Wade Carey Interviews Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann on the Eve of her Show “Slurry” at Studio H

By Wade Carey on October 6, 2011
Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann emerge art fair studio h gallery washington dc galleries on East City Art
Detail of "Weft" a 25ft by 5 ft painting installed by Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann at the recent (e)merge art fair in Washington, DC. Photo East City Art.

Editor’s Note: a reception is scheduled at the gallery from 6-8pm Friday October 14.

Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann Interview 2011-09-13

WC: You create a confrontation for yourself, if I may call it that, in your art. It’s not truly natural because you’ve actually created the initial mark on paper. You’ve said it is not really abstract expressionism. Is it then kind of like building a city, kind of like building a civilization? At least in some of the things I have read, you are building something that is akin to a fantasy world. Why do you want to that?

KM: Why do I want to build a fantasy world, or why do I want to build at all?

WC: Yes, why do you want to build that world? What drives the “sim” process forward for you?

KM: First of all, I want to say that it isn’t only building a fantasy world. That is only one was of thinking about it. I think you would really have to go back more to my process, and my own enjoyment of the process. Why do I build the paintings into what they are? It is because I have the real joy of the process of painting. The process of painting, for me, is an additive process. The final product is something that is immersive and a little bit large—I actually don’t say the fantasy world thing anymore. Because I want it to feel like an environment but I also want them to feel like organisms, these kinds of bodies. I want them to tread that line, to tow the line between landscape and figure. These things feel like they could be one body, or one character.

WC: But still, immersive is a word that is active in your description.

KM: Yes, because the process is so much about taking the minutiae, taking small elements, and repeating them. Why do I that? Well, I guess, it is a sort of this neurotic impulse.

WC: You have used that term, “neurotic impulse,” too. Is it possible to say, rather than a neurotic impulse, it is an impulse to move toward something that is unattainable?

KM: It is a way of transformation, I think. Repetition transforms the thing that is repeated into something that is unrecognizable from what it originally was. So, when you look at this piece, there are all these little baubles. There are hundreds of them.

Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann emerge art fair studio h gallery washington dc galleries on East City Art
Truss, 48 x 52 in, acrylic, sumi ink and woodcut on paper, 2011. Copyright Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann. Courtesy of the artist.

I have repeated them ad nauseam. The one bauble is taken from Chinese opera headdresses. And so it has this kind of decorative element to it, this decorative definition to what the original thing is. But I have repeated it so many times that it no longer only recalls decoration. It turns into something that feels very organic. It kind of recalls mold masses. It becomes more ambiguous and more alive. I think that I just kind of glory in this ability to add things until they become more than the sum of their parts and they take on a completely new personality. I think that is the “why” of the building impulse. Also, there is just the fact that every artist and every painter has an impulse to build something new, to have that kind of god-like creative power.

WC: To create something from scratch that is yours alone?

KM: Right. And the techniques that I am using have to do with repetition and have to do with that original chance stain that you were referring to, and transforming that, taking elements and seeing how I can transform them.

WC: So the chance stain still is a core principle in the way you build up your work?

KM: Yes, it is usually the first thing that happens.

WC: Can you do several stains and then look back?

KM: No, it is usually one.

WC: Once you’ve placed the paper on the floor, that’s the next painting?

KM: Unless the painting is a failure and then I throw it away.

WC: How soon does that happen?

KM: Well, it doesn’t happen with only the stain. I have never thrown a painting away because the stain isn’t good enough, because the stain—it is such a skeletal foundation and the vast majority of it gets covered up anyway. Usually, the uglier the stain, or the more difficult it is to work with, or it’s just not a beautiful mark, the better the painting is in the end. They are never that simple but often they are very beautiful. The ones that I have worked with, that I have tried to make a painting out of, that were really beautiful, I am so precious of the beauty of the stain and then it never ends up being a good painting. It’s like walking on eggshells around this initial skeletal foundation. It’s not acting like a skeleton anymore. It is acting like this bauble, like this treasure.

WC: It is not acting like earth? It is not acting like something that can be covered with other developed organic, or other kinds of material?

KM: Exactly. And then, you know, fighting the beauty of the stain is something that I have to deal with, in the first place because I don’t want the pieces to be only pretty objects. I want them to be richer than that.

