Spoons and Brushes by Rena Silverman

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The artist and her work. La Oreja, Oil and charcoal on canvas, 70 × 68 inches, 2012.

Keating Sherwin paints large, sculptural oil paintings of women. Preferring cooking tools to paintbrushes, Sherwin’s process is one of the most fascinating aspects of her work. She seems to wander in and out of consciousness as she moves around—often hovering on top of her canvas, paint tool in hand. Other times, she sits up close to her paintings, inspecting each detail, completely unmoved.

Sherwin’s work reflects two of her favorite muses: lips and women. Her lip series features frames of lone impasto lips, formed by blends of indigo, violet, blue and pink or yellow against a thick, white, dripping background. The women are darker with softer edges, but thicker lines. These women, often cut off at the hip, seem both feminine and masculine, always confrontational, at times angry and absent. Many of these women have been painted with one, irisless eye. Man in Black features a figure with an almost feminine stance, a dotted eyeball, and a raised middle finger seemingly gesturing towards the viewer.

Sherwin’s handling of thick, impasto globs of oil paint results in a gritty, naturalistic outcome. These strokes (be it brushstrokes or spoon-strokes) dance to the rhythm of her emotional state, and reflect the characteristics of her subjects on the canvas.

When I visited her studio in June, Keating Sherwin was been busy preparing for her first solo exhibition—You, Legend, which remains on view at Three Squares Studio—a gallery in West Chelsea that doubles as a hair salon—through the middle of September. The exhibition features a dozen works by Sherwin, all created in 2011 and 2012. The conversation below occurred in two stages, the first of which took place at her studio in downtown Brooklyn, the second of which occurred at the gallery in West Chelsea.

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La Muerte Blanca, Oil & charcoal on canvas, 52 × 52 inches.

Rena Silverman I noticed your process is highly physical. Can you tell me more about how you work?

Keating Sherwin I prefer to work this way because art tools are too limiting, too delicate. I’m learning more and more that it is just about mastering this goo that I have so little control over. I am a hands-on person. For me, it’s a matter of putting down and then removing, digging and carving out. That’s why you paint; you need to have that freedom.

RS I wonder how the materials you use—the paint, for example—contribute to this practice?

KS I have done a lot of with both oil and acrylic, but the gushy oil paint I love is that artist grade oil that comes in the can. I always wanted to sleep on a bed made of that paint. It’s so dense and it’s heavier than butter. It’s like triple creme. I love ordering giant cans of oil paints—the smell, the fatness of it, delicious. I could lie in it.

RS But, you started out with acrylics, right?

KS Right.

RS What led you to that transition, from acrylics to oil paints?

KS Acrylic wasn’t making me feel anything. So, I bought a tube of black and a tube of white and a tube of naples yellow and then I made my first oil painting, Man in Black, which was chosen to go up in the Bill Hodges gallery as part of a citywide competition and so I was sold on oils immediately. I entered the competition under LKS. But, I still had a lot to learn.

RS It seems you have changed your artist name a lot. You entered the competition as LKS, but were born Lindsay. Now you go by Keating and at one point, you went by The Sherwin Associates, which you have referred to as a “catalyst” for your work. Can you talk more about this?

KS Keating is my middle name. I just don’t like Lindsay. The Sherwin Associates, that’s my grandfather’s company, it’s a company that doesn’t have anything to do with art. I found a blue t-shirt with the company’s name on it in the attic, a t-shirt that has been with me my whole life, and when I found it, I thought, I’ll call myself The Sherwin Associates, like it would be my own little brand, a kind of middle finger to the overly-branded art world.

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RS It’s interesting, because a name like The Sherwin Associates doesn’t limit you to gender or individuality.

KS I’m all for androgyny, people. And anonymity. I think I will just keep changing my artist name forever to keep people wondering, What the fuck?

RS Wait, is that a spoon you are using right now to paint over that piece?

KS (laughter) Yes. I don’t know if it is a spoon because it is flat. I got it at the Kitchen Store in the Bowery. I love that store. That’s where all of my palette stuff is from. I feel like artist’s tools can be a little delicate. I grew up with my dad always in the kitchen, always up to something. On weekends he would be stewing and braising and chopping and he would give me odds and ends jobs. He never really said, “Okay, this is the recipe.” He’d say, “Oh, you want to make this?” He didn’t really say, “It has to be this way,” or “It has to be that way.” He was more like, “Cook it ’til it’s done.” So you’re not following a recipe; you are following instinct. And that’s the way I approach painting: dive in and figure it out.

RS Your oil paintings are so sophisticated for someone who just dove in and figured it out, you didn’t even major in art in college, right?

KS Well, I didn’t major in it, but I did take a drawing class sophomore year in college [at Georgia Southern]. But, no I wasn’t an art major, I was a Spanish and English major.

