Kathy Venter - interview
From the Ground Up
An interview with Kathy Venter and John K. Grande, guest curator for Kathy's Gardiner Museum exhibition 'Life'.
JKG The great beauty of sculpture is that it can engage us in the space we live in. It also captures time future and time past in the present. Can you tell me what drew you to work in three dimensions initially?
KV A love of sculpture and an inherent ability to do it. They were both just there.
JKG So craft and technique play an important function in your sculpture?
KV Yes — I build my sculptures from the ground up in a simple extended pinch method — in the manner of building a vessel — which I adapted to suit the specific challenges of creating figurative life-size works. Unlike George Segal, Duane hanson, or Manuel Neri, I don’t make use of any life casts, moulds into or over, or modelling over an armature. As I work exclusively in clay, which has to be fired, I build my figures up to 15 per cent larger than the model so they can shrink to life size after drying and firing.
I have a respect for the basic fundamentals of craft existing in the sculpture of all societies. The argument of art versus craft has traditionally had very little relevance in most societies and I believe that this argument has run its course in the contemporary debate. We have to remember that the word “art” comes from the Greek “ars,” which means craft. So during a period of high art, the best craftsmen were valued.
JKG In fact, your sculpture, because of the medium, consistently straddles what could be considered craft and what could be considered fine art.
KV My work has only been exhibited in contemporary fine art galleries. The popular definition of the vessel as craft is seriously challenged in my art as the hollow clay form created in the making of these sculptures has no practical function and the outside form is obviously sculpture, i.e., fine art. But the technique of pottery making is the fundamental process in creating these pieces. We are almost embarrassed today to be craftsmen. The prominent artists of our time — Damien hirst, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Ai Weiwei, Marc Quinn, Rachel Whiteread, and many others — are the originators of their concepts but they need teams of technicians and craftsmen to realize and execute their ideas. I am adherent to the philosophy that the well-made object, by the artist, has an intrinsic value and is the preferred method for extending the language of art. In the process of making the sculpture — new things are discovered. This growth and transference cannot be accomplished by an intermediary. We often, now, search for inspiration in obscure influences rather than re-evaluating the accomplished examples achieved in the great periods of classical Rome, Egypt, Greece, the European Renaissance, and the Sung Dynasty in China.
JKG There is this kind of re-identification with the classical in the six series you are presenting at Toronto’s Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art. And yet coming from the margins, with such an awareness of the decentralization of art — stylistic, political, geographic — you have seized on these creative mythologies, what you call Metanarrative, that situates your art in the historic flow and perceptual reinvention of art throughout time . . .
KV Yes. The thread which connects all the series could best be described as Metanarrative because the five series have their initial concepts drawn from the great stories of our humanity, stories of myth, religion, ritual, and legend. At the same time these sculptures are equally derived from my immediate surroundings and experiences on Salt Spring Island. I am creating a story within a story so to speak. I’m rethinking how to tell the stories of today without overlooking the rich visual and conceptual history of the past.
JKG And yet they echo classicism, but they are from our times. This idea that the past and the present are always in flux is fascinating.
KV Conceptual and installation art are also about our stories. Reassessing the relevance of the time-tested great works of the past, I would like to connect the ancient stories and rituals of our humanity with contemporary life. I don’t have a strong grip on reality. I keep sliding off into beauty and truth. These series weave ideas, with sources other than surface reality.
JKG Removing the boundaries between art and life brings with it a reification of art’s place in life, a very contemporary idea of art. We present narratives in art today that distort, dislodge, and hybridize the classic or even modernist discourse. If we think of Peter Voulkos we think expression based on primary experience, whereas Mimmo Paladino will draw on ancient myths, classical themes, to reinvent them. Today’s art is more passive, a layering of materials and references, more media influenced than material culture. The collapse of Wall Street and other sacrosanct concepts are equally evident in the collapse of a predominant aesthetic for our era. Your work though classicizing in its look is very much part of the conversation on contemporary art today.
KV Whether in installation, performance, or sculpture, or any one of the many forms conceptual art takes, many artists today believe that our rich visual heritage is a good source for reintroducing and advancing the language of art. From the dawn of time there has been the narrative: by the Shaman, by the egyptian artists, the Chinese and european artists to tell their stories and to engage fully in the religious and spiritual world. In that sense all art is narrative. even when representational images are absent, as in the work of Mark Rothko, a spiritual story is told through colour. Conceptualism, performance, installation, and new media, influenced by the philosophies of Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, and Andy Warhol, are some, but not the only, ways of effectively expressing the complexity and depth of the stories of humanity.
