In the Make
Studio visits with west coast artists
As I stood in Kuh’s studio for the first time, which technically isn’t much more than a corner of space with concrete walls and fluorescent lighting, I looked around and found myself confused, fascinated, and slightly resistant to all the work on the wall, tables, and the floor. There is a messy voluptuousness to Kuh’s sculptures, each piece is a hunk of a thing, a clotted mass of color and form that reveals unexpected bends, creases, droops, and angles of her materials. Initially, I found Kuh’s work difficult to relate to aesthetically —she uses salvaged materials that are made cheaply in large quantities like Styrofoam, cardboard, and wire to create layered, dense pieces that have an oozing rawness to them almost reminiscent of a ravaged body or a recovering landscape. But the closer I looked at the work, the more drawn to it I became. There is a tattered beauty to it with each piece expressing an emotional and physical nostalgia by hinting at the original identity of its materials. Though misshapen, at times bulky and indelicate, there is still an electric vulnerability to Kuh’s work.
Kuh herself was a welcome surprise. Vancouver was our final WESTERN EDGE destination and we didn’t get in touch with her until just a few days before we arrived into the city. After so many miles of travel, so many conversations in and out of studios, so much planning and navigating and processing, to finally drive into that city felt like a feat in and of itself. Though exhausted, by the time we got into Vancouver, Klea and I had become a well-oiled machine of sorts, we knew how to follow one another’s lead, fell into rhythm with one another instinctually, and just really knew how to work as a team. Walking into a stranger’s studio and having two hour long conversations was something we had become really good at doing together. But with Kuh, we actually didn’t have to be good at it because she was so easy to talk with— intelligent, articulate, and warm, she welcomed any question and tackled it eloquently. I think what I was most impressed with by Kuh is that she knew how to talk about her own work and her identity as an artist; she openly discussed her ambition, missteps she had made in the past, and the motivations behind her work. I think Kuh has put a lot of effort into stabilizing her identity as an artist, she seems to know how to work through her insecurities, and in our conversations her language always stayed steady with intention. It was incredibly refreshing to talk to an artist, a young woman at that, who understood that the conversations about work can often be as powerful as the work itself.
How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
There have been many different influences that have informed and inspired my work, though they never been too far from my own personal experiences. Through the use of found objects harvested from domestic spaces, I appropriate attributes and meaning imposed on each item through juxtaposition and created tensions. Through the process, these objects undergo a type of weathering that strips them to raw. I have often likened the process as a kind of alchemy in which I break down the object to its basic properties. Afterwards, they are revitalized and reconstructed into new forms that softly hint at their prior physicality. Recently, the materials I have been using are from my own home and studio, which has presented a new trajectory I am currently following.
What mediums do you work with?
I started off as a painter but realized I was more excited when working with fractured or complex surfaces. Earlier on, I used to paint with slabs of latex paint I have set and hardened in baking sheets to add dimension and structure to the painting. I constantly looked for these kinds of solutions until my works were completely off the wall. For me, the connections between painting and sculpture in my work are still very much apparent. My work is still all about the surface in the way a painting is.
In the last couple of years, I have integrated a lot of deconstructed furniture and household items such as pillows, dish trays, egg cartons, etc. This has marked a more intimate move towards a kind of storytelling, referencing personal space and the private self. I’m interested in the intimate moments that occur unseen, experienced within familiar surroundings. The objects that I choose to include in my work are imprinted with these moments marked and degraded by time.
When I first started making sculptures, I primarily used polystyrene (insulation foam); it’s light and very malleable. I used polystyrene to create the overall structure and I would incorporate unexpected materials for tension and contrast. The move towards utilizing found objects was initially a formal decision that has since evolved to signify much deeper connections between materials.
Besides your art practice, are you involved in any other kind of work?
Currently, I am a board member and treasurer of Dynamo Arts Association, a non-profit arts organization. We manage 11 studio spaces and a project space where we program music, film and art events. Sometime we also host events in partnership with other artist-run organizations and festivals happening in the city.
I am also involved with SHIP, a curatorial project with artist Warren McLachlan. SHIP is a project that came from our mutual desire to work with artists that have yet to be shown in Vancouver.
