Movement Scores: Interview with Artist Katy Martin

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Katy Martin
“Movement Scores” is an exhibition at the Garage Art Center focused on the work of Katy Martin, an artist who paints on her skin and also makes large-scale paintings with her body.



“Movement Scores” is an exhibition at the Garage Art Center focused on the work of Katy Martin, an artist who paints on her skin and also makes large-scale paintings with her body.  For the paintings, Katy typically dips her torso into liquid paint and rubs it down the side of the canvas; in her other work, where she paints directly on her skin, she also photographs, and prints the images, on cotton rag paper.

This exhibition “Movement Scores” feature the artist’s recent photographs and paintings. This work explores painting as a gesture and the choreography that informs it, essentially turning the movements of her body into brush strokes.  Katy will also participate in a live performance titled “Movement Is a Mark” where Katy will create a new painting, at the Garage Art Center, in front of a live audience. The event is free but registration is required. It will occur on Sunday, May 30, at 3pm to 4pm.

Katy has a deep interest in Chinese painting and gestural abstraction. In 2005, she traveled to China and showed her films at the Shanghai Duolun Museum. Between 2005-2010, she worked in collaboration with a Shanghai film curator and programmed American film/video at MoCA Shanghai, was a regular contributor to a leading Chinese art magazine called “Yishu Shijie,” and curated Chinese media art in the USA at Thomas Erben Gallery and Anthology Film Archives. In 2008, through Artists Exchange International, Katy was invited by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to create a new work based on an object in its collection. She chose “Fish and Rocks” by the Chinese painter, Bada Shanren, and has subsequently been influenced by his art ever since. Jasper Johns, who she made two films about between the years of 1978 and 1981, is also a major influence.

Katy’s award-wining art has been exhibited all over the world. She recently discussed her career and more via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in becoming an artist?

Katy Martin (KM): As a kid, I drew all the time and my parents were very encouraging. My mother had gone to art school, so she loved it that I drew, and she even taught me the basics of figure drawing. It was complicated though – families always are. When my mom had her first baby, they threw her out of art school and, somehow, she never made it back to painting. So, I also inherited her sense of frustration. In the long run, that was something to work against. It really helps if you’re stubborn, if you want to be an artist. Also, my parents made sure there were books around the house, and they’d bought a series from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I grew up in the country, with no access to museums, but those books opened worlds to me. I fell in love with Van Gogh. I still love Van Gogh. Later on, I came across those same books and could see that the reproductions were actually really bad. It didn’t matter! Maybe that’s why, in my current work, I’m happy to create photographs of paintings – of paintings that are on my own skin.

Katy MartinMM: Why does the pairing of skin and paint—essentially turning your body into a living brush—appeal to you?

KM: I started this work in 1996 and, at the time, I was painting but … I was stumped. I really loved gestural abstraction, but I couldn’t seem to make a painting without feeling like I was crossing someone else’s territory. In a way, the pairing of paint and skin was an act of defiance, an insistence – here I am. At a certain point, I claimed painting as my own by literally stepping into the paint. Painting on my skin made the brushwork mine. It’s in the shape of my body and it changes as I move.  If you’re breathing, you’re not still, so the painting comes alive. For me, that felt right. I stayed with it because from there, my studio practice opened out. Ever since, I’ve been exploring the various layers of this process – from painting to photography, theater, performance and movement. By now, my work is truly a hybrid form and this, in turn, keeps raising new questions. In the current exhibition at The Garage Art Center, the focus is on the choreography of painting and the question, “What happens if we think of painting as a time-based medium?”

MM: What is it about the art of China that so fascinates you?

KM: That actually took me a long time to figure out – why Chinese art has had such a hold on me.  There are many reasons, but what stands out is the relationship of Western abstract expressionism to Eastern calligraphic ink painting. In China, they’ve been thinking about painting and gesture – the moving body, the moving brush – for a very long time.  Some of that is apparent, even obvious, when you look at classic Chinese painting with its elegance, simplicity, and clear evidence of the hand.  Other aspects reveal themselves as you get deeper in and are tied to religious forms that grow out of Buddhist and Taoist traditions. For example, verticality, so important to Chinese art, is in some sense the channeling of cosmic energy and a pathway for the Tao.  That energy – the Tao – must be experienced viscerally, so you have all these practices like qi gong and tai chi.  Calligraphy is one of those practices and, of course, that resonates for me. By contrast, American abstract expressionism felt too close and aspects of it crowded me.  I have trouble with all the ego involved, the emphasis on “self” in self-expression.  In Chinese painting, you are part of a bigger flow. Instead of the signature mark, you’re looking for what happens in the space around that mark. That space is empty, empty but full. So, it’s the energy around what you do that’s important.  That fascinates me, for sure!

