By Catalina Restrepo L.
"I seek original proposals within the pictorial format and at the same time, for the artist to have the potential to be reviewed and recognized by the institution, if they aren’t already."
Catalina Restrepo: One of the things I admire most about your work is the level of commitment to the artists when you go their studios and discover what they’re working on, you don’t settle for what is shown everywhere or stay with the same ones always. So I’d like to begin this interview with the question: When you started with your previous project White Spider, you showed a wide range of artists whose proposals encompassed multiple formats and styles. How did you decide to focus instead on painting when starting this gallery? Especially non-conventional painting.
Karen Huber: Actually, when I started White Spider, the organic idea way to start was to drench myself in art and meet thousands of artists with whom I ended up working with. Obviously, my view was broadened with regards to the formats in which they worked with. It was evident to me, since the beginning, that painting was the one that pulled at me and excited me the most, in comparison to other formats and disciplines. When I started planning the gallery, I decided to close the filter a bit to dedicate myself to painting exclusively. The first year or two, I was still exploring. The question of what we talk about when we talk about painting. Even three years ago, that part about painting was still very confusing and wandered between the ordinary and the new.
I’ve always been fascinated by painting, it has the capacity to excite me even through smell: the oils, the acrylics, even the traces of manufacture, which can be visible or invisible. As well as the discourse on the pictorial and how it’s done.
Thus, White Spider was very widespread, when I started the gallery I said: “Let’s get rid of names, I’ll use my own name and go this way”, and so that was a way of closing the field a bit.
CR: There’s a particular case I’m excited about with one of the artists you represent since the beginning, which is Manuel Solano, whose work I got to know through you, and is today one of the most internationally recognized artists, and very commented about in the recent New Museum Triennial. Tell us a little bit about how you met and how you’ve seen his growth.
KH: Manuel Solano’s first solo show was in the summer of 2015. I met him through my relationship with curator Octavio Avendaño Octavio, with whom I’m still friends with. He told me about many artists who were doing interesting things, and Manuel Solano’s name came up; so I went to his studio and saw his work. I didn’t know he was blind or had HIV, I knew nothing of his history. I trust the people I work with, and when I went I was incredibly surprised with his work, he showed me his work from 2012, some early canvases, and the papers from the series Blind, Transgender with Aids, which he made when he became blind, which the show was about, about the discovery of his painting style which he didn’t want to do at first. A friend advised him to paint with what he had: his hands, the Kraft paper sitting at home, and all that information - between irony, rage, and comedy- a particular trait of Manuel Solano from his beginnings, - we presented the Blind, Transgender with Aids series at a solo show. We held a widely attended press conference and joined forces as gallery and artist, and curators began to visit the exhibit.
Manuel and I have always worked on a solid project each time a show is inaugurated, even now that we’re working differently. He’s also showing with other international galleries and our plan for now is that we’ll work by project. We still don’t know what we’ll be doing or what’s next.
Zona MACO was a huge boost, even before the Triennial. Several curators met him thanks to Daniel Garza Usabiaga’s invitation to participate in a solo show in Zona MACO sur. That was a great showcase, several residencies were proposed from that, he’s done two or three residencies at the PICA in Portland, for example, and he’s landed with more projects and curators from those, including the curatorial team for the the fourth New Museum Triennial went to see his exhibit at bikini wax.
At this point Manuel’s career exploded, especially internationally. He’s been very coherent and strong since the beginning, he’s always taken good care of his production and development in painting. He went from painting with his hands and without much detail, to the realism that he’s been perfectioning admirably. Each exercise and exhibit has been a step toward feeling more comfortable and finding a technique that ends up being spectacular: his work is more figurative and impressive, from the mix of colors to the themes and everything else.
CR: It’s been successful for you as well, isn’t it?
KH: Of course, 100%, with every artist I work with I try to make that happen: for someone on the outside to see them, include them in something international, for the press to be there, for all the world to know, for them to be in a museum. That’s what we hope for the artists, some way or another.
CR: At one point you remarked that an important part of the work you do in the gallery consists of helping artists apply for opportunities and you supported that aspect which isn’t strictly commercial. How do you think this determines the success Karen Huber has as a gallery?
KH: It is key. I think there are several ways to become an internationally recognized artist. One way can be commercial, but the academic and institutional parts are also very important. There are artists who only care for only sales and this does not necessarily lead to recognition by museums, curators or institutions.
What we try to do is match residencies and opportunities with the artists’ work; we try to have the artists apply so that they can transcend in other places, and acquire opportunities only institutions can offer. Today, for example, we were very satisfied to learn that Ana Segovia received the FONCA young creator’s scholarship (la beca de jóvenes creadores de FONCA). Our role as gallery is to show artists that they need an internationally recognized scholarship that can give them much more curricular experience than any fairs they might participate in.
"The manufacture, even if it’s their first, has to indicate they’ll age well. Another important aspect: the proposal must speak of painting from a new angle."
CR: What should an artist have to catch your attention, and so that you would eventually want to represent him or her?
