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January 24, 2006
Sometime last year I received a portfolio from a painter in San Francisco who dedicated little room to description. She summarized that she was born in the South, initiated into art academia in Chicago, and realized as a painter on the West Coast. What her presentation lacked in self-aggrandizement it made up for in substance. Deep, murky canvases let just enough life slip through for dream figures to emerge, darkness swirling about as if the viewer were peering out of a glass jar into the fog of the ocean floor. It was that peering out, that notion of something coming into the light, that held my attention.

Intrigued by the images, I Googled Reule's name and browsed the various gallery listings and art profiles, a few new images uncovered with each click. There were glimpses of Reule's more recent work, which is dominated by lighter colors than the images obscured in dark tones that have become her calling card, that is different yet obviously within the reaches of her trademark style.

Reule's paintings have an uncanny ability to both answer questions and ask new ones, and with no obvious answers to some of the most gnawing, it would be up to the painter herself to shed some light on the stories within her canvases. Reule took some time out from her work to discuss the purpose of art, the perspectives of artist and viewer, and the mechanics of process.


--
LAS: A good place to start would be with where you started as a painter - how did you get into it?

Keli Reule: I have essentially painted all my life or my life that I can remember. I just have generally always made things. But I took art class at school and what not, and have always played music as well. I have a very musical family, and I was always allowed to create. So, yeah, I don't really think I have ever not made things. But I started to paint with intention in high school and then I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and then transferred to the San Francisco Art Institute to study and was a painting major. I continue to sort of be surrounded by people who are great innovators and generally brilliant, and that stirs the pot a lot, so to speak.

Reading up about your work, and what other people have said about it, the idea that it is dark, or somehow haunting, seemed to pop up a bit. The pervasive idea was portrayed as one of blackness, of darkness swallowing people. But I seem to look at it in the opposite, that the images represent a lightness, of faces bleeding through the mist, coming out of the darkness. Would either of those approaches be accurate?

Well, I don't so much view them in either of those regards, although both seem like interesting ideas to me. I am much more interested in the relationship between the figure(s) and the elements external to it/them, There exists only enough information to provide grounds for some sort of narrative or experience. But what that narrative/experience is, in terms of how it is perceived by the viewer, I am not particularly interested in. I mean in these specific paintings, I am very interested in that as a concept, but not so much here, merely because that's not what their about. But in terms of them being tonally dark in content or color of course is quite intentional, but intentional in an organic way. I take responsibility for what I put in my own paintings but I am aware that some of that process is still mysterious.

A lot of times it seems like a painter includes ambivalence - or at least a lack of a defined agenda - in the perspective of their work in a way that not only facilitates interpretation, but also implies a vagueness. A lot of paintings seem non-committal to me. How much of your work is an avenue of personal expression, of dictating your ideas, and how much of it is centered around the idea of creating dialogue, or at least posing questions for the viewer?

I have an entirely different paradigm about process than that. So inherently I am probably going to approach those very notions differently, beause I do not think - and I'm talking about paintings at large that I have in my sphere of reference be it historical awareness or just that I have seen - but I don't think that dictating ones ideas directly, art being solely an avenue of personal expression, and creating dialogue with or posing a question to the viewer aren't all entirely capable of existing within the same context/painting/blahblahblah. Those ideas are unavoidable if you make things, whether you like it or not. I think work that is compelling and, for lack of a better word, "works" - as in so much as it functions - almost always, whether it is very clear message or rests in a more conceptual complex environment, must have room for the viewer. There has to be some kind of brevity. Whether the work is chaotic, big, small, street, fine art, conceptual, demure, pedantic- whatever... if there is no room for me in it as a viewer, I don't necessarily dislike it. But I am not going to spend a lot of time with it. So all that to say in my own work, I similarly don't think there is much of a line for me there. Because the process of making the figures as directly proportionate as they are takes great time and care, but I often end up taking pieces of paintings out entirely or moving, blurring, changing them, even if they have taken me a long time to do and technically are good, simply because it doesn't serve the painting as a whole.

For all of the attention centered around graphic design and the application of technology in art, painting appears to be gaining a lot of momentum with young artists who could easily work at a nice clean desk rather than at a dirty easel. How is it, in your opinion, that old-school mechanical art continues to flourish in the midst of such, dare I say, easier mediums? The gaming enthusiasm for Gameboys and PSPs doesn't seem to trickle down much interest in something such as chess, but graphic design has the tendency to turn a lot of people on to painting.

