"I want the hint of something profound, otherworldly, maybe even humorous" : An Interview With Kate Petley
Kate Petley’s paintings and prints possess an aura. They radiate color and luminosity while maintaining a deep sense of mystery, urgency, and drama. I am pulled to them like a magnetic force. I love the many visual and conceptual languages that Petley’s work evokes, and am in awe of her ability to deftly incorporate a range of processes. Petley took time out of a busy studio schedule to talk with me about the importance of transformation, the role of photography, and her work as a printmaker, among other things. Here’s our conversation:
Liz Miller: Your works are magical, even alchemical, in the sense that materiality and process are translated to something wonder-inducing and impossible to easily categorize. In my mind, there’s so much aura and mystique in your work’s ability to transcend its own objecthood, to become something completely tangible and completely intangible at the same time. It’s my understanding that you work with the languages of painting, photography, sculpture, and/or printmaking to create these images. Tell us a bit more about your process—what is the situation like in your studio when you are making the work? Specifically, how does photography figure into your process and your finished images?
Kate Petley: Thank you for these wonderful comments, they are very moving and point toward a discussion that is too rarely opened up…the role of the numinous in contemporary art. While my work does hold that possibility, other references are also important. I have to say that, as I welcome these associations, I also resist them. Fortunately, abstraction holds these contradictions.
Transformation lies at the heart of my process, both for the materials and my intent for the finished work. I’m a process-driven materialist with a history that crosses disciplines, deliberately emphasizing positivity as an authentic position to contrast these unsettling times. Photography plays a major role in the development of my work.
I’ve always combined mediums, mixing photography and sculpture, painting, lighting, and found materials. Using ordinary materials continues to influence what I use for these impromptu arrangements, which are temporary and don’t survive the process. I like the tension between the materials and the background and what it does visually.
This work originates with a photographed collage-like arrangement that is faithfully printed onto canvas. Color and image are created in-camera without computer alteration, which is conceptually important to me. That includes the color, unaltered and fully present in the photograph.
I return to the surface with selective painting. Sometimes the image remains almost intact, resisting all but the most subtle additions.
Perception is jerked back and forth as the viewer resolves the image. It’s not easy to tell what’s paint and what’s not. I like the questions this poses. The overall flatness and lack of texture contributes to the fusion of paint and image, but that doesn't fully explain why the visual senses can be taken by surprise with the outcome.
The relationship between painting and photography interests me, not because of the ability of these mediums to represent objective reality, but for their ability to create a luminous surface. There is a long arc through art history, filled with endless approaches to the luminous surface. I’m interested in the references you’ve mentioned, like the intangible sense of experiential space. I want the hint of something profound, otherworldly, maybe even humorous. I’m compelled to keep searching for that.
Liz Miller: Color is on my mind--I’m currently reading The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair, and hoping also to revisit Chromophobia by David Batchelor. Although in some aspects your work has a minimalist bent, it pulsates with supersaturated, intense color—almost as if it is lit from within. How do you make color decisions…and how do you achieve this profound sense of luminosity?
Kate Petley: Color and light have an inseparable relationship and I'm looking for color that is physically remembered, as if it existed independently of the object or conditions it inhabits. I want the color to take on more responsibility. I’m responding as I work on the arranged construction, attempting to see it as the camera will, which constantly astonishes me. The camera has its own personality to contend with. The super-charged intensity of the light and color I’m using throw the images into uncontrollable territory, so experimentation is central to my color selection and the outcome is never guaranteed. Perfection as we might expect from a photographic image is denied in the environments I’m making. The coexistence of muted and intensely saturated color is one part of the challenge. Another is addressing the interruption that the forms impose upon the field of color; this concern is typical of painting.
The longer I work with this process, the more intently I push on the relationships between my color ‘habits’ and the structures and forms in the image….they float, lean, or resist each other, like characters acting out a dramatic scene.
In the end, I encourage the viewer to ask questions about what and how, but ultimately to care only about the experience they’re having. All artists want that personal experience of the work, over which we have little real control.
Liz Miller: You’ve worked with Manneken Press several times to complete series of monoprints, most recently in 2018. Talk a bit about how printmaking figures into your work—has it always been part of your practice? What have you gained from your time spent working at a professional printmaking studio?
Kate Petley: I began working with Manneken Press five years ago and I had never made a print in my life. There was much to learn and I’m grateful for the incredible talent of master printer Jonathan Higgins. He is incredible at backing my vision with his expertise. We completed our third set of monoprints in 2018 and this recent series is my favorite. It originated with my hand drawn graphite gradient, converted to an intaglio plate using photo gravure. Making the prints occurs on site at Manneken Press with Jonathan and me working together for long days. We are tired and thrilled at the conclusion, seeing the prints all together and realizing what has happened.
There is definitely a relationship to my studio work, both in the use of saturated color and the inclusion of shapes and structures that bounce against the color and sense of light.
