In 1970, Shirley Kaneda left Japan to study illustration and painting at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan. Over the years, she has developed a resolutely graphic style of abstract painting that typically includes an amazing variety of bold patterns and bright colors in a single work. Yet, for all their complexity, these diverse images exude a great sense of calm, control and poise. For Kaneda is very considered and deliberate. She is also a lively and generous conversationalist; the many interviews she has conducted for BOMB attest to that. On the occasion of her second solo exhibition in New York, BOMB turned the tables and sent me to Kaneda’s Grand Street loft with instructions to quiz her about painting, abstraction, and beauty.
David Clarkson Shirley, you’re known as an abstract painter but besides painting, you’ve written regularly for BOMB Magazine, among others. How does your writing relate to your art work?
Shirley Kaneda My concern is in how we can revise painting. Most of us will agree the old values that were taught to us no longer work, but you don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water, we need to re-evaluate what works and what doesn’t and be able to explain why. My point is that there’s more than one way to do this. This is the general premise of my work, and I’ve supplemented this view with different activities such as writing, curating, or lecturing. I haven’t written much lately, though I’m always thinking about it. But I guess there’s a danger in voicing your own ideas, because you’re held accountable for what you say. (laughter)
DC I think it’s important for artists to write. The writing and reading and the lecturing are all a part of thinking about the subject. It’s an ongoing activity, though necessarily a provisional one.
SK Are there artists whose writing you respect?
DC Robert Smithson and Donald Judd. One was speculative and the other judgmental: their approaches couldn’t be more different. Shirley, it seems that visual pleasure, not conceptual theory, is an important aspect of your paintings. Is that a critical strategy?
SK Too much of what we see today is supposed to look like art, with an unfinished or rough quality that has an instant appeal. Sensuality is a physical sensation that’s denigrated for being effeminate and because it can’t be conceptualized. It’s these criteria that I question. I think women should claim its usage and not forever be beholding to the male gaze. So theory is important to me, but not as an a priori; do you mean to imply something like “beauty?” (laughter)
DC Yes, to me that seems an important issue for artists to address, and because of its materiality, painting is particularly well placed to do this. It seems to be one route through which you could redress the current imbalance of theory and concept to material. It also seems to be a route fraught with inevitable risks about slipping into retrograde aesthetic dialogue, into decorative effects. Yet 30 years of conceptual one-liners seems enough to me. Time for the sublime and some mystery.
SK Beauty is one of the marginalized and denigrated qualities that interests me. Most people think that “the beautiful” is synonymous with beauty, and part of the continuing criticism of abstract painting is whether or not it’s just decorative. The popular consensus is that beauty can’t be on the exterior and true beauty is always inner or hidden, because of its incredible “power.” Why can’t we accept it for what it is? I guess beauty needs to be controlled, because it’s used for manipulative purposes, but maybe it’s used that way precisely because its real potential is sublimated, because it does have the authority to change and challenge the existing order and affect our whole culture in an incredible manner, which is what Dave Hickey talks about in his Mapplethorpe piece, when he says the real issue wasn’t pornography, but how the pictures embody a type of beauty and that was what scared all those people. But with regard to painting, until we reconcile this issue of beauty within painting, it’ll hang around like an albatross.
DC It’s quite interesting to speculate about some notion of “strategic beauty,” a kind of seduction that objects can have in certain combinations of colors or surfaces. Commercial advertising is on the leading edge, I’d say.
SK The problem is that beauty can be insidious and hierarchical. It invades and takes over everything else so it frequently ends up simply beautiful; it suppresses meaning.
DC Do you see that risk?
SK Definitely. I think you can isolate beauty though. For example, my work deals with quantitative and qualitative differences by using distinct forms, mark-making, paint application, or colors. And some areas look ugly, some sensuous, some pretty, and so on, without implying a hierarchy or privileging one thing over another. Beauty is just there along with other qualities. If you’re not involved seeking a singular truth, not everything has to succumb to that beauty.
DC I guess at some point, any discussion of beauty entails the notion of an authentic response or an authentic experience of an object. Authenticity seems to be at odds with the sense of artifice that can be read from your paintings.
SK To differentiate things on the level of authenticity and artifice as dualities nowadays is questionable, because those kinds of distinctions ignore the useful content of each. I try precisely to question those dichotomies in my work. Do you think authenticity is synonymous with beauty?
