Interview with Kevin Finklea, by Matthew Deleget

The following interview was published on MINUS SPACE in October 2004 in conjunction with Kevin Finklea’s spotlight exhibition.


Matthew Deleget: Let’s begin by talking about color, the central concern of your paintings over the past decade. You’ve worked in a pharmacy for over 20 years now, which you acknowledge has greatly affected your color sensibility. In fact, every time I see a television commercial for the acid reflux medicine, Prevacid, I think of your work. The pill design and resulting commercial are focused around two high-key colors, an intense aqua blue and a brilliant hot pink. Tell me about pharmaceuticals and color, and their influence on your work.


Kevin Finklea: The colors of drugs crept into my work so very long ago, that I scarcely remember the first piece I made involving those colors. I once felt the need to completely separate my studio activity from my pharmacy practice. I honestly wasn’t comfortable admitting my identity as an artist in either a corporate or professional setting. I came to realize that being an artist explained my almost total lack of what was considered normal. I take off time to work in my studio or install shows. This is not exactly the same old road being traveled by most.

Once that closet was opened I was off and running I do remember thinking that the capsules and pills I saw constituted a new source for my color. I had for many years depended upon what I will term vernacular color. Here, any colors I found in my sub-ghetto neighborhood provided me with a color source for my painted sculpture. The most common example I can give is painted out graffiti. In this circumstance any available color of paint is used to obliterate the graffiti mark. Horrid color choices often result from this activity. As every square centimeter of the neighborhood became gentrified; there was scarcely enough to work from necessitating a new color reference anyway.

Early on, in my training, it occurred to me that the colors chosen by the drug companies were pretty damned powerful. I generally count tablets and capsules on a deep cobalt turquoise counting tray (PB36 comes close to it). I have used this type of tray for over 20 years. Just about anything you pour onto such a surface is interesting. I surmise that it was specially designed by Abbott Laboratories to have just such an effect. Everything in drug world is researched and designed for your viewing pleasure. And also designed to optimize your memory of the product; thereby increasing your desire for the product in turn. You wouldn’t want to forget the name of the product at the doctor’s office when you ask for it would you? Who in this country doesn’t currently know about the little purple pill (Prilosec) or the color of Viagra?

The color of a medication is often marketed as a substance in and of itself. I don’t get to see those drug world ads that I hear about from patients as I have no television. I assure you I have more than my share of getting to see today’s hot new advertised meds. In fact, I get PR long before the drugs enter the market. Additionally, Philadelphia has a significant clinical trial setting for pharmaceuticals. Drugs are actually being used here before they are finally approved. Patients often start asking for drugs before they actually become available. It becomes a challenge to keep up on the latest releases.


MD: Your paintings function similar to the drugs themselves. Through their sheer intensity, they create shifts in perception, shifts in reality. They possess an almost hypnotic, or as you’ve termed it “psychotropic”, effect. Please discuss their intended impact on the viewer.


KF: My, I never thought I could effect such a thing. How lovely to be drug-like. It feels rather sexy and dangerous to be a drug. If only more people would want to stick me in their mouths.

This does rather point to the obvious desire loop created by drugs both legal and illegal. I don’t see the need to get into an analysis of that in this discussion. There has been more than enough literature and texts created around this observation. I would offer David Healy’s The Anti-Depressant Era as a salient example of such writing. I think the key thought here is that both pharmaceuticals and street drugs are leveled onto the same plane of desire.

As for intended impact I would hope the paintings are a tad bit unhinging. I find that people describe what I make as garish. I question this assessment and hope that the work does as well for the viewer. In presenting such high keyed chromatics along with the white work, I ultimately intend the work to be calming and quiet. Westerners just seem to respond unfavorably to pure unsullied color at this time.

I should comment that we are in an incredibly overwhelming age where the word intense has lost any true meaning. By making something that reflects this intensity, I would hope the viewer would reflect upon this in turn. Obviously I have the usual myriad of references any artist will carry at this point in history. I don’t honestly believe any viewer will pick-up on all of my personal references. How could they? If only some part comes across and or fragments thereof; then the work has succeeded for me.

