Kerry Downey and Ellie Krakow, Contributors, Lookie-Lookie
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN ELLIE KRAKOW AND KERRY DOWNEY, ON THE OCCASION OF THEIR SIMULTANEOUS EXHIBITIONS:
Arm Armature, an exhibition of sculptures by Ellie Krakow, on view at NURTUREart, October 21-November 20, 2016.
Nothing but net is a single channel video (14:33) and series of related monotypes shown as part of a two-person exhibition titled Read My Lips (with Loren Britton), curated by Ashton Cooper at the Knockdown Center; on view October 28-December 18, 2016.
Kerry Downey: Both of our newest projects deal with fractured and abstracted bodies. We both use our own bodies. Does this make our work inherently about our own identities? Is this self portraiture?
Ellie Krakow: I think there’s a vital difference between self-portraiture and work about identity. Since we both use our bodies and creative practices as key elements of our subject matter I’d have to say both our work necessarily fits into a conversation about self-portraiture. That said, I think Arm Armature is a fragment of a portrait, and reveals an incomplete identity. I think many self-portraits are like this—the artist is the subject, but is represented in the service of other visual or conceptual interests.
Your work seems to hover more fully as both being portrait and being about identity—you enter and exit, literally as a visual element, but also in terms of how the viewer knows you. You are the hand. You are the authority. You are the narrator. You are gone. An abstract visual journey takes your place. Your face appears. But when you appear you also hide behind layers. There is even a section when the movement of your lips doesn't synch up with the audio we hear—you offer visual closeness but block understanding. I’m curious how you would describe your use of body and identity in Nothing but net?
KD: If your work is a fragmented portrait, maybe mine is kaleidoscopic. I’m using my body as image, as materiality, as referent. I’m looking to implicate myself in the imagery—these abstractions are born out of my body’s experiences of desire, touch, loss, vulnerability, and gender/queerness. I’m exploring edges and containment, when my skin contains me and when it does not, cannot. I think my video is unsure what an identity is and I’m uncertain about my authority. I’m the maker, the performer, I’m the editor, very much the author but I’m also puncturing holes in my own knowledge and in what constitutes a legible subject (ie “You are not to know me at all.”).
EK: That repeating line in the piece, “You are not to know me at all,” simultaneously provokes in me the sense that I want to know you but will fail, and the confidence to release into the experience of not knowing you, even as I followed you.
In Arm Armature my body behaves more like an object than an identity. It’s like an object that exists to display a process…
KD: Do you think Arm Armature displays a process or is a process of display. Do you see a distinction?
EK: My working process is completely circular so your question mirrors my practice. I move fluidly between display and process: I started out photographing display armatures that exist in the world (museum displays, jewelry displays, etc); my ceramic sculptures mimic the display armatures I photographed; then using conventions of studio photography for shooting both sculptures and advertisements, I photographed my hands mimicking the gestures of the armature forms I made. I work back and forth between making these photographs and sculptures that respond to each other. I ultimately end up creating a display system to showcase the resulting images and objects, and the dialogue I'm having between them.
KD: You’re using display to mean multiple things at once: to display oneself thru artistic practice, to reveal aspects of your working process—both materially and conceptually, you’re referencing and recreating forms of museum display: pedestal, podium, vitrine, armature…
EK: And the Brady Stand - that’s the posing support that Matthew Brady developed for early long-exposure portrait photography. It held subjects in place for impossible to hold durations. Yes. I am using display to draw on all of these meanings.
KD: This is super weird and fascinating, this Brady stand because it invokes a bodily duration, a holding still, the body being propped up, which leads me to thinking of your longstanding interest in the fractured Greek and Roman sculptures—here ancient statues and modern photography are in direct dialogue. The propped body’s myriad art historical representations! I know you’re also interested in museology: formal, aesthetic and informational props or supports for displaying work. Can you talk a bit about this?
EK: The furniture-pedestals I’m building are a hybrid of sorts between museum pedestals, which display objects for view and household vanities, where women have traditionally prepared themselves for display. Within this framework, the vertical elements that support the photos act as mirrors and as wall labels: the photographs are a reflection of the body and give information about the ceramic armature forms.