WC: Tell me a little about what has changed in your process over the course of, say, the last year or two. You had a show here  a couple of years ago at Studio H, is that correct?

KM: I did have a group show.

WC: Take a snapshot of yourself then, when you were working, and think about what you are doing now. Think about what the changes are, and if you can describe them to me.

KM: Young artists are constantly evolving and changing. I wish that I was changing faster, honestly. I keep on fiddling with the process but the change for me is a very incremental change. The last show at Studio H, that was a year ago, I was still working with pours. I am still working with pours now. I guess the work was a little bit brighter then. I have changed my color tone a bit. It has become much more muted, interesting gray scale. With the process, I would say that I have developed a little bit more of a conceptual understanding of what I am interested in, of why I am adding all of these graphic elements onto a spontaneous element. For me, I think that has to do with decoration. That is something I didn’t realize back then. Back then, I was working more with natural elements, botany, plant life. That has kind of gone out the window. Then, another big change that this show is going to have that none of my previous work has shown is printmaking, bringing printmaking into the process. If you see that painting behind you [Truss], all of the repetitive elements are done with woodcuts.

Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann emerge art fair studio h gallery washington dc galleries on East City Art
Swarm of Bauble. Woodcut prints inserted into Truss. Photo courtesy of the artist.

WC: I saw on your website that you were incorporating woodcuts.

KM: Yes. That is super-new. I have only just recently started to do that.

WC: I saw a photograph of a rubbing, this bauble?

KM: It was the exact same. I haven’t done that many woodcuts thus far. I still consider myself very much an amateur.

WC: Woodcuts are difficult.

KM: They are very fun, though.

WC: You are working with real wood, I can see.

Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann emerge art fair studio h gallery washington dc galleries on East City Art
Rubbing of the baubles woodcut. Photo courtesy of the artist.

KM: Yes. They are wood and I am carving into them with knives. I actually just came back from a residency in Colorado. The residency is at Andersen Ranch Art Center in Colorado in the Rockies. The good thing about residencies is—you know how I was saying that I wished that I could change faster? Being surrounded by all these other mediums, people who work in printmaking, who work in sculpture, that is one way to make you change the way you are working.

WC: I had seen that you have done a number of residencies. So, the woodblock is a brand new part of the work? Tell me how you get the image. Are you pressing the woodblock directly to the original? Are you applying individual pieces of paper, like decoupage?

KM: It is more like decoupage, although, I would like to experiment with printing directly onto the paper that I work with. But my papers are usually too large to fit through a printing press. As we were saying, the community of artists understanding  a wide variety of experiences and getting to know other people—I was taught woodcut by another artist who was at that residency, who was generous enough.

WC: In Vermont, or which one? In Colorado?

KM: It was the one in Colorado. She was generous enough to teach me essentially how to do this entire way of thinking and working which is a much slower way of thinking and working than painting. Painting is so immediate. And the moment of execution is so fast. It is amazing. However, I was not able to figure out a way to print directly onto my paintings. I think that, if I were to work in silkscreen, or something like that, that is a whole direction that I would like to pursue. There is a whole world of opportunity that I have yet to pursue that I would like to. This is just the beginning. But with these, I was printing on smaller pieces of Japanese rice paper, cutting those pieces up and then collageing them onto the work. I wanted to make woodcuts that could be repeatable, that were made of smaller elements so you can’t really recognize this exact woodcut in that form because it has been repeated so many times.

WC: I can see a woven rag sculpture under the window and then a representation of woven rags in the work that is currently mounted on the wall. Did you use that as a model?

KM: Yes. I wouldn’t even call it a sculpture. I might call it my still life setup. It is not an art object; it is just a tool that I have been using. It all goes back to that idea of starting with a stain and then building on top of it. For a long time, I was building on top of it with a lot of pattern and elements that were imaginary. I thought that I wanted to make something that was real, as a still life, and then use it as a model to build up the rest of the piece. It helped me to get past some flatness in the work and to give it a little bit of a sense of depth. It was another way of changing the speed of the work so that not everything is immediate. I think that a lot of painters might appreciate, and probably need.

WC: Did you start from the assumption that speed, or doing it right the first time, is part and parcel of the kind of work that you do because you are working with water?

