Katerina Lanfranco explores through painterly means the intellectual and physical freedom of making art at different scales and in various mediums. In her multi-faceted installations, paintings and sculptures she re-imagines scientific possibilities of human interference, interaction, and creativity in nature. Lanfranco, who is also a curator, educator, and writer, shares some thoughts on her journey, ideas, and curatorial practice with Art Spiel.
AS: Let’s start by telling me a bit about yourself.
Katerina Lanfranco: I was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada but only lived there for ½ a year before we moved to Berlin, Germany, my mother’s city of origin. So my formative childhood years were based in Berlin, and German is my mother tongue. We moved back to Toronto, Canada for kindergarten and soon after I started attending a French speaking school. I attribute my early trilingualism to having a huge impact on developing my keenness for visual expression and communication.
AS: I read on Wikipedia that you studied art and museum studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Nature Philosophies and Religions studied at the Sierra Institute, and then graduated from Hunter College with an M.F.A. in painting. I take a leap of faith in trusting this info because it makes perfect sense in relation to your work. Is the info accurate, and can you tell me a bit more about your experience at the Sierra Institute and how it impacted your work?
Katerina Lanfranco: Yes it’s true. And I agree that my time studying nature philosophies and religions in diverse regions of California wilderness had a significant and lasting impact on me and my development as an artist. We did major hikes out to remote areas such as The Lost Coast, Death Valley, Big Sur, and the Sequoia National Forest. Once we arrived we would set-up our communal living and learning environments with individual tents and meeting areas.
It was a very tight knit and intense bonding time with other students, while also being very independent and self-actualizing as well. We would read and discuss readings such as Thoreau’s “Walden” about his nature meditations at Walden Pond, the works of Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”, and studied the life of John Muir – known as the “Father of the National Parks.”
AS: It seems that references to Nature are persistent in your work. In your 2017 “Mamadala series,” you display painted lake stones and rhinestones in velvet boxes. What can you tell me about that installation?
Katerina Lanfranco: These stones were collected after an unusually strong swell on Lake Ontario brought up these beautiful smooth stones. I was visiting my father in Prince Edward County and we stopped by a lake access point called Little Bluff. The shore was covered with these smooth blue-grey limestone riverstones that radiated the sun’s heat in our hands. Their flat oval shapes made me think of Victorian cameos and Irish wishing stones. Even though stones are made over time through geological forces, they feel timeless – they are from the earth and return to the earth without much interference or transformation by humans. To me, they represent the generosity and perseverance of the natural world.
The blue velvet boxes were given to me by my brother years ago and I knew that they required a special project for their use in my studio practice. My undergraduate thesis show included miniature paintings housed in jewelry boxes – so there was a creative precedent. My mother and I used to collaborate on drawings together when I was a child. I asked her to collaborate with me on these mandala painted stones, and hence came the name ‘Mamadalas’. It also seemed like a poetic version of the Mitochondrial DNA inheritance that only gets passed down the female line. It, parallels the part of my artist’s heritage that also follows along a maternal line of female painters in Berlin and Copenhagen.
AS: You seem to move freely between sculpture, painting, and installation. That said, my sense is that you are coming from painting – in both form and imagery. Even in your boldest dimensional forms, like those you showed recently in “Mystic Geometry,” to my mind you are conversing with painting. What is your take on that?
Katerina Lanfranco: I totally agree. I love the intellectual and physical freedom of making art at all different scales and in various mediums. I think of myself as a painter, as a maker. Space and form are an important part a painting, and I materialize them so they are not just illusions but also exist as real three-dimensional space and volumetric form. I think much more with images in my mind, and then think through my body or tactile realities. My focus is painterly, but extends past conventional boundaries of painting.
A seminal course during my undergraduate education at UC Santa Cruz was taught by Joyce Brodsky. It was a special topics course on painting, where the objective of the class was to make a painting that wasn’t a painting. This question really opened my mind to the possibilities of painting, and I continue to grapple with this concept in my studio practice.
AS: One of the elements that attract me to your paintings is the tension you successfully create between drawing and painting – linear and color sensibilities. I am curious to know what is the relationship between drawing and painting in your process.
Katerina Lanfranco: I am not sure why I resist binary oppositions, but my mind rarely operate in terms of black and white divisions, except for my “Black Botanical” cut-outs! To me, drawing and painting are in a continuum. I love Matisse’s notion that paper cutouts are the perfect harmony of drawn line and colored space. He talked about how the cut-outs resolved the tension between drawing the form and painting it in, which I can relate to.
However, I think of drawing as a fundamental step in image ideation. In my studio practice, drawing is a tool to establish strong compositional structure that supports more expressive gestural painting and paint application. Even though as a professor I teach the individual techniques and materials of drawing, painting, and sculpture, in my own studio work I have no apprehension in mixing and matching whatever medium technique or skill I want to apply to the development of an artwork. I also maintain an open mind and inquisitive approach in my studio practice so there is constant invention around what happens between media and technique.
AS: How do you see “beauty” in relation to your work?
Katerina Lanfranco: Beauty is such an interesting term. it is a short word that should be relatively objective and neutral. Beauty may be simple in its transmission, but complex in terms of morality, ethics, values, gender, vulnerability, directness, and power. I believe that beauty is good. That we should strive for beauty because it represents balance, transparency, generosity, and harmony.
