An interview with Anna Kristensen
Wednesday October 19, 2016·
Anna Kristensen is an artist from Sydney who has always pressed audiences to recalibrate their perspectives around painting. Working primarily with oil painting, photography and more recently, print and sculpture. Anna has developed a style that meticulously interweaves a multiplicity of narratives around representation and illusion while giving a nod to the spirit of minimalism. 'Cover' is her first solo show at The Commercial in Redfern, and sees a continuation of this vocabulary and the introduction of new materials and objects like glass and poufs.
I went to visit Anna’s studio in Alexandria on a bright and humid Friday morning to see the works in progress and had a chat over some Berocca. When I arrived it became clear that I should conduct the interview via email because I had plenty to take in and think about after I left.
What first sparked your interest in making photo-realistic paintings? Was there ever a time you painted differently? What did it look like?
I was learning about colour and observation when I was in art school, and copying images was a good way to learn. It was a time when I also didn't really know what to paint, so in a way it was just a practice to hone technique and colour mixing, blending etc. I remember it was a bit of a pivotal moment when I was starting to master colour mixing. It made me look at the world differently, observing much more, thinking about light, saturation, dissecting it, analysing ways things could be painted.
As I developed it over the years it became quite addictive, there is something super satisfying about seeing an image begin to appear just like the thing it's depicting. A little magic. Maybe it’s some reflection of my perfectionist leanings but I can't help but smooth and blend things out, or making things look really shiny, or the pop of crisp things on top of blurred things. This style of painting leaves little trace of a brush mark and treats the whole picture uniformly, democratically.
There was a point where I deviated, I was starting to question the point of painting a photo, why not just have a photo? And I made bunch of paintings with more brushy marks but to be honest they just felt contrived. I also realised that a painting of a photo is actually still very different from a photo, it has particular qualities that I enjoy.
'Gate' (detail of work in progress), 2016, oil and acrylic on linen
The labour of photorealism does pose some challenges and constraints (it can actually be quite arduous but means I get to listen to lots of podcasts) and I've been adopting other elements into my work, in part to counter this, but also because I felt a desire to expand my work into other areas / processes /materials /collaborations. E.g. this show 'Cover' has some poufs that are made from screen printed paintings, and there's some glass blown works which are very linear, I see them as drawings in a way. So even though these are objects I see them as extensions of my painting practice
Who are some artists, writers or other folk that inform your practice?
I look at and appreciate lots of artists, my teaching at university has probably broadened who I look at even more, but specific to my work, Richard Artschwager has been one of my art heroes. He's an artist impossible to categorise (somewhere between pop and minimalism?), but was also a bit of an oddball, very idiosyncratic, and had interesting perspectives on looking at the world, which are both critical and funny. His fluidity between objects and images and reduction of forms to be almost cartoon-like is so satisfying, both on a formal level and a conceptual one. His work is also so beautifully handmade but has the appearance of industrially fabricated materials, I think something similar happens in my work.
Robert Grosvenor has been a recent fave, as well as Rebecca Quaytman - I love how her works necessarily function as a constellation, referring to one another and the history of the architecture and the space they are exhibited in. It’s a full package and so complex in the connections and associations she sets up. The works refer to themselves and each other (best witnessed in the space) but also much broader historical contexts, which is something I've been playing with in 'Cover', as well as my last solo show 'Render'.
Richard Artschwager, 'Table (Drop Leaf)', 2008 (Image courtesy David Nolan gallery)
I've also had a long standing interest in the American Minimalists (Judd, Anne Truitt, John McCracken and others) and their attention to surface and reduced form. Perhaps it was growing up with my Dad's aesthetic everywhere, he was a Danish modernist architect and there were a lot of clean lines. I think Minimalism comes into my work in various ways despite it being mixed up with representation, artifice, and imitation - pretty much the antithesis of such modern reduction. For some reason it feels good to taint that purity, it’s a bit irresistible. Artschwager does this too.
Your works play between relational moments, reproduction, representation and rendering. How do you negotiate this space? And is there anything you try to avoid doing or replicating?