KM: Not necessarily. The only part where I am really working with water is that stain and there is no right and wrong with that. Everything is added to that.

WC: But laying down the ink isn’t a gamble?

KM: I guess it is. You are laying down the ink but then I am also working  with acrylics, so I can go over anything. It is not as if it is really that much of a gamble. It’s not like I am making Chinese sumi-e painting which is very much about the direct application of ink. Acrylic is a very forgiving medium. When I talk about speed, I think I am more interested in having a wide variety of ways to make the painting, and to be painting in different speeds. And so, pouring the ink is a very fast way of making the work. Adding all of the detail is the exact opposite. It is extremely slow. I like having those different ways of working all within one piece. I think that it adds very much to that system that I am creating and gives it a variety. It gives it a little bit of a—it is a contamination of that system.  Not everything is fast. Ink is slow, too.

WC: Do you have a clear idea of that pathology when you start or is this something that you don’t know–whether it will be for good or for evil?

KM: I think more unaware in the beginning. I have come to the word cancerous and the word contamination based on the way they look, actually, in the end. The whole idea of repeating until there are so many, that’s what cancer is. I don’t necessarily think of the paintings as that poisonous, really. I could make them much more poisonous if I wanted to. But I do want them to have a little bit of that poisonous edge.

WC: In your years in academia, what that people told you about the work changed your method?

KM: I can think of a very specific crit that changed my work in a very specific way. It was probably the first crit that I had when I was in grad school with Grace Hartigan. I went to Maryland Institute College of Art, and Grace was, you know, a Fifties Abstract Expressionist painter, she was in the same social circle as de Kooning and Joan Mitchell, about a very particular way of painting, very physical. She came into my studio and said, “You’re not a painter, you’re a draftsman.” At the time, I thought of myself as a painter but I was making these pieces that were very graphic and very controlled. I was interested in the control. She was the person that I would completely credit with the idea of the stain, the idea of bringing in the physicality and the spontaneity of paint. It is all because of Grace Hartigan’s kind-of mean crit to me during those first couple weeks of grad school. It is interesting. When you look at her work it is not at all like mine but I think of her as one of my mentors nonetheless.

WC: Have you already decided what is going to go up in the gallery for this show?

KM: I have basically decided. The large work on the studio wall is too large obviously but there are two pieces here that have been stretched already and there is another that may or may not be stretched and included in the show. Everything in the show will be very new. A lot of it will be coming from Colorado.

WC: This is called “Red Ribbon,” right?

KM: Yes. I think I put it on my blog. I would say that what is new about this painting is the big empty sort of a window in the middle. That’s also a good answer to your earlier question about how the work has changed. I am playing more with positive and negative spaces, I think. I used to think of positive and negative space in a much more simplified way than I am trying to think of it now. I am only really in the beginning of that exploration. I would like to go a little bit further. The whole idea of addition in a lot of my pieces has led to really crowded paintings that really didn’t have any negative space. That was fine with me, although that was what I got a bad review about, actually. I didn’t mind that. It was all about how crowded I could make my paintings. I am interested in crowdedness. I think I still am but now it is a little bit more precise crowdedness. They are not all over paintings any more. They do have areas of calm which is something that I resisted for a long time. But it is not because I want to make the pieces more easy to look at. It was just a new way for me to think about painting. Thinking about addition but also thinking about space, or the lack thereof. I have another piece which explores negative space painted on two pieces of frosted Mylar. It will also be in the show. That’s the reason why these negative spaces are showing through because they have been painted on the backs of the Mylar surfaces.

Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann emerge art fair studio h gallery washington dc galleries on East City Art
Red Ribbon. Mixed Media on paper, 2011. Copyright Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann. Courtesy of the artist.

WC: You have one residency coming up. In the future, are you planning to try to go for as many residencies as possible?

KM: I think so. I might get tired of it someday but  I can’t imagine it.

WC: Are residencies consistently fruitful for you?

