Steve Karlik’s paintings are formally refined yet generous in spirit, grounded in materials yet spatial and open. His work is that of a serious painter, at first seeming almost severe, yet with time revealing itself as sensual, emotional, and beautiful. A thoughtful viewer will find that his reductive forms can resonate with one’s memory, references, and experiences; the associations one makes with his work are varied and surprising. The paintings involve our eyes, minds, and bodies. His work is scaled to our physical presence, but brings about in us a dual response — it is both intimate and monumental. If the personal is political, then the politics of Steve’s work are a belief in the importance of the individual and a responsibility to the collective; in the viewer’s heightened experience is found the significance of our connection to each other — the possibility of a simultaneously singular and shared meaning.
— Chris Ashley, September 2005
The following conversation between Steve Karlik and Chris Ashley was conducted via email from April to July 2005, and included a studio visit in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, on May 20, 2005. For further information about Chris Ashley, please visit www.chrisashley.net.
Chris Ashley: Steve, why don’t we start with some basics: where are you from, and how did you become a painter?
Steve Karlik: I was born in 1960 and grew up surrounded by nature in rural Oregon, outside Portland to be exact. One day in my mid 20’s, I started painting because it gave me the latitude to reflect on the texture of the land as I experienced it. I’d been looking at James Lavadour’s paintings of eastern Oregon, and my first paintings were these gray-to-sepia blurs, washy landscape references with a few recognizable features. My only concern was pushing landscape painting further into abstraction until I was introduced head-on to Mark Rothko’s work. The washy fields I was painting then began to lose their landscape reference to something more non-objective. I attended Portland State University in 1990 and studied painting under Mel Katz, a Post-Minimalist sculptor from New York who introduced me to thinking about art in a pragmatic manner. When I got to Portland State, I was surprised because my studio was in the same building where Rothko learned math as a child. In 1995, I was accepted into the graduate program at Pratt Institute and moved to New York.
At Pratt I studied under Ted Kurahara and Linda Francis, and developed friendships with the Brazilian painter Daniel Feingold, and future Minus Space artists Mathew Deleget and Rossana Martínez. In 1996, I saw two important exhibitions that made a lot of sense: the Ellsworth Kelly retrospective at the Guggenheim; and the wall-mounted oil stick planes by Richard Serra at Mathew Marks. Kelly and Serra began to express for me critical art that pushed the relationships of form and space, and used those relationships to engage the viewer directly. Immediately after Pratt I found a studio in DUMBO (the Brooklyn neighborhood Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), and I now live and paint in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
CA: You entered graduate school in your thirties, an age later than seems typical these days. What were you doing before then? What difference do you think your age may have made in your approach to graduate school, the work you did there, and the path you took afterwards?
SK: Before graduate school I was a book binder. I did that for about ten years. It was kind of a cool profession with lots of hands-on work. My age was a factor then in the kind of art I produced. I’d been in a trade for ten years where the production process was meticulous and extremely demanding. A strong sense of craftsmanship was essential, and you had to turn out a well-crafted product in large volume at high speed. I was twenty-seven at the time, and just entering art school as an undergraduate — I remember taking a lot of what I practiced at work into the studio. I had a studio for a while where I worked in the loft space above the production floor. I would work at night using the equipment below to produce art. I made a series of reductive forms that for the first time really followed an exact process determined by the materials. I would eventually use mylar and multiple layers of an industrial tape that was thick and soft, semi-transparent and amber-colored. As the layers built up, I would take the work-in-progress to the hydraulic cutter, apply clamped pressure (about 600 lbs per square inch) and clean it up with the hydraulic knife. I wish I still had some examples; the surfaces were packed and had the appearance of layered bands of raw beeswax. It was really then that I started developing a personal aesthetic.
CA: Bookbinding as a craft is, of course, very hands-on and visual. I think it’s fascinating that you were doing this other kind of visual work before painting, and that bookbinding lent its materials to the beginning of your making visual art. It sounds like you came to making art mostly on your own. How did making a painting with tape turn into painting with paint?
SK: The overall experience in the shop seductively smelled of drying ink, lacquer, and paper; it felt like a place where art was being made. I worked on a printing press setting up dies and locking in forms for the purpose of scoring book and magazine covers so they wouldn’t crack when folded. These were basically locked-in steel structures that held scoring blades sandwiched between wood and lead strips of different widths and point degrees. The sheet would run over this die while moving around a large drum.