KH: There are several factors to consider, on the one hand I obviously have to like and be surprised by their work, on the other, their work has to have quality. The manufacture, even if it’s their first, has to indicate they’ll age well. Another important aspect: the proposal must speak of painting from a new angle.
Many of the artists I represent express painting as it is- Ana Segovia, Endy Hupperich or Rafael Uriegas, for example, but each one from a very different perspective. They don’t have to relate to each other necessarily, but they do have to function well together. Each artist has different thematics and techniques, but in terms of the gallery, we do seek to have our selection of artists resemble a fan, per se, so that each one is a piece of the whole fan, but each work represents itself.
I seek original proposals within the pictorial format and at the same time, for the artist to have the potential to be reviewed and recognized by the institution, if they aren’t already. It’s important to me that they’ve exhibited with curatos and museums or at least have the potential to do so. That’s crucial to me, otherwise perhaps I won’t work with an artist that meets all these criteria.
CR: Thanks to the strength and the battles won lately by women in many professional fields, many female artists and especially painters have gotten the chance to get the recognition history owes them, like the case of Hilma Af Klint. How do you perceive this phenomenon? How do you imagine, taking into account this larger female representation we’re fighting for, the future of art and painting?
KH: That’s a good question. I think it’s changing even now. Even recently, as a gallery or curatorial project, if you wanted to invite more women, you noticed that men predominated. No matter how much you wanted it, it was one of those things you can now see- for example, the most recent results of the FONCA scholarship reflect a majority of women over men. On the other hand, I believe women are empowering themselves and devoting themselves to painting as such, to be artists, to having a serious career.
Maybe women limited themselves knowing they’d eventually get pregnant and be unable to have the career they wanted, and as in every field, those dreams star to crumble, but I really think interesting times are coming, with political proposals, even.
I’d imagine there will be an explosion of gender painting, I see it now with some artists I work with, like Ana Segovia- who talks about sexual tensions on both genders or other genders, trying to exist without being one or the other- I think there’ll be an explosion starting with pop culture, in particular labor equality, which I hope we’ll be able to see through painting. But we’ll see! There are some very political moments in the future regarding art.
CR: Do you think perhaps, much the way painting gave a 180 degree turn and drove away from absolute realism beginning with photography at the end of the 19th century with impressionism, painting might react in a similar manner to today’s digital hyperrealism in artistic practices, such as virtual reality, 3D digital animation, and video mapping, to name a few?
KH: I do think painting is reacting to that, without a doubt. I’d even say, in some cases, rebelling against its own material, breaking it from the digital, as well as sculptural.
The digital has been moving for some time. There are artists who do painting through video, I can imagine post-contemporary painting living in video, I also think you can speak of painting through sculpture. I think painting as such goes beyond its materic form, I sense it more as discourse or as pictoric traits in different formats without the question of whether they are digital or sculptural being important. There are painters beyond the Arts & Crafts, who could produce intervened ceramic while getting far from functionality. In any case, beyond thinking of terms like the digital, the format or the disciplines, we’ll be able to refer to painting without the need to talk about the paintbrush or its materials like oils and acrylic, etc.
CR: In 1978 the New Museum hosted an exhibition called “Bad Painting”, whose selection of work is still quite contemporary. Marcia Tucker, the curator, referred to the participating artists as those who “consciously reject the traditional concept of drawing in favor of personal styles of figurative”. Do you think this style might be making a comeback? Or on the contrary, do you think it’s always been there and maybe it hasn’t had enough strength or has been opaqued, but is today revindicated?
KH: Yes, I think it’s always been there, and today it has been definitely highlighted. Painting wants to break. The exhibition you speak of, everything looks very contemporary, which goes to show that it’s always been very present. There were a lot of niche artists, then came conceptual art, painting was left behind, but now it’s being paid a lot of attention.
We’ve seen in several fairs such as Material or NADA, painting is perceived as an irreverent medium, inflexible and uncomplex techniques, as well as less tedious. In any case, history is writing itself which makes it hard to guess, but I think part of painting’s comeback has to do with a more general relaxation and we’re even annexing the aspect of painting that’s getting farther from the spectacular and extraordinary realization. Having gone through a particularly conceptual period, it’s inevitable painting would mix in with today’s discourse on technique. There’s still a lot to explore, however.
CR: Hans Ulrich Obrist, in an interview, spoke of what makes painting an “urgent” medium today. What would that be for you?
KH: Painting has always existed, it’s not going to go away, but I do think we’re in a different place now. In the 90s and 2000s, when you could still say there was barely any painting (in comparison to other formats), it was understood it was mostly forgotten; and so, to then think about its “resurgence” doesn’t seem correct to me. It was never resurrected, it was always there! We can’t talk about art without talking about painting.
I think within painting lots of things are happening that even curators and institutions are trying to decipher. It’s being questioned. I think painting should be explored, without a doubt, through all angles, formats, and discourse; that is perhaps the urgency I can see.