KD: I’m interested in this relationship between the mirror and display, and the ways various bodies might phenomenologically and imagistically perceive themselves in relationship to your work. I’m wanting to talk about this very bodily element but before we do, I’m thinking of another connection, which is that we’re both museum educators, performing a relationship between artworks and bodies, like live action wall labels.
EK: I’m glad you bring up education. I want, quite desperately, to learn from the armature forms I work with: about tenderness, support, invisibility, humility—armatures are designed to disappear while performing an essential task. They are so beautiful in that way. The desire to learn from an object relates to one of the ways I approach looking at art. Artworks can offer uniquely clear perspectives. By looking closely at them, talking about them and reflecting on them we can come to understand these perspectives. This is something I love to facilitate for groups. It’s so exciting to see people internalize a work of art. And of course, so exciting to do myself.
The relationship to museum education is strong in your work too. Your voice and body literally serve as a guide for your work.
KD: Totally. Both Nothing but net and my last two videos, which also use an overhead projector (Fishing with Angela and My hook to hang your eyelet on) play with the performativity of pedagogy—the tour guide, the lecturer, the facilitator, walking around MoMA but also giving slide lectures—I’m a projector! I’m thinking about the ways my body is implicated in this labor. Work is on display, my body and it’s on display. Words are coming out of my mouth but I often experience forms of dissociation and anxiety. Suddenly I’ll wonder WTF am I saying? Also, as a museum educator, I work with people who have speech and cognitive delays, and that has me continually thinking about the relationship between looking, speaking and hearing.
EK: As a viewer watching Nothing but net I experienced some of that dissociation. I found myself wondering, “Did I hear that right? Did I see that? Is this information adding to my experience of seeing? Is that a thought that the narrator just told me or is my mind wandering?” How do you think about your relationship to the audience of your videos? Is it the same or different as how you approach your education groups?
KD: Looking at art, making art, and conversing about art is a poetic, bizarre, metaphysical, and often personal experience. I try to remain present to these factors in both teaching and making art. My videos, and Nothing by net in particular, is more about an intimate, one on one relationship. I’m drawing connections between mother and child, analyst and analysand, two lovers, teacher and student, artist and viewer, but with a greater emphasis on proximity—power relations, entanglement, projective identifications, empathy—what is at stake physically and psychically in these close relations.
EK: You seem to create layers of relations, beyond just these human relationships… there are scenes in Nothing but net where images at first glance appear to be abstract circles, and then all of a sudden it seems obvious the circles are actually cells under a microscope.
KD: Yes true! I’m making relationships between patterns in nature with shifts in scale. In the video’s voiceover, I say “They the moss, the fungus, the coral.” I’m relating patterns of growth that are both cellular and enormous. These forms are life-giving and under threat. I’m referencing instruments like satellites and microscopes whose data require translation into meaning. Similar to your forms of display, these visual structures are sociopolitical and psychological. These apparatus move images between the intimate and remote, the molecular and oceanic, the benign and malignant, coherence and incoherence. In this sense, I think of abstraction and representation as integrally linked.
I am thinking again about how Arm Armature is entirely constructed of fragments, about its refusal to form a complete body.
EK: I have an endless obsession with all the broken sculptures … After years of photographing fragments and their supports in museums I realized the fragment, and its supports and displays are a driving metaphor for me: for the ways we support ourselves and each other when we feel emotionally and physically shattered. So Arm Armature literally circles around fragments, obsessing as I do: The viewer circumambulates the furniture-pedestals to see the various viewpoints; I photograph my hand gestures from all sides; I structure my process of working back and forth between image and object as an open loop rather than a linear path. Even my studio is fragmented—I make my ceramic pieces in one location, my photos in another, and the pieces only come together when the furniture-pedestals finally can house them.
KD: When I first encountered your work in grad school, I was drawn into your poetic sensibility but was also trying to unpack your strong conceptual leanings and the very formal properties of display—the slick, tidy, well-kept, highly skilled production. When I came to recognize that the fragment was also about loss and trauma, I had a series of satisfying eureka moments. The support systems and props that you are referencing are literal—you are genuinely researching this history of preservation, historicizing, and formal display. The support systems are also ideological—you are talking about systems of power that narrate the value of these remnants (via the Western, Eurocentric canon). And you are talking about social supports-- family, community, health care. You are talking about our bodies: death, decay, aging, injury, sickness, and vulnerability.