We had to sometimes shim the die to make it score deeper, and pack the drum with paper backing to protect it. Some of the runs were long and the drum would take a beating. When the run was over, the press was cleaned with lacquer thinner. There would be a deposit of dust, ink, oil, lead and tape on the backing sheets, a transferred film or stain that was a silky gray green. It wasn’t long before I started seeing abstractly into the by-products of production.
I started using the backing sheets like an underpainting, applying a tape we used in production over these stains to give them depth and a thick, almost opaque, amber color. Soon thereafter, the tape became the primary focus. I could lay down tape, layer upon layer, apply pressure and repeat the process, building up a thick, waxy, amber field. I was creating art that looked like painting without actually painting. More importantly, I was intrigued by how much variation could be found within one unified surface. When I was formally enrolled in art school, this was the imagery I attempted to recreate with paint — it was dark, indifferent and physical, and it looked severe and spontaneous. Finally, the canvas seemed so much more vital to presenting it as art.
CA: It’s interesting how the imagery and surfaces in your paintings seem to have these definite sources. With this earlier work you’ve just described, there is a process of laying things down and working at a surface, and while your current work is quite different, there is also a great attention to surface and process. It’s always interesting to hear about what an artist has in mind, even distantly, when thinking about his or her work. You mentioned the landscape, and I’m wondering if there are references to other media or fields of study that are important to your work. For some this might be literature, film, architecture, music, scientific facts or data, and these might be influences that are visual, philosophic, sociological, and so on.
SK: I like to think that my paintings are somewhat informed by Modernist architecture. The 2004 panels on view on Minus Space with the elliptical forms actually came about after looking at Louis Kahn. I see these elliptical forms as drawings — plan views for idealized structures.
Modernist architects have done some amazing things, and when it’s really good, the thinking comes through visually. There’s logic with architects like Alvaro Siza or Kahn that is tied directly to their relationship with materials — simplicity derived from using steel or wood, for instance, on steel’s and wood’s terms. The really good architects, historically, have had a close relationship with the materials and have had the ability to assert their own identity into the process, so that while the uniqueness of the materials helped shape the project, the project visually shows the architect’s ideals. Siza’s use of brick brought us unique forms that were realized by using brick slightly out of context. In looking at some of these structures, it all makes complete sense rather quickly.
CA: Can you describe some of the ideas you’re trying to realize in the work, and how you think you’re successful at making that happen? Perhaps you can talk about a specific work that you feel integrates the conceptual and visual aspects of your work.
SK: Finding ways of letting the materials carry an idea is something I’m always trying to track down and will probably always be moving towards; you could refer to it as transcendence of the everyday through visual experience. I like to think that reductive work has a poetic undercurrent that supports reductive painting’s more literal and theoretical understanding.
The piece Settlement Series, Corsair (24 x 48 inches) has connotations that are pretty obvious — Corsair refers to the aircraft. This work is an idealization, and considers the pre-high modern images of some aircraft in current high-Modernist light. I think it’s important to understand that this painting isn’t a duplication of actual wing markings, but the essence of them through color and structure. The markings on the original aircraft were bands of white-black-white-black-white amidst the blue of the wing.
The materials used in the painting are hand-polished wood and specific hues of extremely flat gray-blue acrylic and tempera paint, which is brushed, rolled, and sanded with care and precision. I was careful to duplicate the original blue of the Corsair’s body on the painting with mixtures of Cerulean Blue, Medium Gray Light, and Lamp Black; one band tended towards black and the other band is the actual blue of the Corsair. The piece is elongated, horizontal, and object-like to suggest a general sense of the ideal wing, yet it is the emblematic quality of the painted bands that is important for the painting to carry a reference to the actual Corsair. With the painted surface hard and matte, like paint on metal, there is a transition from non-concrete idea to meaning.
In the work Corsair, a visible reference to a specific, almost mythical aircraft is established in the context of contemporary art as motif, and the painting becomes a field where a current interest in blue finds a childhood fascination with a specific visual memory and plants it solely in an art context. The reference to a Corsair becomes less important than how the work reinterprets Corsair as the emphasis for making painting that engages in a dialogue with painting.