For the record, I didn’t come up with the term psychotropic. It is certainly used in pharmacy and medicine, albeit not with any great frequency. It is the type of word found more readily in journals and psychiatric texts. Not my favorite type of reading mind you. Can we go back to people wanting to stick me in their mouths now?


MD: I find it interesting that your work subverts the traditional associations of color throughout art history. The color blue, for example, traditionally carries romantic associations with sky and sea, sadness and isolation. You, on the other hand, prefer the connotations of Komar & Melamid’s art research project, The Most Wanted Paintings, as a starting point for your work, in which they learned blue was America’s favorite color through a nationwide survey. Discuss how your work advances new associations of color.


KF: Well it isn’t possible to be transgressive any longer is it really? You might as well continue to mess with the past then. And because everyone knows and accepts that past; you are in effect messing with something already familiar.

It would appear that blue is the favored color of many nations. I thoroughly endorse the idea of seeing the Komar & Melamid site at Dia. Komar & Melamid weren’t the starting point for my work in blue. They simply codified what I already suspected about people’s preferences. I have to say that I find blue incredibly difficult to paint. I comment upon this in my statement for the show. I naturally go towards reds, oranges and yellows. I find I do pretty well with green as well. I recall a fabulously famous dealer in Chelsea once informing me that “yellow and green does not sell very well.” Hell, that just made me want to paint in those colors even more.

This also points up to the reason for titling the show as I did. I Wish I Could Be Your Color seemed a reasonable enough desire to state. It wasn’t any attempt to “sell very well” as it were. It is also quite contrary to my natural predilections. You could say the show has been a great challenge to paint.


MD: In your statements, you’ve described contemporary culture as “brutal” and “unromantic”. You also called it “overly designed hyper-aestheticized”. How has this impacted the aesthetics of your work?


KF: Every breathing moment of our lives are mediated and manipulated by someone wanting us to have something we don’t really need. The American landscape is exploding with advertising and media. There isn’t anything nice about this. I find that landscape littered with what I term visual pollution. This meets my criteria for brutality. And I don’t think anyone would find anything romantic in a place where someone is constantly trying to seduce me to get my money. Certainly this brutal commerce has been written about ad nauseam.

As a result I try to rid my life of the constant hammering of brutal commerce. I do my best to try to remove the hyper-aestheticized from my life as well. I did not coin the phrase hyper-aestheticized. There are numerous texts discussing the subject. The last two that I recall reading are texts by Marc Augé and Neil Leach.

As for how this has impacted my work? First of all I believe you are referring to a statement I wrote for the solo show at Pentimenti. I see the blue paintings themselves as a brutal unromantic response. As I’ve said I do see our contemporary setting as such. As for the overly designed hyper-aestheticized bit I do see myself going against the grain with the blue paintings. Changing the expected context for the color blue could be seen rather cynically as just more design work I suppose. I intend it to short circuit the expectations of the anaesthetized (read drugged) designed world.


MD: This year you began a new series of white paintings called Empty Pages. How do today’s circumstances differ from the time and place of Kazimir Malevich’s white paintings? Or Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings from the early 1950s? Or Robert Ryman’s first white enamel on steel paintings from the mid-1960s? How are the context and meaning different today?


KF: I can say that history had very little to do with my decision to make white paintings. I have been making drawings on paper with graphite and white acrylic for over 15 years. I did so to expedite my ideas for the wall pieces. I have been making actual drawings on the walls of my studio for even longer.

During my first trip to Munich I began a shelf piece with Laza marble. Laza marble is exceptionally white. I came back to my studios in Philadelphia and completed the piece by placing the marble on a shelf. The shelf I made was whitened to come close to but not match the marble. On a subsequent trip to Munich I made yet another marble piece. This was shelved as well and paired with a painted wooden wall piece. For me this is an ongoing series. I only make the work when the circumstances present themselves. Just this morning I found yet another piece of wood, upon which, I will base the production of some marble in the future. I suppose a travel grant to Munich would be in order.