JKG The veiled figure of a woman who sits in front of a classical façade of columns, some broken, has a child in front of her. The inference is almost Biblical. As art these pieces are instant archaisms that suggest symbols at one point in culture and time, achieving a new meaning as a result of social and historical transformation most of which we are not aware. They occur subtly, almost invisibly over the centuries. In the Metanarrative Series, the installation Metanarrative is about permanence and impermanence, the devolution and reinvention of cultural signifiers for each particular point in time.
KV For me the veiled figure suggests a disconnectedness from the past, the crumbling columns behind her and an inability to “recognize” the future . . . a figure in stasis. The child before her suggests where the strength of our humanity lies. Things change in a post-colonial society like South Africa, where I grew up, and they are reinterpreted over time. I remember returning there and seeing an old colonial silver-plated sugar bowl. It was corroded and dented, but it was still used to hold sugar. Its meaning was transformed, as well as its cultural context. Its character had changed. It was pretentious before, when it was shiny and silver. Without its lid, now tarnished, it had become a completely different thing. That is what the slow action of society upon an object achieves.
JKG Over history there is an endless reproduction of motifs and figures. We come to know them as reflecting a certain culture. There is an ongoing flow.
KV It doesn’t matter what we do now, we are always in awe of what the Greeks and the Romans did and what happened during the Renaissance. We measure ourselves against that.
JKG You mentioned the transition from South Africa to Canada’s West Coast was quite a long one.
KV In South Africa I was working on more simplified figures. That feeling of containment, of restrained power — in other words “might” rather than power. Power is something that acts. Might is potential just resting there in one place. The volume inside the work formed a pressure on the outside line. There is a feeling of tension or pressure between that outside line and the surroundings.
As a South African the issues of the day influenced my artwork more than contemporary sculpture has. The demoralizing and oppressive system of apartheid had an effect on all of us. The experiential knowledge of living with such violence, poverty, and suppression has and will always inform my artwork. It afforded my work a respect for context and truth and my work is different from my peers because of it.
The years before our immigration, my husband Deon Venter gave up his position as lecturer in South Africa to teach in one of the homelands — the Ciskei. We spent our last years there — at Fort hare University — the alma mater of Nelson Mandela and many other leaders of African countries. There were student boycotts and beatings in the street next to our house. During this period we felt there would be no end to apartheid — we decided to leave for a democratic future for our children.
JKG And I believe the Chinese Qin sculptures made for the emperor actually changed your technical direction as a ceramicist early on.
KV While doing my MFA at Port Elizabeth School of Art and Design in South Africa, I developed a method of building life-size figurative pieces, in clay. I began working from the ground up — initially creating a simple vessel-like figurative form in a coil and pinch technique, beginning at the feet — shaping the wall of the vessel to describe the ankles and calves, letting these stiffen to carry the weight of the next layers of wet coiled and pinched clay. This method developed when I saw the hollow interiors of the broken sculptures of the emperor Qin’s buried army of terracotta warriors. I refined this technique further by using small pellets of clay. This opened up the possibility of building more complex forms.
JKG Your lecturer Hylton Nel influenced your early South African pieces.
KV He would show me a Chinese sculpture or bowl and simply say “look at this.” The language of art is visual. he taught me to build on that. hylton was very connected and eclectic. There was always this excitement of discovery about him.
JKG You encountered children who made tiny figures at the Hogsback near Alice in South Africa. Their sculptures were an immediate response to the primary experience of life there, with no exterior or learned referencing . . .
KV There were about seventeen children who supported their village by making small clay sculptures of animals. They were an immediate response to the experiences of their environment. Walter Batiss, a local professor of art and painter, gifted some of these to Picasso who admired and collected them. even if these sculptures were made on site with no knowledge of what art is, or potentially can be, these tiny sculptures are high art and ultimately spontaneous.
JKG So Marcel Duchamp had not penetrated this village in South Africa then! Mythology cannot be recreated. It has to be reinvented but yet it shares universals that are always there through time. Joseph Campbell has talked of the social specificity of signs, symbols. As he once commented, “every mythology is an organization, consequently, of culturally conditioned releasing signs, the natural and the cultural strains in them being so intimately fused that to distinguish one from the other is in many cases all but impos- sible.”1 These children with their clay figurines are creating forms in response to their own cul- tural and natural matrices, and yet they can be understood by all cultures. These sculptures are an unselfconscious response to life, part of a live culture. They simply are.
KV That is right, and like mystical realism mythology is not separate from daily life. There is no dividing line. For example, mythical beings in Africa are very real to indigenous peoples and are feared.