CA: Painters, particularly abstract painters, often work to make paintings that are both an image and an object, and work at integrating those two aspects. Each aspect requires its own considerations, and making the painting a whole entity requires additional considerations. Are you working towards a painting that the viewer can see holistically? And in doing this are you trying to let the viewer follow your decision making process, as well as be aware of whatever intentions or impulses you may be operating with? Is there an ideal that you hope to lead the viewer towards?
SK: I have a history of making work that is mute and intends to transcend expressive activity — what artist Daniel Feingold refers to as a “sound free ambiance devoid of personal expression.” Holistic is a good term. Recognizing the painting pre-consciously, or feeling it in the gut, is one of the goals. Like most painting, the information is all there to be retrieved or uncovered, yet what is brought to the activity of viewing that positions the viewer centrally within the experience of the work is most important. I think if I were to move the viewer towards an understanding of the really precarious state that the idea of balance suggests, I would be adding value to art and painting in general.
CA: This notion of the viewer’s experience of your paintings as leading to an “understanding of the precarious state that the idea of balance suggests” really appeals to me. It’s something that one would think would be present in all art, but mostly in the background. It sounds like you want that to be one of the primary experiences of your work. Can you say a little more about that idea?
SK: I have always tried to establish an overall sense of balance, or rather equilibrium, so that it becomes the signature of oppositions that resonate in a kind of dance. Equilibrium reflects a universality or wholeness that is a dynamic state. You might say that I explore in painting what may exist in essence through geometric forms which are purely abstract and build (visually) into highly structured compositions. What is important is that space is not static, but a visually dynamic push-and-pull.
CA: It appears from studio photos that you work on paintings laid flat on the table, and my studio visit seemed to confirm that, too. Do you always work flat, or do you also work on paintings hanging on the wall?
SK: Rarely do I work on the wall. The surface I am after is blatantly flat with little imperfection. The paint I use is a water-thin mixture of acrylic and tempera with acrylic binders similar to extremely thin house paint, which dries with the same characteristics. The paint is put on in many coats and has a tendency to run, sometimes showing light-traces where the paint might dry more unevenly in areas that accumulate more paint. Having the work face up allows me to look at it as raking light falls down and across it. This is important with the darker colors, where what is required is a dense sheet or film. When light falls across the surface evenly, I know it’s close to being finished.
CA: What is the “fox fur” reference that you are using in many of the recent titles? My guess is that it has something to do with color. It seems that all the paintings with “fox fur” in the title have a gray. There is, of course, the silvery gray of fox, and these grays look rather lustrous. How are you using that term?
SK: The term “fox fur” ultimately describes a range of grays that I started using in early 2004. When I did the series Fox Fur and Teal, I was rediscovering that all forms of gray are really complex hints of muted color, and I was looking for a title for the series that described the overall variations of gray within the range being used.
In the first series, however, entitled Fox Fur, I was pulling paint over the surface with a large knife, leaving accumulated skins of translucent paint. These skins or films always covered a dark blue or black ground and the surface became cloud-like in appearance. The term “fox fur” became descriptive of a process. It certainly referred to a subtle range of color, but also alluded to the nebulous quality of the final surface, i.e., the Fox Fur Nebula. The interest in the silvery grays stuck and I started using this focus as the basis for developing new work that considered color in a more specific manner. The “fox fur” reference finally became a reference to, or rather a description of, a quality of color, a non-descript silvery gray that ranges from yellow to magenta and includes any color absorbed by it.
CA: It can be pretty bold to say, as you do in your MINUS SPACE statement, “The work is not about anything, but the thought of remnants is important…,” because you’re asking the viewer to give up on expecting to be handed a readily received, digestible package of meaning. Instead the viewer enters into a pre-verbal, visual, time-based experience, which requires an investment in the process of looking, during which the painted object “unfolds.” In this dynamic I think the artist gives something to the viewer, but also requires that the viewer give to the work too. The viewer’s giving is their engagement in the process of active, sensitive looking. Without that the image/object’s unfolding doesn’t happen. Do you see this — the engagement, the unfolding through looking, the time it takes to do all of this — as part of the subject matter and meaning of your work?
