Erika Keck walking the streets of Manhattan.
I like looking at Erika Keck's paintings! They are kind of crazy, and full of energy and mystery. I appreciate her mindset, originality and work ethic. She coolly bounces between figuration, abstraction and suggestion with a real feeling for the physical qualities of paint.
I visited Erika's Bushwick studio, where we used to be neighbors, as she was preparing for a "little show" at Sugar. We were joined by her two chihuahuas, Penny and Cotton. Cotton was rocking the lampshade.
Joe Heaps Nelson: What's up with these paintings, Erika?
Erika Keck: I just follow my gut when I am making a painting, for the most part.
I think they are about a personal narrative. They are little bits and pieces of my life.
Nelson: Well they certainly look different from everyone else’s paintings.
Keck: My life is different from other people’s lives. These are quite a bit different from some of the older paintings I have been doing, definitely heading more towards formal abstraction.
Nelson: Although I know you dig and respect the tradition of painting, you are always trying to push the boundaries. Your paintings do things that people wouldn’t normally expect from a painting. Sometimes it looks like the canvas is trying to jump off the stretcher.
Keck: Actually, I have eliminated the canvas altogether. If anything, it’s just a big sheet of paint at this point.
Nelson: So you’ve been painting on the glass table, and then peeling off the dried paint and stapling it to the stretcher?
Keck: They’re not even stapled, they’re just hanging there. I like the fact that the paint has become the object.
Nelson: In your last show you were really using paint in a sculptural way, but this is even a step further. What about this? This one has oil paint…
Keck: Gooping up all over the sides!
Nelson: It’s increasing the dimensions of the painting.
Keck: Yeah, definitely, I thought about it as a sort of a growing thing. It kind of starts as one thing, and keeps going, until eventually it’s probably going to fall apart and collapse on itself. There’s something interesting to me about this process of repetition, and building, and trying to make something bigger and bigger until it totally falls apart.
Nelson: Well, you can draw and you can paint too.
Keck: Yeah, and that’s something I keep going back to. I don’t want a singular process to my art. There are many different facets of it. I like the drawing element, and using the figure still.
Nelson: Sometimes you even make a painting that stays on the stretcher like a regular painting!
Keck: Yeah, the last show I had done, at Envoy, I really very consciously put paintings next to each other, and some were very traditional paintings, about the figure, and about markmaking, and creating a portrait in a way.
Nelson: Some of them are portraits.
Keck: Yeah, actually, I kind of see them all as portraits, whether it’s maybe someone I know, or maybe a certain spot I was at in my life, so it’s always referencing something. But how much of that I’m actually going to give away literally… probably none of it.
Nelson: Well that’s up to you of course! You’re giving information and concealing information, and that’s kind of what everybody does.
Keck: It is, and I think that right there kind of says exactly what I have been thinking about, more and more. I see my process of artmaking as this game of hide and seek. My friend Christy Singleton, whose studio is not far from here, always says I’m playing a fan dance kind of game, like a naughty little fan dance where you’re kind of half-revealing, half-showing. It’s a bit of a game! You’re right, it’s what most artists do. It’s this game of showing yourself and becoming vulnerable, but then at the same time, taking steps to almost hide yourself again.
Nelson: You’re the one who has control over how much you want to give away. I like the way this painting is in the corner, and it looks like the painting continues onto the wall.
Keck: Total coincidence! But I like that too, and actually I meant to do it.
Keck: I think playful is a good word for what I like to do, because I like that play, and that just comes out of experimentation. I like to keep experimenting with the paint and seeing where it takes me. I don’t like repeating myself too much.
Nelson: So you always need to figure out a way to put a new twist on it.
Keck: I love painting, and I love staying focused on one medium, and technique, and seeing how far I can go with that. If there’s anything I’m absolutely opposed to, it’s going any kind of mixed media or having too much freedom within the artmaking process. I like being trapped and confined to one technique, and then see how far I can push that technique. It’s almost like in order to get the most freedom, you have to have some rules.
Nelson: So you make up the rules before you begin.
Joe Heaps and Erika Keck posing for the art paparazzi.
Keck: I do. And I think the rules really are, I want to make a painting. And I love the whole history of painting, and I’m always kind of reaching back to it, and looking at it, and reinventing it, for myself anyway. I’m trying to keep pushing it somewhere that people haven’t been before. And I know it’s kind of a cliché, that a lot of painters do that, because it is so old, and quite honestly, it has all been done before. That’s what makes it fun. That’s why I like doing it over and over again.
