Sunday, July 10, 2016

Ten Minutes With L.A. Artist Kim Abeles at the Intersection of Problem Solving and Curiosity

45' x 42' Paper Person constructed with trash generated on Earth Day.
When I was an art student at Ohio University there were a half dozen Siegfried Hall peers for whom I had especially high regard as artists with sufficient talent and motivation to make a mark as career artists. One of these whose work impressed me at that time was Kim Abeles. Upon graduation we were like seeds scattered to the wind. In the 90s the emergence of the internet enabled former classmates to occasionally find one another and I had the good fortune to re-connect with her and during an L.A. business trip visit her studio there. It was an invigorating experience, confirming that my instincts and expectations had been accurate.

Today Abeles has received recognition on several continents, having produced an immense body of thought-provoking, imaginative work. I asked if she might allow me to interview her here that I might share her ideas and work with my friends and readers.

EN: As a career artist and art teacher, can you explain why art is still important today?

Kim Abeles: From a wide view, culture – meaning all the arts and creative expressions – is what can hold society together, framing life so we can stop and feel it. Metaphor and hand-made beauty make us feel whole for a moment. If a person were able to spend their life entirely walking the earth and living off the land, the result would be the art form. But in our contemporary world, that scenario is only in dreams.

Art is the place where problem solving and curiosity meet, only falling short when the art is stuck in emulation of itself.

EN: When I visited you in 1998 I was impressed by many of your works, but especially the series of presidential plates. Can you explain briefly what you were doing with that series?

KA: The Presidential Commemorative Smog Plates came about when I kept hearing George HW Bush anointing himself as the “environmental president.” He did push for the Clean Air Act, but on the ground, in smoggy Los Angeles, I wasn’t able to see much difference.

The Smog Collectors materialize the reality of the air we breathe. I place cut, stenciled images on transparent or opaque plates or fabric, then leave these on the roof of my studio and let the particulate matter in the heavy air fall upon them. After a period of time, from four days to a month, the stencil is removed and the image is revealed in smog. To quote a stranger, they are "footprints of the sky".

I created the first smog Collector in 1987 while working on artworks about the “invisible” San Gabriel Mountains, obscured by the smog as I looked from my studio fire escape in downtown Los Angeles. In the 1980s it was common to hear people insist that it was fog, not smog, that filled the air.

The Presidential Commemorative Smog Plates (1992) are portraits of U.S. Presidents from McKinley to George HW Bush made of smog on porcelain dinner plates with their quotations about the environment and business hand-lettered in gold. The plates were left out longer depending on the environmental record of the president.

EN: I remember, too, you smog-etched dining room table. How many other smog-stencil etchings did you create?

KA: Forty Days and Forty Nights (Forty Days of Smog) is an installation with a central element as a dinner table made with smog on glass, car mufflers for table legs, assemblage details, and suspended chiffon chairs. The idea of using domestic imagery, homes and the places where we are meant to feel safe, were perfect counterparts to the dangerous environmental catastrophe that we had created with our cars and factories.

I made a few of these table settings, most recently for the Museum of Art and Design in New York. Dinner for Two in One Month of Smog was shown again this past spring at Kunsthal KAde in the Netherlands. In this case the smog-dinner appears directly on a table cloth. Zoe’s Highchair reveals her lunch made in smog on glass.

Other subjects for the Smog Collectors include the cave paintings of Lascaux, images of the body, industry and to-scale translations of American landscape painting and photography. We live in the contradiction that the dangers are out there, beyond, and that we are safe in our homes. Since the worst in our air can't be seen, Smog Collectors are both literal and metaphoric depictions of the current conditions of our life source. They are reminders of our industrial decisions: the road we took that seemed so modern.

EN: Your art definitely challenges peoples' thinking and, hopefully, conscience. What have been the primary themes your work has addressed?

KA: All of my work is about engaging in the world and trying to understand using art to transcribe complex issues that are always layered with meaning. Through the course of my career, my work has brought together biography, geography and environment. I have focused on subjects including the urban environment, feminism, aging, HIV/AIDS, labor, mental health, violence, and collective memory.

Though my work addresses a broad scope of environmental and social concerns, the soul of the art always engenders a discussion about the role of the individual in society.

The individual is not a separate organism moving around independently, but rather a dynamic speck in the movement of all things past to future. I am awestruck by our efforts, our foibles, and our successes, and by the way these three are inseparable.

Some of my work is permanent and made for public spaces. Other projects are intended to engage through the project with kids in schools or with community groups. The projects involving participants are created with hands, for them, and as the focus audience. In this way it is like gift giving. We each come with our own voices and must have a willingness to really listen, even if it takes bit to hear.

EN: Your work has brought you international recognition. How did this happen?

KA: The Smog Collectors opened up my work to a wide audience. But I also had a large-scale mid-career survey, Kim Abeles: Encyclopedia Persona A-Z toured the U.S., and through South America sponsored by the United States Information Agency. It was curated by Karen Moss for the Santa Monica Museum of Art and was sponsored by the Fellows of Contemporary Art.

Between 1993-97, I travelled with the exhibitions to Forum for Contemporary Art, St. Louis; Fresno Art Museum; National Museum of Fine Arts, Santiago, Chile; Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Complejo Cultural Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina; Centro Cultural Consolidado, Caracas, Venezuela. Art Resources Transfer, (A.R.T. Inc.) in New York picked up the show and a culminating version of the show was presented in1999.

All artists need people who champion their work. This provides a very nurturing support and encouragement, as well as a practical aspect that has to do with exhibitions at important art institutions, and additionally in my case, museums based in the sciences. There are many people I could list early on who believed in my work, including Lucinda Barnes who was most recently the Chief Curator at the Berkeley Art Museum; Bill Bartman who was a gallerist, publisher, and founder of Arts Resources Transfer; and, Diane Perlov who is Deputy Director for Exhibits at the California Science Center. As I typed up this list, scores of other people poured into my thoughts, professionals who helped me along the way. These are people who continued to believe in my work regardless of changes to my methods or experiments with uncharted forms.

EN: In what ways have you changed after a career in art and in what ways have you remained the same?

KA: The physical work in the studio is always at the center of my efforts. I continue to be making art in the dark with a small flashlight, so to speak. I prefer to be a little lost, locate my bravery along the way, regain faith when I misplace it, and appreciate that this is where my gifts were given.

I do believe that art has the means to transform the way people look at the world. It is like a fragrance that later reminds a person of a tangible place or feeling. We can become numb in the world we occupy, and art is challenged to be more true, more meaningful, more heartfelt.

I went into art with communities of people very early in my career. In the 1980s, I would hear grumbles about this kind of work. People saw it as social work and not to be equated with art. This has of course changed considerably, and now “social engagement” is one of several terms given to this genre.

The core of these artist experiences will inspire us through this truly horrible moment of national and international violence. And art, from visual ideas to spoken word and all the forms, are urgent to grasp. We have lost a lot of the poetry in our lives, and I mean that as literally as I do metaphorically. A poet reading still needs the listener who has a passionate heart.

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For a more comprehensive look at the work and thought of Kim Abeles visit her website at 

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