My point in digressing into this is that I am perpetually involved in some type of white on white work at any given time in the studio. It is simply part of my working process. The white on white paintings were begun as a way of bringing the drawings on the wall out of the studio. These new paintings presented the challenge of making a new kind of painting (for me) on a new substrate. They are painted on acrylic panels that hover off the wall but allow you to see through them to the wall. This was a solution that contained both an established studio process with new materials in a completely novel format. The title came from a song on the first album I ever bought on my own as a kid (Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die.)

I’d have to say I can’t see cutting out parts of the wall to present in an exhibition. And as for drawing on the walls, we may see this come out of the studio into a gallery setting with this show as well. I intend to deflower one of Pentimenti’s office walls during the installation of this show. I believe this offers a personal context for the white paintings. Parenthetically, as for placing them in some historical context, that is really someone else’s task. When I began making actual paintings I knew I had to do so without historical placement or positioning. I make paintings now and for myself I might add, in relation to the time I live. There comes a point where you realize you have to loose all that art history you carry. I can tell you I nearly graduated with a double degree in art history and studio practice. I certainly had the course work. But all that really weighs you down. I liken it to coming to realize you really can fly to Europe with a carry-on bag. The excess weight just slows you down doesn’t it?

As for history I am more interested in contemporary painters. David Row, Frank Badur, Imi Knoebel, and Blinky Palermo come to mind immediately as the people I am interested in seeing. I managed to see the Palermo retrospective at the Serpentine in London twice last year. That gave me more information and contextual framework than any museum visit I’ve had in years. Yes, I know Palermo is deceased, but I still consider him a contemporary painter.


MD: Your Empty Pages paintings, on the other hand, approach the idea of visual overload from a completely opposing standpoint to your color-saturated Miniature paintings. In these paintings, your visual strategy is absence and emptiness. Your intention is to “empty the works of all color and image” and to represent a “cancellation of the viewer’s attention.” To what end?


KF: I just thought it would be good to have something quiet around after all the cacophony provided by the high keyed chromatic work. I do spend a great deal of time thinking in quiet isolation. By and large Philadelphia is a very good city for such activity and very possibly why I continue to live here. (This may be a vestige of its Quaker past.) I would like to think that this work will provide the viewer with such an experience. This is beyond the impetus behind the work’s process that I’ve described and quite a lovely collateral result. The first three works in this group will be hung by themselves in the project room at Pentimenti Gallery for the run of this show.

Here I feel I should acknowledge my thanks to two of my dealers. First and foremost I thank Christine Pfister for encouraging me to make the white paintings for the project room at Pentimenti. Secondly, I should give a nod to Emma Hill in London for first encouraging me to consider working on her gallery walls as I do in my studio. While this is something that will be first realized in Philadelphia; this is a project we’ve discussed for the future in her space at the Eagle. This points up to the ideal situation for an artist/dealer relationship. It’s very cool when a dealer allows you to run with an idea.

Honestly I don’t really believe that I can empty the color out of anything I paint. It is only an approximation of such a state that I approach in the Empty Pages work. Parenthetically, I would like to say that just about everything I paint is an approximation. A constant response to my work is its perfection. I assure you that nothing I paint is perfect. I can’t imagine a perfect painting being made by anything less than a machine. I believe that work that doesn’t absolutely manifest any particular identified attribute completely is far more interesting for its failures. In my case I know the work is not perfect. The small imperfections and variegations made by my hand make a surface far more interesting than anything I’ve even seen made by machine. I intend this to provide the viewer with a little bit more to look at than what the average dot matrix screen is capable of showing.