Nelson: I suppose if you were going to try and make comparisons, to begin to describe this work to people who can’t see it, you might start with Francis Bacon.
Keck: Yeah, I get the Francis Bacon reference a lot. There’s definitely a lot of flesh, and blood and guts in the paintings. I think Bacon and DeKooning are huge influences on me whether I am conscious of it always or not. A lot of it starts there. I like that sort of beautiful and grotesque painting that both of them were able to make.
Nelson: Yeah, there’s sort of an outlaw quality… and a really, really gnarly material quality that your work shares with those guys. But this work is the product of a warped mind!
Keck: Is it that warped?
Keck: I guess I don’t see that. I just try to make work that’s honest to me. A lot of it is expelling my own anxieties and my own demons. There’s definitely a sense of release for me. It’s like struggling with a demon, and letting it out.
Nelson: I think that shows in the work, because it looks like you had an idea when you started, and it looks like the idea develops over the course of making the work.
Keck: When I start any painting I start with one little concept or thought, like this piece here, that was in the show at Envoy…
Nelson: This is a painting with layers of paint peeling off like the pages of a book.
Keck: Really it started from the thought of writing in my diary. It’s like these pages falling over, and really it was kind of an aesthetic thought. I like that it spilled over, and I started to add layers of paint, and it just built upon itself.
Nelson: To me it looked like the paint wanted to jump off the stretcher, and to me, it also evokes the shape of a butterfly, and it looks like it wants to float off the wall. This painting is so enthusiastic, the stretcher can’t hold it!
Keck: Exactly! I just like that this sort of fantasy, or imaginary thing, became completely real. It started as an illusion, or maybe a fiction, and then became a real thing.
Nelson: What about all the sexy stuff?
Keck: Sexy stuff? It’s all sexy stuff! I think it goes back to, people make paintings over and over and over again, and the same with sex. It’s all been done before, but we keep doing it! I just like the physicality, and the rawness that happens with the paint.
Nelson: What about the smell of the paint?
Keck: Oh, I love it! There’s nothing like the smell of turpentine in the morning!
Nelson: That’s right. But you have been using acrylic as well as oil.
Keck: It’s about 50/50 these days. There’s still nothing like the smell of turpentine in the morning. I might have to open the can, even if I’m using acrylic.
Nelson: OK, so these are paintings. What keeps them from being sculptures?
Keck: I don’t want to call ‘em sculpture. Because they are paintings.
Nelson: They are paintings. They are made out of paint, and they are all about painting and the accoutrements of painting…
Keck: To me, it’s not about this… It is and it isn’t about the three-dimensional thing. I do see the painting as an object, but it’s still about this thing that hangs on the wall, and it starts with the form of a painting. I start with stretcher bars.
Nelson: Did you start doing this kind of painting because you could only find 3 of the 4 stretcher bars?
Keck: Um, no.
Nelson: That might happen in my studio.
Keck: It really kind of grew into this because I wanted a painting that initially was just on the wall, and it looked almost like the paint escaped off the canvas.
Nelson: You’re getting there!
Keck: I think the initial ones were that, where there really wasn’t the stretcher bar part of it, it almost became body parts that were kind of jerked off a painting or something, and layered on top of each other. That was in the Poison show that I did with Christy Singleton at Envoy. There were several obviously figurative paintings, like these body parts put together, almost like a puppet, made out of these different pieces of paint. That’s really kind of where it started.
Nelson: So you use a glass table, and you were cutting the paint off with a knife, and making that into shapes?
Keck: Shapes, or sometimes I was just painting a shape, and pull it up that way.
Nelson: So you were adding, or piece by piece building, a painting, on the wall, of paint that you mixed and painted on your glass table.
Keck: Exactly. I think building is a good way of looking at it.
Nelson: You are taking parts, and putting it together. The expressive brushstroke is an important part of it. I also see that you are working with color versus non-color.
Keck: These paintings here, which are still not titled, that I’m doing for the Sugar show, there’s definitely a quite literal DeKooning-type ab ex-type painting, but then it’s also very flattened out because of how it’s applied on the surface. It creates a weird tension. It’s almost an anti-mark, mark painting approach.
Nelson: That’s a weird description. The quality of the paint becomes a part of the form of the piece, as it sort of deteriorates or de-forms. The brushstroke is visible and expressive.
Keck: It kind of goes in and out. I think that’s something that I may be more aware of than the viewer, because there are all these other marks that are hidden behind the layers.