Because my work has involved layering and the combination of materials, this gave me the ability to adapt to printmaking. I have learned many things from it, the most important of which may be restraint. Printmaking, for me, requires a disciplined level of restraint…. Not to attempt too much at once, to maintain clarity. It is more physical than I imagined, and decisions are made quickly on the spot. Color shifts with each run through the press and outcomes cannot be fully anticipated. It’s a dance.
I look forward to continuing this work with Manneken Press and I’m grateful for the opportunity to make these monoprints.
Liz Miller: I often hear digital manipulation discussed as if it is at odds with the idea of the handmade, but in your work you integrate digital and hand processes in ways that feel seamless—I can’t always discern what is digital and what is handmade. I love the precariousness of the relationship, and the sense of deep integration of processes to the point that they are lost in one another. How do you see the role of digital processes in your work, and how has the world of digital technology influenced possibilities for new work?
Kate Petley: Overall, the pace of my process is quite slow, flying in the face of what is typically believed about a digital interface. I make hundreds of photographs and present only a small number as canvases. It is quite intuitive. Time is necessary to establish the conditions that create the best outcome, mentally and physically, in terms of how I handle the process. The original photograph may translate differently at large scale than I’d expected. Anticipating this is one of the interesting aspects to using any digital interface. It’s rich with possibility and I like that open-endedness.
The slowness is particularly true for painting into that unforgiving photographic image. The illusion between the depth and the flatness of the surface generates a jump in perception. You’re right, it is a precarious relationship and I do work toward the elimination of any separation of mediums. I don’t think of them as being so different from one another. I don’t want that difference to matter because ultimately, I feel that the viewer’s perception should come from how it feels to experience the work and not what specifically caused the response. It’s still about presence.
Some years ago, I had ideas that I couldn’t execute because the technology wasn’t there or wasn’t remotely affordable. I’m happy that I can access what I need, that I live in a period where this is possible. Many options remain untested. My process leads to a painting, but it requires photography to get there. I will use whatever tools are required to keep working.
Liz Miller: Although I’ve only visited Colorado on occasion, the vastness of the sky, the beautiful sense of light, and the monumental mountain backdrop always makes such an impression on me—particularly as someone who has lived in a non-mountainous place most of my life. I see landscape in your work, albeit landscape that is highly abstract and intangible. There is something about the hovering forms and glowing color that makes me wonder how living in such a dramatic geographical location has impacted your work. Do you see a connection?
Kate Petley: The light in Colorado is stark, much whiter than in coastal areas, with more contrast. When I first moved here from Houston, the difference impacted me greatly. By comparison, I notice how bright it seems here when I travel.
I’m deeply connected to nature and the dramatic landscape of Colorado definitely affects me. But I’m not interested in using the landscape itself as a starting point. My work begins and ends with what is actually a personal experience of the conditions of being in this body, at this time, in this place, with this endless assortment of people and places moving in and out. These aspects are mixed into the way I see color and light as things and how I use form to define relationships.
Maybe I am that hovering form, floating out over the land, dreaming that its diverse beauty can be preserved. This is a hopelessly naive notion but one that I do feel. It’s perfectly fine if that is not evident in the finished work.
Liz Miller: What are you working on now, and where can we see your work in the future?
Kate Petley: Right now I’m working on new images, making paintings, and looking for changes in the process since they lead to bigger advances in the work….At least that’s my intention.
I have a solo exhibition at CU Art Museum opening Fall 2020 and I'm very excited about this opportunity, curated by Sandra Firmin, Executive Director and Curator.
Liz Miller: When you aren’t making art, where can we find you?
Kate Petley: When I’m not working, I can be found outside or if I’m lucky, traveling to someplace I love and looking at artwork. Travel makes my restless nature more tolerable.
Kate Petley is an American artist whose work addresses the subtleties of perception. Psychologically charged space is conveyed using luminous images with multiple references in a process that combines photography and painting.
Her work has been exhibited at the MCA Denver, Museum of South Texas, Nicolaysen Museum, Martin Museum at Baylor University, Museum of the Southwest, Diverseworks Houston, Center for Contemporary Art Santa Fe, and the Harwood Museum. Petley has been featured in thirty solo exhibitions and has completed numerous public commissions and installations. CU Art Museum will feature Petley’s work in a major exhibition in 2020.
Petley participated PhotoIreland 2017 in Dublin through an internationally competitive residency. She is the recipient of a Ucross Foundation Fellowship and an invitational residency to the Mayer of Munich Architectural Art Glass studio in Germany. Previous awards include an NEA Rockefeller Foundation Grant. Included in four issues of New American Paintings, she received a BFA in sculpture from the University of Utah.
Kate’s work appears in the collections of the Federal Reserve Bank Kansas City, Houston Airport System, the City of Houston, Texas Tech University Museum of Art, the Nicolaysen Museum, Polsinelli LLC Dallas, Chicago, Denver, and Houston; Fidelity Investments Boston and Denver, UCLA Hospital, Morgan Stanley San Francisco, and other collections throughout the US.