MM: You have a background in film, so how does that influence your fine art work?

KM: Film centered my practice in movement and in the process of animation, of bringing still images to life. I was a filmmaker in the 1970s, and I used a silent, hand-held Super-8mm film camera. It was light enough for me to hold comfortably in my hand and the emphasis, for me, was on the graphic qualities of the image and also the sense of movement it conveyed. I think I still pretty much live in that space. If you look at Movement Scores, the paintings I’m doing now, you can see that there is a figure, repeating across the frame, moving as if it’s an animation.  Or it could also be an angel, a ghost image etched onto a strip of film.  Or it could also be like Duchamp’s 1912 painting, Nude Descending a Staircase.  Painting in the early 20th century was greatly influenced by film.

Katy MartinMM: How have you secured opportunities to travel so much for your artwork and attain prestigious fellowships?

KM: I’m not sure how to answer this question. So, I’ll approach it on two levels, general and specific. As a general question, I think maybe what you’re asking is, based on my experience, what insights can I offer that might be of use to other artists in getting their work out? I think it’s a combination of things, mostly to do with the kind of art you make, the friends you connect with along the way, and what you do with the opportunities you have. As artists, we create our own networks of support. Some of that is organic to the process of making art. We go to shows, we meet people and gather friends who share our values and aesthetics. For me, studio visits with friends have led to exhibitions, projects and collaborations. Then too, I have a website, which I made using Squarespace, and I keep it up to date as a part of making new work.

Some combination of those same factors led to how I first went to Shanghai in 2005. The Internet opened up in China around 2004, and a good soul there, Denis Zhu, was nosing around and had recently discovered experimental film. Eventually, Zhu found his way to a New York filmmaker, who made him a list of film artists to check out.  After that, a short email arrived in my mailbox, asking if I’d be interested in showing my work to a Chinese audience.  Zhu was asking me simply to mail him some DVDs, but I just had a feeling … so I invited myself too.  That turned out to be quite an experience!

While I was there, I asked Zhu to introduce me to artists in Shanghai, and I was so impressed with the filmmaking going on – not least because everyone was helping each other out, getting together for shoots and sharing equipment when needed. It felt like downtown New York in the 1970s.  In that DIY spirit, Zhu and I went on to collaborate on a film series that we showed at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Later, we collaborated on another film series, this time for the MoCA Shanghai. My collaboration with Zhu lasted five years. The friendships I made along the way are for keeps.

MM: How did you find out about The Garage Art Center and secure a show with them?

KM: An artist friend you’ve interviewed – Tina Seligman – recommended me, and I was invited to show there.  I feel incredibly lucky.  The Garage Art Center is beautiful space with a wonderful sense of mission.  Exhibiting there has been a great experience.

Katy MartinMM: How many pieces are in the show and do you have any personal favorites? If so, which pieces are your favorites and why?

KM: I am showing four photos of paint-on-skin and one large acrylic painting on canvas. I am also showing a strip of photos that document the process of making the painting. I don’t really have favorites, but I’d love to talk about the three photos on the back wall. I think they each work well on their own, but I especially like how they interact with, and complement, the intrinsic energy of the space. All three photos are of paint-on-skin. My body is somewhat hidden, but it’s there in the mix. On the right, in As If #21_6068, I’m facing forward, opening up toward the viewer and the center of the space. You can only see my shoulder and part of my chest, so it suggests something bigger that is outside the frame. In the middle picture, Visitation #27-2011, I’m really channeling the Tao. I’ve got gold paint around me and I’m reaching up to the rafters and the gable above.  To the left, in Notes #25-9892, you see a black and white painting on my back. It’s as if the energy of the brush has turned my torso into a spring. I’m squeezing down into my waist, like a roof slant, and the whole wall behind it feels fluid, alive.

MM: How did you decide to plan a live painting session as part of this exhibition?

KM: All my painting on canvas starts with a performance where I use my body instead of a brush, coating it with paint and rubbing it across the surface.  Mostly when I do this, I’m alone in the studio.  My exhibition at The Garage Art Center seemed like a good opportunity to share that process and develop it, with a live audience, as a theatrical form.

MM: What has been the highlight of your artistic career so far?

Katy MartinKM: Here is one of many highlights. In 2016, I was an artist-in-residence in the Chinese painting department at the College of Fine Art, Shanghai University. This is a top program, and I learned a lot from the students. Also, the school gave me a stack of xuan paper along with ink, brushes, and lessons in how to use them. Just from working with those materials in that climate and light, I came home with insights I could never have gotten otherwise.

MM: What events, projects, or other exhibitions are coming up soon and is there anything else that you would like to discuss?

KM: Other projects are on hold. No travel just yet. It’s back to the studio and that’s fine with me!

*****

To learn more about Katy, visit her official website: www.katymartin.net

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