One hour on the telephone with the Sydney-based painter and sculptor.Read more
Words Laura Bannister
This is the final instalment in a special, four-part interview series featuring contemporary Australian artists selected by Museum, supported by Calvin Klein. Here, we speak with painter Kate Tucker, whose recent paintings function almost as something else entirely.
In the last year, Kate Tucker’s paintings have shrunk. They have, in fact, significantly reduced in size—some, such as the small, rectangular Holding Pattern 13 (2017) are a mere 13×12 cm, both shorter and skinnier than a classroom ruler. In tandem with this palpable shrinkage, Tucker’s works are infinitely more complex, and arguably, more pleasurable to experience. They are layered with found imagery that is deconstructed or obscured to the point it becomes unrecognisable—another abstracted shape, a manipulated element that exists only within the whole—or with digitally printed cotton overlaid with acrylic and oil. Their canvasses are frayed and cut and bandaged in linen. They are sometimes accompanied by glazed earthenware supports. They are sometimes given frames, which are made from fabric and painted too. To spend time with these works is to watch small considerations and shifts in the artist’s material language reveal themselves, sometimes over a long period, sometimes all at once.
We spoke with the artist, who graduated the better part of a decade ago from the Victorian College of the Arts, about the subtleties of her studio practice.
Artworks courtesy the artist and Daine Singer, Melbourne. All works photographed by Matthew Stanton.
LAURA BANNISTER I’d like to begin by asking you about your tablets: the unevenly shaped, ‘slab-like substrates’ that you exhibited late last year at Daine Singer. When I first saw their shapes, they felt reminiscent of a prop Moses would hold in a film from Hollywood’s Golden Age; a small, revered site of transcription and record, its weightiness both real and suggested.
In a way, while your mark making on these tablets doesn’t take the form of legible text, it does seem to function across them all like a kind of language. Would you agree?
KATE TUCKER I’d been working with multiple layers in my paintings for a while, cutting, sewing and collaging linen, and building up layers of acrylic mediums to create physical depth in the surface. The paintings naturally became thicker until they were slab-like, at which point they started feeling more like objects than paintings. This idea was extended further when I started propping them on small sculptures and leaning them against a wall. As the layers accumulated they developed softer edges and a sense of material ambiguity. I created them in series’—instead of waiting for layers to dry I would move onto another work. I consciously pushed each work in a different direction; if one work was becoming dark I would push the next one lighter, if one was dense I would keep the next one sparse. That push-and-pull [effect] shifted the emphasis from each individual painting onto a conversation between works. They did start to feel like ancient tablets, but they were also similar in shape to laptops or iPads. They came to represent general containers for information and language, much of which seemed to form while I was doing other things. This has been an ongoing interest: trying to trick myself into making paintings without consciously driving them, looking for the experience of the work making itself.
BANNISTER I wonder what you perceive these tablets as. Are they painting or sculpture? Are they collages?
TUCKER I’ve always been interested in combining different media in such a way that each component maintains an element of its original materiality but also acts like something else. There’s an ambiguity around what something actually is, what it weighs, what each different material is doing. If you employ a process that is both random and methodical, by taking every element a little away from its natural state, then taking that group of elements another iteration away from that, the process can be very exciting. In the finished work, you have to look beyond the surface to try to pick apart what’s gone on. I’m interested in encouraging that critical way of experiencing something. They are paintings that look like collage/sculpture, collage that looks like sculpture/painting. They draw on [elements of] all of it but deliberately resist any absolute label.
BANNISTER I’m interested in the borders, which are plaited or twisted and often extend the markings of the canvas. Sometimes, as in Various minor kinds (2016), are partially bound by what appears to be calico. What prompted the decision to use these borders? (I’d love for you to be as specific as possible—do you perceive them as essential to the success of the work? Do you ever see them as mirrors?)
TUCKER I’m interested in presenting multiple iterations of one material or form side by side. That’s a big part of how the works build. The borders were a logical extension of that process, taking the calico from inside the painting and manipulating it around the outside. The plaits create a more challenging base for the paint, forcing it to move in different ways. But more importantly, the border pulls the eye to the edge—it is both part of and separate to the rest of the painting. This idea of something being simultaneously in the painting and outside of it also plays out with the sculptural feet, which echo elements of the painting while being physically separate. It’s as though they have fallen out of the picture plane and now support it. People have told me they felt like they were looking at a series of windows, and mirrors make sense too. There’s something about keeping openness in each work and the repetition of the series that invites those comparisons.
