With her thrift store clothes, self-described New York brassiness, and uncanny ability to solve with simplicity the unusual formal problems that only artists have, my first impression of Anya Kielar some six years ago was that she was so damn cool. I was 23 years old, working at the Dikeou Collection in Denver, CO, and Kielar was assisting then-boyfriend now-husband Johannes VanDerBeek with the installation of his piece, “Newspaper Ruined.” Now married and a mother, Kielar has stayed on schedule with her own career as an artist making most recently “sprayograms” (one of a few innovations) and sun prints of women’s clothing that are reminiscent of the packaging used to contain Barbie clothes. Kielar refashions the artifacts and marks of femininity—long opera gloves and big pouty lips, for example—into surreally vibrant characters with personality. Large noses and eyes and lips made from painted garbage and sand turn an exhibition wall into a female face that’s something like a stylized she-Frankenstein of archetypal womanhood. In the SoHo apartment where she grew up in the ’80s, Kielar reflected on the identity of “artist” and what it’s like for artists to start a family.
Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas
You grew up in New York in the ’80s, which is looked back at as the heyday but it was also the AIDS crisis. It seems like there’s a lot of nostalgia right now for what New York was back then and you grew up right where it was happening.
I definitely was influenced. We had galleries right across from us out the window. Those were galleries for a while, not offices. I was a big fan of Basquiat when I was in high school of course. When I was applying for Cooper Union, I had a lot of terrible Basquiat/Edward Gorey influenced work. Terrible paintings.
Where does your interest in the female form as Other come from? It’s interesting that your work is described as depicting the Other because I don’t really get a sense of “otherness” from your work.
I think it’s always been me trying to relate to myself as a woman in the universe and how complex that is. At the very base of it, I think it’s all simplistically self-discovery or about the strangeness of what femininity is, and how women are depicted in art history and culture. I’m especially fascinated by ancient cultures and drawn to things that were made to carry out some symbolic purpose or that had some kind of belief structure behind them. I think that’s something similar between my husband and I. The idea that a fertility figure or a figure that’s supposed to harness somebody’s soul after they’ve passed away—I just find that really fascinating. I think a lot of my imagery comes from Prehistoric work.
The work certainly depicts womanhood very differently compared to much of art history. You just said something about art that “carries out a symbolic purpose . . . ”
I think that’s the end goal and I can only hope my work captures a little bit of that power of conveyance through its symbology . . . It’s so hard given everything that can be watched, read, or heard in once day to expect a viewer to have a lingering memory of your work. But if you put yourself fully into your work, almost like it’s a vessel then I think even in the short amount of time someone looks at an artwork there is a chance you can give them something to hold onto. Again, I can only hope my work carries some kind of meaning that sinks into the viewers in a lasting way. I struggle a lot with how to make an object have that effect. I watch movies all the time and I think, “I’ve never cried at something I’ve made or that one of my friends made,” the way you do in a movie. So sometimes I’m like, “Am I in the right field?” But then I think there is a real power to the fact an object is made by a single person who is struggling to capture the quality of the world they feel is around them. That their reasons behind making it as an art object is to represent something they see in their culture that is worth depicting in a new light. I think when it comes to an art object you can get a better sense of the insatiable, underlying desires of the individual behind it. I think that’s what I’m most inspired by. Not to say that contemporary art doesn’t harness that, it’s just that there is a bareness and vulnerability to work that was made to harness the spirit world. I think it’s a really hard thing to capture that quality. It may be why I’m always changing my materials and my process constantly because I’m using my work like a barometer for my soul. I know maybe in the long run, that’s not the smartest tactic as an artist. You’re supposed to have your thing and I feel like I haven’t found that thing yet, but it always excites me to work with new stuff, but maybe that’s also a quest to find that one thing that emits all the things I want to emit to the world. That’s what makes art making exciting. If you found that formula, you’d probably be disappointed.
There is, I think, a contemporary jadedness about what art does in the world.
It’s hard because when you’re creating this tiny drop in this sea of cultural-whatever, it seems kind of like it just gets washed away or something. But you look back and you mention an artist’s name and you can see all the ripples of how much Brancusi has affected so much contemporary sculpture to this day. Time will tell that.
I also believe in luck. I just happened to be lucky that I had that one show and things snowballed. Not to say that it’s only luck.
Yes, there is a formula I think of talent and luck.