RS And nearly all of your paintings, except for the lips and the occasional Untitled (Woman), are in Spanish.

RS I notice that fingers seem to dominate your women. A flipped, middle finger is present in both Untitled (Woman) and in Man in Black. A ring finger bends in gesture in La Oreja. And the woman is making peace signs with her fingers in Headgear. Can you talk about your attention to fingers?

KS Fingers are gnarly, they are creepy, beautiful, and hard to paint, the way noses are hard to paint. For some reason I can reverse my mind and sort of squint my eyes and paint all these different hand positions that I see in my head.

RS What does the middle finger mean to you?

KS Libertad. Middle fingers express the freedom to paint middle fingers if you goddamn feel like it on a Tuesday. People shouldn’t take middle fingers too personally or seriously.

RS The middle finger dates back to the Greco-Roman world. In Latin and also in law, I believe the middle finger is referred to as the digitus impudicus, or the “shameless finger.”

KS I like digitus impudus_! (_laughter)

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One of Sherwin’s monosyllabic Lip paintings in progress at her Brooklyn studio.

RS What about this painting, La Muerte Blanca? This is one of the only seated figures I have seen in your work. The figure’s position feels very powerful, albeit sickly, with all those bones sticking out. What led you to paint her in this position?

KS This painting was based on a photograph from an editorial for Dossier magazine. I really liked this girl, so I started doing all these charcoal sketches. The painting felt constricted when I started working on it. So, I had to paint over the whole thing and kind of work from there. I realized I prefer when the lines are loser and based on nothing. I should have just looked at the image and gone for it, but I was trying to just draw it out. I find I work better when I just look at something and let it happen.

RS The lip series is fascinating.

KS Lips give you away more than eyeballs at times. It’s hard to hide your anger or happiness with lips because they are ungovernable.

RS And can you tell me about the titles of these lip paintings? DocAlChuck, and beyond?

KS Each lip in the series has a monosyllabic name, an easy name. It’s almost paying homage to Americana. Also, these lips have a feminine feel, but have masculine names, which lend them a bit of balance.

RS I have heard you mention in the past that you do not want to be viewed as overly feminine. And yet you paint portraits of women. Can you tell me more about this?

KS In the end it is pretty impossible to not make feminine work, as I am a woman. And I am ok with that. I’ve always done portraits of women. For me, it doesn’t even have anything to do with feminine or masculine anymore. I don’t even know the difference. I paint women because they are majestic creatures, while men aren’t as easy to my hand. When I try to paint men, my brain gets involved and things get lost.

RS How do you find your inspiration?

KS It finds me. In life, I notice humans as art. I’m really silent and observant, especially in groups. I’m kind of shy, I guess. I am always watching people because they are fascinating.

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RS And how do you take that to your work?

KS I take space to my work, both internal and emotional space. To let a piece be nothing and then be something; then destroy it, and somehow make it something again. And there are those unicorn pieces that just magically exist and I never even knew about them until they were sitting in front of me and I wonder, Who painted that? I’m so damn disconnected. I constantly black out when I paint. Sometimes, I don’t know when to stop.

RS Do you always listen to music when you work?

KS I like to have music going, but I don’t like to sit there and choose it. I like when someone is playing something I needed to hear, but didn’t know it. I have been listening to Chances with Wolves form the East Village Radio show, if you like mixes. They are totally unpredictable, new music, but old gems, which is kind of unexpected.

RS How does your environment—music, the studio you share with your boyfriend—affect your routine?

KS I do best when I’m on a schedule, but without a schedule. Does that make any sense? Maybe around 11am, I’ll start working. I like to do sketches, but I don’t necessarily paint from what I sketch. The sketches are separate, but they also kind of put things in the field. And then, towards the end of the day is when the good things happen. It is almost like there is so much inside of you that you have to get out and by the end of the day, you just sort of come swooping in with something really magical.

I used to think that being a painter meant you had to live this crazy wild life in order to get outside inspiration, but in that book, Inside the Painters Studio, every artist that you read about is regimented, a lot of them are at the studio from 9am to midnight. I get on my own ass when I’m not regimented, but sometimes the tension is good, it’s almost spatial. This tension then builds towards the beginning point of my process. One area I think I’m brave in, I will just start something not knowing if it’s going to be the greatest thing ever.

RS Given that, what are your thoughts about serendipitous moments?

KS I am always in control of my serendipitous moments.

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Keating Sherwin in her Brooklyn studio.

You, Legend was on view at the Three Squares Studio through September 9, 2012. To learn more about Sherwin, visit her website by clicking here.

Rena Silverman is a cultural journalist who covers and photographs the personalities and politics behind the New York City art world. She lives in New York City where she maintains a collection of rare books on typography.

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