Nelson: There’s sort of a dialogue between illusion, and just… object.
Keck: Yeah. That kind of goes back to the theme of playing hide and seek. It’s almost like having this huge outburst of an expression, and then immediately, the next day denying the whole thing, and hiding it. I think the black on top of the figurative… I think unconsciously it reminds me of the Jewish tradition, when someone dies they cover the mirrors. Oh, we should look this up before we quote it, so we don’t seem insensitive! It kind of reminds me of that, but it didn’t deliberately come out of that.
Nelson: You can get all sorts of crazy associations when you are working, and that becomes part of what the painting is about, only because that’s what you’re thinking of while you’re working on it.
Keck: Right. I think that’s what’s fun about doing something more abstract, this way, as opposed to using the literal figure. There’s much more you can associate with an image like these paintings as opposed to something that’s a figure of a person.
Nelson: I guess it depends. Certainly these kind of paintings give your imagination a starting point, and there are a lot of different ways you can go from there. I’m sure you get various interpretations from people who are bringing their own experiences to what they are viewing.
Keck: That’s the fun part of viewing art. I don’t necessarily want to make something that’s going to create a very specific experience because otherwise I’d be making propaganda. I like jumping into the mystery, something that maybe puzzles me or confuses me, and that’s what’s usually going to inspire me to make something. I hope the viewer can have that same sense of wonder when they look at an image or object that I’ve made.
Nelson: Recently, it seems to me, you have begun introducing words into your pictures. That’s something that wasn’t there last year!
Keck: It wasn’t. I’ve been playing around in journals, and sketching with words, I don’t know, these drawings that I just did, I’ve been experimenting with words.
Nelson: Well it’s different but it seems to be a coherent continuation of your work, because the way you approach the material is playful and experimental.
Keck: The other thing is, I have done quite a few other drawings in graphite on mylar. I always kind of showed ‘em flat. One of the qualities I love so much about these graphite drawings on mylar was how it starts to look when you bend it and turn it a little bit.
Nelson: It’s shiny and you can wrinkle it up and it catches the light.
Keck: It looks like a piece of metal. I love that it really defies the material. It is this very delicate thing, but it’s hard and metallic and industrial looking. I always wanted to introduce that. I think doing the work with it, it’s almost an excuse to do these big areas of solid graphite.
Nelson: You can get some aggression out?
Keck: Actually there’s no aggression here. They are very slow and methodical. And I like that they don’t necessarily look slow and methodical. It transcends the material. I still don’t know where those are going.
Nelson: Well these drawings depend on light. The quality of light could make them look completely different.
Keck: Is that what makes a painting? Because I think, if I’m referencing anything as far as painting, it’s more about the abstract expressionists and the figurative expressionists of the last 100 years or so, if anything, it’s screw the light! It’s not about illusion, it’s about markmaking and gesture. It’s about the paint.
Nelson: Well in the paintings you have this real free quality going on, it looks like it comes from the unconscious, or at least there’s a real physical thing going on in there. These drawings are super tight, because you’re using text. It’s certainly a different approach. That’s really careful drawing, instead of controlled chaos.
Keck: But at the end of the day, it’s still controlled chaos. Because it’s still about this physical material, it’s just a different material, and I’m trying to see what I can get out of it that maybe isn’t so obvious. It’s really about getting those shiny spots on it, and those great gray spots on it, not out of illusion, but how I manipulated the form. It’s borderline pure formalism. I could just as well take the words out and just have a black piece of paper there… it’s really leaning toward minimalism.
Nelson: Yeah, which is something that your painting isn’t really doing.
Nelson: I think your painting is leaning toward maximalism!
Keck: I guess it is maximalism! But I think it really comes out of the tradition of ab ex, and minimalism.
Nelson: And, it comes out of the tradition of the avant garde, because you’re pushing the boundaries. Maybe somebody else out there is doing these same experiments, but I don’t know about that person.
Keck: Even if they are, it doesn’t matter to me, because it starts with my own personal need to do these things. I’m not worried about being the first one to do this. I’m sure someone has done it before, and I don’t really care.
Nelson: So you sort of invented your own techniques, or you came up with your own techniques to suit your needs.
Keck: I think that’s the way to put it, because as soon as I do this, there’s always someone who will send me to some other artist who has done something similar, and when you look at that person, even though they may have done something similar, you still see how they did it in their own way, for their own reasons.
Nelson: Do you ever experiment with enamels?
