By CLARE GEMIMA March, 2023
Visiting Clare Kambhu’s Jackson Heights studio turned out to be one of the most rewarding conversations I have had to date with a painter in New York. It sounds minimizing to describe this artist merely as a painter, especially considering her almost ten year career in the City’s public school system educating students on how to create, speak and write critically about their own art. The artist’s familiarity with institutional buildings spans the majority of her young life as both student and teacher, and undeniably influences her paintings’ formal, and ideological inquiries. Kambhu’s observational oil renderings of roughed up chairs, used whiteboards, messy textbooks, grade cards, fingerprint smudges, and yummy oranges waiting for recess, all attempt to visually respond to her much larger train of thought; how are institutional spaces impacted by those they have been specifically built for?
In this interview we discuss Kambhu’s very recent residential opportunity at the Children’s Museum of Art in Tribeca, which will run throughout the year. You’ll be able to read about several specific paintings - one observational, and another abstract - and about what informs her stylistic decision making in the studio. In summary, Clare Kambhu and I, Clare Gemima, discuss the artist’s personal dynamic as both an educator and painter, and how the intersectionality of teaching, art making, work and play ultimately lay the foundation for her wider practice.
Depite most of our attempts to focus solely on Kambhu’s paintings, the artist’s new and sparkly ‘reality TV star’ status, inevitably led us to pick apart The Exhibit, MTV’s latest, (and most likely obnoxiously addictive), competition show for visual artists. Airing at 9pm tonight, (Friday March 3rd, 2023), watch Clare Kambhu and six other artists from all over the United States begin to compete for a cash prize of $100,000.00, as well as a solo show at the Smithosonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC…
Unfortunately, I guess we'll just have to watch it to find out what happens.… viewing party, anyone?
Clare Gemima: Hey Clare, I really like the spelling of your name. I want to dive straight into your work. Legs, a small painting that you created in 2017, currently hangs in the far corner of your studio. Its contrasting scale to your much more engulfing, larger sized chair paintings made me think about your compositional sketching and planning. Would you be able to describe some of the painterly devises you deliberately incorporate when it comes to scale and perspective in your paintings?
Clare Kambhu: The smaller easel paintings are most often made on-site, in classrooms and office spaces. They are slow and involve spending time in a particular place, looking, and being looked at. The scale comes from the practical concerns of making paintings in busy school buildings. My easel set up has to be movable since things are always in flux, and the immediate needs of the classes take precedence. I like doing something - making art - that is counter to what the environment is for. Teaching art often feels similarly out of place in schools. The rigidity of the way we do schooling can make the art classes I teach feel like a constant, low level obstruction to “academic” classes. Embracing the ostensibly purposeless, weirdo nature of art within contexts in which it isn’t always celebrated is fun to me.
I never make studies for these indoor “plein air” paintings. I like the evidence of figuring things out to be part of the painting. I don’t have an ideal composition or subject matter. I let my eyes drift as they would if I were sitting in a meeting or waiting for class to end. That sense of focus and losing focus comes into play - the way you avert your glance so the teacher doesn’t call on you. I think that’s where the cropping in these smaller works comes from. They’re the corners of things you find yourself staring at when you’re supposed to be doing something else.
Lately, I’ve been making much larger paintings in the studio - from 5 to 8 feet wide. Though I never thought of myself as a painter who plans things out, it turns out that all of the smaller paintings I’ve made over the years in schools serve as studies for these larger ones. I increased the size of the canvas in recent years because I wanted to do more with the gooey textures of paint that capture signs of use on hard school furniture so well. I stopped using brush with some of the chair paintings, instead switching to oil-stick and my hands to move the paint around. I wanted to bring a sense of touch more directly into the work to capture the churn of people that move through these institutional spaces.
Clare Gemima: When we were talking in front of your work, you mentioned an invested interest in ‘humans in systems’, and described how education settings, institutional environments and classrooms serve as geographical contexts for this idea. Why is it that you have chosen not to paint the students or educators that would usually occupy these spaces on your canvases, panels or paper works?