As for cancelling my the viewer’s attention, well that isn’t completely possible either is it? I would like to think of this as the politic of what I am trying to pull off in the white paintings. Actually I find that what I’ve achieved is a thing of great subtlety. The buried paint trapped between layers of titanium white still has a presence in the panels. There is a sense of the glow of the absent color seemingly bleeding out to the edges of the acrylic panel. I should perhaps re-term this a loss of the viewer’s attention. No one appears to respond to subtlety these days.

For the record there were no Miniatures paintings per se. Miniatures was a show I participated in at the Eagle Gallery in London. The paintings in that show were all from the Drift series which centered around psychotropic med colors. They were fantastic little paintings. I made the substrate somewhat traditionally with linen mounted on wooden panels. This seemed the perfect material for a miniature.


MD: I would like to spend some time talking about your process in the studio. How do you begin creating a new painting? How do you realize your ideas? Please explain.


KF: You have glimpse of what goes on in my studio from my comments on the Empty Pages above. New work almost always begins with what I believe I want to do with the color. I say believe as I invariably change what I begin with in a painting’s plan, sometimes painting out, repainting or counter painting an area repeatedly. Last night I worked on a very subtle warming of a light blue surface by overpainting a rather characterless synthetic manganese with the same paint infused with a nasty yellow dye color. The nasty dye color gave the blue just the right edge. I did not begin with this plan for the color really at all.

The other concern that takes as great a place as color is what the color will be painted upon. I prefer fast surfaces for painting. I look for a near total lack of resistance in the substrate. In this show I have painted on bass wood, stretched canvas, MDF and acrylic panels. I am always looking for something that will give the painting some peculiar object quality. That is to say, something I can do with the substrate that will make the painting unusual. I am showing work that varies from 6.5cm to less than 1 cm in thickness. Some of the panels have been rounded to the point that they seem almost aerodynamic.

Every painting’s composition gets drawn directly on the wall before I make the panel. I find this allows me to work out issues with scale and proportion. It also gives me a place to nail down the final composition as well. All my notes on prescription blanks and scraps of paper are very nice and get lots of attention on studio visits. They’re lousy when it comes to actually plotting out the painting.


MD: In your paintings, you never use more than two colors, which are precisely paired and coordinated. How do you decide on specific color pairings?


KF: Deciding upon the final colors I make is never certain and would be best viewed as an idiosyncratic process.

As for them being precisely paired, I don’t see it that way. I strive for a brittle balance between the colors, composition and the thing they are painted upon. I can only say I know when a painting is right. The word precise implies something measurable or objective. I don’t utilize anything of the sort when I work. I think of a painting’s color as a tunable attribute. When the color doesn’t feel right; I often think of the process as a tuning of the chromatics involved. Some paintings I get in tune instantly while others become a nightmare of overpainting and sanding. I’ve just spent most of August in this process (getting ready for this show.)

Here I realize that some reader may object to this in so much as I’ve said I use the drug colors as a source. The colors of the drugs and their juxtaposition on my PB36 counting tray are really only a starting point. I often make color notes on prescription blanks. Rather like a doctor prescribing a remedy for the work. I use those notes and observations as a place to begin mixing color. I can’t tell you how many times I get it wrong. My studio is full of shelves of mixed paint just waiting for the right painting to come along.


MD: Your paintings function in three dimensions. The “image” almost always wraps around the face of the painting onto its sides. How did you arrive at this solution? What does it do to the painting’s presence?


KF: I began making painted objects as a student. In fact, this was under the tutelage of another Minus Space participant Richard Bottwin. I was his shop slave at art school. I was in art school in the period of the end of high minimalism. This was when the art world had shifted its focus to some other hype of the moment and minimalism had begun to establish its auction records. As I student I was aware of this and so I certainly didn’t want to do what the minimalists had done. In fact seeing this horrible process made me question what had been accomplished by minimalism in the first place.