BANNISTER Have you made any tablets without the borders?
TUCKER Yes, in a recent series of recent small works I wrapped the linen and calico around the back of the board instead of the front, so you could see the folded edges, creating a different kind of frame and sense of containment.
BANNISTER This sort of ‘breaking out of the frame’ continues in your Cuttings series from 2017, which use braided raffia to construct the frames. In Laura Couttie’s catalogue essay, she likens these to an early Picasso assemblage, Still life with Chair Caning (1912). I wonder if you see these works as part of a bigger history that re-imagines or eradicates the traditional ‘frame’, one that extends back to early modernism.
TUCKER Modernism is definitely an influence, and I have an ongoing interest in the use of domestic or craft materials and practices in the context of painting. It comes back to that struggle between the head and the hands. Wrestling linen into a plait and wrapping it tightly around an unfinished painting has parallels with the cognitive process of trying to refine and articulate ideas. Artworks have roots to all parts of the artist’s experience, not just the studio or other artworks. I find myself continually attempting to find that edge between just being and creating or constructing. Frames create context, almost summarising what is within. I found myself wanting to subvert that, as though the painting was contained by its own innards.
BANNISTER Tell me about what you are making in your studio at present.
TUCKER I’ve just moved studio so I’ve been going through a process of choosing what to keep and what to lose, and considering how I want to set up for the next phase. There’s a kind of mental consolidation that happens when you’re forced to put the fun bit aside for a stint and sort out the peripheral stuff. I’m not letting myself start working on my next show until I’ve chucked out all my old brushes and dried out paint and gone through my inbox!
BANNISTER I must ask about what you find most comfortable and conducive to work in—what you are wearing when you are painting. Did you have a similar uniform when you were a designer?
TUCKER I lack discipline when it comes to studio clothes, as a result most of my clothes have a little bit of paint on them, but not enough for it to not look like legitimate workwear, more like I’ve recently made a mess. I don’t remember what I wore as a designer, but I think there was a sense of needing to appear professional, a pressure that artists are thankfully mostly exempt from.
BANNISTER When I say Calvin Klein, what’s the first association you have?
TUCKER I used to read The Face when I was a teenager and those Kate Moss CK ads typified the image of mysterious, fragile 90s kids. I remember [wondering], ‘Who are these people and where do they live? What is her life like?’ Meanwhile, my understanding of underwear didn’t extend past wearing a purple tie-dyed granny slip over flares.
BANNISTER What prompted your move to integrate digital printing?
TUCKER Years ago I did multimedia design. I was drawn to it because of how easily you could transfer something across different platforms, make it move, make it 3D, make it interact [with. I’m interested in bringing that mutability over to painting, traditionally a much more finite medium. You can embed a sense of time into a work, by making, documenting, printing something and then using that as a base for a new painting. It creates an interesting loop. My paintings often play with a distortion around order—when there is a chronology that’s readable through layers of materials, it invites subversion. I think it comes from a desire to keep openness in the experience of painting, not to be bound by a timeline where the canvas starts off white and ends up with an image on it. I want to turn it all inside out, creating relationships between forms that rebel from expected material constraints.
BANNISTER Is discomfort a word you’d ever associate with your practice?
TUCKER Definitely—lots of discomfort. For me, intuitive making is valuable but it needs to exist within an overlay of intellectual discipline. The challenge is drawing those things together, otherwise you risk them running off in different directions, leaving the work in a nowhere land. It’s almost rhythmic, the swing between trying to control and direct the process and letting go. Too much thinking can create paralysis, but not enough discipline around the making can result in work that stagnates. I think part of the drive to make art—for me, anyway—is trying to reconcile the conflict between what’s in the head and what is possible with the body.
BANNISTER There is an interview from a year ago in which you explain how motherhood reshaped your approach to painting—it helped you stop overthinking, and you found a new joy in your work. Can you expand on this?
TUCKER Parenthood creates such a struggle around time. It helped me cut so much fluff out of everything I did. The downside is a sense of ongoing pressure, that there is never enough time. It can become hard to lose yourself to a process. But parenthood pushed me to learn that you can’t sit around waiting for magic to happen. Making work is about discipline and persistence and you have to squeeze a lot creativity out of not a lot of fuel. I think that’s a hugely positive thing; it’s taking control, not letting circumstances dictate what you can achieve. And there’s no time for self-doubt … It comes down to perspective, I guess, and having a sense of identity outside the work too. Any project has got to feel really worthwhile or it’s hard to justify doing it. I think that creates quite a healthy context for making art.