Katie Hector & Ernesto Renda: on East & West Coast exhibitions

In conversation
Ernesto Renda and Katie Hector in their studios. Images courtesy of the artists.

Ernesto Renda and I first met on the internet, as more and more artists do. A follow turned into likes, which developed into mutual curiosity and respect for each other’s practice. Renda, who lives in New York, and I in Los Angeles, kept in touch for months, viewing miniature backlit versions of the other’s work while each suspecting there was more than met the eye. As fate would have it, Renda’s solo exhibition, The Moment of Truth, opened at Moskowitz Bayse in Los Angeles; subsequently, my solo exhibition, EGO RIP, opened at Management in New York City two weeks later. Viewing the work in person was enlightening and generated conversations around material play, intuition, and the verisimilitude of our subjects. These brief yet poignant chats inspired us to pose the questions below from the perspective of one visual practitioner to another.

Renda to Hector

Katie Hector, installation view courtesy of Management, NYC

ER: Color, life, and death. One of the first things I latched on to was the sense of a filter. I’m not sure if I’m looking at a heat sensor–which would make me think about a living vs. dead image–a photo-negative, or maybe even a shiny metallic face under colored lighting. This effect can enliven the images while also creating a sense of distance and remoteness. What do you think about your interventions with the color and lighting of these faces after extracting them from the originally published condition?

KH: Great question! For me, color is sacred and is a way to immediately signal to the viewer that we are not in the real world. Hyper-saturated chroma, jewel tones, and acidic color combinations set the scene: a toxic, uncanny parallel universe. While painting, much of my process and decision-making relies on color play. I often stop seeing the face in the work and focus solely on the abstract layering of color.

Katie Hector, Transfiguration, 72 x 60 inches, bleach and dye on canvas, 2024. Image courtesy of the artist

ER: Several works wander the borderlands between glamour and gloominess. I’m wondering if there is an emotional overlap you seek to highlight in the subjects.

KH: I do love it when there’s a conveyance of melancholia in the subject’s expression; perhaps there’s a dazed look in the eye, an unaware pout, or a stunned squint. I relate these expressions to my experience with dissociation. I like to imply that a neutral expression can have darker undertones.

Katie Hector, Dead Head I, 22 x 22 inches, bleach and dye on canvas, 2024. Image courtesy of the artist

ER: I want to hear about the process of bringing these works out. When and where did you see your personal experience with loss and grief come into the studio? What were some challenging moments? Surprises?

KH: It will probably sound cliche, but I use my painting practice to process the world around me, the grief and loss, the sensuality and joy. From the bewilderment of the pandemic to the blossoming of new love and, most recently, the loss of a parent, life outside the studio inevitably influences what I make. For this body of work, I focused on the metamorphosis between life and death. I utilized cues from art history and memento mori while garnering inspiration from the internet and pop culture to question what portraiture means now.

ER: Something I like to think about with portraiture is, “Am I looking at this person, or am I seeing through them?” Your works don’t have an obvious bend towards one or the other. Where do you think you would put your work in that spectrum?

KH: I think a lot about personhood when making the work, but consider each portrait a projection, idol, or allegory to attribute a story, so I think the latter could be true. I am hyper-aware that I am constructing a flat 2-D image, more akin to a sign or symbol, instead of a human. I think it’s only natural to be curious about who the subject is, and I create plenty of personal mythos while making the work; however, I hope that viewers leap to fill in their own stories.

Hector to Renda

Ernesto Renda, Moment of Truth, installation view, Image courtesy of Moskowitz Bayse, LA

KH: The show’s title, The Moment of Truth, establishes a foundation of psychodrama and intrigue, which I love. Does this body of work pick at assumptions of truth?

ER: I was initially interested in looking at the subject matter for this show (concealed identity interviews) because of its resonance with a queer subjectivity and also an internet subjectivity–of speaking and acting anonymously. As I worked on the paintings using this collection of subjects, I began to question the veracity of their stories. Then I discovered that sometimes the TV producers would use a double, an actor, to stand in for the actual person being interviewed. Other times, they just buy stock footage of backlit figures. The trope is so consistent and so intentionally non-descript that it doesn’t matter whether the camera is pointed at a real person anymore. That’s an exciting and trusting relationship between storyteller and audience and one that could be ripe for abuse and manipulation. The opening of a space for doubt was a thread I wanted to pull on a bit. I think we should all pick at our assumptions of truth, especially with stories from people on a screen.

The Moment of Truth refers to these interviews as examples of a carefully coordinated “truth” produced through visual coding. In the context of a documentary, the moment when the music cuts out and we are shown a person with their face in the darkness, we know they are about to tell their “truth.” Usually, a person can be challenged when they tell a story, but if there is no “person” to question, the story must be taken at “face value,” so to speak. Tropes are codes used to communicate visually without having to spell everything out. We, as an audience, are pre-conditioned to respond one way to a person sitting at a wooden desk talking straight into the camera and another way to a person whose face we can’t see.

Ernesto Renda, COPS, 18 x 24 x 1.75 inches, hot glue, wax-pastel, and black canvas on wooden panel, 2024. Image courtesy of Moskowitz Bayse, LA

KH: Can we get into your piece PERSONAE? It’s so substantial and feels like an anchor for the show. Correct me if I’m wrong, it’s also the only work that dons a row of these miniature emotive hot glue effigies perched across the top. What’s the back story with this piece?

ER: PERSONAE does feel like the center of gravity for the show, and yes– it is the work where all my figurines ended up. I lit these “effigies” and traced their shadows to make stencils to create the shadows you see in the other works in the show, like COPS, WIVES, etc. These other works are organized into categories of on-screen personae, so COPS, for instance, is–among other things–a group portrait of four anonymous police officers from different YouTube videos. When we obscure someone’s particularity and personhood, they become flattened into their role or their story–and I love this idea of their faces being flattened back into the surface of the paintings.

What is common in these interviews is to highlight a few key aspects of the person’s story while keeping most of their specificities private. You often hear of someone’s “public persona,” which in these cases is a very narrow, controlled thing. What is also interesting, however, is when you limit the definition of someone to their status as a “cop,” “wife,” or “homosexual,” they start to speak for all “cops,” “wives,” or “homosexuals.” In PERSONAE, I was hoping to suggest how my grouping and categorizing subjects is working in the other pieces. I’ve also been thinking of the line of figurines as a “curtain call” (like at the end of a theater performance), and the characters in a play are called “dramatis personae,” so there’s some gesturing at the theater there, too. The way I arrange these heads feels very much like a poster for a movie or play or the thumbnail of a YouTube video, something that gives the viewer a preview of the characters they are going to encounter or the stars in the cast, but I guess there’s an irony to there not being any faces.

Ernesto Renda, PERSONAE (detail) 56 x 108 x 2 inches, hot glue, wax pastel, bleached black canvas, wood panel, 2024, Image courtesy of Moskowitz Bayse, LA

KH: Who are these little figurines, and what role do they play in this body of work?

ER: It wasn’t immediately clear who these figures were or what they were doing. I started making the figurines last year in a moment of pretty bad back pain, anxiety, and resulting artist’s block, and I kind of made a deal with myself that I was allowed to sit in front of the TV for three weeks and sculpt figurines. I’ve always had a thing for miniatures and figurines, but I never saw them as part of a fine art practice or had the right tools for me to make them. Building them with the glue gun made me feel simultaneously like a 3D printer and an ancient human carving the Venus of Willendorf (about the same size, 4.4 inches tall).

There’s something weird about watching TV while doing something else; nowadays, I find it hard to concentrate, and I see a lot of my friends casually watch things while looking at stuff on the phone, maintaining a level of media overwhelm to keep the dopamine receptors happy. It’s strange to think that only like ten years ago, I would watch movies and not do anything else. I’ve begun to think a lot about these works as the foundations of a house I am building around the conviction that I need to actively look at how I engage with the media and the digital world. Since the show opened, I’ve been trying to cut down on my screen time, walk, and exercise without music or podcasts, and I generally avoid multitasking.

The figurines eventually found their way into the wall pieces, but I knew there was no way they were going to assimilate or blend into those hazy pastel screen-like surfaces. So, they came in loud, high contrast, and distracting, just like the bleach “light” that casts their shadows. I think of them as “public figures” that have magically walked off my phone screen and are dancing around begging for attention, distracting me from the shadowy, private individuals behind them, who sort of exist as figures on screens or projections. I think the figurines work in tandem with these dark figures to overwhelm the viewer’s ability to focus, which became the tone or energy level of the paintings that I leaned into with regard to surface, mark-making, composition, mixing materials, etc.

Ernesto Renda, WIVES, 36 x 48 x 1.75 inches, hot glue, wax-pastel, and bleached black canvas on wooden panel, 2024. Image courtesy of Moskowitz Bayse, LA

Ernesto Renda’s The Moment of Truth is on view at Moskowitz Bayse, LA, through May 11th, 2024

Katie Hector, Ego RIP is on view at Management, NYC, through May 12th, 2024

About the artists:

Ernesto Renda (b. 1995 in Trenton, New Jersey) is an artist and curator based in New York. Through a combination of painting, drawing, sculpture, and video works, he explores and indexes the “mediation” of our personal, social, and political lives. He has presented solo and two-person projects with Management (NY), Moskowitz Bayse (LA), Grove (London), In Lieu Gallery (LA), Empty Circle Space (NY), and The National Arts Club (NY). He has participated in group exhibitions at G/ART/EN (Como, Italy), Morgan Presents (NY), Orlando Museum of Art (Orlando), Tilton Gallery (NY), James Fuentes (NY), Grove (London), 1969 Gallery (NY), Field Projects (NYC), Georgetown College (Kentucky) among others. His work is in the collection of Museo Jumex (Mexico City). Renda holds a BFA in Painting from the Rhode Island School of Design and a BA in Modern Culture and Media Studies from Brown University.

Katie Hector (b. 1992) in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, is an artist based near Los Angeles, California. Hector’s studio practice revolves around process-based paintings that layer dye and bleach to create portrait-likenesses that symbolize loss, grief, intimacy, and longing. She earned a BFA in painting from the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in 2014. Her artwork has been exhibited nationally and internationally and has garnered her recognition through awards, scholarships, and international residencies.