Kate Teale: Landscapes of Void

Kate Teale, Going Dark 15x12x8” paintings, on graphite wall drawing 120″ x 164″, Grand Rapids MI, 2018, photo courtesy David Henderson

No matter what subject matter Kate Teale’s drawings, installations and photographs depict – a house, a sleeping couple, bed sheets, a Tsunami – her images always lead us into an urgent psychological landscape, prompting us to pause and reflect on what we are looking at. Precise like poems and complex like dreams, her subtle and highly focused artworks take diverse forms ranging from works on paper to tromp l’oeil murals. Kate Teale shares with Art Spiel some concepts behind her work, process, and thoughts about her evolution as an artist.

AS: You were born in Hampshire, England, received MA from Oxford, trained as a figurative artist in London and then got your MFA from Hunter in NYC. Tell me a bit about your journey – in terms of art and geography.

Kate Teale: I was born and grew up in a tiny village in rural England. It could not have been more different to New York City. My father was a large animal veterinarian who took us on his rounds. For me, it was an idyllic child-hood — nature, animals, spending a lot of time in fields, streams and trees, often alone. The law of trespass is different in the UK, as long as you don’t break and enter, or cause damage, you can go where you want. I knew from a young age that I wanted to be an artist, but outstanding English teachers (and correspondingly poor art teaching!), meant I got steered in an academic direction.

Although I studied English Literature at Christ Church College, Oxford, my two brilliant tutors, Christopher Butler and Peter Conrad, were both deeply involved in and supportive of all the arts. One of the most important things I learned was the ability of art to connect through time on a grand scale as well as at an intimate, life-changing level.

A scholarship from Christ Church enabled me go to art school in London after Oxford. I went to City & Guilds of London Art School for a course that combined Fine Art with traditional skills like Trompe L’Oeil painting and gilding. My thesis show included paintings as well as household objects like screens, tables and doors, all based on very pared down paintings and drawings done in Portsmouth. Portsmouth is a naval port city on the South Coast. I started going there and fell in love with it’s light, and its sometimes surreal mixture of military (it’s the home of the British navy), and holiday seaside life. On graduating I moved there to join Art Space, a subsidized studio space and art community and taught Foundation art at Portsmouth University. Art Space was a great mix of people, that truly challenged and supported each other in all kinds of ways. I only meant to be there a year or two, but stayed six.

I am half American, and spending time in NYC had been a dream for a while. I knew not to come without being part of some kind of community, and was very happy to get into Hunter. Initially, I viewed it more as a way to have a studio in New York, but the program and my peers were an enormously positive experience.

AS: The concept of “house” or “home” seems to play a central role in your work. Let’s take “Going Dark,” from 2018. How did this project start and what was your approach there?

Kate Teale: My focus on “house” or “home” comes as a kind of advocacy against threats to “home”: destructive or undermining social, natural or political forces. Those forces are primarily the result of climate change, or gentrification and the political decisions that promote them. “Going Dark” is a site-specific piece made for a show curated by Don Desmett for Art Prize, Grand Rapids MI last summer. It comprises a perspectival wall drawing (120”x124”) in graphite dust of the empty façade of a three story industrial building, overlaid with fifteen (12”x16”) paintings of domestic windows at night. I like to work with existing architecture, and wall drawings give me great flexibility. I’d been thinking for some time of combining paintings with wall drawings, and this was my first try. I love the way the perspective of the drawing interacts with the flat paintings. I’ll say more about the concept of “house” and “home” below. I still have a recurring bad dream of living in a decrepit house that is alive in its decay.

Kate Teale, Going Dark painting #1 12×8” Acryllic and oil on mulberry paper over canvas, 2108, photo courtesy of the artist
Kate Teale, Going Dark 15x12x8” paintings, on graphite wall drawing 120″ x 164″, Grand Rapids MI, 2018 , photo courtesy David Henderson

AS: And “The Housed,” your solo show from 2014, at western Michigan University?

