Studio Time

The Look of Love: A Studio Visit with Amsterdam-based painter, Kathy Ager

September 13, 2018

Only a few days before she moved back home, we got to visit the Amsterdam studio of Canadian artist, Kathy Ager, who won us with her chic and eerie still life compositions. Intertwining the elements of popular culture and personal life within the atmosphere and the elegance of Dutch masters' classics, she is creating timeless testimonies of current times using this traditional format. We got a chance to look at the most recent creations, learn about the ways the art history and modern life clash inside her work and hear the anecdotes and stories behind the images.

Sasha Bogojev: Let's start with an information that stunned me: when did you start painting?
Kathy Ager: I’m a late bloomer for sure! I picked it up about 3-4 years ago when I just needed something to do with my time while recovering from an illness. Back then it was just me and my cat, killing time and figuring it out. I had no real direction other than to just keep making (copying) images I liked. The idea of making something personal and exposing myself didn’t even cross my mind.

But you obviously have a strong feel for creative expression. Where is that coming from?
I’ve been a graphic designer for the last 11 years so I’ve been in the creative realm for a while. I had also discovered painting back in graphic design and illustration school through my teacher Kiff Holland. But I’ve always been super sensitive and inquisitive (nosey!). Music, books and just the tragedy of everyday life affects me so much. I can hear a single line from an Anderson Paak song and the concise poetry of it just kills me. I needed to do something with that.

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How are you liking the way your painting career is going so far?
It’s been mind-blowing. I’m honestly suspicious of the universe for the things that have come to me. Or else someone’s been reading my diary and pulling some strings. I’ve gone from painting alone in my living room to working with Thinkspace in a matter of months. I couldn’t be more excited or terrified.

How would you describe the type of images that you're working on these days?
I’m focusing on realist still lives, styled in the way of the Dutch masters, but pulling in objects from my personal life and current times. I like the way still lives are full of cryptic messages, and yet have a universal appeal from the outside. I’ve described them before as “a peek into my deep, dark basement” and I think that sums it up well. They’re a way of facing the darkness and in that way, having power over it.

There is a strong sense of classic painting format in those works. Did living in Amsterdam influenced that?
Definitely, but not only in terms of style. I lived most of my life in North America where it seems there’s an obsession with only showing positive emotions. In Europe there’s much more of an acceptance of the whole spectrum. You’re not expected to smile all the damn time and it gave me the courage to be more honest. But yeah, the Dutch masters have skills I can only dream of, and an ability to go dark and cryptic that definitely inspire me.

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What attracts you to those classic images?
I love that darkness and the sense there’s more going on than you’re initially seeing. They were painted 400 years ago and their cryptic messages are still haunting us. The objects tell us of a specific time and place, but the message and humanity is timeless.

What are your contemporary art influences or favorites?
I discovered the work of Christian Rex van Minnen a couple years ago and it gave me such comfort! To see someone making things that are weirder and darker helped me loosen up about my own ideas. Although I did finally see a painting of his in real life, at the Juxtapoz x Superflat show at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and it was worse than I thought – it was perfect. Definitely freaked me out!

How do you compose the images, the sets that are depicted in your work?
It depends on what I want to include in the image. Ideally, I shoot the whole thing myself, but if there are objects I’m just not going to get my hands on in a timely manner, like a multitude of dead animals, I’ll resort to collaging together images I find online with the objects I shoot myself. For “Smokin’ Me Out”, for example, I was able to buy a pig’s head while living in Lisbon. The butcher delivered it right to my door. I bought flowers at the market that morning and proceeded to smoke myself out of my AirBNB bathroom, lighting and styling cigarettes in the pig’s mouth, in 35C heat.

Are there certain subjects that your images are addressing?
Letting yourself feel and be vulnerable when it’s not cool to do so, subjects of death, assault and above all, heartbreak. There’s always something deeply personal as the foundation of every painting, but these experiences and feelings are universal.

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Can you give us an example of how are those represented?
I use the symbolism in the objects as well as the titles to craft a message. And I always like to add a little humor into my works. The image itself might come across as cool and beautiful, but the title reveals an irony that makes you look again at the image. For example, I painted a male bust surrounded by flowers, looking directly at the viewer through the holes of a balaclava – it’s menacing. But the title, “The Look of Love”, taken from the Dusty Springfield song, tells you of the twisted nature of the situation. It’s about a former lover turned aggressor.

What type of works are you currently working on and what are those for?
I’m continuing on with this current theme. I’m working towards a solo show with Thinkspace next summer, where all my current work will be showcased. It’s exciting!

What other things interest you other than painting?
Before being a graphic designer and painter, I did a degree in Anthropology and Geography and these subjects still interest me. I love knowing about people and places (did I mention I’m nosey?). I just can’t get enough – whether it’s living in another country, reading National Geographic, or just watching a teen drama on Netflix. Otherwise, music, skateboarding, and books like those from John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy all get me going.