KM: Not consistently, but in general, every time I have gone on a residency it has resulted in some sort of twists or turns in my work which I have needed. When you are in school, you are in a nurturing environment. You are surrounded by community. You are surrounded by peers who are also exploring their own work at the same time. I am not in school any more. I teach in school and that gives me a little bit of that quality. I teach at American University and also at MICA. That actually does come into the work but it is not the same as being in a studio surrounded by a bunch of other people in their studios. This is a beautiful studio here, but it is just me. I can get a little isolated. Residencies feel like those nurturing environments because of the community of artists, and also because we are all in a new place. They are just very healthy for making art. I am kind of addicted to them. When I was a kid moving around, I was very bad at making friends. I was not social, really, at all. I don’t think that it is really the same thing. In residencies, everybody wants to be friends with you. Everyone is trying to glean what they can from everybody else. It is not the same thing as moving around as a child. I think that most artists really appreciate residencies. I teach a class in MICA called Professional Practices and I talk about the different lives that artists lead. I ask people, would you consider spending five to ten years at a time moving from residency to residency? A vast majority of those students are raising their hands. They were not all army brats. It’s a rich kind of life. I was shocked, actually, by the number of people who said that. I don’t know if I would want to move from place to place every five years. The number one reason why I do it is that it helps the work.

WC: Teaching the profession of being an artist. Do you think there is enough of it? Do you think there ought to be more of it? Do you have an opinion about how different schools approach it?

KM: I think there ought to be more of it. When I was an undergraduate student, I didn’t have any of that. I had no real understanding of what it means to be an artist, practically. There seems to be a lot of jealous hiding of secrets in the art world because there is this idea that there are only so many opportunities out there. Maybe that lends itself a little bit to this lack of communication and culture of explaining how people get from A to B in the art world. It is something that I really wish that I had when I was a student. I had friends who became dentists and who became lawyers and they had a very clear trajectory. They knew what steps they needed to take in order to become successful dentists and lawyers. I didn’t have a good understanding of that for myself, and I still don’t really. That is partially because of the mushiness of the art world, the mushiness of this career but there are rules and understandings that exist in the art world that young students should know about.

WC: Have you reflected on the role of the class structure, or society’s system of class in the way art is conducted as a business?

KM: Yes, and that is something that is never talked about, too, right? There is the fact is that you are making work that will hang on the rich people’ walls, really. Even the artist’s role in gentrifying—I am in this studio now, I am the first step in making H Street into what, I am sure, in ten years will be a place that I could not afford. I think that people do not talk about the artist’s role in class. The artist plays the role of a strange kind of bridge between class structures. Of course, that is not the only way that artists work. Not every artist is working within the gallery system selling expensive paintings. Also, not all of the money in art is going towards rich people buying pieces to put over their sofas. That is the good thing about the art world. It is certainly possible to make your living and not make saleable work yet still be financially viable.

WC: I have heard from several artists here in Washington who love Washington and who say that it is still possible and that they believe that it will continue to be possible.

KM: I totally believe it. That is another great thing about artist residencies. That is another way that the community is supporting artists without forcing them to make expensive paintings for the rich. I have never felt like I can no longer make thirty foot long paintings. This piece here in the studio is twenty-five feet long. That is something that I love to do. I am still doing it and I haven’t starved yet. I am making smaller couch size pieces too, though (laughing).

WC: We haven’t touched on ethics at all but is that at all a part of what you are teaching?

KM: Oh, yes, definitely.

WC: And it is built into the curriculum?

KM: That is required by the school, to talk about the ethics of art.

WC: That’s only at the MFA level?

KM: No, I am teaching undergrads. I don’t think that used to be the case. I think this is all very new. Maybe it is only in art schools. It is only in the art school that I have done it, but they are realizing that being an artist, once you’re outside of school, is like being a small entrepreneur, having a small business. There are practicalities and there are ethics that go into being a small entrepreneur those young artists, who are really young businesspeople, to know. I actually am getting a studio in New York so I will be splitting my time somehow between the two cities—I am not sure how it is actually going to work. I am not ready to dismiss DC. I feel like the arts community here is really exciting and growing. I think a lot of people brush it aside. I think it is coming a long way. It is some place where you can really feel that community and build yourself up. Plus, you can bike everywhere, it is livable. I feel I should mention that because I meet people in New York and I say I live in DC and everybody looks at me with pity. Having the studio here has been extremely helpful for me. At first, I was worried about it because it doesn’t have heat or air conditioning. But at this point, I cannot imagine being an artist at all without a space like this.

WC: Well, I look forward to seeing you at the opening. I am glad I could come by and that we had a chance to talk.