Kate Russo is influenced by an interest in art history and the way that patterns and colors have played a role in art over time, sometimes specifically, as when a trip to Tate Modern 15 years ago changed how she viewed her own role as an artist. More at the links below!
Can you tell me a little bit about you?
I split my time between Portland, Maine and London, England, although I’m mostly in Portland these days because I have a dedicated studio here. That said I love London and I’m married to a Brit, so we get over there whenever we can. I received my M.F.A. from the Slade School of Fine Art in 2007 and B.A. from Colby College in 2004. I feel like I am able to experience the best of both worlds. I get the time and space to make work in Maine, while I’m able to see the most incredible exhibitions while I’m in London. Seeing art is incredibly important to my practice as an artist, particularly older paintings, because I use art historical palettes to form the basis of my color decisions in my abstract paintings.
When did you first discover art, or realize you wanted to make it yourself?
I don’t know that I ever had a huge “AHA!” moment. I’ve always been involved in the arts in some capacity. I was just that kind of kid. I do remember standing in the middle of a Kandinsky installation in 1999, my senior year of high school. I think they’d hung four big paintings in a circle so that you could be surrounded by them. I was completely taken with them and I remember it really pushed my limit (at the time) of what painting could be. I think it was my first true appreciation of pure abstraction, which I’ve loved ever since. Then there was the 2003 Eva Hesse retrospective at Tate Modern that completely blew me away, particularly the grid drawings. I think that was the first moment when I realized I wanted to be an artist as opposed to an art historian. I wanted to do be just like her (still do!) The grid hasn’t left my practice since.
What ideas are you exploring in your practice?
I think the biggest shift that’s happened in my practice in the last few years is a shift from pure abstraction to what I like call “narrative abstraction.” Over time, I’ve felt that despite making non-representational work, I still want it to tell a story. With that in mind, I use hints from portraiture (such as the oval) and stage design (also architectural motifs) to help me get a sense of character and setting in my work. My most recent body of paintings, “Other Peoples’ Palettes,” “Paintings by Men,” and “Paintings by Women,” use the palettes of specific paintings in art history to capture the character of the original artist. Particularly in the “Other Peoples’ Palettes” series I work with artists’ palettes in relationship to one another, in an effort to tell a story.
The artists’ couples paintings, such as “Jasper and Robert,” and “Jackson and Lee,” use the palettes from paintings painted around the same time, when they artists’ were known to be together. I like the idea of these paintings being like snapshot of the couple together at a particular moment in time, plus I love how their palettes speak to each other; how they differ, how they are the same. Paintings like “Boissons avec Edgar, Edouard, and Vincent,” which takes the palettes of three paintings — one by Degas, one by Manet and one by Van Gogh — which use bar scenes to create an imaginary narrative in which the three might have had drinks together. I also do a lot of work stitching into graph paper.
In these pieces, I’m also interested in narrative, particularly creating a notion of domestic space, such as parqueted and tiled floors. I build the drawings, floorboard by floorboard, tile by tile, aiming to give a sense of solid structure, while simultaneously conveying the softness and pliability of the thread. I also like evident tension of known gender roles conveyed in the work; the fact that floors are traditionally laid by men, but in this instance are stitched by me.
What is your process like?
I do a lot of research and planning when I work. I don’t really leave anything to chance. Patterns are worked out before hand, as well as palettes (particularly for the paintings). Because, I am working art historically and trying to form a narrative in the paintings, I have to do a lot traditional research, such as looking through art books to decide the palettes and order I am going to use references. I work on several things at a time, stitching, drawing and paintings. Because I’m always working with the grid as a template and the work is very repetitive, it’s important to bounce around to stay sharp. I’ve started mixing oil paint and keeping it in syringes so I don’t have to rwce against drying paint.
Do you have a mentor, or a piece of advice (or both), which has influenced your practice?
I think Sol LeWitt’s advice to Eva Hesse is the best ever given. “JUST DO.” I tell myself that everyday. It’s simple, but it’s also all you need to remember. I find it very easy to get bogged down by doing something perfectly the first time, every time. LeWitt’s advice reminds me that momentum has to come before perfection.
What is your studio like?
It’s a mess! People always tell me they don’t know how such controlled and detailed work can come out of such chaos. I would be far too embarrassed to send photos! I do have what I call the “grey wall” though. It’s the one sacred space that I use to hang finished paintings. I love the look my work against a light grey wall.
What do you find most daunting, challenging, or frustrating about pursuing art?
I think like most people, it’s feeling the need to get the affirmation of others. I’ve been very lucky to never lack motivation as an artist. I’m always ready to work and I always have ideas, but it can be daunting to get work out there once it’s made, especially for an introvert. Keeping up confidence can be challenging, for sure. I love to paint and make work, but I wouldn’t say I do it entirely for myself, either. I want the work to be seen, so the frustration comes when I feel like the work just isn’t getting out there.
What are three words you would use to describe your work?
Palette (palette forward), obsessive, abstract
What are you working on right now?
Within my “Other Peoples Palettes” series, I am working on three larger panels, 20 x 24 inches (big for me!) each with a specific art historical theme, “Men Spying on Women Bathing,” “Men Watching Women from Behind,” and “Men Watching Women Work.” Each panel will feature twenty ovals. Each oval will be based on the palette of painting that features that subject matter of that panel. So for example “Men Spying on Women Bathing,” will feature the palettes of twenty paintings from 400 years of art history (painted by men) that feature women bathing as their subject matter.