Kate Teale: The title of the show “The Housed”, came from a 2012 article in the New Yorker by Rachel Aviv, “Netherland”, about homeless young gay people – it was a young woman’s word for people who had homes. The theme of being housed encompassed my solo show as well as a show I curated in the adjoining gallery called “Your Place Or Mine”: for that show, we recreated the interiors of three artists who show other artists in their homes (Mike Ballou, Jan Bridgers and Paul D’Agostino). It was a show within a show within a show. Two catastrophic events, 9/11 and the 2011 tsunami in Japan, were the impetus for the show. David and I were married the June before 9/11. The “Through The Night” series of paintings I did of us sleeping, were done a few years later and were born of a desire to show, protect and preserve “the domain of intimacy” in the face of overwhelming destructive forces. Later, seeing beds and other household possessions floating on the swirling black water of the tsunami inspired minimalist drawings of the wave, and my first large wall drawing (8x42feet). The “Through The Night” paintings provided a core of peace in a surrounding narrative of loss and destruction. I recently re-opened Bachelard’s “Poetics of Space” to this “My bed is a small boat lost at sea.” which sums it up beautifully.

AS: In Lucy Lippard’s wonderful essay to that show she says that you work “in the interstices of art expectations. Near abstractions turn out to be loaded with content.” Can you elaborate on that? (if you like to touch on art historical context—please do, that would be great)

Kate Teale: I love that phrase, and also Don Desmett’s comment that I’m “figurative and abstract at the same time”.

When I was an art student, I was tormented by the thought that were too many things in the world and the best thing to do was to clear some spaces. I thought I was depressed, but came to realize that this an aesthetic/philosophical position. I want to make space, to get rid of distraction and make contemplative places. I love the work of Agnes Martin, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko. For me though, subject matters: catastrophic events that expose human fragility are the underlying spur to seemingly quiet pieces.

AS: In that essay Lippard also refers to “Big & Small/ Casual Gallery,” an off-and-on art venue you initiated in 2009 in your LIC studio building. What can you tell me about that experience and how did it inform your work?

Kate Teale: My husband, sculptor David Henderson and I started Big&Small/Casual first in his Williamsburg studio, where the lease was promptly lost. Several years later we re-created it at my studio in Long Island City. The first show was Matt Freedman’s “Twin Twin III, Artists Edition”, where, for the 8th Anniversary of 9/11, he invited artists to look back on work they’d made since the event and see how was present in the work. The tiny unknown space suddenly had the work of 63 artists in it.

Over a period of about four years I curated ten or so shows then took a break. What I mainly learned was:

  1. How infinitely flexible a physical space can be
  2. Trust artists (a philosophy I gleaned from Matt Freedman)
  3. And a lot about what it’s like from the other side, ie: being the gallerist not the artist

My decision to re-start, on a very occasional basis, is a lot to do with community. I want to promote artists who’s work I love and I want to have conversations around their work. Being in Dumbo is a plus – the space is more accessible and we can join with other galleries for events like the First Thursday gallery walks. I’ll probably do two shows a year.

Kate Teale, The Housed – installation shot from Richmond Center for the Arts, Western Michigan University, 2014, photo courtesy Mary Whalen
Kate Teale, The Housed – installation shot from Richmond Center for the Arts, Western Michigan University, 2014, photo courtesy Mary Whalen

AS: “Through the Night” is a series of paintings based on one night of you and your husband sleeping, based on suspending camera over your bed. Then, in your next series, “Bedscape,” the bed is vacated and becomes a landscape. You keep probing into this landscape of void for several years, scrutinizing tiny sheet creases, as traces of the body that has just left the bed. Then, the veiled illuminated windows emerge as a strong presence in your work. Throughout all this body of work, I get a consistent sense of the inexplicable elusiveness of time and ephemerality of life. What is your take on that and how do you see the development of your work / thought process throughout these series?

Kate Teale: I love your phrase “landscape of void”. Interestingly – that relates to how the paintings from 2010-13 were made – through a process of erasure. I covered the surfaces in thin glazes of paint and “drew” the image with brushes that removed the paint. Absence and loss are both subject matter and process.

Bachelard’s “Poetics of Space” was a very influential book: the idea of the house melding with landscape “The house has become a natural being whose fate is bound to that of mountains and of the waters that plough the land”

The window paintings came in part as a response to the very high walls of the gallery for “The Housed”. The paintings were hung at heights relative to my viewpoint for painting them. For years I walked past a scrap yard by my studio where someone had pasted a photograph of a small window on a siding. It was nothing special, but that window always gave the effect of an opening into another world.. until someone graffittied over it and the illusion was gone. Bachelard also talked about “the penetrating gaze of the little window”. I love the in and out of scenes through windows – in England curtains are closed.. here, you can look and look. Hopper was a big influence in this respect. I’ve never managed to include a figure, though.