Clare Kambhu: Focusing on any one individual doesn’t feel right to me as an artist. The paintings aren’t about any one person’s story. They don’t have any explicit narrative. Instead I think they function more like placeholders for the viewer’s associations and questions. I see them as portraits of systems. They allude to how we all move through spaces like these, and how they shape us collectively.
Clare Gemima: You’ve been an arts educator in the New York City public system for almost 10 years now, and your environment has clearly influenced your visual output. Conceptually speaking, are there any artistic ideas of yours, (perhaps still indoctrinated from art school), that your students have challenged you on before?
Clare Kambhu: I think students helped me return to painting. When I began teaching at 22 I was thinking about art from a more conceptual place, less focused on object making and gesture. I approached teaching from a social justice lens, focusing more on unpacking preconceived ideas than on the process of art making. But seeing students make art in the classroom and being part of their artistic development made me remember what drew me to painting in the first place - the fear of starting something new, the conversation or battle with yourself as you proceed, and the way a painting holds the evidence of your touch once it’s done. One of the reasons that art education is so important to me is that I think for many people, the process of making art is more impactful than looking at art. Being a guide in that process of art making is a powerful experience. We ask art to function in the world in ways that I don’t think it can sometimes - we ask it to fix us. And, though surely viewing art can be transformative, I think making art is more so. I was certainly changed by the students I worked with.
Clare Gemima: In Doors, painted hand prints and finger smudges appear on a stainless steel surface.This seemingly subtle mark making gesture somehow catapults a limitless amount of ideas around the nature and utility of this otherwise mundane structure - and about those who get to operate with, and experience it. Are your painted scenes influenced by your day-to-day life as a teacher, or do they intend to critique something else entirely?
Clare Kambhu: I don’t think my work is overtly critical of the project of schooling, but it certainly isn’t a neutral observation. I think about the daily work of teachers and students who show up everyday and follow their schedules. I wonder how that routine shapes us and how we, at the same time, reinforce it. The oily handprints left on chairs and the ghostly marks left on desks and doors are all a way to visualize the traces that people leave behind as they inhabit these spaces. Painting itself is a tradition that holds visual evidence of its history and its making. I use paint in that tradition to bring to mind the forces that shape us culturally, but also to suggest that our transgressions, celebrations, and our mundane daily activities impact the institutions as well. We form them just as much as they form us .
Clare Gemima: Several paintings in your studio, like no. 52, are looser, more abstract, more experimental in color, and not at all as realistic as some of your more observational work. Can you help me understand more about your interchanging painting style, and how it began to differentiate?
Clare Kambhu: I began making abstract work at the encouragement of my husband, Kyle Utter, who is also a painter. He can sometimes see what’s below the surface in my decisions and tendencies as an artist before I can. He had been saying for a few years that I’m secretly an abstract painter because I tend to use cropping in ways that create unusual compositions, and obscure the subject matter. During quarantine when the stakes in art felt low but everything else was alarming, I started making abstract drawings that have since grown into an ongoing body of work. I began with the task of challenging my intuitions as a painter and my sense of taste. I quickly became curious to see what my work would look like if I removed subject matter. Now I see the abstractions as a counterpoint to my observational paintings. They are a way to respond to bureaucratic labor with a sense of play. I try to create a sense of visual tension in which something feels slightly off kilter or unresolved.
A sense of “where am I?”, and “how did I get here?”, that my abstract work may conjure is, I hope, also evoked by my observational paintings.
Clare Gemima: I am also wondering how you approach your relationship as both artist and teacher. Do these roles operate separately or together for you in life?
Clare Kambhu: It makes a lot of sense to ask, since making socially engaged art or social practice seems to fit within my range of interests but I really appreciate having my teaching and artmaking kept separate. It allows me more freedom in both to consider them as different types of work with different concerns. As a teacher, I’m there for the students, not as “the artist” or author of an experience. I can exert less control and I don’t have a stake in making the outcome of a learning experience into something that is shareable to a larger audience. I’m not in the business of turning the practice of education into an art commodity. As an artist, I can work in a way that allows me to reflect on social interactions without having to facilitate them at the same time. I also enjoy working with opposites and going all in. When I’m teaching, I’m buzzing around in noisy rooms trying to have conversations. It’s high energy. When I’m making observational paintings, I’m looking really hard at one thing for a really long time. It's a slow, dedicated focus. When I’m making abstract work, I’m contending with my own mind. It’s internal.
