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Interview With Ken Tate by Susan Sully

Interview with Ken Tate by Susan Sully from one of Ken’s artist’s catalogs

During the last five years, you’ve employed a pretty wide vocabulary of styles and mediums. Is there a common thread?

I like anything that’s gestural. The hard-edged does not appeal to me, maybe because I’m an architect in my other life. I’ve discovered that once I stop doing something linear, it’s possible to move into the realm of emotional abstraction. I like to do a kind of automatic writing—sitting, closing my eyes, and letting my hand go. Then there is no thought. I get into a scribbly inner self. That’s also how I paint. If I have a thought, I’m back in the rational, architect mode. Making art is about being in an opposite place—an almost childlike, pre-verbal state.

Some of your paintings appear to be directly inspired by Abstract Expressionism. Is that an important influence on your work?

I’m drawn to AbEx painting in part because I’m a very right-brain person. I have a tendency toward non-sequential logic and a belief in the power of the subconscious. But I’m also a very instinctual body-oriented person. I think that’s why action painting appeals to me. I love the way deKooning ventured into deep emotional levels through abstraction. Motherwell was into Chinese brush painting, using the action of the brush without relying on the recognizable language of calligraphy. Frankenthaler also used abstraction as a way to express primitive, visceral states of being. When I was at the Atlanta School of Art in 1970, Motherwell and Sam Gilliam lectured and toured studios and I liked them even more for that. I consider myself a third generation AbEx painter.

How do you stay original when you are working in the Abstract Expressionist mode?

There’s a compulsion within me to do this kind of work. AbEx is where I started as an artist and whenever I’m worn out with another direction, I return to it. I’m a gregarious painter interested in complex visuals with mysterious meanings. When I paint, it feels like something inside of me is being pulled up to the material plane. When that happens, the work is original. I like that AbEx is an American phenomenon, like jazz. It thrives on improvisation and keeps evolving. You can’t just go back and do Jackson Pollock or deKooning. That would be a miserable failure. So I’m always experimenting. Whenever I feel that I’m staying in the same place or going backwards, I shift gears completely. That’s what happened with the squeegee paintings. I hadn’t seen anybody else working that way, so there was no risk of being unoriginal.

How did you discover the technique of painting with a squeegee?

I was looking for an experience unlike painting with a brush—something instantaneous that tapped from a different part of my brain. One day I was in the art supply store and I saw yupo paper. It’s very slick and it just seemed to want the squeegee. When you paint with a squeegee on yupo paper, there is a beautiful, seductive effect. If you bear down hard, you get a translucent look or you can leave the paint heavy. There are many possibilities. You can paint with different sized squeegees, use single or multiple colors, cover the paper, or leave a lot of white space. It all happens very fast and is incredibly exhilarating.

The squeegee paintings you’re doing with luminous paint have a completely different energy than your AbEx paintings.

The medium has as much to do with that as the method. Luminous paint is almost fluorescent and comes in only a few colors—yellow, orange, raspberry pink. When the colors mix, the effect is crazy—better than drugs. You can’t imagine the physical rush you get when you’re doing it. Although the paintings are abstract, there is also something of a Pop element to them. Because of the colors, they look like Warhol paintings, but there are no figures. The latest series is called “World without Warhol.” I’m not a fan of Pop art per se, but I liked it when Basquiat and Warhol collaborated. There was a combination of Pop and gestural painting that was really interesting. Critics thought it was a waste of time, but what do critics know?

There seems to be a little bit of a Pop influence on your Intervention paintings, in that they include imagery from the popular media.

I’m appropriating popular imagery, but doing it in a way that’s very different from Pop art. I’m taking cues from a movement called Intervention, in which the artist selects an element from the clutter of mass media and creates something new by modifying it—intervening with it. I first got interested when I saw an Intervention piece on the cover of Modern Painters magazine. An artist had painted on a photograph of a classical painting. A detail of this piece was blown up and featured on the cover of the magazine, so the cover represented another layer of intervention. I took that cover, painted on it, blew it up, and painted on it again, so that the final painting has four layers of intervention. I titled it Classical Painting/Modern Painters.

Did it occur to you that this painting might be emblematic of the relationship between Ken Tate the artist and Ken Tate the architect?

There may be some relationship between the architecture I do, which has a classical influence, and my instincts as an artist. But I tend to think of the artist and the architect as two separate selves. When you make architecture, you need to have an idea of where you’re going before you start. It’s a fastidious process with a long gestation period. The way I paint is instant, tactile, and messy. There’s nothing fastidious about it. In the Intervention paintings, the images I select from magazine covers are rational, representational, crisp, and organized. The interventions are messy, painterly, random, and irrational. It’s an interesting interplay of opposites that suggests the artist and the architect might want to be together.

Layering seems to be a theme that shows up repeatedly in your work, not only in the Intervention pieces, but also in the Deconstructed series.

I love layering visual information because the final composition makes an instant impression, but you don’t really know what’s going on. When I first started using squeegee on yupo paper, the medium was so seductive that I made a lot of pieces quickly. One day, I began putting paintings together in combinations—let’s see what this one looks like with that one. That led to cutting the paintings into pieces and reassembling them into new compositions. The cutting and splicing process is akin to film editing, but I don’t have a master plan. I do it in an ad hoc way—cut things up, tape them together, and play it by ear. The end result is less about layering than creating a new, seemingly chaotic order that only the subconscious can recognize.

You talk about the influence of specific Abstract Expressionists on your work. Who are some of the other artists that inspire you?

Right now, Albert Oehlen is the painter I’m most excited about. He mixes Pop and gestural painting by working with big advertisements and painting over them. When you perceive the graphic images coming through the paint, the result is mysterious and stimulating. Christopher Wool’s paintings really get under my skin, too, and I love the painterly style of Cecily Brown. Of course, Schnabel, Basquiat, Twombly, and Ed Moses have been important to me for decades. All these artists reveal a certain primal urge to mine the sub-regions of the human psyche.

Is that what you are do in your painting?

It’s my intention. In art, you should try to incite a riot in the subconscious—an awakening out of the status quo. When you enter those regions and tap their mysteries, the riot begins.

What are your current interests and new directions?

Lately I’ve been experimenting with painting on used drop cloths, adding to what’s already there from the normal activity in my studio (see “Hi-Ho Cheerio,” page 34). There’s a kind of intervention going on that turns entirely random spills, drips, and smears into the “subject” of the finished piece. These paintings communicate in a subliminal language that is so raw it’s unsettling. I’m also using new graffiti-style felt and sponge tip pens on four-by-four foot canvases (see back cover). The size of the canvas allows me to use my whole body when I’m working, so it takes the introverted automatic writing I do and turns it into a big, extraverted gesture—which is what graffiti is. New materials and mediums always stimulate me, but in the end, it’s just the artist alone in the studio—a monk in a cell of his own invention—endlessly mark-making.