JKG The heads you refer to as the Ostraca Series, present only fragments of the overall human body. As the artists Anne and Patrick Poirier have commented, “Ignorance or the destruction of cultural memory brings in its wake every sort of oblivion, falsehood and excess and that we must, with all the modest means at our disposal, oppose this generalized amnesia and destruction.”2 Your Ostraca sculptures look archaic, yet come from our times, and they become a comment on the way we interpret a meaning or significant form, and can even generalize based on limited information, the removal of a context as much as a memory of place.
KV “Ostraca” is derived from a word used for shards of pottery that contain a trace of their original art form, or inscription, and are valued as such. The rendition of the head as a part of the body is valued in the same way. In Roman times these broken shards were used to cast votes at the birth of democracy. I’m playing with time in a way.
JKG These young women who served as models are not famous, not cult personalities. In fact they are from the community on Salt Spring Island where you live. It raises the ante on value of the person.
KV When I began the heads, I was thinking of Roman portraits from antiquity — of emperors, their wives, and generals. My models, however, are waitresses and students from my community, yet I attempt to render their portraits in the manner of those of antiquity. There are two ways of reconstructing the past — that of the historian and that of the artist; the latter intuitively and mythically aims to define our emotions and experiences in view of the eternal concepts in ancient art.
JKG Yet the names in the titles of the heads remain mysterious...
KV They are the names of places in South Africa I have loved — but the people attached to those names are here in my community.
JKG The most recent work for this show is Woman Drawing (2012-2013) and it marks a new departure. It’s got this very earthy woman who sits there so solid in her armchair while a younger woman is crouched in front of her, drawing. The sculpture is an object with a subject. It’s also a scenario, as were George Segal’s or Duane Hanson’s sculptures from the Pop era. Do you see it as a metaphor for the stages in life?
KV More than that — Woman Drawing is a metaphor for the process of making art. There will also be a figure crouching on her knees, drawing the woman in the chair. There is a feeling of humility and reverence that is part of this acute observation. They are both nude, equally exposed. One physically, the other intellectually.
JKG Isn’t one of the keys to monumental sculpture the simplicity and truth of the conception? Then everything else follows . . . The duality of the process is recognizing what is around you, and to then see inside yourself, draw the two together. And as a pair, do you and Deon feed each other as artists?
KV We discuss ideas for days, and it can happen throughout. You are at a crossroads. Sometimes the answer is technical. You change that and go on a different tangent. It is one process. My entire life’s work is one work of art. I’ll never get to the end of it. I’m satisfied with that.
JKG Another recent piece is the sculpture Tokai (2012) of a reclining woman. While superficially she recalls Marino Marini’s sculptures, the pose is completely informal, out of synch with classical statuary, more like a figure from Pompeii. You give a twist to the classical that influenced your work. All reference points have been removed, and this makes it all the more universal, as is the human body.
KV I take the approach of depicting the living persona, without generalization or objectification. The model is a young woman who had just had her baby. The breasts are heavy with milk, her body still block-like from childbearing. The body as seldom seen in a nude. The contentment in the figure is almost bovine.
JKG And for the One Series (2009) I believe you used someone who has been in your daily life since coming to Canada?
KV I have known the model since she was a child and made this series as a study of the transition from child to woman.
The composition of each work is balanced, ordered and rhythmic, diverting attention from itself, to the quiet confidence of the sitter. The absence of clothing or hair ornamentation places the sitter in the continuous present. This is the same human form of the past, present, and future. There is (in spite of naturalism and clear detail) a strong sense of presence and a shameless, generous invitation to ponder all aspects of form and personality.
The model posed for this series over long hours in the studio, where there is no mystery of heightened awareness — only work and thought.
In the making of these works there is a participation in the life of the subject, a view of the collective through the singular, within the silent dialogue between the model and myself. There is an ancient discipline of creating an artwork between artist and model and it is one which can never be fully explored, in face of the limitless diversity of the human form and psyche. The individual, her presence and attitude are life affirming, the rounded full form of an adult woman. Abstraction, which I believe to be an essential part of my own or any artwork, is introduced in the surface treatment, a casing from which the figurative forms emerge, enhanced and invigorated by this escape. In some works this abstract form holds limbs captive in the same way they are held in the mould casing as it is chipped away to reveal the sculpture inside — a metaphor for the gradual development of the sitter into adulthood.
JKG The Coup d’Oeil Series (2012) brings together a grouping of figures. The presentation is classic and formal . . . and there is a suggestion these figures are part of a larger story we cannot see, we can only infer.
KV They are a group of young adults that reference the Amakweta, the male candidates of the Xhosa initiation ceremonies and the stories of their ancient ritual of circumcision, body paint, and period of isolation before rejoining the tribe as full, adult members of the Xhosa society. In Coup d’Oeil the gaze these young women have is united, all turned to one point. It relates to a small ivory in the Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in which the figures of the Apostles, standing close together, were united in their gaze — possibly looking at Christ. Although so small it is a very powerful image.
