Interview with artist Garry Kaulitz

The following interview with Garry Kaulitz was conducted via email in March 2008, by Ken DeRoux, former curator at the State Museum.

Ken: In your discussion session when your exhibit opened in Juneau, you talked about your art being political, and you cited influences and precedents for that, such as Goya and Kathe Kollwitz. Your work that I first remember was essentially landscapes, but landscapes once-removed. They were drawings of drawings, or drawings of photos, as if the landscape images were fastened to a wall with pieces of tape or string, like trompe l'oeil... It's also interesting that a common thread between these two bodies of work is the incorporation of smaller bits of imagery, photos, etc. into a larger piece.

Garry: My BFA from RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) was in illustration (in those days heavy into process and concept), and I had planned on being an illustrator. However, in the process of getting my MFA I made the decision to pursue teaching so I might not have to make art for other people, and could follow my own artistic dictates. Nonetheless, there remains to this day many of the dictates of that training. I become my own client.

I pursue art like a project, usually based on some internal conversation. Conversations I have with myself about space, places, beings, and situations which I have participated in or observed and ultimately feel the need to illustrate. Thus my history as a trained illustrator, coupled with my love of process (be it drawing, painting or printmaking), has allowed me to pursue art much of which are just illustrations of my interests and concerns.

I am a collector at heart, and thus my studio walls are covered with research material, sketches, and artifacts that I find of interest; and the references to photos, tape and other artifacts in my work are just an extension of using process to talk about the process. I use a multitude of processes to construct the direction I am headed. Many of the references are an attempt to portray space that extends beyond the frame of reference.

Ken: You've taken on big themes in your work: domestic abuse, sexuality, the war in Iraq, and your own dysfunctional family upbringing. Do you see art as an avenue for change in these arenas, and is that your primary intent; or is it on a more personal level, a way for you to relate to these issues?

Garry: I do think art that speaks to the human condition and uses its power to inform or translate that condition, is art best served. I think that is the illustrator in me, and that visual story-telling thing that directed me towards art in the first place. Though I am addicted to surface manipulation, and spent many years dealing with just that, I feel more satisfaction when it is combined with insight and concept about the human condition.

You asked if I thought my work was made as an avenue for change or a way of relating to the issues. I suspect it is more a sense of giving voice or witness to occurrences in my life, even knowing how nuanced those views may be.

When I'm thinking about art it is more than likely about the concept and how do I give it voice, believing that the media and language will follow. I spent several years (early 70s to the mid-80s) working in a totally non-representational manner, concentrating on the nature of color, form, and space. My work started returning to a more representational basis in the late 80s via clouds and then the relationship of the earth-line with the sky, in attempts to capture what the photo or memory could not. The concept of showing the unknown is a theme I come back to a lot, and it surfaces in many disguises, be it landscapes or family histories.

This is a statement I had with a body of work called "Tape Sites." Yet, change the subject from landscapes to politics or family history and it pretty much speaks of all my art.

Tape Sites

I attempt to hold
the elusive reality,
mask it down,
conquer it in some way.

I strive to leave my mark upon it,
ascribe some line
to make it mine,
for my memory.

These landscapes,
after all,
are illusions,
attempts to define,
in style and dictate,
my recollections.

Not so much replication,
but a dedication
to convene an invention
of thought place and time.

Ken: It seems your work tends to follow changing themes, perhaps as a way to structure new exhibitions. Do you work in a project-based fashion, maybe with a goal in mind, or a preconceived idea or plan? Do you do other work, not connected to these exhibit themes?

Garry: I do work best when I have a set goal in mind. It need not be an exhibition but rather a concept I want to give voice to. I'm thinking about one of two things when I'm making art: "Does it have something to say beyond the skill in which it is done?" and "Does the media/skill interfere with the context?"

I have a lifetime of stored images and ideas, and a mastery of some tools, and I trust that those images and skills will be there as a manufactured intuition and will manifest themselves as I observe and proceed to visually speak my mind. Thus, the art making comes about through trust and believing that one does have a unique and crafted voice worth listening to. I want to produce work that is greater than the sum total of its parts, so ultimately I think that if the finished art is better than my imagination or intention, only then will I have succeeded. If it matches my imagination more than likely I have failed.

It seems that I make art a lot and yet I never seem to have enough time to make art that is not for a solo exhibition (project), invitational, group show or some other such happening. It is rare that I ever have work that is not promised somewhere. Though I do suspect that I have some sort of deep-seated need to structure my work just to be sure I do keep working and producing while trying to teach.

Ken: Could you talk a little about how you conceived of the Sankofa exhibit, how you prepared for it and proceeded with it? You made your own paper for this, right? Why did you do that?

Garry: Sankofa was conceived as a singular body of work and was made over a two month period. Though they were not made as singular images, but rather as groups, the production averaged out to about one print a day. I did a lot of research and gathered a lot of material, written and visual, about each year, from both a historical and personal vantage point, and then it was just like weaving the parts together. As I worked on one work there was always an intuitive consciousness about all the other work. That goes as well for color and other design choices. The decisions made were not planned as much as intuitive decisions based on accumulated evidence and stored away.

The use of handmade paper in the Caretakers was a way I could get these images larger and onto a more substantial material. In the final, analysis they are somewhat reminiscent of prayer rugs. I also enjoy the surface and its interaction with the inks.

Ken: The Years part of Sankofa contains one unique print for every year of your life, and seen as a whole, it becomes kind of an installation. Each piece can stand alone, but obviously they all relate to each other, and build on each other. One notices, for instance, that we were at war for 32 years of your life, as indicated by the bombers embedded in that many prints, if I counted correctly. How do you feel about breaking up the set? Do you see it as 65 separate images, or as a whole work?

Garry: I would prefer the work (be seen) as a whole because it works as a whole. And I fear once broken up it will lose much of its significance.

Ken: The exhibit, being a year-by-year timeline of your life, contains a great many visual references. It's easy to see it as a puzzle that would be different for people of different ages. "Meaning" in much of the exhibit seems to be tied up with deciphering visual clues. Comment?

Garry: If there was anyone who has influenced my work more than others, it would be James Joyce, and how he was able to layer so many concepts in a single work. In particular I have read Ulysses several times and every time it is a new novel, with more meanings. It almost becomes a living thing, in that under his hand he is able to present depths that make it impossible to grasp in one reading, and yet it is such a joy to experience the skill with which he worked.... If I could even come remotely close to that ability I would consider myself blessed.

I certainly hope people can find themselves in my work but that isn't why I do it. What I really enjoy is finding myself in my work, and if people find meaning in that, for whatever reason, then that is a plus.