I have some very talented friends who have never broken in. Then I have friends who are doing exceptionally well. It’s interesting what happens over time if you’re friends with very talented people. It’s almost like it’s just this lucky twist in the road and some people make that bend and some people don’t and it’s hard to figure out why. It’s impossible to even think that way like, “How can I make something that will be successful in the marketplace?” It doesn’t work like that. There definitely are artists that think like that and are very successful at it. Hopefully, you work really hard and it leads to other things as well like a better teaching position or better grants, not just solely relying on sales.
Then on the other side, there’s the manufacture of wunderkinds, people who can afford to participate in the market and people the market sensationalizes.
Yeah, there’s a lot of those, but I feel like it’s a really good time to be a female artist, more so than any other era. Out of my friends, I can say that the majority of them who are doing really well are my female friends. So I find that really inspiring. I mean, ask me in 50 years if I think that I was totally naïve, but I think it’s a good time to be a female artist. There’s inequality in every aspect of life. But things are changing.
I agree that there’s this old school worldview that’s essentially dying off. I just saw Baselitz in The Guardian today defending remarks he made a year earlier about women being unable to paint. But the reaction to his statements seemed to be a combination of both anger and comedy. People seem to regard his comments as silly.
And dated and weird.
The way I was as a young person absorbing things, I never was somebody who got very upset about things. I think I generally have a ridiculously positive attitude toward being a female artist. But I get a lot of calls for group shows last minute and I call that “lady filler.” They’re like, “Shit, we need another woman in the show.” I don’t want to say that because there are people who did curate shows or it was a conscious decision to have me in the show, but that’s a pretty common thing among female artists. It’s always kind of funny, but I’m glad it happens.
The stereotype of what an artist “is” used to be this idea of the singular, tortured man. What’s interesting is that the stereotype of the female artist involves an assumption of eccentricity and madness.
In general, the characters are more amusing so that gets played up. If you look into anyone’s personal life or how they conduct themselves throughout the day whether they’re eccentrically dressed or whatever, people are just really strange. It’s more about the way things are romantically remembered.
I am reclusive in a weird way and sometimes I want to be around people. My husband will remind me, “You chose this career,” but to be productive you’re pretty much by yourself in a room all day. It’s a strange way to live your life. You kind of become a little strange because when you’re just around yourself all day, how you relate to people and how you relate to the world can become a little different.
Something I think about a lot is being alone and also how strange it is to constantly try to tap into your inner being to call out these images or things to attach to a feeling I have to compel me to do this thing. It’s very emotional, a very strange thing. It’s like being in therapy all day by yourself. It’s exhausting and it’s kind of weird to do that all the time.
I’ve had two periods of my life where I’ve had mental breakdowns and it’s always had a lot to do with insomnia and you get delirious when you don’t sleep. The thing with insomnia is that it’s a snowball effect brought on by anxiety. So I attribute the breakdown part, the depressiveness and stuff like that to the insomnia, but the insomnia is an effect of something different. I do think that introspectiveness, always trying to figure out what you’re trying to say or why you’re trying to say something or what you’re trying to hide or what’s revealed in your work . . . the two times I had episodes of depression, looking at my work was painful. When I was making it, it was just happening. The last time was right before I got married, the first time we moved upstate and I think the extreme isolation wasn’t good for me and it was also a difficult time in our lives. I kind of hid from everybody that I had this thing with insomnia until I got really kooky and I was taking Ambien, which made me crazier because it wasn’t working. So all these weird things were happening while I was trying to work on a show. I think what you’re supposed to do when you’re feeling anxious or a little bit depressed is to put yourself in the world or maybe stop asking yourself things that thoroughly, you only get propelled into a crazier state. I remember at that point, looking back at the work that I’d made several months ago, I’d made these plaster pieces and they were a lot about the female body and aging, and I remember making them semi-consciously, but not really, it’s also just dipping things in plaster very simply, but then looking at them I was like, “Oh my god this is what I think of my body.” Everything was a lot more psychologically in tune, or I thought I was a lot more in tune with my work. That’s kind of the crazy thing is that you can be making something and it never really can be stream of consciousness, you’re always conscious or you’re always quoting something or you’re always trying to say something, but it is kind of crazy if you look back at your work and you can draw the references to how you saw yourself or the world. But in the moment, it doesn’t seem that charged. It’s been a real eye opener. It really keyed me in on the subconscious effort that goes into making work and that’s something you want to harness.
I think when I met you at the Dikeou Collection when I was about 23, you and Johannes had been together a few years. I recall you and I having a conversation back then about how hard it can be to be a woman pursuing a career and trying to have a personal life. You mentioned something about seeing other strong, driven women you knew being trampled by men in romance, which is something I’d kind of thought about as well.
