A Conversation with Lily Kuonen
Trained as a painter, Jacksonville, Florida-based artist Lily Kuonen has cast off traditional definitions of painting by employing other media, methods and disciplines. She pushes her work beyond painting’s tropes to redefine the medium. Kuonen continues to develop this active and engaging language about painting—one determined to reinsert the importance of play into the act of making art.—Julie Dickover
Hide, 2012; acrylic, canvas threads, and canvases, 92 x 48 x 38 inches
When I first saw your work, I looked at the pieces as a sort of hybrid between sculpture and mixed media installation. You call your work “PLAYNTINGS.” Do you consider yourself first and foremost a painter, associating with painting more than other mediums/disciplines?
When a hue is say red-orange it has both red and yellow hues mixed into it, but it has a color overtone of red, a color bias perhaps. In my own studio practice there may be many components, features, structures, disciplines, materials etc. at work but maybe the overtone or bias relates to the structure of painting. I understand things, building, construction, functions and images through painting, and the standard language that painting involves gives me a preliminary format to investigate. I make PLAYNTINGS. This hybrid term, PLAY + PAINTING, describes the synthesis of painting with additional forms and actions. I developed this moniker not only to evaluate the activity of my studio and process, but also to experience and express painting as active, playful—unknown or unresolved.
I like the idea of a painting being active and having a life after it has left your hands. How you describe your practice as active and unresolved reminds me of something you mentioned: works don’t lay around the studio for too long. You disassemble things and make use of the materials for other works. Could you talk about this a bit?
The house I was born and raised in began as two separate structures, the “rockhouse” and the kitchen. After I was born, my father joined the two, adding a hallway that grew into a living room, sixteen-foot vaulted ceilings, walls of windows, more bedrooms, a fireplace and so forth and so on. He’s created a Frankenstein of architectural styles and features, and the fluid foundation has a certain restless intensity. This kind of aversion to finality in favor of growth, change, and development has greatly affected my studio practice.
Lean-To, 2012; sawdust, glue, and wood, 44 x 30 x 24 inches
My practice is not a closed loop. It is a chain linking materials from process to process. As works are repurposed back into raw materials, the waste and by-products present new opportunities. My work can only be completed through this sense of renewal. By doing this, I am building a genealogy of sorts. Parts of this, scraps of that come together to lead to new concepts.
Also, I deal very directly with the power and strength of materials. Many works hold up as long as they can, and then in one unpredictable moment, they collapse, or break through. This excites me.
Held, 2012; cut wood, ratchet straps, and pressure, 56 x 18 x 2 and 40 x 12 x 2 inches
For me, the paint grids that show up in many of your works engender your sense of play. Could you talk about how you make them, and about other ways you’ve found to manipulate paint?
Two Gather (front view), 2012; acrylic, canvas threads, and canvases, 72 x 20 x 14 inches
I have always been interested in the interplay of materials, and the uncertainty involved in combining the force of the actual material (its strengths/weaknesses) and forces on the materials. Gravity is a major force. I was, and still am, attracted to playing with pouring paint, and the grids of paint you are referring to are very calculated pours laced together then reinforced with canvas threads—almost like an armature. The canvas threads are leftover from tearing canvas for stretching. I’m interested in how paint differs at various stages: wet paint being maleable, fluid, and taking up much more space until it dries—losing most of its flexibility, getting heavier and more cumbersome yet shrinking, occupying less space.
As for the sense of play in my studio, I feel as if what I do sometimes operates like sixth-grade science experiments. I set myself up to experiment, working with my materials, and I discover something that may inform other decisions, but most of the time I’m just learning more about the things that fill my studio. Trial and error has led me to explore various “mediums” for paint, including plaster, dye, silicone, paper pulp and sawdust, etc. I consider relations between mediums and objects, predicting how they may interact. I also throw together very different components out of sheer curiosity.
That is one thing that really interests me in your work—your use of materials. The way you embrace all the components of a painting—paint, canvas, and stretcher bars—is very democratic. You’ve leveled the playing field in a way, imbuing the substructures with as much importance as the paint itself. Was it a conscious decision to move away from paint as the primary medium, or the result of a happy accident or some other form of experimentation?
Seamless and Stunted, 2012; canvas, canvas threads, and dye, and wood, sawdust, and glue, 72 x 24 x 20 and 60 x 20 x 10 inches
I am interested in the purposes, strengths, limitations and options of materials, and I do attempt to equalize them for the purpose of hybridization. What I do evolved out of a conscious effort to change, but the change itself occurred through a process I didn’t fully grasp at first. I had to mine my studio practice and see what and where the value was. In this, I realized it was not necessarily a move away from paint. I don’t divorce what I do from the act of painting, or the processes it involves. I love painting, but I had to find a process that activated materials and structures in a way that challenged and excited me. I would say that rather than leaving paint, I’ve left the image—or at least the dominance and predetermined need for one.
So where does this leave the other important aspects of painting—composition, mark making, etc.?
I am still very much involved with these aspects, and most of the “important” components of painting, but I have tried to distance myself from the power of the image to see if I can still employ painting tactics, combined with other methods and disciplines, to come away with a structure or a PLAYNTING that has a new kind of power. Perhaps more subtle, open-ended.
Cracked, 2011; clamp on mirror on wood with pressure, 24 x 18 x 12 inches
Could you talk a little bit more about your gravitation from traditional figure painting to the type of work you make now?
In my more traditional figure paintings I was concerned with power structures, dominance, self-reliance and interdependency, and I produced works where the figures were somewhat architectural. The figures embraced or connected with each other in respectful, caring, and distant, sterile ways. I enjoyed these paintings, but I began to question the process I went through to make them. And, at the base of it, I began to question the need for a predetermined image.
The transition from figurative painting to my PLAYNTINGS was an overhaul. I feel that what I make now embraces so much more of who I am, where I came from, what I enjoy doing, and what makes me think. The underlying issues are still there, but I’m challenging the issues, and considering the processes of our own bodies more. It’s about working without knowing what the resolution will be. It’s about what happens in a moment. Whether that moment is when the paint hits the canvas, or whether it’s the moment when the viewer forsakes their own apprehensions for something purer and gives over to an activity that abandons discipline and learned etiquette—I find that I myself am just another component in this mix.
Portal, 2012; wood, acrylic, cardboard, and MDF, 80 x 46 x 13 inches
Are there artists and/or particular works or influences that urged you in your move away from the image?
On one hand I felt like I had leveled out. I knew I needed a constant sense of incline, so I began making a move. I was doing quite a bit of personal investigation, considering what engages me, being honest about silliness or playfulness, owning up to failure, and finding out how this all comes together. I was also, admittedly, reading a bunch of critical theory, and one day, it all just made sense. I think at first, very naively—I felt very radical. I liked that feeling, but more importantly, I felt like I had pinpointed what had troubled me for so long. In a way I’m still talking about and conceptualizing the same things I always have, but (to use your word) it feels more democratic, more truthful, more me.
In Between, 2011; altered canvas and oscillating fan, 52 x 30 x 30 inches
What are other disciplines or materials you’ve been investigating lately? I’m specifically thinking of your billboard project for The Highway Gallery and your videos. Did the inspiration for making some of these works come out of the “leveling out” feeling you mentioned and the need to expand? Or do you see these works as exercises that help inform your primary work?
Nowhere, 2012; digital billboard from The Highway Gallery
I don’t see this work as separate. PLAYNTING is a noun (an object) and also an active philosophy, a way of making and thinking about process. I guess the only real division is between drawing and PLAYNTING. I’m heavily engaged with drawing in my practice. My preliminary drawings lead to PLAYNTINGS, and primary drawings are ideas in and of themselves. But, in the end, my drawing operates by the same principles. As my work has developed, new materials, colors, and objects have crept into my practice and are usually derived from some function, material, or process already in use—it’s all fair game.
Nowhere (preliminary drawing), 2012; digital billboard from The Highway Gallery
I began with the billboard as a site, and developed the work based on the idea of a billboard as unsubtle—large, bold, and graphic. I wanted to pair its force with text that would challenge, subvert, or exploit its original intent. I wanted to recontextualize the relationship of text and meaning on the billboard, and play against its public prominence by using subtlety or humor or personal experience. I explored the relationships between material, text, meaning and physicality. It’s deeply rooted in my practice of making PLAYNTINGS: using painting for an initial structure to explore beyond categorical structures. In the billboard project, I used the billboard as a base to engage power structures, making actions of pressure, tension, protection, care and other possible interplays tangible.
The videos I’ve been making recently are still just the start of an idea. I’ve realized that like much of my other work, I’m merely interested in video as a component, almost like a material. I want it to relate specifically to other works, or exist as part of something else, never by itself. This kind of interrelationship and play between dominance and reliance has always been an undertone of my interests.
There was a student who, during a portfolio critique that I recently sat in on, talked about how she was bored/burnt out on painting and was more interested in other mediums but was already heavily invested in the portfolio works and couldn’t abandon them completely. There was a discussion about how she could change the shape or cut into the canvas to somehow engage her interests. One of the instructors pointed out that by altering the edge of the canvas, the painting would immediately become a sculpture. I’m probably taking the comment completely out of context, but it struck me. I thought of your work and how I think you’d disagree. Would you have any suggestions for this student on how to move forward?
When I first started making PLAYNTINGS, I started very methodically. Looking back on it, I am not ashamed to say it was very “art school 101,” but that’s okay, because I was learning what this new thing was, and how I was supposed to make it. The first structures were canvases with simple folds and strange cavities very much like skin and wrinkles, and I was so fond of them. They were a place to start. I was challenged for making these. I had to defend “why or how I was painting.” To me it made perfect sense. All the proper materials were still there—paint, canvas, wood, etc.—and I needed these things to feel like I knew what I was doing, but it was like I was testing their limits.