I don't really have a lot of insight into why certain mediums attract certain people, outside of my own experience. But there is, in its conceptual infancy at least, a clear delineation between commercial and non-commercial art, in that they are made with different intentions. Some of those mediums function in such different ways as means, that to view them in relationship to one another might be too large of a scope. But in that vein, it seems natural to me for people to be lead from one creative process to another. So I don't know if the level of skill required to perform a certain task within what I personally make has much to do with why I do it. I don't know very many people who have exceptional skill at any sort of artistic function that are totally naive to other mediums. It is possible, but not something I see very often. I am surrounded by people, all of my friends essentially, who make really great things. But because many of them share the skill and conceptual agility to make it in whatever medium they please, it seems like that decision - of what medium to work in - mostly comes organically. And often it can be the most difficult decision. If you can technically work in multiple mediums, why you choose the one you choose seems external to that idea. And I think that's true for myself as well. I play music also, and although I think it feeds another part of the beast, if you will, and the logistics internally and externally of that medium/world/process are very distinct and separate, ultimately I think they are related. Just not overtly. For example, my studio mate - who is also one of my best friends, Henry Lewis - has great technical prowess in his paintings, and also in the work he does as a tattooist. But I think those two mediums themselves function in entirely different ways in his life and in the overarching theme of his paintings.

Most of the artists I know, painters in particular, can generally be divided into two camps: Those for which the mechanics of painting resonate the strongest, and those for which the finished aesthetics are the objective. Do you find yourself settling into either of those groups, at least to a greater degree than the other?

Well, I love paint as a thing, but the mechanics of and process of making the painting and the finished painting itself are the same thing to me, because it all belongs to me. Art, at its core and in terms of process, is really decision-making. So when it's done, or how elements of a piece should be resolved are the painting. There is a great quote, about making records that is - I think maybe Sid Barrett said it - records are never finished, only abandoned. That notion resonates with me because a lot of the making is in the decision to finish. Not necessarily abandonment, but just the emphasis on the decision for it to be done.

How much is the idea of struggle a part of your work, either as creator or subject? The people depicted in your work seem to, regardless of their physical demeanor - smiling, scowling, laughing - seem to carry some kind of burden, a certain weight about them. Is that real or imagined?

That's a good question. I think that ultimately we are what we eat, and where we live and what we do and go through. The human experience as a whole inevitably comes out in what we make. Even if we try to not say or indicate things, they kind of rear their heads. You is always you. Even if you are imitating. Although some of us are better liars than others. But how those things are interpreted though, comes back to the experience of the viewer. Whatever they are bringing to the painting is probably equally if not more pivotal. I think any burden or weight that you see present in the images is most certainly me, not them. And its you. The landscape of the painting is mine. I made it. I took the photos, I made the sketches and I made the decisions. Although - in all the paintings we are talking about - the people in the paintings I know very well, so I think there is inevitably some of our relationship in there. They're not strangers, but it is a one sided vantage point.

You mentioned photographs, which most of your work is based off of. How does the lens inform your work? Obviously the finished canvas bears few things in common with the photo that spawned it, but do you find that there are any consistencies between the original image and the finished art?

The photographs inform my work greatly. I take all of the images I work from - although recently I have been straying from that - and so the sketch that I make from the photo is free to do as it pleases. I can let the ideas up to there own devices, because there are no other questions to answer or resolve about the photo. Because it is mine. The only consistencies between the photo and the painting are the technical ones. Obviously the proportions, expressions, and other elements must be painstakingly similar because it is the skeleton of the painting.

I haven't seen any landscapes or abstract work in your portfolio. Why the focus on portraits?

I kind of do whatever I want to, and so right now I'm mostly interested in having figurative elements in my work. Although I have and do work in different ways. But like I said earlier, you is always you, so they still look like my paintings. I went to art school so I was forced early on to work in different ways, to varying degrees of success. I made my grandma a painting of flowers for Christmas! Yes! Breaking the mold - does that count?

What would you say to the notion that the frenzied, chaotic style of painting that has emerged from the youth culture is an easy way to cover up or offset a lack of mechanical skill? While I wouldn't necessarily agree entirely with that sentiment, it does seem that fewer painters breaking out today have a refined technique when it comes to detail... that subtlety seems to have gone out the window at the expense of edginess. Do you see this - if you see it at all - as a shift toward the student rather than the institution, or just post-ADD sloppiness?