It is such a big part of life. You have to be so vulnerable and such an idiot to fall in love and to be with somebody. It’s a daily thing you work on, but it’s really nice to have one person that you’re not competitive with. I really just wish him the world and hope for him more success than I have, and I know that he has the same feeling toward me, and that doesn’t really exist with anyone else.
As I recall, there’s a funny story about how you and Johannes began your romance?
We were in Cooper Union and I saw him on his first day of school. We hooked up when I was graduating and he still had two more years. It was the end of his second year when we hooked up. The first time I saw him at school, he had a heart on his shirt and we locked eyes and he didn’t look away. I was with somebody at the time, but I was in love with him for like a year before I ever talked to him. Then he was working on this giant Crazy Horse sculpture. [At Cooper Union] you basically got a desk to work at with maybe six feet of space and three feet on the side of the desk and the horse didn’t fit in that because it was nine feet tall and maybe 10 or 12 feet wide. It was a larger than life horse. He was working on that and we both kind of liked working alone at school late at night. While I was working on my senior show, every night I would walk past him, it was like a fairy tale, he was literally like a prince on a horse and he’d be like all powdered and white because he was using plaster. He was even really clever back then because the plaster was free, he used like 30 bags of it. He’d be doing that all night. Everybody on the floor knew when his piece was due because everyone was always rooting for him because he was this sweetheart always doing these crazy, impossible things, and his Crazy Horse was supposed to be a comment on American culture or something. It was turned into a miniature water park and it had a motor in it and he actually hooked it up to a pump. Of course it leaked and was crazy, but everybody was helping him before crit, so I grabbed a spray paint can and was spraying one of the slides for him. He stood up and dusted his hands off, and said, “We’ve never been formally introduced. My name is Johannes VanDerBeek” and I went, “I know who you are, Johannes,” and that was pretty much it. I think a couple days later, I literally grabbed his arm. He was standing in the lobby and I was like, “You’re going to walk me home.” I was living here, in this loft in SoHo, and I made him walk me home from Cooper Union. Then I said, “You’re going to meet me here tomorrow at 7p.m. and we’re going to go on a walk.” I was very aggressive because I knew he was a special human being.
How has having a family changed working for you and Johannes?
Our second year anniversary was this October. So our first year anniversary I was just beginning to be pregnant or whatever. It was kind of old fashioned because we were together for 10 years and then within six months of being married I was pregnant. I mean we had been planning on it. That was a big life changing moment. It literally made us change our lives from being in a big live/work space in DUMBO. We knew we had to get rid of that. We would be washing, like, resin in our sink and you can’t do that with the baby.
Your kids just demand your full attention. It was really trying this summer because I was asked to do two solo presentations within five months of each other so we quickly had to learn about how to straddle a heavy work schedule and keeping Talula happy.
I’m a Cancer so I’m a big homebody. So [before having a baby], I’d be like, “Oh I’ll reorganize the pantry and work in the studio and do laundry and then work in the studio.” When I could really focus was at night so that’s what I really miss is that night time when I’d be in my studio from nine to one a.m. or something. When I envision my memories . . . like, my music on really loud and having some wine and working in my studio and I think, “Oh my god, it’s going to be a really long time before I can do that again.”
It’s kind of good too though. Everybody said this. You’re a lot more efficient in your studio practice [after having a baby]. You’re thinking about your work all the time and then when you get an hour to work you’re actually physically working. In the past, there’d be a lot of sitting and thinking and a lot of wasting a lot of time. So now, I feel like I’m more productive when I do get to work.
Have these time constraints changed the work?
Yes now I find myself coming up with pieces that can be made in quick bursts of time. My last two show were paintings done on wet pieces of fabric out in the summer sun so they had to be completed within the time it took for them to dry. But it’s great when your life changes and forces you to adjust because it can lead to completely new ideas. Over the summer I also came up with these canvas pieces that I called “impressions,” that were literally impressions I took from clothes that were saturated in paint and laid down on canvas. It’s like a stamp where I put one on, walk away from it, feed the baby, and come back and do another one. I think your work just naturally evolves to what your life is and how you need to work.
My impression is that you and Johannes have been very intelligent about finding ways to fund basic living while still having time to make work and that’s really the rub for a lot of emerging artists.