Well I think it’s a tricky one to negotiate. I like to keep it as open as possible for the viewer without it being so ambiguous it's unreadable.
In the early stages of making work a lot of time goes into sifting through images and forms I'm attracted to for certain reasons - these might be from photos I take on the street or images I find - and then I go through a process of making various combinations, configurations, and exploring what kinds of things this might bring up. An idea for a sculpture might relate to one I have for a painting for example, and in doing so I can draw the viewer's attention, in a gentle way, to a particular thing about that image. Hopefully so subtly they think they drew that connection themselves! It might be as simple as drawing attention to a recurring shape, or a receding grid of a tiled floor for example. I can then build up a fairly complex network between all the works in the show, and use several works to cast a new light on how to see another work etc. They act as mirrors in a way.
After selecting a shortlist of images I'm interested in I then go about recreating them somehow - like painting a picture of it, or recreating an object in the photo in another material, or turning it into furniture (e.g. the poufs in this show are made from screen printed paintings of a brick wall I took a photo of in New York). So there's a system of reproduction - in working from a photo (a copy of the real thing) and then putting the image through another process of imitation, whether that be screen printing, or painting, or recreating an object in the image in hand blown glass, as per the XXs in the show. The overall effect of this is hard to pin down. I would say there is an uncanniness, but also a kind of remove – the things are like objects we know but also not. I think it makes for an strange tableau that is still and quiet and interestingly, without people. It sort of creates a set-like quality or mise en scene. The works are like props.
Can you talk us through your process of making a painting?
I print a photo to scale on paper, a cheap BW print, then trace it onto the canvas using carbon paper. I then block in areas of colour with acrylic paint - it’s good because it’s flat and opaque (so nice to paint oil over the top of) and dries quickly so I get a head start that way. And then it’s a matter of lighter layers in oil, coming in with more detail, but still trying to work the picture up as a whole, and then the final stages is to unify it, get the relation between tones and colour right. I paint both opaque and use glazes too, working wet into wet. Sometimes dry brush work too. It takes ages!
In your last exhibition and in 'Cover', they feature paintings of photographs from places you have travelled to overseas in recent times. How much of a role does travel play for you in producing work?
I get so inspired from travel, it’s ridiculous. Perhaps because the very start of my work comes from photos I take of stuff I see out in the world, like this show has a picture of an outdoor table from an Airbnb at Joshua tree, a cyclone fence gate with green garden mesh at an empty lot in Chelsea, the gallery district in NY, and a picture of coloured light falling on a tiled floor in a museum. I think there's something about being in a different, unfamiliar place that is so amazing for observation, finding things. In Sydney I tend to take the same routes and visit the same restaurants. It's not usually very exciting. I mean the cyclone fence could have been anywhere but there's something about travel that makes you open to seeing.
Can you talk about your Airbnb stay and the table you’ve painted?
I stayed with some friends at 'Gramma's', and it was pretty wild, and well, affordable! It was owned by an elderly woman and it had lots of crazy sculptures and furniture in the garden, some with Christmas hats on. She had a stuffed man, like a scarecrow sitting in a rocking chair on the deck - I think to keep away anyone up to no good. Yeah, but it was pretty eccentric and great. I took a photo of a table with a glass top and squiggly coloured legs. There was lots of this furniture all over the garden, maybe a family member made them? Much later I decided to make a painting of this table, I think I loved the symmetry of it with the black vase in the centre of the glass top like a fulcrum, and the two receding planes in the picture - the glass top hovering above the gridded paving. The squiggly legs are like some funny loose gesture on top of this grid - it’s like an illustration of a painting. So there's a bit of whimsy, a bit silly, but it’s also a bit bleak, everything’s dusty from the desert, and random stuff around the yard.
You’ve been lecturing at UNSW School of Art & Design recently, are students still interested in painting?
Are you kidding? Everyone wants to paint! Or draw. I really try to get them to do other things, explore things they don't know, haven't tried, and making a painting is usually last resort. Ha. I'm not a good saleswoman.