I recall that I didn’t really respond to minimalism in any personal way. I found it cool and detached. And it was quickly becoming apparent that it was fully institutionalized as an official art style. What I was interested in was suprematism and the Russian avant-garde. At the time it was almost impossible to do find any real texts or information on this period; which I can certainly attribute to cold war politics. There was the allure of something slightly off limits to me as a young art student. I consumed as much of the suprematist and constructivist materials that I could obtain at the time. And I can say that I responded to this work much more than anything being produced by the minimalists. Here I found that one could positively blur their discipline into any area of production desired. The Russians (along with the neo-plasticists) made it clear that an artist could produce anything from a drawing on up to a full installation. This thinking became my model. I concentrated on drawing and object making as a student.

I never really left my concerns with object making behind. It was in Germany that I found I wanted to shift to what I would term a concern with pure painting. I was crossing the Rhine in Cologne and saw a channel marker in the river that was absolutely riveting visually. It was flat and floating. This somehow presented me with the idea that I had to do the same thing with my work.

A bit of history is necessary in this case. I had been making objects in response to the idea of signalling devices. I was making a series of reliefs at the time called Signal and Meter. Both had to do with objects situated both in the landscape and in response to their landscape setting. Here the channel marker presented the same sort of concern but in a markedly more abstract manner than the actual objects I had been making. This, combined with my need to make pure unfettered color, provided me with the impetus to begin making paintings.

The first things I made were painted MDF panels. I felt that I had to bring what I was doing in the objects to the painting. Subsequently I painted the edges of the MDF as I had the wooden reliefs. I also made the MDF panels float on the wall, as opposed to touching or resting on the wall, as the wooden reliefs had done as well.


MD: The scale of your paintings is almost always modest, never larger than a few feet in either direction. Your works also possess an amazingly delicate, hand-painted surface. Talk about the importance of human scale and touch in your work.


KF: I honestly believe that for non-objective painting to succeed it has to relate to human scale. I believe this is a central route in connecting with the viewer. As I said, I made painted objects before I shifted my current focus to pure paintings. The forms produced were completely based upon measurements of my own body. These were painted wooden reliefs that hung on the wall. I found time and time again that during the run of a show, the paint would often be rubbed off of the edges of the objects. Here I can only surmise that viewers felt compelled to touch the objects to complete the experience of seeing the object. So much for the don’t touch bit, eh? Rather than being annoying I found this a positive response to what I had done.

Additionally I would have to say that I couldn’t paint anything without a sense of my hand being in the completed work. Again this offers the possibility of a viewer connecting with the painting. And I would hope that the hand painted quality of the surface would lend vulnerability (yes, a much over used expression, but still appropriate) to what would seem otherwise impenetrable.


MD: And finally, how do you see abstract painting developing today? In which direction do you see heading? Where do you perceive there to be room for future exploration?


KF: Many people pretend to see the future. I don’t indulge myself in future fantasies where painting is concerned. I honestly believe that non-objective painting will continue to respond to present circumstances and change accordingly. I really truly prefer to be painting in the present. I can’t say I worry about either the future or anticipating what the next big thing will be in painting. I would have to also comment that any new developments in non-objective painting will occur in relative obscurity. Here I am recalling a comment made by Bridget Riley in an article she wrote for The Illustrated London News in 1983:

“I think it very probable that in the future there may be a divergence of paths [in the visual arts]: one tendency will come more and more to resemble the world of pop music, with group following group or movement following movement, supported by a vast promotional structure. Simultaneously, genuine development will tend to go underground (my italics). Thus the Western World will produce an inversion of the effect of totalitarianism, with commercialism replacing party ideology as the dominant factor…”

There is more to this quote and it can be found in The Eye’s Mind. I am quite certain that non-objectivity will continue to develop. Its emergence in the 20th century is a relatively recent cultural event. How could anyone begin to pretend that it is either complete or over as it were. There exists a seemingly endless parade of nay sayers where painting is concerned. I find that this is often the symptom of hidden agendas and professional concerns. Curators and critics always get heaps of attention when they decree the death of painting every decade don’t they? Nihilists have always appeared to me as self-centered and frankly rather boring.