Keck: I have sometimes played around with enamels.
Nelson: What about spray paint?
Keck: No. I think I have an opposition to it, just because of the association with street art. It’s just not really relevant to me.
Nelson: That’s interesting! We could be starting some beefs right now!
Keck: I have nothing against street art, it’s just not who I am. It’s not relevant to me is what it comes down to. I’m a studio painter. I like coming out of the tradition of oil on canvas. I like to keep it focused, and simple, and right there, and then see how much I can complicate it.
Nelson: So how do you feel this work relates to your previous work? Do you feel like you are just making the same show over and over again?
Keck: I keep making the same show over and over again. I just keep saying, how can I make it different? It goes back to wanting to make a painting.
Nelson: Let’s see if you can explain to our reading audience about your approach. How do you come out with all these different results? There’s a whiff of conceptualism to this project, and when I say this project, I mean your career. You have painterly chops, but you aren’t interested in realism per se… or maybe this is more real than realism, because what I’m looking at is really real! It’s about materiality.
Keck: I would say, I’m almost extreme realism. Within that realism, it is about the realism of the material, and also the realism of, you’re not always exposing yourself. You’re not always being literal. To me, that’s the ultimate, in reality.
Nelson: In a way, this work is really literal, because what you see is what you get.
Keck: It is and it isn’t, because there are different things at play. There is the realism of the material, and the formalism of it, but there’s also a lot of metaphor, and allegory, and play, even if it’s just a personal kind of metaphor. I go back to these paintings here, that I’m doing for the Sugar show. This is a real metaphor. It’s really significant to me. It really came from a personal experience.
Nelson: I’m looking at two sheets of paint, one draped over the other, over a stretcher. The underneath one is flesh colored, and the top one is primarily black and white.
Keck: I guess this one is a specific experience, but more of a big picture thing, having a moment of being expressive. It’s like, I’m going to go out tonight and be drunk and wild, and hang out with my friends, and get crazy, and then wake up in the morning and just deny that the whole thing happened.
Nelson: So, the fleshy part is covered by the black and white part.
Keck: Exactly! So, to me, that is a realist painting. It’s almost like having too much fun, and then feeling a sense of shame the next morning.
Nelson: Where was I?
Keck: I don’t know, I passed out! I don’t remember!
Nelson: I like that, the blackout is covering up the memory.
Keck: It happens! We’ve all been there! Again, I still want that satisfaction of having a good painting. That’s what it’s all about, making a good painting.
Nelson: OK, we’ve been marveling about how the materiality relates to the meaning. What about symbolism? You paint a lot of sexy parts, mouths and orifices. How do these symbols relate to what you are trying to express?
Keck: I think a lot of that symbolism comes out of place of intuition. I think a lot of it is about vulnerability. Especially something like a mouth. It’s an interesting part of the body. It’s a spot where things come in, and come out. It’s like an exchange there, and it’s something that’s just kind of intuitively fascinating… A lot of it is, I think, fighting with a superficial element that we all share, and maybe looking for something deeper in it, and maybe finding it, and maybe not.
Nelson: Are you opening the doors of perversion?
Keck: I already opened that door. I’m well down that path. Perversion is great. It’s uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s honesty, or if not honesty, sincerity. Because I think there’s a lot of dishonesty in the work, at different spots.
Nelson: In a sensational way?
Keck: Yes. There are moments of exaggeration. Painting, artmaking, a lot of times it is about storytelling. That’s a big part of my process, and how I approach making a painting. It’s almost about using different lies, and techniques, to tell a story.
Nelson: So you could be revealing secrets, but no one would know.
Keck: Exactly, and that’s so exciting to me. And even if someone caught on to it, I could always deny it later on. I think that’s part of the game of what painting has always been. It’s about using fiction to get to a truth, or using truth to make a new fiction. There are veiled personal references in there. I’m not looking to deliberately make someone feel good from one of my pieces.
I think Robert Ryman said painting is about pleasure, something to that effect, I do agree with that, but I’m after a deeper sense of pleasure. Not a sense of “I feel comfortable here” or “I feel familiar here”, but an emotional response to something that makes you feel uncomfortable because you’re stepping into new territory. You’re feeling something new and different for the first time.
Nelson: That’s pretty ambitious, if you think about what you just said.
Keck: I’m OK with that. I’d rather aim for the moon, and probably land five feet in front of myself. At least I tried. The studio is a laboratory, not a factory.
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Joe Heaps Nelson is an artist and writer in New York City.