DC On some level it is. Beauty is the phenomenon of the sublime where your sense of self is lost in the experience. Of course, there is something dangerously romantic about it. But I don’t know how I can express it, except that it’s a response that’s not self-conscious and there is no awareness of the elements that are constructing that experience for you.
SK Are you saying that beauty is always associated with a level of perfection?
DC Yes, at least temporarily, in that one initial moment when you are astoundingly awestruck and seduced by the work before any of your critical apparatus kicks in.
SK But everything can be authentic and inauthentic now because the magnitudes of our experiences have become so compounded that it’s difficult to draw the line between the real and the synthetic. How would you draw the line? There are definitely painters who take a consciously distanced view, and then there are those who still believe that they are making more authentic work because you can see the hand of the painter attempting to embody some meaning through materiality. Does that make it more authentic than my using tape to produce hard edges? I think those kinds of explanations are just not relevant to our experience of the world anymore.
DC It’s true. But the viewer of the painting ends up with some subjective experience nonetheless, whether it’s a slick plastic painting or some really tortured thing. (laughter) I’ve been wondering lately about whether or not a painting needs to provide a kind of articulated idea. Have you thought about that in relation to your own work?
SK I don’t know if you’re talking about an idea in terms of a message, but I think paintings and most art should be more of an experience. The audience has become mistrustful of anything in which the meaning of the work is not obvious: they want stuff they can get. Abstract paintings can certainly communicate ideas without resorting to illustrative methods, but our language intrinsically fails to deal with abstract relationships in an accessible manner. And since abstract painting by definition is not mimetic, there’s no way to fix the content. A painting’s meaning is what you can attribute to it. I invite the viewer to ponder, metaphorically, the ideas that concern me in my own work. I think good paintings always have some sort of concept that make them visually interesting, but it’s the experience that validates the concept.
DC What’s your relationship to formalist painting?
SK I think all paintings are formal. It’s impossible to get away from that.
DC You mean all paintings can be read formally?
SK Yes, but an entirely formalist approach is problematic. Formalism is a tool that I can use as a starting point, but the rules of formalism don’t have to be followed as a doctrine. I want to see whether there is something to be found by inverting the rules. After all, an abstract painting is a real thing in the world—it exists. You don’t have to rationalize it beyond that. Through this existence, you can explore those areas where meaning may be invisible verbally, but not visually.
DC Painting at a fundamental level is this materialist grouping of phenomenon. Though that’s only half the story. You give yourself great latitude to use many kinds of painterly elements. The works have this kind of fragmentary composition, very abrupt juxtapositions of patterns and different types of gestures. I wondered if you could talk a little about your inclusive attitude.
SK I’m a product of different cultures. My parents were originally from Korea, and I was born in Japan. I was brought up there and attended The American School until I graduated high school and then I came to the States. We spoke Japanese at home, while my parents spoke Korean to one another, and my brothers and I spoke English mixed with Japanese. I always felt incomplete, fragmented, because I wasn’t part of one culture. I didn’t experience any prejudice there; just always felt marginal. My parents didn’t enforce a strong Korean culture on us, so I learned to manage with this mixed bag and that’s why I’m interested in the in-betweens. Growing up this way taught me that I could take different known elements, or approaches, and use them not for their effects, but as a means. I try to incorporate as many known approaches as possible, to juxtapose them and find the gray area. It’s important to keep it fluid. To re-investigate, you have to consider everything, not just what was considered important historically. Of course, I make choices to suit my needs, but you have to question the hierarchy of where things stand.
DC What about the strategy of quotation and appropriation?
SK I love mystery novels, because it’s like trying to put together a puzzle. You never know what the outcome is. You have to speculate, and it’s not the end that you’re really interested in, but the process of how the mystery is unraveled. I think of my work like a mystery novel. My titles are often oxymorons, like Imperfect Errors. The viewer has to try and make sense out of different elements, like clues, and it’s that process that I’m interested in switching on. While quotation and appropriation look as if they’re present in my work, for me it’s just part of constructing the plot. Ultimately it’s not the focus of my work.
DC What’s the role of spontaneity for you?
