In All Honesty: A Studio Visit With Kate Klingbeil

October 25, 2017

Art has the unique ability to transform, to heal and to connect people in ways we don't fully understand. As life goes on, we all have to sort through our past experiences, some fraught with emotional trauma that is hard to understand, much less cope with. While we all deal with life’s struggles in different ways, Brooklyn based artist Kate Klingbeil has decided to put it all out there. She is not afraid to share her own experiences as a way for us to connect and relate. Her intricate, raw paintings present female figures in every position imaginable and through such, we get an inside look into her own ideas about identity, sexuality and inevitably, her own psyche. We recently stopped by her studio to talk about the fluidity of sexual expression, the unreal expectations female artists are met with and the all mighty, glorious beauty of the butt.

Jessica Ross: Every time I see your work, my heart is warmed, sincerely. I feel a palpable connection to your figures. Their raw vulnerability in their awkward physicality and unapologetic sexuality, in all forms. What sort of real life experiences and or ideas inspire you to create such real, affecting women?
Kate Klingbeil: That makes me really happy. All I want is for someone to feel less alone for a moment when they see the work. Above all, when I’m making the figures, I’m trying to tap in to a part of my self honestly. I think about specific feelings I’ve had and I try to isolate those feelings and translate them as movements in paint. I like to think of the characters in my work as dancers or actors performing in these elaborate plays that tell the story of my psyche. They’re a portrait of something that I’m trying to work through. Painting the figures helps me to understand these different facets of my personality, and also highlight these funny, vulnerable, joyful parts of life. The work almost acts as this lens that gives the emotions a bit of room to sort themselves out. I feel like this conductor that’s orchestrating an opera about an embarrassed exhibitionist.

There are some clear threads to art history in your work. Evocations of Hieronymus Bosch, Baroque and Mannerism styles as well as 12th century medieval tapestries all come to mind. Why do classical themes and compositions appeal to you as an artist?
There’s so much to learn from classical painting. I’m super drawn to the maximal and intricate religious paintings and mannerist works because I think they tell some complex hidden stories and I see them as this fleshy puzzle to decode. They’re often are using compositional equations to make these works automatically more pleasing to the eye through the use of the golden ratio. It’s not something that I directly use in my work- I’m not planning out my compositions using geometry, but it’s an interesting subconscious entry point. I feel like I have been learning a lot from studying this work, and have adopted some of their tricks as the stage and language that my own story is performed within.

I’m also interested in the male gaze present in a lot of these paintings. I like to imagine the women posing for them thinking about how they aren’t getting paid enough, don’t want to be sitting there in the cold, are hungry, tired, sick of all the bullshit. They’re acting as decorations and that’s really interesting to me because it’s something that still persists in advertising and pop culture. There’s a lot of stories I see hiding behind the decorative nature of the work. Beauty is a seductive siren. I think it’s a powerful invitation to look harder.

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You seem to have a pretty playful, free form process. What challenges do you face with respect to your paintings and your ceramic works?
There’s a lot of challenges in the ceramic work. I only started making ceramics 2 years ago, so I’m still learning. There’s a pretty high rate of failure and uncertainty with the work. Will it break before it’s fired? Will the glaze burn off? Will someone else’s work fall onto mine in the kiln and fuse with it? I work out of a community ceramics studio run by two women called BKLYN CLAY which is an incredible place. Making work with clay is super therapeutic and rewarding but you have to give in to the possibility of failure. Paintings are way easier to control throughout the entire process, but with ceramics you’re dealing with this magical process that can be unpredictable.

I’m sure, as a female artist, you get a range of idiotic and downright misogynist comments surrounding the salacious and sexual nature of your work. Do you want to say anything to those people, or perhaps other female artists working in similar subjects?
When I was first starting out in the kind of work I’m making now, right after undergrad about 5 years ago, I was getting a lot more comments from men who seemed angry at the overtly feminist messages. They seemed personally offended by the conversations in the work, which was interesting to me because the work was not directly about them, but they saw themselves in it. I guess it can be infuriating to see women depicted in positions of sexual autonomy, or depictions of women enjoying sex, or not enjoying sex, or just existing as human beings.

To those people, I want to say please take a closer look at your own insecurities and why my work triggers you. I want to say look, it’s okay that you are uncomfortable, but there’s clearly something here that hits your sensitive spot. But over the past few years, the amount of outright misogynist comments has dwindled. Now, I get a lot of positive comments from women who can relate to the work, and less negative or outright sexist reactions. I’m sure there are many opinions of the work that I don’t hear, but I generally feel really supported, especially by other women making figurative/sexual work themselves, and by women who are making work about identity in general. So to them I just want to say thank you and I see you and I love what you’re doing. If people are getting mad you are probably on to something.

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There are an awful lot of butts (in all their glorious shapes and sizes) in your work, what about them are so appealing? Is it just the most fun shape to paint or sculpt?
I feel like this is a pretty loaded question for me. Yes, I love butts, I love my butt, it’s round and full and comfortable for sitting. But at the same time, when I was in middle and high school, I would get endless comments on it to the point where I almost thought it was my best asset. I had a nickname that followed me. And making this work about sexuality, and internalized misogyny and this tinted lens that we see ourselves through, I think the use of the butts has shifted as I’ve become more aware of my own inner monologue. I’m trying to dissect the way my sense of self worth has been formed through advertising, porn, pop culture, and relationships. And part of learning this is through painting images of women’s bodies. Our traumas can follow us like shadows as we try to heal. There are so many layers to sexuality and self love and they’re all pretty complicated.

Do you have any interesting studio rituals you’d like to share? Perhaps some pre-planning meditation or superstitious OCD practices?
I have to clean my studio before I work. There’s a lot of organized chaos in my space. I have a pile system. I water all my plants, check my horoscope and then I listen to the same music over and over again. Right now it’s East Side Story vol. 1-12, Rihanna, Corbin’s Ice Boy, or the podcast Risk. Drake keeps me grounded. If no one else is in there I sing along. Then I go to the Dominican spot on the corner and eat roast chicken with rice and beans.

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Between ceramics, painting, animation and creating custom clothing, what is your favorite these days? When you get burnt out on one medium, do you rotate to keep things interesting?
I need to be working in different mediums to be satisfied. I’m constantly rotating what I’m working on so it’s hard to pick a favorite because they all give me different sides of a story. Ceramics is super satisfying when it works out, heartbreaking about half the time when it doesn’t. Painting is more easily controlled and in that way is what I always will consider my rock. Whatever medium I’m working in, painting will always play a large part in the process. Animation combines all of my loves, but is all consuming.

Anything coming up on the horizon? Where can we see more of your work in the future?
I’ll be in a show of artist-made one-off clothes at Harpy Gallery in New Jersey with some wearable paintings and I’m having a solo show at Hashimoto Contemporary in San Francisco in July of 2018!

Interview and photos by Jessica Ross