Setting New Patterns

Conversation between Kate Kessling
and David Martin -
David Martin is an editor on the Oxford English Dictionary and an art writer.

DM > I would like to begin in the late 1980s. Goldsmiths is filled with bright young sparks about to ignite an artistic powder keg that will irrevocably change the face of contemporary art. And you are there, part of it. How pivotal a time was that for you and the development of your work?

KK > It didn't really feel like a special time. This was the late eighties, 'Thatcher's Britain'. We were in the grip of a bad recession; that probably had a huge impact on kindling the Brit Art movement, exciting things rising from the ashes. I think we could only see that with retrospect. The thing I remember most about the art produced at the time is that everyone was questioning 'is this art'? Can we get away with this? It was funny, not that serious, really. The more earnest people were, the less seriously they were taken. In this current economic recession art has been a commodity for dealers looking at good returns, could this have been the basis?

Students were producing 'gallery fit' work; it looked slick, but the content was self-conscious and secondary. Tutors like Michael Craig Martin had a huge guiding hand in encouraging students to move through the process. The gods were Richter and Beuys, and we were encouraged to think; however, what was being made was short cut conceptualism. We were told to forget who you think you are, what you think your skills are, (in fact forget skills), and examine everything afresh: pull out the stuff from inside. We, too, were taken apart but had to put ourselves back together. So, these were the first baby steps of the Brit artists who are now mature artists and who have now honed their craft.

Was I part of this? I was part of this 'zeitgeist' - the Brit Art movement that seeded at Goldsmiths took off in the subsequent years. I went off to do an MA in conceptual textiles with the British Council in Poland, and when I came home the Berlin wall was down and the Thatcher era was over. Yes, I suppose it was a pivotal time. I went to Goldsmiths with a burning desire to make stuff, and I discovered my language was 'found objects' - was this the Beuys lectures? Found objects were my way of 'mark making' - a small button with the marks of generations of wear, any conventional domestic item, etc. -these everyday items seemed to have so much power and could function on so many levels. At Goldsmiths I felt that we knew the end product was a piece of art, and we had to back track to fill in the concept. I just read an interview with Grayson Perry who calls this 'post rationalization'. It took a while for me to shake off this working method.

DM > Like Beuys' found objects, your choice of material is neither random nor neutral but seems to adhere to a finely honed aesthetic and symbolic language, as expressed in your button pieces. The buttons exploit and elevate an object traditionally and intimately associated with toilsome female labour and indeed are laden with feminine connotations. Though, through the making of patterns or repetition of the buttons or other objets trouves the material loses or decreases, on one level, its individuality and specificity to become a more ambiguous artistic 'mark'. This seems to allow you greater facility to form a larger collective whole, rich in texture, coloration, and, in some ways, unexpected meanings. What challenges, limitations, or benefits do you find are associated with this type of 'mark making'?

KK > As a mark making facility 'found objects' contain so much more information, emotion or life than I could ever create myself because they are real and honest , representing genuine actions: a button worn from use, a toy whose paint has been rubbed away from play (such a shame we can't let kids play with lead toys anymore). I do paint, print, make sculpture but find the most interesting aspects of this for me are when the materials take on a life of their own -the way colours randomly combine, ink splurges under a screen or sanded paint reveals layers of colour and pattern. Collecting is a big part of my psychological makeup; I've got lots of buttons, not smart collector's pieces but the rather plain ones. I prefer the ones you pick up from the street that are perhaps a bit dull but have had lots of use. I also have a big collection of Britains figures (I like the old ones with worn paint, lots of character - I'm not at all interested in the pristine ones) cotton reels, 'hook and eyes', button cards, vintage fabric. I have a feeling that a lot of artists like to collect; it's our way of cataloguing the world around us. It's like gathering together memories, emotions and events and holding onto them in physical form - even though in the case of an old button picked off the street, it's not my memories or actions that it hold, but it still feels like a relic of somebody else's life and therefore relevant.

Loss of individuality is a problem when presenting my collections of objects. It is not something I have figured out how to get round yet; I hope that people will be able to identify the detail, to be able to take on the everydayness, or the out of the ordinariness of my collections as they form pattern and change scale.