EK: Yes, exactly. I find all these overlapping narratives we experience fascinating. And they are integrated into my work—the furniture-pedestals I make, for example, have to be well crafted because I want them to refer to the kind of power to elevate that a pedestal has. And I model my attention to detail on the kind of care that I imagine restorers bring to researching, retouching, and building armatures so that we can see objects as they might have been once. I deeply admire restorers’ sensitive anonymous care. I would add to your list that I am also talking about how we tell the story after a life has passed.
Your work relates deeply to care and touch as well. I think of your prints, their surface. There is a subtlety to the texture, which implies a profound caring. Gestures are embossed. Areas are masked and protected. Inked printing “plates” are reused for their ghosts. Yet the sense of play comes through strongly—I wonder about some crossover there—between care, tenderness and play?
KD: I love that your work is so carefully made and also that it invokes anonymous care. It speaks to hidden forms of affective labor that are not only in the preservation of objects, but in human support for one another too.
For me, play is an investment in curiosity; a lot of self-care and tenderness are needed in order to follow my inclinations. I like how you link subtlety to texture and care. Sensitivity allows for nuance; there is deep listening and observing. In the same way I’m interested in the range of possibilities for a material process, I’m exploring a range of affects and narratives of touch.
EK: When we first met you were in the process of transforming your body, getting top surgery. At that time there seemed a strong relationship to care, now your chest skin also has a very playful tattoo. Can you talk about how that physical bodily transition relates to the issues of care and play in your work?
KD: Yes this was 2007? Fuck I can’t remember. It’s been a minute. I was also working in a nursing home and had only just begun teaching. All while trying to survive in a very straight grad program...
EK:...and you were leading the “Feminist…” what was it?
KD: Haaahah. Yeah I think it was called “Feminism, Yo.” I guess I wasn’t ready to lead a gay-straight alliance, ha! Weird how Hunter College felt so radical and so conservative at the same time. Speaking of support, I didn’t feel like a I had a lot of support during this physical transition, but I vividly remember the beginnings of our friendship...
My “POW” tattoo, which is relatively new, is a pop icon zig-zagging around my scar-lines and reconstructed nipples. Like Pop Art, but I'm making myself more popular to me. I laugh at myself, I play with myself, this is how I care for myself. We all have work to do to feel a basic sense of bodily belonging. Also, I’ve been working with the elderly since I was a teenager. My work as a caregiver and the history of my breasts have taught me so much about the psychic work we do to integrate all the small and large changes we go through. This is also deeply related to my mom’s double mastectomy and her recovery from cancer. I was sharing some of this history with you back then in 2008, and this may have been when I first learned of your mother dying of cancer? Or maybe I discovered this from your art—you too have been making art that contains the history of this loss.
EK: The loss of my mom has had a huge impact on my life, and is interwoven into my work just as thoroughly. My work requests the act of memory: as you look at front, back and sides to glean different pieces of information, you have to hold onto what is not right in front of you. It evokes the use of imagination to fill in a space or continue a fragment of the body to imply a whole. This resembles my experience of continuing in the world without my mom. I’ve lived half a lifetime now without her, and I think, like with your work, there is something playful emerging as a counterpoint or entrance point to facing the loss.
KD: We were talking earlier about how both our friendship and our work has elements of being “behind the scenes.” We have shared personal stories for almost ten years. We also share a studio where we can see into each other’s practice. I get to watch you assemble the various components, first bringing the glazed clay armatures from the ceramics studio and then photographing them and yourself against the solid color backdrops. The work embodies the process (the sense that everything is a set-up or stage).
EK: (laughs) Staging is deep in me! I grew up in LA. Staging and especially the back stage had deep impact on how I think. In sculptural terms I always wrestle with creating a front and a back for my pieces. I endeavor to make pieces where if there is an ideal viewpoint, there is gratification, perhaps greater gratification, from looking at the non-ideal view.