SK: I don’t like letting the viewer off the hook easily. I like to think I demand of the viewer as much as they demand of the so-called artwork. I don’t think the viewer is transparent to painting, especially with reductive abstraction. There is no subject-object relationship, unless of course you immediately hand them all the answers right up front, so asking the viewer to go to the pre-verbal and give up on a readily digestible package of meaning seems appropriate for where I want my painting to go.
I say my work is not about anything because it sits in that literalist realm where it unfolds continuously with time. Some painting is visually ever-renewing; each time you come back to it there is some variable that wasn’t noticed or that becomes apparent over time. Painting that is more literal is wholly manifest at any moment and never changes; it keeps unfolding continuously with time rather than over it. The work confronts the viewer and meaning depends partially on what the viewer brings to it and what the work offers. As a structure outside of consciousness that consciousness refers to, abstraction becomes a field that provides an extension into an idealized sphere of meaning. I think this has to happen pre-verbally before meaning is given.
CA: It seems to me that this structure would first engage the viewer in your experience, as a model, a thing outside themselves, and then as an experience of their own. Do you agree with that?
SK: I do. There are qualities in some art forms that are more, to some degree, objectifiable. Art can be representational and meaning can be developed more immediately. With non-objective or more literal art, the model is more perceptual and doesn’t carry as well-developed or agreed-upon sets of meaning that a painting such as the The Last Supper or even a stop sign carries. With non-objective art we almost have to weigh the whole object and perceptually gauge its presence. We have to come to terms with it individually as a thing.
CA: The imagery and ideas you use have definite sources. Earlier you referred to the importance of Kelly and Serra in your comprehension of “critical art that pushed the relationships of form and space and used those relationships to engage the viewer directly.” I think this statement could apply to your work, too. I wonder if you could unpack this a bit, in particular, what this might mean for your art.
SK: Every once in a while, a painter or a sculptor needs to come along and really try to dismantle the art form. Kelly uses the formal, visual elements that define painting’s flatness to make objects. Serra takes our understanding of an object and turns it back on us, redefining it by challenging human perception. In both artists I saw work that was highly conceptual because the idea became visible in the object during the viewing of it. I see art with heavy formal elements becoming a more open-ended system when the space of the viewer is enlisted.
To answer the question, in painting I look for visual elements that are speculative, that challenge the art form and remain unique in voice. The space of painting is a fairly tricky space to navigate; it’s flat, but also contains connotations and narrations that are other than flat. Painting’s space is illusionistic. These concerns have to be orchestrated in a way that is visually unique, makes sense conceptually, and moves the art form ahead intellectually.
CA: We have talked elsewhere about the idea of a central metaphor to an artist’s work. I brought up examples discussed in an interview in a catalogue for painter George Lawson; Lawson mentions painter Patsy Krebs’ idea of a central metaphor regarding one’s work and discusses his own central metaphor. For example, Krebs had referred to a reproduction of a Siennese Annunciation in her studio and identified the concept of transmission and inspiration as central metaphors for her work. In Lawson’s case, as I understand it, a reproduction of one of the sarcophagus frescoes from the Diver’s Tomb in Paestum is an image that he identifies with and connects his work to in terms of the importance of diving deeply, of taking a leap and plunging into the middle of an action, place, or emotion. Can you identify a central metaphor that is operating in your work? You’ve already mentioned the importance of Modernist architecture and also the idea of flight related to the Corsair airplane.
SK: Flight is beauty in tension — all that force, speed and grace. The reference to the Corsair worked well for that particular painting; it allowed me to locate idea in a realm separate from expression so I could remove myself somewhat and stand outside or adjacent to the work and visually focus on the painting.
I tend to be pretty methodical in my approach to looking at work-in-progress, and when I’m in the studio, I mostly contemplate the work’s visual logic. All the visual elements (surface, form, and color) have to balance, yet have a slightly-off quality, a weight. I’ll refer to it as a strange sense of familiarity. The Japanese refer to it in their traditional pottery as a balance of perfect imperfection, which comes from nature. The idea signifies for me a balance or beauty that has tension.