What influences outside the visual arts inspire and impact your approach to making work?
I was born in Manila and moved to Canada during the ‘88 Winter Olympics. As one might imagine, such a move had made an incredible impact on my life. I am still unpacking today.
The materiality of Manila is rich and potent, resulting from a complex set of circumstance that challenge and inform the way people live and move within the city. These are the kinds of sensations and tactile memories that are made more vivid when confronted by the absence from it.
From this distance, I am able to make connections between past and present that have become essential to my worldview, and ultimately the catalyst for my life long work.
What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
As a sculptor, it’s important to have a dedicated space to build, to sort through ideas, be free to make a mess and make many, many mistakes. My studio is in constant state of flux, contracting and expanding depending on what I am currently working on. I am almost always cleaning and reorganizing to help me mentally prepare before a new project. Often, I end up working on the ground, shoes off and cans of paint scattered around me. Fortunately, my current studio has cement floors that have survived countless paint spills and drips that have become an archival map of my process.
In the past, I’ve tried save money by working in my apartment with the kitchen as the main area of activity. It was very challenging with the studio eventually taking over the living space. I am not sure I can live and work in the same space again. It’s important for me to have a physical separation between life and work, or else I would always feel like I am compromising my process.
Currently, I share a large facility with a dozen other artists with our studios divided by half walls. It is a precarious balance of solitude and community, and an aspect that alters the energy of the space quite unpredictably. Working in close proximity with other artists fosters a lot of inspiration, friendships and important discourse with other artists.
Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I recently finished a 5 week trip to the Philippines to visit family, as well as gather a lot of photo, video and sound documentation for a new body of work I am hoping to start in the spring. It was a loaded trip, rich with new experiences and reconnections with family and place. There were a lot of unexpected and serendipitous things that happened during my time there that I couldn’t have imagined. I have come back with a new sense of purpose in life and in work.
Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
I remember being struck with Jessica Stockholders’ eloquence with materials, in a way that really defined the course of my practice. That was many years ago in art school and of course I have so many other heroes that I have come before and after. However, being introduced to her work marked a kind of emancipation from a perceived ceiling of possibility.
How do you navigate the art world?
Navigating through the art world can be a daunting task, it can seem complicated and hard to understand. I’ve had to overcome a lot of insecurities to be able to pursue a career as an artist. Art school was a sheltered version of how it really is, and in my experience it did not prepare me for what was to come. However, any naïve notions I’ve acquired then, was quickly dispelled with the onslaught of rejections I amassed as an artist emerged. What has helped me through was finding a community of like minded people, that have provided the support and resources necessary to survive feelings of alienation what might encounter during long hours in the studio.
It is necessary to put yourself in situations that allow you to seize opportunity— things just don’t happen, you have to continue to produce work and stay engaged. In this way, your community will grow naturally in tandem with your practice.
Words of wisdom?… a motto, favorite quote?
I think, artists have to take on many different roles, facilitator, administrator, curator, coordinator, producer; this specialized immersion in the arts, will lead you to make connections, and help cast a wider net. Ultimately, your passion should always be reflected in how you spend your time, and the things that you support.
Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
In February 2014 I will be having a solo exhibition at Truck Contemporary Art Gallery in Calgary, AB titled, Sagala Regalia. Inspired from a religious procession that occurs in the Philippines annually, Sagala Regalia will be composed of sculptures that have been constructed from forgotten and abandoned objects harvested from the Truck gallery’s storage space.
An excerpt from the exhibition press release:
The resulting sculptures in Sagala Regalia are adorned with the remnants of our past; our previous exhibitions, events, correspondences, identity, layered under the weight of paint, foam, wood, glue, and whatever medium the artist can summon. The artefacts and their histories are transformed through the power of the artist, as an agent of change, reconstructing and perhaps revealing an ideological structure that is at our very heart. This procession is then paraded before us in a sovereign pageant of deepened meaning, vitality and beauty.
-Renato Vitic, Executive Director for Truck Contemporary Art
To see more of Kuh’s work: