Ken Weathersby is an artist from Mississippi who has been making paintings in New York for twenty five years. Mississippi Modern recently got the chance to talk with him about his process via email.
Mississippi Modern: When I look at your paintings, I can’t help but think of sound. I can almost hear your paintings. I think it has to do with the tightness of the grid with which you work creating a kind of visual buzz. That buzz carries with it a timbre that is specific to each painting. And when you decide to deviate from your grid, it’s almost like a chord progression. Can you speak to this? Do you think in terms of sounds or vibrations when you create your paintings?
Ken Weathersby: I am primarily thinking in spatial and visual terms—the painting ideas come to me specifically as something to be seen, yet I do know what you mean about music. The retinal thing that happens with the grids can definitely seem like a kind of buzz or hum. The deviations from the grid that you mentioned come in a couple of different ways. One of those is the kind of deviation that emerges in the form of glitches in the pattern—when the paint runs or bleeds a bit, or when adjacent rows don’t quite meet or overlap. It’s not intentional, but I allow it and it is always a matter of deciding how much to interfere with that. Since most of what I do is done exercising as much control as I can, it’s interesting for me to see what productively escapes that control, to find out when precision matters and when it doesn’t. For me, calling those phenomena “glitches” comes from electronic music that uses glitches, incidental sounds, as elements of composition, like in the music of the band Oval. The other kind of deviation from the grid, I don’t know if this is what you mean, but another deviation is the things that happen to break up or open or undermine the dominance of the visual, painted surfaces. Things like cutting into the paint film or inverting it, or setting it next to or behind something more structural. If I was going to refer to that aspect in musical terms, I might talk about it as counterpoint rather than chord progressions. It is about opposing something with something else to create a standing relationship of difference (or dissonance).
MM: Another reason I relate your work to the auditory is your fascination with the parts of the paintings, parts that have to be experienced over time. It’s not as if the deviations from the grid are surface level movements. You actually cut into your canvases and create smaller canvases that fit into the holes you create. Some of your paintings have to be experienced in the round because you’ve given precise attention to both the front and the back of the canvas. You’re clearly obsessed with the parts that make up the painting: the support system, the canvas itself, the insets, and the paint. There’s so much attention one has to pay to the pieces that it’s impossible to see it all at once. It becomes a temporal experience; the things evolve over time, similar to music. Can you talk about the parts, the thingness of the paintings, and their relationship to time?
KW: I like the idea of time in the work. The relationships in the paintings pose a kind of puzzle or problem for the viewer, so there is some time built in to looking at them, to working out what one is looking at, or is supposed to be looking at. This happens in different ways and on different levels. The cutting in or reversing or realignment of parts, whatever operation I’m performing on the basic given of a painted stretched canvas, is central. The reason I make the paintings in the first place is because of some initial strange thought, some kind of bothersome idea. For example, a recent idea was to have an abstract painting that was the embodiment of a wholeness and singleness of form suggesting a presence. So it would be something with a concentric, unitary pattern, it would be human-scale and free-standing. Then at the same time I wanted to fracture that whole thing into a thousand pieces, but leave it still standing, fragmented, but poised and holding together. I wanted those two aspects together. So it was a kind of simple, dumb idea in a way, but an idea of a tenuous situation of things in opposition, whole and parts. But then it becomes a question of how that will happen, which entails a lot of visual decisions and a lot of physical working out of structural factors. There’s a dialog between the parts: the retinal and visual, the structural and supporting elements, the flaws or glitches, the image presented and the gaps in that presentation. There is time in it that way too—time invested by me thinking this stuff through, though that kind of time may or may not be visible in the result.
MM: That attention to the actuality of the painting (these are really just stretcher bars, this is actually canvas, etc.) again reminds me of music in the sense that we don’t ever expect music to be anything other than music. One can argue over whether or not a painting should be read for its literal content (the subject matter), but that’s a hard thing to do with your work. I am forced to experience your painting as an actual painting that can’t be read for characters or story because you often don’t include subject matter in your work, and when you do, it’s so enveloped in the formal qualities of the painting, that it almost ceases to exist as subject matter. The representational moments are seemingly playful little nods to art history that pop up with such scarcity that I can only assume they mean a great deal to you. What do you consider to be your subject matter? How do you choose the few representational elements that you include?
KW: I don’t think literal content on its own means anything in any art form, really. Every supposedly literal thing in art is embodied somehow, and the how is entirely involved with the what. So—my subject matter is a poetry that uses the given parts of the language of painting, both with and against itself. My interpretations of what those parts are, and how they can be related or reshuffled, are where there is a chance for something interesting to happen. For a while now I’ve occasionally picked up images of figures to use in my paintings, most recently, images cut from art history books, often of classical sculpture. The main thing I’m looking for is how the figure will connect or contest with other aspects of the painting it is in. I consider the figures and their connotations material I can use on a par with the physical aspects like wooden stretcher bars or canvas, as another part of the given language and conventions of painting. I choose the particular collage figurative elements I do because they have directional gazes or other aspects that I can use, and because they have a certain humor or implications when put next to something else.
MM: You’ve been living and working in New York City for some time now, but you grew up here in Mississippi and got your bachelor’s degree at Southern Miss. The muted tones and exposed wooden stretchers to me reflect an admiration and respect for craftsmanship and honesty, the kind of blue-collar values that can be found across Mississippi and the South. How have your experiences here in Mississippi shaped the work you make now? Did the education you received here impact your trajectory in a meaningful way?
KW: I admire good craft, but I don’t particularly think of myself as being involved in that. I don’t mean what I do to be homage to craft, and I don’t really know what I’m doing as a carpenter or woodworker, at least in the sense of being trained in that. I make up my own ways of putting things together, and find it a very engaging process. I do think a lot about how to make my pieces physically strong and stable and as simple as possible while giving me what I want visually. It’s interesting that the handmade aspect evokes ideas of Mississippi and the South for you—I’ve had people come into my studio and tell me I am making a structure like something that was part of the house where they grew up in Japan, or that it is like a thing that people in Brazil traditionally make. The wooden lattices especially seem to inspire this response. They get a certain look of complexity because of the layering, but they are basically very simple. Through that simplicity they seem to touch on or be reminiscent of lots of different things, while still being rather particular. I did grow up on the Mississippi gulf coast and lived in Mississippi up until the time I left Hattiesburg to go to graduate school at Cranbrook (near Detroit), but I don’t think the constructed aspect of my work is really connected to Mississippi. My education at USM did have a great impact, though. Jim Meade, Vernon Merrifield and Jerry Walden were my teachers and I got a solid introduction to modern design, color theory and other formal ideas from them. The physical structure of my paintings I think started from other sources. Years ago I had a spontaneous vision of one of my paintings making a gesture. In a kind of daydream I saw the painted canvas extend out from the wall and turn around to face the wall, turning its back to the viewer. It was a gesture of refusal, a refusal to be seen. That image took some time to digest, but eventually I began to work with the idea. One implication that emerged was that when this happened, while the painting’s face (the part made to be seen) became invisible, other parts (stretcher, unpainted canvas, staples) were suddenly things to be dealt with. A more basic and substantial insight was that paintings actually have parts in that way, that while normally just the painted image was assumed to be the whole thing, paintings actually have this array of parts that traditionally exist in a hierarchy, some of them invisibly supporting and serving that face. The wooden structures and lattices and all the unusual things my paintings do started with that thought.
MM: As a successful artist exhibiting in New York, What advice can you offer aspiring and emerging artists in Mississippi?
KW: I will accept being called a successful artist if we use the following definition: I am having a life that is very focused on art, and I am making the art I want to make. I am wary about dispensing general advice. People are different and have different goals, and maybe different definitions of success than mine. I would recommend doing the best work you can possibly do. Though it felt risky at the time, moving to New York twenty five years ago was a crucial decision for me. Maybe when those aspiring and emerging artists in Mississippi come to New York we can have a conversation about these things. I’d like that.