JKG And so this is about how we interpret a meaning, how we read the physical, three-dimensional world, and how we build a story. Your models for this series actually know each other in real life. They are islanders and part of this community. So there are many layers to Coup d’Oeil.
KV Yes they could have lived ten thousand years ago or they could be from our times. My intention is for these figures to have the appearance of life itself, in its own process of coming to be. They’re universal. This group sums up all my intentions for my sculpture of the past ten years. It unites the influences and experiences of South Africa, the tribal adolescents out in the Eastern Cape bush, my exposure to the Australian Aboriginal art and body painting of emily Kame Kngwarreye, and the traditional art of the West Coast First Nations people with the spiritual, prayer-like rituals woven into these, as well as the Tanagra sculptures I viewed at Montreal’s Musée des Beaux-Arts. At the same time it explores the transition of the young girls of our community into women and the bonds of place that unite them.
Their attention is focused on something unseen by the viewer. This glance takes us into the arena of possibilities incomprehensible and beneficial, frozen in the moment of this mystery. Their presence is a sacrament — the simple, solemn presence of being — as ancient as it is contemporary. The body is also a surface for decoration in all Aboriginal societies. Once the figure or body is decorated it transcends the wearer’s physical constraints and enters a heightened, ceremonial or spiritual context. Their focus, unity, individuality, and state of non-objectivity, is as ancient as it is contemporary. Coup d’Oeil is a glimpse. The military use of the term incorporates the idea of gaining a lot of information in one quick glance. In the sculpture these are no longer only contemporary young women from my community, but a perception of truth, a symbolic absolute and a concentration of power.
The application of cement, plaster, and colour, then sandblasted, refers directly to the Tanagra terracotta figurines, which were painted with white slip, coloured, and then left to the abrasion of being buried for thousands of years. I have translated this into a personal and contemporary idiom by adding texture but maintaining the colours as we see them on the Tanagra figurines today, pale blue, pink, yellow, charcoal, and white.
JKG Marginal is central to today’s art. It is what feeds the great markets and cities of art. The mainstream has always fed on the marginal. Ceramics is less framed by contemporary art theory than other art forms precisely because its perpetrators from Viola Frey, to Peter Voulkos, and others escape the bounds of contemporary art theory. So you don’t believe that the artist can no longer do the heroic?
KV No — we have to keep in mind that when post–World War II artists made statements like that, they had just survived a war, which destroyed people’s illusions, destroyed europe, and 58 million lives. This criticism was not referring to the heroic political art of the past, but heroic concepts. Although there is constant upheaval today, that model, I believe, has served its function. Just surviving is a heroic process. Artists have the freedom to also show the enduring qualities in humanity, the strength within society as well as reveal our spiritual capacity. In this way the themes of our humanity are the visions of our poetic intuition and define our emotions.
JKG Your figures from the Immersion Series (2004-2006) physically hang in space. They are very dramatic. What fuelled the creation of these works?
KV The sculptures are made from studies of my models underwater. Water refers to another dimension, an altered state of consciousness. Figures in water react differently to sound, light, gravity, and movement. The human experience under water is cocoon-like — as if transformed back to the womb and in a private world of its own. The effect of gravity on the figure is diminished; there is free movement of the limbs and evidence of pressure from the surrounding water on clothing, hair, and face. Suspended by cables in space the sculptures can be viewed from all angles — including underneath — freeing the work from the traditional pedestal, form, mass, and weight of grounded sculpture.
The forms are light and floating. I am suggesting baptism in water and am creating a new image by interpreting a religious ritual. The spiritual image goes way back to two thousand years ago — this is my interpretation.
JKG And I imagine it was not easy to produce these forms?
KV To work the entire piece, right around, and keep the clay suspended was a supreme challenge. The clay stays wet to leather hard the entire time.
JKG Just as nature is a universal for all cultures, so is the human body. Your past is linked to your present through the human body. From apartheid South Africa to Canada. The South African experience was dynamic for the artists just as with eastern europe before the fall of communism. Creativity came out despite the containment, the restriction of freedom.
KV Right. People of a different political view were jailed — including Deon. People were interrogated and thrown from a high-rise window in Port elizabeth. You are watching an apparatus of state at a point of collapse. That is why I sought this even balance between beauty and truth. I needed to think that way in the studio in contrast to what I was experiencing out there in life.
JKG It is synchronous, both classic and contemporary. Don’t you feel it is a natural consequence? You mentioned Matisse who was painting Odalisques on couches while the Second World War was raging in Paris.
KV It’s the same thing. What he is saying is we are still human beings despite these circumstances. We are always under some kind of siege, but still desire to explore and appreciate all of life.