SK I work the paintings out previously through studies, but only for structure and color. I have a fairly clear guide if I want to follow that, and when I first started painting, I did follow it precisely, but as I got more involved with the material qualities of the paint, I found myself making more and more intuitive decisions. An artist does have the right to change her mind, and that’s a theoretical position!
DC If you say so, Shirley. I heard that you use a computer to draw these studies that you mentioned.
SK No, I’d like to. (laughter) I’d like to be proficient at it, but I’m not at all. I know how to use a computer in a rudimentary way, but I’m not familiar with the programs. When you work with a computer there’s a different logic compared to when you’re painting. You’re just making an image with the computer, it’s really mechanical: it’s all effect and no affect. One of the reasons why I use a process that produces a collage-like effect is that it allows me not to have to follow a consistent logic. It’s the painting that dictates the order of its making and that translates into the logic of its space. Even though I get really fed up sometimes using tape, it frees me to paint each area independently. It also gives me time to make decisions about other areas.
DC You resolutely utilize non-figurative elements in the work, and I’m wondering why you retain that categorical approach? Why don’t you allow a full-blown illusionism into the paintings too, for instance? The vocabulary that is used in your work is always non-figurative. Why is that important to sustain that?
SK Oh, because I think it’s important to evoke different sensations or qualities in a non-literal and non-didactic manner. It gives the viewers autonomy to decide for themselves, what it is that they are looking at, thinking and feeling. When I was really young, I always found abstract painting compelling, because, for lack of any other word, it was a sublime experience. The experience was beyond language. So you had to think and try to decipher what this was. You couldn’t just rely on one sense to understand something or the world. As you see and reflect on these relationships of sensations and qualities, it leads to greater autonomy of the individual rather than forcing some false universal. If we accept language’s deficiency, it forces us to understand things differently and I think that’s something useful. That’s the reason I’m not interested in making literal images of women’s oppression, for example, but I think I can explore these issues differently and as effectively. I’m not interested in the Symbolist tradition, I guess. As an artist, I feel what is imaginable has to be stressed.
DC Abstraction, for me, will always be associated with a sort of critical doubt. You’re always faced with the question of what it is you’re looking at. However familiar abstraction may be to us at this point, it still retains that kind of momentary confusion about what it is we’re seeing, since there is no particular picture.
SK A particular picture produces a narrative and it’s hard to get away from that. There is a narrative in my work, but it’s not necessarily logical or linear.
DC Your paintings are resolutely flat, And yet that flatness which unifies the work seems to be at odds with the kind of fragmentary dynamic space collage allows. You said tension is important to you. Why is that?
SK Collage is an extension of pictorial space. In abstract painting, there has been this tendency to denounce pictorial space, to make it more flat, to reduce everything down to the plane. Although I’m interested in bringing back pictorial space, I also resist it, because it comes with a built-in logic. So if you mix that with something that is really frontal and flat, then you’re able to get a kind of space that’s neither, but contains both.
DC It doesn’t seem that subjective expression is particularly important to you.
SK No. But it is, in an indirect way.
DC Do you see your marks on your paintings as personally revealing, or is that whole concept a problem for you?
SK It’s problematic to create this myth of the artist as being a tortured self, and that that’s what creates a great personal body of work. I don’t have to justify what I make by saying it’s valid because it’s an extension of my emotional being; it already is. Maybe I’m interested in an impersonal personal! The viewer doesn’t have to know that I went through a cathartic experience to make a painting. I don’t want my work to be an embodiment of my subjective experience; that’s not the way I want to relate to the viewer. The forms and shapes, and sense of color are highly personal, but they don’t communicate that. I have different experiences that I want to be able to express or recreate, and if I make a painting that says what it is I want it to say, then I don’t have to make that painting again.
DC One of the things I like about your work is its lack of mechanistic seriality. Each of the paintings has differed significantly from the rest, although there is a formal vocabulary that the viewer can see being developed from one pointing to the other.
SK If the work deals with the notion of difference it allows for the bridging of dualities. It would be contradictory to that premise if I made a visually systemic body of work. Maybe when you become successful, the pressure of having to do shows five times a year makes you paint as if you’re on a production line. You end up with that kind of body of work. I don’t know, since I haven’t had the privilege.
DC Or the problem.
SK Yeah. Once you get into that, they’re paintings for consumption. It would be extremely unchallenging to me to have to make the same painting over and over again. I can’t see how that could sustain painting for me.