I think the question of whether or not an effect is used to achieve a particular aesthetic or cover technical ineptness is a question that has existed for a long time in all art forms. Like, does whether or not you believe Thurston Moore can really play the guitar well change the way you listen to Sonic Youth? Or, are Richter's abstract paintings more poignant than others who have worked similarly because you "know" he can technically paint, because you've seen him do it?

This is now 2006, so I don't discount that our relationship to paint specifically is a unique one. We have a lot of history behind us. So I think there is always going to be that issue, but it is difficult to use a sub-culture of sub-culture as a lens for viewing the issue, simply because of the scale and implications of the question.

Is there a direction that you see yourself going in, as an artist, either in the immediate future or down the road?

I would just like to keep making paintings and playing in the band. Show the things I make to other people. But, in terms of the paintings, they have become mostly white, in actual color, instead of mostly black. So I would like to explore that a bit, and although the paintings are already sizeable I would really like to make ten 10x10-foot paintings. I have an 8x8-foot painting sitting in my studio right now that gets in my way and the way of my studio mates, so I will have to procure some larger space to do them in. But we'll see. Still figurative though.

Being a painter, do you find yourself thinking in images rather than in words? I often find it fascinating that so much physical art begins as an idea, easily encapsulated by a description, then transcends vocabulary to become an image, which is in turn generally translated back into ideas and descriptions. A picture is worth a thousand words, but it can seem that, ultimately, words are more lasting than images, because the idea or description of a painting doesn't fade in memory, but time has an astounding way of manipulating the way we remember images. Words are always as we remember them, but images rarely remain unchanged. Do you find any resonance in that idea, that your work is a medium of translation, a form of communication that is a means rather than an end?

I think that yes, most art is a means to some end, but I don't necessarily think that words last longer than images. They maybe do in a very specific context, but that hasn't been true in my own life. I usually have to start making something in order to work the kinks out; rarely do things follow some sort of verbal map I have made for myself. But yeah, art is not truth, that is for sure. I mean, unless you want it to be. How's that for vague!?

Do you find your gender playing a significant role in your work? Some of the more - for lack of a better word, "violent" - work in your portfolio seems to be less natural, or have less flow than your more observational work. Do you think that the biology of who we are has any influence on our art?

Couple of thoughts: Do you think that your biology has any influence on how you look at the art? Do you inherently associate "violence" - in images or otherwise - with men? Do you think that inherently certain genders have a "natural" ownership of certain emotions? What do you think about the historical misunderstanding of female anger/aggression in art in culture at large? Do you think that all people of the same gender have the same "biology"? Do you think that knowing who an artist is in terms of gender or history changes the way you look at a painting? If you didn't know I was female, do you think that you would draw the same conclusions? Or even be interested in those ideas. Or any artist for that matter. That was more than a couple of thoughts, sorry.

But to sort of answer you, yeah, I am a woman and I observe and express from who I am. That is clearly a part of me, but how it's a part of me, or of anybody, is not something that is transparent or exactly like anyone else. It is complex and not up for debate, and it doesn't necessarily indicate anything. The critical world at large still needs a major paradigm shift on this. But frankly, most of the question of my gender comes up only when I have to deal with the external parts of making things: dealing with galleries, other artists, booking agents, et cetera.

On the same subject, is there any difference, on your end, between interpreting something and fabricating something? One would imagine that they are the same thing, but there has to be a difference between painting something straight up, as it is seen, and painting something as a basis but with fabricated elements. Your painting "Knives Out" for example, where the interjection of red, the allusion to violence, has to be different than if it were a more passive rendering of what was actually in the photo, which I understand was the cutting of a cake, doesn't it?

Well that's the question, isn't it? I mean I don't see the red as being "fabricated" in order to make something "passive" become "violent" - and if you knew her or me you might see the image as pretty passive! Kidding. But seriously. Furthermore, I don't think of color choice as being in the realm of interpreting to begin with. Because 1) It's my painting and, truth or lie, it's my decision to make. 2) That is exactly what's happening in the photograph. Although I would not care if it wasn't. Like I said it's my painting I control it, but in this specific instance it is an exact rendering of what's happening. So there is no difference in terms of content whether something is fabricated or interpreted - that is only a technical concern in my mind.

SEE ALSO: www.kelireule.com
SEE ALSO: www.myspace.com/sergeant

--
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.

See other articles by Eric J Herboth.

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