I want to talk about ovals. Most of your paintings involve this central oval shape — it's usually slightly wider at the top than it is at the bottom — and your ceramics are either ovaline or incorporate some sort of oval shape within them. Can you talk about what draws you to that shape in particular as a central theme running throughout your work?
Sometimes it's different things. It's been a head. It’s been an egg. Sometimes it’s both. Currently, with the ceramic work that I'm making here, it's a pregnant belly. All of those things are sites for fertility, for growth, for gestation — for something that can “become.”
Can you say more about those? Fertility, growth, and gestation.
I’m interested in this historical tradition of representing women as fertility symbols. And I'm really interested in this concept of the forest floor — things are decaying and creating growth and it's all part of this process.
I mean, I started thinking about my own fertility around when I turned 40, a couple of years ago, and I was pretty certain that I wasn't going to reproduce physically. [Laughs.] But then I realized that I could be fertile with many things, that I wasn't cut off from this continuum of life, that I was definitely a part of that through making things and contact with other people — how broad that idea of fertility can be.
What was it like to make that shift from just thinking about it in those terms to thinking about it in a broader sense? Because, yeah, when people talk about fertility, it's usually framed in terms of just human reproductive fertility. And how does that connect eventually to the cycles of decay you were talking about with the forest floor?
It's easier for me to just talk about the works. So, right now I'm working with two forms: one of them is this pregnant belly and one of them is what I consider a cremation urn — a rectangular form that's the size of the body if it were burned. This is the space that a human body takes up before it enters our world, and this is the space that a human body takes up after it leaves our world — and they’re really similar. [Laughs.] I'm interested in this unknowable quality of both of these kinds of spaces.
And have these forms and these explorations just recently emerged in the past several years?
Okay. So what were you working on before then? And then what was that shift like to move into these types of forms? What stayed the same, what was different?
I, for a while, have been interested in ancient objects. So when I was at Wassaic previously, in 2016, I was looking at these objects, either in museums or in books, and then making paintings from those things. Fertility objects, death symbols — the things that tend to be saved from these cultures are about these kinds of big things. Like, they don’t tend to save pop culture. [Laughs.]
So I was really looking at that and kind of re-teaching myself art history through what my interest was, and not what someone was putting on a slide on a wall to show me. Kind of disregarding the text, too, and thinking, What do I see in this image? What is there for me? And then it's kind of morphed into just me making these things myself.
Can you say more about moving away from the text of art history? Because, like, I often feel when reading art history that it's sort of prescriptive, that the text comes before the work. But the work was partially made because something that you couldn’t put into words had to be put into visual terms. So can you talk about what led you to wanting to move away from that, and what that has been like to move away from that?
I mean, I think that what you just said is absolutely true. Like if I could say the thing that would explain why I made the Venus of Willendorf, why would I make the Venus of Willendorf?
You would just write it.
Yeah. And then that's from a culture that's 40,000 years old. We don't know what those people were thinking. We don't know why they made that. And then, if you start writing about it, it's all your own nonsense. You're just putting it — it's just about you. But you didn't make that thing.
It takes away some of the mystery in some respect, too.
Yeah. Or the bigger, more complicated, messy thing that it could be.
Absolutely. But I want to take a little bit of a left turn and ask about the process of making these ceramics. You’ve been pit-firing ceramics in Wassaic, right? Tell me the story of that, because I know that the ceramics studio doesn't have a pit in it.
I guess because I'm interested in ancient art, and this is the way that people fired ceramics for thousands of years. I live in Brooklyn, and I didn't have access to do this, so I applied to come here because I knew they had the field and I could dig a hole in it. [Laughs.]
So we dug a 3 x 6 x 3 foot hole out there, and I fired it twice. It's really similar to the way Native Americans would have fired their pottery. It warmed everything up slowly, there's a chemical makeup of the pit that creates these colors — the flame moving around the things is creating color and leaving a trace. And it's very married to the imagery that I'm working with and my thought process. It’s been amazing. It takes the surface quality out of my hands. It's very much chance, and they sort of have this patina that looks ancient.
Are the pregnant belly forms that you're creating part of a series?
No. I’ve just been working serially with these bellies in different configurations and forms. I like that there's a proliferation of them. [Laughs.] I would like to see them all hanging on the wall. Like, something about this one informs that one, and then you can go back and be like, Oh, is that the umbilical cord? Or is that the snake? Is that the snake skin? They comment on each other. They kind of help each other along.
You’ve also done works on paper and painting in the past. How do those interact within your practice?
I don't really know. I became an artist because of painting, and something about the mystery of painting. But then through working with those ancient objects, a lot of them are made of clay, and I was just into how like painting that was — that it was showing the hand, and immediate — so I took a community clay class and started making sculpture.
And I also felt like, when I went to school in the 90s, if I wanted to be a fine artist I had to eliminate anything that could be considered craft. And I feel like that distinction is not so prevalent now, that people are much more open-minded. So as a woman, the first thing I had to do was make big oil paintings to be like, “I'm an artist. I’m not a craftswoman. I am an artist.”
Which is a completely arbitrary line. [Laughs.]
It is. And it was also a tool of power. Art was something that men made. Working class straight men did the work of making art, making paintings, and craft was decorative. All of that is a way to separate people out.
But I feel like sometimes these things have to rear their ugly head before they’re able to die. So I'm hoping that we're in that moment where — I feel like young people don't see the world that way. They see the world as very fluid. And it's awesome. Very freeing. It’s cool. It’s so cool.
Becky Kinder is a visual artist based in Brooklyn, NY.
2019 Summer Residency