What keeps you awake at night? Perhaps it is the bills piling up on your desk or the to-do list on your kitchen table. Kate Kretz might very well wish for such prosaic thoughts. Lately the Mount Rainier-based artist’s nightly tumult agonizes over the social world we have created and the uncertain future we leave for our children. Rather than despair, she channels those anxieties into artworks with social critiques made even more blistering through their exquisite detailing.
As fate would have it, our interview took place directly after the presidential election. Not surprisingly, the vote count served as a backdrop from which to discuss her current body of work. “I saw this coming down the pike,” she noted with a touch of melancholy. This is not to say she sees herself as political artist, or even necessarily as an artist focused primarily on politics. Rather, I think it perhaps more germane to cast her as an artist interested both in the human condition and in creating a dialogue that addresses the inequities created by our social power structures. Her imagery—whether created with paint, embroidery needles or the tip of a torch—confronts the viewer with the uncomfortable truths left unsaid by newspaper headlines.
While not always provocative, Kretz has a history of pushing buttons. Though trained as a painter (achieving both an MFA and BFA focused on the medium), the artist is unafraid to experiment across disciplines. For each project, the artist asks herself, “what is going to be the most potent medium for this [idea]?” Works early in her career (dating from the mid-1990s) present obsessively-detailed, painted landscapes and interior scenes that generate a vague sense of moody, nostalgic loss. For example, while Fate Of A Technicolor Romantic (2000) on the surface depicts a living room whose occupants have momentarily retreated, the minute details color in the emotional complexities of their daily existence. It’s the Beanie Babies, disheveled stacks of VHS tapes and an empty Old Milwaukee beer can that give us the sense that these occupants cling to a sense of normalcy in a world grown more complex. Works depicting figures, such as How to Act, Not React, When he Makes You Crazy, p. 52 (1997) also demonstrate this inward sense of retreat in the face of anxiety.
As her artistic career has progressed, so has her openness to both explore new mediums and complex emotional states from multiple angles. Series such as Psychological Clothing deconstruct the emotional psyche from social artifice, softening its biting satire with a dash of humor. A slightly more subtle approach is taken in the Sanctum series, though that subtlety is chiefly a result of the diminutive size of the works (measured in inches). The narrative depicted in the subjects’ open mouths—tornadoes raging across the landscape—suggests an inner turmoil as profound as anything nature can produce.
These unflinching glimpses into the human psyche took a more spiritual tone in her Motherhood series (coinciding with the birth of her daughter) which uses human hair and embroidery techniques to create intimately personal works. For Kretz, spirituality moves beyond the bounds of organized religion (itself a social construct), incorporating more psychological tones that encourage us to view the world holistically. Perhaps it is the revelations of motherhood, or the wisdom gained from artistic introspection that have pushed Kretz in this direction. Regardless of the source, Kretz has come to understand that the ways in which we interact with one another are inextricably linked to the ways in which we interact with physical world we inhabit. In these interactions we display a profound sense of entitlement in direct conflict with a more spiritual existence. Kretz has something to say about this.
Creatures: Lowly & Magnificent is her call to arms. This current, on-going body of work comprised of several series across various media, was conceived in 2011 as the artist grappled not only with how we as a society created the conditions for economic collapse and social turmoil, but perhaps more importantly, what type of world are we creating for future generations. On the surface these works have political connotations, but Kretz is more interested in challenging our ingrained social interactions belied by the news cycle. The length of time she’s investing in this project bears this out; actual production began in 2014 and its completion is still a few years away.
Individual sub-series approach the concept of entitlement from a differing angles. The sub-series Sentient Beings, comprised of largely embroidered works, examines the ways in which we as humans casually assume dominance over the animal kingdom without regard for their role in the health of the planet. Cognitive Dissonance: “Buttercup” (2015) challenges the viewer to regard animals as more than just hunks of meat. Love Object For A Future Trophy Hunter (2015) is even more biting in its critique on how society treats animals as mere playthings.
That sense of entitlement easily crosses into the realm of humanity. Kretz notes that the distinction between feeling entitled to the land—literally “raping the planet”—and feeling entitled to a woman’s body is sometimes a distinction without difference. To counter this misogyny, Kretz has created sub-series designed to flip the pervasive paradigm of sexism that allows—even normalizes—sexual violence. For most of art history, scenes of sexual violence have been created by men, sometimes in almost heroic terms that minimized the emotional impact of the women depicted. Kretz notes that more recently, contemporary female artists who have begun to create works addressing sexual violence which highlight the female subject as victims. While they present a more honest depiction of the brutality behind gendered violence, such works still do not forcefully confront the perpetrators.
Kretz brashly places the emphasis squarely on the perpetrator in unsettling ways designed to cast them as the “other”. In the sub-series Gunlickers, Kretz positions young men in settings that challenge traditional gender roles and upend defined notions of masculinity that may be inherent in gun culture. Gunlicker II for example features a young man in a white t-shirt placing the barrel of an automatic rifle in his mouth. The man bears a “don’t tread on me” tattoo, which underscores a sense of American patriotism and nascent masculinity. Here that sense of heteronormative masculinity is challenged, casting the man depicted in sexualized, vaguely pornographic terms. Multiple meanings can be extracted from the works, but for Kretz, stripping men of their assumed agency–if only metaphorically and fleeting—gives them just a taste of how it might feel to be marginalized.
Her recently begun subseries with a working title One For The Team follows a similar tack to Gunlickers, examining ways in which sports culture subtly (or not) influences sexual violence. This series marks Kretz’s first foray into pyrography, the process of using heat to sear images into wood. Designed to read as cropped vignettes, the viewer is placed in the unsettling position of viewing these snippets as flashbacks of violence. The dis-ease is further underscored by the skewed perception Kretz employs, often forcing us to view the action from below as if staring up at our perpetrator. Again the point is to destabilize our sense of personal autonomy, placing us in social roles to which many of us are unaccustomed.
The situations depicted behind Kretz’s work be can hard to visually digest, with narratives at times so intense they threaten to dominate our ability to take in the subtle detailing. Yet those subtle details, somewhat obsessed over by the artist, are what imbue the works with their visual power. The power of her obsession manifests in unique ways across mediums. Pick up one of her pyrographic woodcuts and you’ll notice each eyelash and strand of hair is individually charred into the wood. The surface of Cognitive Dissonance: “Buttercup” appears quilted, yet that three-dimensional texture is the result of individual threads stitched one atop another. Her paintings incorporate subtle luminosity through dozens of paint layers designed to refract light wavelengths in specific ways. Kretz describes this process as both cathartic and cathetic, with each gesture adding one more layer of feeling until a complex tapestry of emotion bursts forth.
The work is not without its share of controversy, underscored by threats to her safety from detractors. Kretz is unabashedly unapologetic about the visceral reactions her work creates; “I am trying to perfect a beautiful gut punch,” she tells me. In a very real sense, Kretz takes the emotional blows so we don’t have to. And while she accepts that prophetic position, Kretz refuses to let us off the hook quite so easily. You may be uncomfortable she seems to say, but you will bear witness. As the subtle details pull you in, you feel a glimpse of what keeps her up at night and you know your peaceful slumber will never be the same.
For more information about the artist, visit her website here.
Banner image: Love Object For A Future Trophy Hunter, 2015; embroidery & beading on found plush animal, sheet, pillowcase, pillow, 22 x 25 x 15; Photo courtesy of the artist and Greg Staley.