We’ve been kind of lucky. Right out of college, Johannes started working with Zach [Feuer] and I took a year off and then I went to graduate school. I was just figuring out what I wanted to make and I applied to with very different stuff. It was performative/photo-based digital stuff. In graduate school, I realized I enjoyed making more of the work rather than the final photograph. In graduate school you’re given a chance to dive into your head and challenged to dissect your interests. I realized what I really loved doing was making the sets or props or objects for the photographs and then I thought, “Why am I stressing out so much trying to make these finished photographs when I enjoy more of the sculpture and handmade aspect of the work?” Also, Johannes has always really influenced my work and he’s done a lot with sculpture and I think that influenced me subconsciously.
I basically had my first show with Daniel Reich a month after my thesis show. All my thesis work went into that show plus I made a couple supplemental pieces. And that was kind of at the height of the market before it totally fell out. So we were kind of lucky to have shows where you’re modestly able to kind of live off of that. We also had the gallery [Guild and Greyshkul] and we all got a small—really small, small—salary from that. I think we were living in this place in Hell’s Kitchen that was a floor-through that was 12 feet wide and at the narrowest nine feet. We had a room that was 30 feet so we both had a section of that so my studio was nine feet by 15 feet. We also had the basement and the gallery and that was our house and our studio. Johannes made this giant wax bush in this crazy apartment where I would have to literally bend under it to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night. And that piece that’s at the Dikeou Collection, the newspaper piece, he worked on that at the Hell’s Kitchen apartment, but there wasn’t room to fully set it up so I remember we had the dining room table and these pieces were all over the table and any surface in the apartment including the galley way kitchen.
Also, I think that’s really influenced how we work with materials. It’s not like a fake folksy-ness. The newspapers were free. Or, I literally found objects and furniture on the street. I also lived by the Salvation Army and so I used a lot of thrift store finds. Not so much now, now I’ve been working in fabric, but with modest materials. Now I’ll try to go to the fabric district and try to find the cheapest and highest quality fabric per yard. My dyes that I got, they’re powder so they last a long time.
The thriftiness is still within us. We’re both kind of hands on. I really believe in making my own work. I’m not an artist that can have an idea and have other people execute it. Maybe I will one day. There are things that you just cannot do. But I think that also comes from kind of enjoying finding materials that you can transform into art materials. There are shows where the material budget was really limited. For example, I did a show at Rachel [Uffner’s] with these things called “Sand Paintings.”
I believe the Dikeou Collection owns at least one of these pieces?
Yeah, well basically, for all that work, the only thing I really purchased was masonite, paint and sand, and for all the objects on it, I would take walks at night through DUMBO and find fruit containers or sticks or detritus or recycled materials or wine bottles—those I would find in my own house. You just kind of come up with these things where you need to work like that. As you move through different periods of your life, your work is totally affected by what you can manage and what you can’t.
It makes so much sense that so many New York artists turn to garbage for materials. I hear that almost every time I interview an artist for zing.
New York is just crazy. Now our place looks pretty spiffy, but I grew up just going to flea markets. This area used to be good for that. On Canal there actually were three different flea markets and my dad would go every weekend. I grew up like that. All my clothes were from thrift stores and I’m still like that. I get most stuff from thrift stores. It’s more fun and it’s very inexpensive. New York is a great place for that. There’s so many people, it’s so diverse, and so much waste comes out of everybody, it’s just a great place to find stuff.
What are you working on now?
My most recent work were these sun prints I made up in the country. They involved wetting fabric and applying dye and then laying objects on top of the painting. The sun does the rest and it’s kind of amazing. The areas around the object dry faster than the areas where the object is so the heat pulls the dye away from where you have an object. It’s similar to the process of the photograms and they look really photographic but they also involve a lot of painterly moments where the ink bleeds in unexpected ways that are ghostly and foggy. I was making them late into the fall after the success of the summer versions but it was getting colder so the sun wasn’t strong so the images were really faint. In the beginning I thought, “Oh god these are failures and I hate them.” And in the end, those were my favorite ones because they were so elusive. That’s what’s interesting about art and process, is that you can get kind of mechanical with the process and you know what it’s going to look like. But it’s always kind of the best when you don’t know what it will look like. The better things come out when there’s a little bit of fuzziness about how it will look in the end. Then it was funny because I was trying to emulate the ones that were failures, but it never works out that way.
One body of work always leads to another. So my last two bodies of work have all been in fabric and I’ve been working in dyes and I’m excited about where those things went, but working on the sunprints made me want to reinvestigate my spraygrams or working again with the airbrush, but maybe bringing the hand back into it. The previous show was really painting different mediums on fabric and the last one was using objects as the main handmark, but I kind of want to meld the two a little bit and I think maybe I want to get into three-dimensionality again.