Clare Gemima: On an entirely different note, there’s quite a few incredible opportunities that have recently lined up for you, and a massive congratulations is in order for becoming one of the three Children’s Museum of Arts 2022-23 artists in residence. How has this shift changed your painting production, and what does a normal day look like for you as a resident?
Clare Kambhu: It’s been quite a shift to go from full time public school teaching to being an artist in residence! I wanted to move from spreading myself thin trying to meet the needs of 150 students per year, to working in a less hectic environment with smaller groups of students and more time to think through pedagogical decisions. At the same time, it was hard to leave the schools - feeling like I’m abandoning people and wondering how I’ll find ways to work with students long term. The biggest change has been a dramatic increase in the amount of autonomy that I have on a daily basis. Not only can I spend hours in the studio, but I can leave the room to pee or eat whenever I want. It’s been great to shift the balance of work towards art making during the Children’s Museum residency. I’ve never had this much support as an artist both from CMA staff and the other residents. Each week we hold discussions about art and education, work with students in an afterschool program, and plan new workshops and programs with staff. I recently got to work with a filmmaker who is working on a documentary about Mark Rothko. I feel some affinity towards him as a painter and I learned about his ongoing practice teaching art. With the documentary crew, I re-envisioned Rothko’s pedagogical approaches through drawing and painting exercises for a small group of students.
Clare Gemima: You’re also about to be on ‘The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist’, which technically makes you a TV reality star! Being filmed by the collaborative forces of The Smithosian’s Hirshhorn Museum and MTV sounds like a wildly far cry from painting in your Jackson Heights studio with your cat assistants Pickle and Bucket. What has been a pivotal, or unexpected take away from this seemingly bizarre sounding experience for you?
Clare Kambhu: What a weird and unexpected ride to be on! I think it helped me loosen up in my work. To paint under tight time conditions while being filmed made the experience of painting a lot more the experience of teaching - hectic, determined by someone else’s schedule, and performative. I had to let go of some of the expectations I have for myself when painting, which was quite freeing in a lot of ways. I worked larger and faster than I normally do. Meeting the other artists was genuinely enjoyable. We still have a group text going from time to time.
Clare Gemima: If you could say anything to the viewers of The Exhibit before it airs next week, what would it be?
Clare Kambhu: Ooh! Ummmm. Take things with many grains of salt and have fun watching! Part of me wants to explain the contrived nature of reality TV competition but then again, it’s not like the rest of the art world is a meritocracy. We’re all just trying to find ways to make work, show it, and enjoy the process. I myself kind of enjoy being put into unfamiliar situations with arbitrary rules, it's just like playing any other kind of game. WM
For more information about Clare Kambhu’s paintings, please visit her website: https://clarekambhu.com/
Notes from the writer: Thank you so much for having me at your Jackson Heights studio last week Clare, it was really a pleasure to get to see your work, especially considering how busy you must be. I am so grateful. Let's meet at CMA next time. :)
The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great American Artist will air on Friday March 3rd 2023 at 9pm. Competing against Clare Kambhu are Jamaal Barber from Atlanta, Frank Buffalo Hyde from Minneapolis, Baseera Khan, Misha Kahn, both from New York, Jillian Mayer from Miami, and Jennifer Warren from Chicago. The judges of the show are Melissa Chiu, The Director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, amazing sculptor Abigail DeVille, digital consultant JiaJia Fei, the President of Maryland Institute College of Art Samuel Hoi, multidisciplinary artist Adam Pendleton, collector and curator Keith Rivers, artist and writer Kenny Schachter, and writer and ethnographer Sarah Thornton.
Clare Gemima contributes art criticism to The Brooklyn Rail, Contemporary HUM, and other international art journals with a particular focus on immigrant painters and sculptors who have moved their practice to New York. She is currently a visual artist mentee in the New York Foundation of Art’s 2023 Immigrant mentorship program.view all articles from this author