DM > I was wondering to what degree you see your work as conceptual, specifically with regard to your toy figures and other 'momentary assemblages'? These pieces are not temporally fixed and are only accessible to the viewer by means of photography. Is the recording and resultant art work more significant than the idea? I fear we might be touching on the larger (and often contentious) issue of photography in art.

KK > I've had many arguments about the merits of photography within art, and twenty years ago I believed that it had a limited value - perhaps a reflection of the photography I saw around me, the ease with which it was produced, and that I was married to a painter who was fighting that ultimate 'art' battle, that of man versus paint. My opinions have changed though now; photography feels like a more credible art form (skirting around the also contentious issue that if it's made by an artist it is therefore art), but people like Cindy Sherman have brought together both intellectual and visual content. Throughout history, art making has been a fairly elitist activity, but digital photography allows a much broader dialogue with images, hundreds of thousands of photos load onto flickr every minute. It's exciting. It's a new era and every now and again someone captures an image that just has 'it', and we all instinctively sense that it is art. I don't really consider my work photographic. What I make and how it is made changes every few years. My roots are in textiles, and my head is somewhere between sculpture and conceptual art. However, the product of this has turned out to be in an unexpected direction. When I first started making grids or 'blankets' of objects they were quite literal (as in I would lay out the objects). I tried attaching them to each other, mounting them in frames. These earlier pieces took weeks and months and while I was making them my mind would race through other ideas. It was time consuming and frustrating having to commit to one image, and when they sold I had a huge sense of loss, but I just didn't know how to exhibit or capture the array of marks and details I was looking at. I would have liked to arrange them in a museum cabinet I suppose. I started photographing these objects, flattening 3d into 2d, creating a 'snapshot' moment, and I could then concern myself in a more composed way (without physically needing devices with which to exhibit them) with the aesthetic interaction between each individual component-presenting objects for examination in a more scientific way. Photography has allowed me to move into the detail of objects, such as the figures, and show their vulnerability, how the rubbed-away paint has allowed them to take on new characters and strange expressions, but also, to place two random out of scale objects together and allow them to visually fight it out.

My work would probably tick a few conceptual boxes - it comes from the idea, but I think I'm happily straying (at the other end of the art spectrum) into surface pattern. My head has been thinking about art for a large proportion of my life, gathering experiences, references, ideas, and now I'm not that worried if it does or doesn't fit any category. I make things that interest me; it's taken many years to shake off the feeling of needing to justify what I make. I've also realized that most people aren't really interested about the whole journey to create an image, for them the image is the most important bit. When you can get to this point it's quite liberating.

DM > And how you use surface pattern is quite provocative. By interposing unexpected items in your pattern making, such as a guinea pigs's face in All Things Bright, the surface plane no longer offers an 'easy' aesthetic experience, but a more complex and challenging one. I find these pieces somewhat subversive - questioning the larger issue of how we blindly trust or how our minds regimentally fill out patterned areas. You exploit this mental tendency in your work. Is this a way of telling us to pay attention, that there is no hierarchy of forms -everything must also be seen for what it individually is?

KK > Spot on! You've hit the nail on the head! With the 'momentary assemblages' or 'not quite objects', I enjoy the seductive aesthetic of the patterns, but I'm more concerned with similarities and differences as the objects interact. Introducing consciously unexpected elements seems to enhance the tiniest details, making them more prominent. Yes, I am questioning how we look and see, the rhythm that objects create in repeat, and I'm amazed at how finely tuned our sense of pattern and ability to see repeat pattern is, and yet we can miss the larger more obvious differences.

I recently discovered the work of Eva Hessa after picking up a link to a website called 'Things Organized Neatly'. She's a contemporary of Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, and her work (I'm thinking particularly of 'Schema' 1966) deals with assemblages. She describes it as a 'concern with seriality'. Her work is described as minimalist in the true sense and every object and the space between has meaning but with overtones of the absurd. I see some of my own aesthetic motivations in her art, and here, yet again, I am trying to think of myself in reaction to the art I create, rather than blindly being the artist I think I ought to be.