INTERVIEW BY DARBY MILBRATH
Naturally, I wanted to sit down and talk to Katie Lyle as we’re both female painters from Victoria, working in Toronto, and interested in representations of the female figure in motion. She toils away at portraiture painting, building layer upon layer of paint and pencil, erasing, smudging, revising, until out of the mess, faces and figures begin to emerge, unplanned. Like a dancer slowly coming into the light. Like curtains lifting to reveal. The paintings are becoming more choreographic, more theatrical. Figures are now seen spiralling or lying back, cushioned by fleshy foam and held up by bent pearl pins. Katie is playing.
Have you always been a painter?
I’ve pretty much always painted. Most recently, I have been experimenting with dance and performance in collaboration with dance artist Shelby Wright, but that feels really new. I did a choreographic residency in Banff this winter, right around the time of making works for this show.
Are there choreographic elements to your paintings?
The process of making for me has always been painting things, wiping them off and then working back into that surface. The building up of layers physically and the accumulation of paint. This process of accumulation and wiping down of the surface is about starting over and changing my mind about what I want. The cut-outs in the paintings came from making paintings and then cutting holes in the canvases to remove the head out of the painting. Choreography and movement is on the surface of the canvas.
So you were choosing and salvaging parts of a bigger painting that you liked?
Yes, but more like starting over or trying to take away or lower the stakes by making an aggressive move. It takes away the preciousness of the painting.
I love that while creating and art-making you’re also destructing and taking away. How do you know when to stop?
That’s the classic painter question. I don’t. I think that’s one of the interesting parts for me about art-making, there are all these classic questions like when to stop and there are some very romantic responses like ‘you just know.’ I feel like in my work I am trying to cultivate something unsure or unfinished, to depict indecision instead of sureness.
How did you choose to bring in the sculptural materials for this show?
The sculptural components relate to some of the work I made in the summer for a two person show at G Gallery with Bridget Moser. For that show I was interested in how objects might change the read on a representational painting, which I see as a window into some other depicted world. I was interested to see how the painted image might relate to an actual object and the uncanniness that comes with that. This show is a bit different because the objects are less specific, it’s not a book, a collar, or an eyelash (which are objects I used in my last show), these objects are more tactile and maybe relate to the body in a more physical sense, in the way they respond to touch. I’m specifically thinking of the stapled foam and crooked sewing pins.
Do you work with models?
How do you work?
In these images in particular I pushed myself to work into the drawing until I was able to pull out figures or faces. It was a process of accumulation until different figures would emerge to the surface. I would start with gesso and black paint and begin sketching and then continually revising. Through the accumulation of layering and covering up and layering again, I would draw out a figure. I was trying consciously to not work with references but from what I could see. These figures are characters but they’re more like quotations of characters. They’re figures that you kind of recognize from something but they don’t have a storyline out of context. When I start to see something with a certain pose that I’ve seen before I try to exaggerate that.
It makes sense that when you’re working really intuitively you may be referencing things from memory and aren’t even really aware that you’re doing it. At least that’s what often happens to me when I paint.
I think it can be like that but with this idea of quoting, I find that I’m not thinking of them as memories at all. I’m thinking, that looks like a monster from a children’s book, or an armature for a figure drawing, so I’m going to exaggerate that and lift it out of the painting.
Do you throw out work?
I would more likely paint over things or go back into something than throw it out, but I definitely don’t finish everything that I start. The most drastic move with this show was the pieces with the cut-outs. I was thinking something was finished and then I would entirely cut it up to make them into additions of other works. It felt risky for me, to cut up something I had just spent days working on.
I like what you said about preciousness. I mean taking a knife to a finished work is bold.
I have been inspired for a while by stories of botched art restorations and secret underpaintings. Stories online of someone putting their arm through a painting by accident at a gallery and suddenly the painting is famous because of what went wrong. It’s also transformed into something new. It’s interesting how mistakes or carelessness can continue the life of these works.
I can see how you’re interested in rebelling a little, while working as a portrait painter.
I think painting can come with a lot of expectations, but it’s also a medium that is very relatable. It’s something most people have done at some point in their lives, and it’s also a medium that is associated with collections, dominant histories of art, and the very commercial side of art. It’s worth considering how much you participate in that or how much you care about that throughout your art-making. I think that’s why I end up cutting up paintings that I’m too confident about.
It definitely feels more playful and more about the process of the artist.
I react to that in a weird way, in that I find process can be a limiting conversation in painting, where if you say you’re about process you can only be about process. I want the work to be in conversation with both process and content and how they relate to the world, not limited to just materials.
What artists inspire you?
I love the way Liz Magor’s work engages with everyday objects and materials. Also Sandra Meigs’ paintings and films. There are these beautiful painted works on wire by Merlin James, that I’ve always liked. They have this very tentative, barely held together feeling about them. I am also inspired by artists and writers that play with fact and fiction in their work, like Moyra Davey and Ben Lerner.
Why Do I Hear the Ocean in my Ear? showed at The Loon, 227 Sterling Rd #109a, March 3rd- March 24th 2017
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