KD: At NURTUREart, I was compelled by the sense of a time-body as I moved around the works. The incomplete vanity holds the photographic and ceramic part-object in dialectical tension; they need each other. As my mind tried to fit the pieces to each other—arm to armature to arm—I experienced an anachronistic, disjointed sense of a body-time. As I circumnavigate the sculptures, how I read the fragments move as well. The arms become birdlike, or mechanical, and then more geometric, mimicking the prop, the arm is the armature. They move from holding an object to wanting an object; they move between weight and loss. I wondered what gestures, events, and histories are invoked in these part-objects? I’m thinking about the body as an archive.
EK: The archive makes me think of the ways we store information and reconcile time passing. Encyclopedic museums are one example…
K: The body also contains fragments of memories, lodged in our materiality, in our repeated movements…
E: Yes, and Arm Armature led me to repeat certain gestures physically so that I could create them for the camera on a grey backdrop one week, a green one the next week, and blue the next week. These fluid gestures, rehearsed as they were, have become rigid fragments both in my body’s memory and in the images. In that way my body is an archive, as the photos are an archive. The sculptures are an archive too. There are, in a sense, three parallel archives of the gestures, embodied in related though inexact forms.
Can we close by returning to discuss the backstage in your work? Your set-up is simple—the overhead projector, the script, some objects, some fluids, your body. Nothing but net, however, is filled with its own backstage, which is far more complex. The layers of texture and imagery that you work with on the surface of the overhead projector become like curtains that open to varying degrees to allow us to see the action. But they also are the action themselves. It seems to me that your editing process plays a significant role in generating the distinctions between what is perceived as behind the scenes and what is perceived as intended for view.
KD: I use projection the way you use display, as verb and noun, with multiple meanings that we place in dialogue with each other. I like thinking about how your “arm:armature” is like my “body:projector”. I’m realizing how we both move in these lateral ways between mediums, using the medium’s specificity to create connections between these props and our bodies’ needs for them. We make projectors because we are projectors and we need projectors. We make Brady Stands because we are props and we need props.
When I project onto my body, I’m illustrating my thinking: This shape has to do with my body. My body and its actions have multiple reads. In the act of reading my work and my body, the viewer is also performing a kind of projection, one that is more psychological. I invite viewers’ projections when I say: “You are not to know me at all.”
What’s wild is that Ellie, you do know me, very well. This does affect the read of the work and this conversation wouldn’t be what it is without this knowledge. We both seem to be resisting fixed ideas of the body, while also asking that our bodies, all bodies be cared for. So...thank you for your care, and commitment to knowing me and my work. Let’s keep talking, forever, but also, let’s stop talking for now.
EK: Shall we bow?
KD: Good night.
Kerry Downey is an interdisciplinary artist and teacher. Downey’s work explores how we interact with each other physically, psychologically, and socio-politically. Encompassing video, printmaking, and performance, their work reimagines the possibilities and limitations of gender, intimacy, and relationships in late capitalist America. Their work has recently been exhibited at the Queens Museum, Flushing, NY; Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, Los Angeles, CA; the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, Annandale, NY; the Drawing Center, New York, NY; and Taylor Macklin, Zurich, Switzerland. ARTforum selected Downey’s work as a “Critic’s Pick” at a recent exhibition at REVERSE in Brooklyn, NY. In 2015, Downey was awarded the Joan Mitchell Foundation Emerging Artist Grant. Artist-in-residencies and Fellowships include SHIFT at the EFA Project Space, the Drawing Center’s Open Sessions, Real Time and Space in Oakland, CA, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Queer/Art/Mentorship Fellowship. They hold a BA from Bard College and an MFA from Hunter College.
Ellie Krakow is an interdisciplinary artist who earned her MFA from Hunter College and her BA through study at Yale University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Recent exhibition venues include NURTUREart, Field Projects, Present Company, Thierry Goldberg, Interstate Projects, and Cuchifritos Gallery (all NYC); outside of New York City her work has been included in the Kingston Sculpture Biennial in Kingston, NY, the Pula Film Festival in Croatia, and MMX Open Art in Berlin. Her artwork has been featured in BOMB Magazine, The Stranger, and Dossier Journal, and her text-based projects have been published in VECTOR and Drain Journal of Contemporary Art and Culture. She is a recipient of a Boomerang Fund for Artists Grant and has participated in residencies at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Yaddo, and Abrons Arts Center.
All images courtesy the artists.