Common to both subjects is working with light, and wanting it to shine from the surface.

Kate Teale, Through the Night (11.30pm and 12.30am) part of a series of twelve paintings, 32×38”, oil on mulberry paper and canvas over board. 2008, photo courtesy David Henderson
Kate Teale, Another Shore 18×24”, oil on mulberry paper and canvas over board, 2011, photo courtesy the artist

AS: Tell me about your wall drawings, for instance, White Out,” from 2015.

Kate Teale: “White Out” was done at The Boiler, Pierogi as part of a show curated by Saul Anton and Ethan Spigland called “Destroy She Said”. I was looking at extreme weather, and there’d been a freak snow storm – I think 9ft of snow, can that be true?! in Buffalo at Thanksgiving. I watched a lot of gorgeously banal home videos of people’s houses buried in snow. For the show I proposed making the drawing and then erasing it – which I started to do at the opening. I know erasing a work is not a new idea… but it was my need to erase meeting the fact that Nature looks increasingly like doing the same to humans.

AS: Photography seems to play a role in your work. For examples, I am looking at “Vertical Stripe,” or “Homewrecker” of 2014, the first is made of archival digital print of photograph and the other is made of digital print of a drawing. But photography may also inform your painting thought process overall, (your bed series comes to mind). What can you tell me about that?

Kate Teale: As a grad student at Hunter I took Photography elective classes with Mark Feldstein multiple times. Mark introduced me to photo emulsion, and I started making prints on the same paper I used for drawing. It was liberating to let photography take over some of the labor of drawing for a while and the photographs looked like drawings.

It took me a while to see how to use photography with painting. The “Through the Night” series was the first collaboration with photography – where the camera did what I couldn’t do, namely photograph me and my husband while we were sleeping.

The act of taking a photograph lacks tactile engagement. I couldn’t use other people’s photographs or even good photographs. It would feel like there was nothing to add. So I work from the not-great photos I take, and make drawings and watercolors to find what to use. They are mostly of subjects I am very familiar with. For the tsunami drawings, I worked from screen captures of often poor quality news footage or peoples cell-phone videos posted to YouTube.

Kate Teale, Tsunami drawings, 6×12/5×19”, graphite on paper, 2013/4, photo courtesy the artist
Kate Teale, Installation shot, Studio 10 solo show “I Am Not Empty, I Am Open” showing wall drawing of same name (graphite dust on wall) and Other Than Stillness, painting, 12×8”, acryllic on mulberry paper over canvas and board, 2016, photo courtesy David Henderson

AS: I am curious to know what is your approach to color? Your watercolors or early bedscapes seem to have more color and in your more recent work the palette becomes monochromatic. What are your thoughts there?

Kate Teale: At City & Guilds, my painting professor Gabrielle Moore taught us to paint using just primary colors. It was an excellent way to learn color mixing and it’s a method I’ve adapted but more or less stuck with. Although the recent night paintings look monochromatic, they are full of color – painted in stippled layers of pure primaries (I was excited to discover Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings were made in a similar way).

Recently I’m revisiting an earlier way of painting where I layer complimentary opposite colors with primary colors

AS: What is happening in your studio these days?

Kate Teale: My studio is a very exciting place for me right now. After 20 years in LIC our studio building was sold and I was fortunate enough to get a studio through the Two Trees Cultural Space Subsidy Program in Dumbo. I have a great, L-shaped studio. The shape has enabled me to set aside space for both long wall drawing and occasional shows of other artists. I’m working on multiple things: a huge print project for a show in the Fall, new paintings, and research for wall drawings. Meanwhile, the work of Sjoerd Doting is hanging in the gallery part of the studio. Sjoerd was my upstairs studio neighbor for 20 years and for the last few years of that, he was working on 5”x7” paintings of his window and the view beyond – accumulating a vast wall of over 360 of them. We’ve re-created that and it will be viewable through September 7.

Working on Notice to Accelerate graphite wall drawing, 504×96”, 2014 at Richmond Center for the Arts, with students Val, Sarah, Alexa, and Maddy (Kate Teale, second from the right), photo courtesy Mary Whalen