Creeper, 2011; stretcher bars, canvas, and clamp light 48 x 36 x 30 inches
I think the assumption that merely altering an edge magically transforms something into a completely new genre really cheapens artistic investigation. It draws lines too simply, too directly. The same argument goes for “new media” or “contemporary” and “traditional vs. non-traditional.” I have a real problem with terminology. But in our history, naming holds quite a bit of power and responsibility, and it shouldn’t be viewed as trivial. This is probably why I had to name what I was doing as something different.
As for suggestions to students: do whatever it takes. If you are not willing to take wrong turns, destroy something, work backwards, forwards, sideways, or otherwise, you are not invested. What you are doing is not building up to a climax that you will eventually figure out. Nope, instead you must always be working for that thing, that feeling, whatever it is that is out of reach. It’s about that ever-growing incline.
The issue of beauty versus content came up at another portfolio critique I sat in on recently. Do you think that beauty is enough to make a great artwork, or does it have to have content to substantiate that? Was this something that you thought about when you shrugged off the “predetermined image?”
One thing that I end up bringing up over and over again with my students, and I try to be aware of it with my own work, is the fact that what we do, what we make, and how we think and communicate is directly related to our own personal and cultural experience. Many aspects of this experience may be shared, which calls to attention “taste” or “style,” or it may be the reason why things are “liked” or valued over other things. Some motivations are deeply personal and may be more nuanced, shrouded or protected. All of it shapes our concept of beauty. Since beauty is entirely contextual, content may be the force that pushes a work past itself, enabling it to communicate differently, or at least more fluently with a wider base of viewers. Then there are many, many works that investigate the constraints of context, relying on the fact that only a certain audience may understand and think sympathetically. These works call attention to the differences that exist between us.
I think perhaps, yes, I found the image limiting. It directed or told the viewer too much. I am more interested in opening a dialogue that is not an easy answer.
Sort of along these same lines, I often think about the common threads within the works or types of work I relate to most. I like work that leaves me with more questions than answers. Whether the questions are posed in the artist’s use of materials or within the content doesn’t really matter. This isn’t always to the mutual exclusion of beauty or aesthetics, but the works that tend to really strike me aren’t necessarily “beautiful,” in the traditional sense of the word.
Due to the nature of my work, I deal directly with how people experience my work—whether it is a physical, tactile engagement or a mental exercise. I’ve been considering lately that I want this connection to persist. I want people to have an immediate experience, a gut reaction or a visceral relationship with my work, but I don’t want it to end there. Days, weeks, months, or more— I want my work to creep back into someone’s thoughts like an itch you can’t get rid of. I want it to make a person go, “huh?” It’s a long con, really.
Templates, 2012; graphite on paper, paint lid, crate, and acrylic on tape on pegboard, 82 x 40 x 5 inches
So what do you think makes a work of art successful? Not in commercial terms, but on a personal level—are there certain characteristics present when you’re looking at a piece and you think to yourself, “yes, this works” or “this is fucking awesome?”
Installation view of NEW PLAYNTINGS at Fahm Gallery in Savannah, GA 2010
Success is a tricky word. I do know what you mean: I have moments like this in my studio when I feel like “man, this is it!” These moments punctuate me. They make me stop to let things soak in. When I was younger, when I felt like something (maybe a work of art) really had that thing, I would say, “makes me want to lick it.” Maybe it’s an overstatement, but the phrase summarized for me desire, intrigue, a quality that heightened your senses, and made you want more. As an educator, I help students work toward that feeling, and what has to be there to incite it. It’s not easy to put into words, and I think “success” creates a moment of pause where words cease to be enough to articulate the feeling, and it just is.
Lily Kuonen’s solo exhibitions include the Historic Arkansas Museum, Fahm Gallery in Savannah, Georgia, and Bogard Storefront in Charleston, South Carolina. Her works have also been included in group exhibitions at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston; Gallery 1600, Atlanta, Georgia; SCAD Gallery, Hong Kong; among others. As featured artist for the Highway Gallery, a partnership between Florida Mining Gallery and Clear Channel, her work was shown on 26 digital billboards across the city of Jacksonville in 2012. Soon she will have work in both the Alexander Brest Gallery at Jacksonville University in Florida and at the Arlington Arts Center in Virginia.
Julie Dickover is an advisory editor for At Length and director of the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum at Flagler College in Saint Augustine, Florida, where has organized exhibitions by artists such as Montreal based video artist Julie Lequin and photographer Mark Ruwedel, as well as a collaborative interdisciplinary project and exhibition with Portland, Oregon based artist Harrell Fletcher. Prior to living in northeast Florida, she lived in Los Angeles where she worked as a registrar at UCLA’s Hammer Museum.