Some artist are afraid of being judged so they make work ugly in order to take control of any potential negative judgement. I think this is too easy. I find it harder to take a stance about what you value and what you think is good, and then to be open the critical judgement of others. Not everyone likes jazz music, so not everyone has the same notion of what is beautiful. Acknowledging beauty forces you to give something up, to be vulnerable to something that you value or find elevated.
Beauty has historically been linked to femininity and female power. In a male-dominated society that is a liability, but I believe that beauty and strength can go, and do go, hand in hand.
AS: Ken Johnson wrote in a New York Times review back in 2015 that in your large scale mural “Tomorrow Dreams of Neon” you envision a “luminous, post-apocalyptic Eden.” He was referring to the ephemeral mural you created for “Anthems for the Mother Earth Goddess,” the last (fantastic) show at Andrew Edlin before the gallery had to move out of its Chelsea space. I am curious to know if you think that notions like “dystopia” and “utopia” play a role in your work and can you elaborate on that?
Katerina Lanfranco: I believe that concepts of utopia and dystopia relate to our desires to know and anticipate the future. Where the future always seems to have a fork in the road that bends one way towards utopian desires and another way towards dystopian fears. The unknown does not remain in a stable location, and our current condition, context, and perspective guide the manifestation of our unique and shared dystopian and utopian fantasies.
Much of my work deals with the scientific possibilities of human interference, interaction, and creativity in nature. I believe human ambition and curiosity have enabled us to have an impact on our world and ecosystem in a way that is beyond our comprehension. The consequence of this is power to make change, but we lack the ability to fully understand the implications of the change, so here comes science fiction. Here comes utopian and dystopian nature. It is accelerated.
Development and progress are more beautiful and abundant because of human intervention. Or on the flip side, nature accelerates like a cancer too fast and cannot be controlled. It loses balance, disrupts the interconnectedness of the world, and devastation occurs. These are both equally possible futures. It is ironic, but while we can micro control ourpersonal environments through advances in Bluetooth technology, we are still vulnerable creatures with soft skin on this Earth.
AS: I first met you at Rhombus Space in Red Hook. It was an art venue you established in 2013 in conjunction with your studio at the back, I believe. I was impressed with your commitment to bring together consistently well curated shows. Then you were the Chief Curator of Trestle Gallery for about three years. You are evidently a gifted curator as well. Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of your curatorial practice and how does it inform your art?
Katerina Lanfranco: I first began curating during my undergraduate years at UC Santa Cruz. before that I had worked as an intern at an art gallery in Toronto, and in the art department for music videos when I was a teenager. From an early age it was always my job to arrange the dinner table for large parties. The question is really: What is curating? It almost is so simple and straightforward that it is hard to answer.
I believe that curating comes from an impulse to arrange things where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. During my time and graduate school at Hunter College I was the president of the MFA student organization for a year, which held silent auctions during open studios. I also worked at the Hunter College Leubsdorf Gallery, and had worked before at the Sesnon Gallery at UC Santa Cruz. I was part of a woman’s art group and curated our first group exhibition in a public venue, so the impulse to curate has been part of me for a long time.
I opened Rhombus Space in 2013 as an experiment, as a way to create group shows that engaged in a dialogue amongst my peers, but also encouraged the creation of new artwork and gave me a look at the other side of the gallery experience. Being represented by the Nancy Hoffman Gallery since 2006, it was not a project to show my own work, instead it was a way for me to showcase my ideas and the work of artistic colleagues whose art I respected and wanted to know more about. I became invested in all of the artwork and in the artists that I showed. I grew to understand their work and their process at a deeper level. Consequently I honed my writing skills. I helped the artists that I worked with organizing their professional materials such as CVs, artist statements, and bios. It felt like an incubator space. It was also great to get press, make sales, and connect artists.
AS: What can you tell me about Trestle?
Katerina Lanfranco: My transition to the role of Chief Curator at Trestle Gallery in 2015 happened organically and at the perfect time in relation to what I had establish and learned through my experience with Rhombus Space. I stepped down as Chief Curator a few months ago and now I’m on the Advisory Board at Trestle Gallery, and I just curated my last show there called “Liminal Worlds” which featured work by four artists who explore borders and boundaries in their work.
AS: What can you tell me about your upcoming curatorial projects?
Katerina Lanfranco: I am jurying an upcoming show in Connecticut in September. My own work is always very sensitive to the location in which it is shown. I am interested in installation art and the phenomenology of looking at art, so the curatorial experience enriches this for me in my studio practice.
My current plan is to focus on my own studio work moving forward. I have parlayed my desire for engagement through critical dialogue in the art world by writing for The Art Blog, that is based in Philadelphia. I write reviews of art shows in New York for the online publication.
AS: Can you elaborate on what other projects you are working on now?
Katerina Lanfranco: I have two solo show scheduled for 2019 one at Day&Night Projects in Atlanta Georgia and another one in Philadelphia at House Gallery. For these shows I plan to expand on the themes that I explored in my recent body of work “Mystic Geometry” while always going to my central touchstone themes of nature, science, and fantasy. I am interested in expanding where I show and my art community outside of New York City and continuing to do occasional curatorial projects and write art reviews.
I am getting married in 6 weeks – creating a customized wedding dress and painted backdrops in my studio. I am teaching myself how to sculpt in sugar, and to create sculptural wearable elements. I can’t help it, life and art are intertwined and I try to embrace it.