When I paint I tape off and paint rather quickly. The works are a lot less planned than they look. The slightly-off quality I refer to is a subtlety, and recognizing it on the panel before it’s taped-off is like seeing something as a flash that goes off when, for a brief moment, the mind is left with an imprint of structure. I really have to trust my decisions, because often times the kind of tension I’m after is poised on failure — failure of not being taken far enough, or taken too far.
CA: I think I see a number of ideas in operation in your work: the separation of idea and expression; the precarious nature of balance; and the moment of recognition, or understanding, as a flash. You work to achieve this by creating or finding tensions in a work that catches the viewer by surprise, sparking a moment of recognition or memory.
SK: I’m often surprised myself. Looking for minor visual elements, such as emerging color relationships or the relationships of form that need to be explored and made concrete, sits at the heart of what I do. What really inspires me is nature and its systems, the motion of which always tends towards maximum efficiency. It is nature’s systems that first got me interested in thinking about balance and how tenuous and resilient natural systems are, always poised between decay and regeneration. There is a lot of movement there that when experienced on a human scale looks static, but it’s constantly aligning and realigning itself so that it stays poised and efficient.
CA: There are a couple more ideas, I think. One is in the idea you mentioned related to pottery— is your painting a kind of following your materials and their properties and behaviors, of accepting what they can do, just as a ceramicist might have to do with clay and glazes? And secondly, you said you are looking for subtle tensions and beauty related to “perfect imperfection”— are you trying to create those tensions, or are you trying to find those tensions? Where does that tension reside? Is it mostly in the surface of the painting, in the drawing and form, or are there other aspects to the entire painted image and object that are contributing to these tensions?
SK: I definitely prefer to let the materials be themselves and follow them. The materials set the rules. Imperfections in the materials often set the tone for what happens visually with the entire painting. I first started using wood as a support for functional reasons — I tend to press hard, and it doesn’t warp as canvas can. Wood became an aesthetic choice because it’s a finished surface that reacts dramatically with nearly any surface next to it. The tonality of wood changes with different colors and can float or recede much as a color does depending on what color or texture is adjacent to it. I also prefer panels with a good deal of surface tension, where the grain shows stress or character.
An entire image or object in balance with its imperfections is worked to that level of completion and is usually a quality that is subtle and realized only when it’s finished. There is a level of spontaneity related to the painting process in finding it. Usually there is something (a form, a surface, or a color) that might weigh just a bit more than another area relative to it, or might impact the painting as a whole without being so obvious that it dominates the entire painting. This is how I ultimately see tension having the greatest strength. I like to work these areas of tension into relationships so they are controlled as an entire painting that functions as a system.
CA: Any recent developments in your work? What’s ahead?
SK: Sometimes we overlook things that after the fact seem painfully obvious. During our studio visit, you pointed out that my wood surfaces functioned like drawing by comparing them with the earlier pulled wax surfaces. I owe you for that one — it’s become a kind of echo with implications on how I might consider the surface as more active. “Flip” is a new piece on MINUS SPACE that reflects this. I am also starting a series of vertical wall mounted sculpture that involve reflective color and reflective light; they follow nicely off the paintings, but seem strangely lighter.
CA: I’m curious to know what place you think art, and in particular your art, has in the world? I’m asking that kind of eternal question about the meaning of art and what it’s good for.
SK: Someone once made a joke in one of my studio critiques at Pratt that started up a good conversation. They were considering the way of the dinosaur and trying to determine what kind I was. My instructor (bless her) told them, “the kind that wants to bring people to their knees” — that would be the Abstract Expressionist inside me. All joking aside, the kind of Modernism that was emerging after Abstract Expressionism, only gets to flourish sporadically. High Modernism keeps appearing and reappearing and is continually taking on new meaning and escalating Modernism as an art form that is critical of itself. That is the key to keeping Modernist art from intellectually going the way of the dinosaur. Because Modernism reserves some of the critical dialogue for the artists, I hope that my work helps push that dialogue along.
To answer the last part of the question honestly, I get kind of itchy if I go too long without moving paint around — again, the inner Abstract Expressionist talking. Painting allows me to navigate the world in a way that brings visual structure to its nuances, reshape it, tag it, preserve it, and color it. While I feel I’m continually arriving at something, I’m also searching for something and painting allows me to work that out visually. I also get a great deal of pleasure from living with painting.