the drawing I made. I project it and manipulate it in different ways on my computer but also make drawings from it and use those too. I was making paintings directly from and more tied to this photo and to other photos for a while, but I think that those paintings made an emotional response somewhat impossible. I guess by creating more distance I am trying to create more room for some kind of subtle or emotional reaction.
DK: And the colors, how do they enter the work?
KL: I work with color pretty intuitively I would say. Usually a painting or drawing will start with a color idea, and then it falls into place from that idea. I try to be aware of value range.
DK: Can you tell me more about your use of stitching? You mentioned before that it is both a way to push against the flatness of painting and that it was considered as a symbol for criminals and serfs. Do you use it as a form of protest?
KL: Every decision I make I want there to be a formal reason and another level of meaning, so it works on multiple layers. The stitching is formal in that it’s a way to deal with the larger size of the painting surfaces. There’s a few days of this methodical labor, and then once I stretch, I have edges to confront and knock up against when painting. When I made this [big green one] I was thinking about my paintings and how they work or don’t work based on how passages of paint meet, based on the edge, so I wanted to physicalize that edge a bit more. Then there’s also this notion of tension that is held on the surface; of rupture and repair.
DK: So when all the work is put together, in a show for example, do they become something like abstracted puzzle pieces? Do you want people to be able to, in some manner, absorb the original photo from your work?
KL: Yes, well that is sort of the crux of what I am trying to figure out, how much do I want the viewer to know–or not know. I think I want there to feel like there is an uncanny residue of something that happened before, but maybe all of the stuff that we were just talking about, in terms of content, doesn’t really matter. When I see the paintings, I can’t help but see them in reference to the original image, but the viewer doesn’t necessarily have that. So there is this huge gap between how I see them and how the viewer sees them. A painting is successful or done when there is a certain balance or tension between what we were talking about before– that inventiveness and the original image. Hopefully there’s a weird body feeling that happens for a viewer, or a certain eeriness…
DK: I wonder if you see that as a poetic metaphor–the recurring distance–between you making this work while being somewhat removed from the Holocaust, and from you making this work and the viewer being somewhat removed from the original source?
KL: I think the question of distance has a really long and complex history in understanding art. There was just a really good collection of quotes in an article in the New York Review of Books, and just this idea of distance, that is really the only way we ever experience something, art and the world and all of our relationships. I think it’s because we all have our own interiority but the rest of the world occurs outside of us, in the exterior…so there’s always a gap, or all of these little gaps, even in our most intimate relationships. I feel like art almost offers this false promise–that there won’t be any distance, or any loneliness–but there always is. So I think the question of distance is certainly crucial to my work but also to all artwork in general.
DK: So moving on from process and content, I am curious to know your stance on making political work. There have clearly been some political events brought up in this discussion, but do you see yourself as a political artist, and do you think the act of making is inherently political?
KL: I think that is a question we are all grappling with in the wake of this election. I’m not sure that my studio, I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I am unsure if I am specifically addressing politics, I think memory is a better way of thinking about it. I am in some way dealing with this event that pretty soon we will have no first person memory of, collectively, because everyone who was a part of is it is dying. What must it have been like for people who were in the Civil War, to all have died and for us to not as a country have an immediate memory of it? It then becomes something that was in the history books. And so you have this distanced experience of something and it loses its immediacy; it enters the realm of history, where it no longer lives in people’s bodies. Politics is all about immediacy, it’s all about the here and now. I’m trying to figure out a way to be more involved outside the studio in terms of more direct action, engaging in that immediacy. We can’t all be activists, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all act.
DK: Do you think there is a fear around artists at the moment? Speaking in reference to the Ghost Ship fire in California, there has been a wave of artist spaces being shut down in the weeks since the tragedy.
KL: Yes, that was a real tragedy. I think it cuts both ways. I think that artists are necessary for society because, to a large extent artists operate outside of society and can cast a light on what is going on, but making things or spaces is ultimately fulfilling a desire. Affordable housing is a problem not just for artists in Oakland, and New York, but for people who are working three or four jobs and can’t get quality education for their kids. Something I struggle with is, how much of a cop-out is it to say that being an artist is a political act and leave it at that?
DK: So where do you see your work going. It sounds like you’ve been working off this photograph and drawing for a year-or-so now, do you think that this body is wrapping up, or perhaps just beginning to open up?
KL: It’s hard to say. I guess I don’t know where it’s going and that’s part of the excitement and frustration, that I don’t have a map for it. I guess I feel like I will break up with it when I feel like the relationship is no longer useful to my practice. I think about it that way, you know when you gotta dump someone you gotta dump someone. When I start to feel stuck, I change up the medium – maybe draw for a little, use pastels or ink or something, or make prints, or write. That tends to lead somewhere.
DK: Do you have any rules or regiments for your time in here?
KL: So right when I graduated from undergrad I had a job at the Met, working on a book that came out this last fall actually, called Masterpiece Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum. I was pulling all this information for all these master paintings for the woman who was writing the text, Kathy Galitz. I didn’t really have a model for what it would be like to be an artist, what the day to day is. I talked to someone else at the Met, and she told me, ‘it’s really hard to be an artist, you should give it a shot, and you’ve got to set yourself some goals’…real, tangible goals. Because facing an endless number of days in an empty studio is daunting. So I make a lot of lists, of things I want to accomplish in the next six months, say. They can be really basic, you know: I wanna make ‘X’ amount of dollars or I want to join a group that focuses on this thing, or I wanna make 12 paintings or I want to get into a residency, etc. So that all sets up the way to be in the studio, the structure outside of it so to speak. And then I listen to my moods: sometimes I want to draw and sometimes I want to paint. It’s about desire.
DK: Do you have any influences — artists or writers — you care to share?
KL: I recently read Santantango by László Krasznahorkai, which deals with the traumas of war in Europe and how landscapes hold that memory. He has these incredibly beautiful scenes…you really feel like you’re there. The books are both very visual and very internal, which is hard to do. What is interesting about his form is he doesn’t have line breaks. It’s just pages and pages of text. At first it is very hard to read, when I picked it up I was like I can’t do this, but then, you learn how to read his work. Sebald does that too, chunks of text, which I think also has to do with memory, as well. You just have this unstructured memory and then we try to bring it to consciousness and give it structure, but it exists inside as this totally fluid unbroken thing.
In terms of painters, I think Amy Sillman is pretty amazing… Patricia Treib, I think her process, without my realizing it is very similar to mine in that she takes a single image of something she has drawn, and then uses it and uses it and uses it so the form performs this emptying process: content feels emptied out, which is maybe a valid way to understanding what I am doing too. So those two are really important, and then there are all of the figurative artists that I love, because I think of myself as a figurative painter. Jennifer Packer, I think she is an amazing painter, genius. Nicole Eisenman, I think her paintings are so smart and funny, and Dana Schutz has such a good speed to her, she’s so confident. My friend Nicole Wittenberg. I love almost all painters though…it’s such an audacious and strange thing to spend time doing!