Thursday, October 6, 2016

Karin Broker - Be “More Nice” Bitch - Broker Speaks - Interview

Karin Broker, picture pretty, 2014, Conte
on formica with leather bound book, 84 x 60 x 3”

"And then the coward hung himself instead of staying alive to be raped in prison every day for the rest of his life..." (Virginia Billeaud Anderson interviews Karin Broker about her art career and her exhibition "Karin Broker: damn girls" at McClain Gallery.)

Karin Broker - Be “More Nice” Bitch - Broker Speaks - Interview

(This interview was published on Robert Boyd’s THE GREAT GOD PAN IS DEAD)

In 2013 Michael Petry, Director of London’s Museum of Contemporary Art, published Nature Morte: Contemporary Artists Reinvigorate the Still-Life Tradition, which reveals in over 400 illustrations how leading 21st century artists have reinvigorated the genre previously synonymous with 17th century Old Masters. Included with Hockney, Twombly, Hirst and others is Houston based Karin Broker (b. 1950.) Broker’s exhibition, Karin Broker: damn girls, is currently at McClain Gallery through May 31 and on May 24 she opens Karin Broker: wired, pressed and nailed at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas in Beaumont. This, the fact that her parakeet crapped on the late Hilton Kramer’s suit, and flawless draftsmanship, inspired a recent studio visit.

Virginia Billeaud Anderson: The large scale floral drawings at McClain are unerringly fine, but it took only a minute for me to be creeped out by the background text that spoke of that repulsive man who imprisoned the three women in Cleveland.

Karin Broker: And then the coward hung himself instead of staying alive to be raped in prison every day for the rest of his life.

VBA: A collector asked me the meaning of the marks on the table sculpture, which I said certainly relate to the Cleveland kidnapping.

KB: That’s correct. I artistically imagined Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, Gina De Jesus marking off their days in captivity, all those years they were kept from their families. Those women were in dark rooms and at times chained to the walls, beaten and starved to induce miscarriages when made pregnant by the rapes. One was forced to deliver the other’s child. The table also references Elizabeth Smart and also Jaycee Dugard, who was held captive for 18 years, and had two daughters by that evil man who took her.

VBA: There’s nothing like overlaying an ordinary domestic object with tragic content to disarm a viewer. I had to rub my hand across the table top to know it was printed. How is metal printed?

KB: The table was certainly meant to disarm, even by way of fancy, dressed-up women sitting on the cold hard steel to read about others, and I imagine if enough sit there the images will become worn and faded. The table is etched, which involves coating its surface with an acid resistant hard ground, and also surrounding it with a wooden structure so the top actually floats in its own bath of nitric acid. After drawing images through the wax I etched the surface, inked the incised lines and marks and then ground the surface again to polish.

VBA: In the same vein, describe your Conte drawing process. Do you make preliminary sketches or project an image, and it must require a ladder or repositioning the large panels so you can reach?

KB: No preliminary sketches or images are projected. I begin by rubbing Conte dust with a rag to map out an image, until I get "something" then add to it like a puzzle. Initially I’m on a small stepstool, and after a rolling chair at my drafting table when detailing the flowers, I have a tool table and boards clamped to the edge. My chair, everything is on wheels.

VBA: One drawing includes a list of women institutionalized in a Magdalene Asylum laundry in Dublin. Does the number near each name represent age or years of incarceration?

KB: It’s age. In the Magdalene Asylums “fallen” women were forced to work. Those of childhood age were actually born there to incarcerated mothers. I regret I did not record all 30,000 names.

VBA: I was moved by the amount of research required to enumerate both accomplishments by and atrocities against women, as well as by the quantity of hand written text, which must have been enormously time consuming.

KB: It was a huge amount of research. When I began studying the history of abuses against women and was reading such things as 80% of those killed in the Inquisition were women, I got depressed. So I began researching in the other direction, reading, watching films, following Google links, and learned women were pirates and warriors, and was astounded by their courage and accomplishments, for example the Russian “Night Witches” who dropped bombs on Germany. I would alternate a couple of ten to twelve-hour days of writing with some days of research, and it was very difficult, and whenever it seemed too much I would think, Karin you bitch, if you can’t endure so much less than women who were tortured, raped and killed, breasts ripped off, all these horrific things, that’s pathetic. If my art helps one abused woman to know there’s a network of women to offer empathy and support, maybe even fight for her, I’m proud.

VBA: Text such as “A 19 year old gang rape victim was sentenced to six months in jail and 200 lashes for violating Saudi Arabia’s Sharia law on segregation of the sexes” is straight-forward. “Good girls good girls good girls good girls” on the other hand is provocatively less so.

KB: What’s sad is so many men still categorize women that way. If a woman has her own opinion she is not a “good girl.” A good girl in Pakistan is one who doesn’t read or study, only cooks, cleans and has sex. I was told once in my position as university Department Chair to be “more nice.”

VBA: The art made a few men uncomfortable.

KB: Look, I’m not anti-men. I love men. I actually love their bodies, I love looking at them, those incredible chests, their butts, although most men would insist it’s their genitals women pay attention to. It makes sense that some men are fearful of the thought of women standing up to them and refusing to be disrespected.

It was actually Bob McClain who encouraged me to go in this direction. We were discussing this drawing exhibition and he told me that as long as he has known my work he has felt my feminist side, that I was quite the strong female, and suggested I “kick it up a notch,” just put it out there. Well I left him totally energized, said OK, no shit, and told my assistant John all my ideas. This is the first show I’ve ever had that dealt not just with me but with all women. I’m extremely grateful to Bob and so proud to be working with them.

Karin Broker, nice and quiet, 2013, conte on
formica with leather bound book, 84 x 60 x 3”

VBA: Of all the crazy stuff I’ve heard from artists, you might win the prize for your story about Sister Jacinta offering you an exorcism, let a priest chase out “disturbances.” Did you find that insane?

KB: Oh god no. Exorcism was just part of the whole Catholic thing - saints, spirits. Remember “Rosemary’s Baby?” There’s not a Catholic who would think that’s weird. You see, even if you’re non-practicing, this stuff stays with you. When my studio was completed we had a priest come to bless it. There we all were, standing in a circle with lit candles around us, you would’ve thought we were practicing voodoo.

VBA: When I read that the answer to your mother’s prayer was for you to get the stigmata I wondered if she desired for you other qualities associated with mystics, sweating blood in trance like Catherine of Siena or levitating like Padre Pio.

KB: My mother loved Padre Pio. She kept a large picture of him.

VBA: I was in Sicily in October and found his picture in all the pizzerias and taxi cabs. Where I’m from in south Louisiana some of those overly pious families turn out a few nutty children. How come you’re not more peculiar?

KB: My childhood was turbulent, but I was a very logical kid. My family didn't have much, it was intense, screaming and yelling, my aunt had thirteen kids. Things were very intense, and I was pretty isolated, but as a kid it seemed logical, I knew, that if I leave this, it will be better, I don’t have to be crazy, don’t have to scream. Everyone has a purpose, I might hate myself when I read this, but if I connect the dots, it is my childhood that brought me to this point. Think about this - if I had not been lonely as a child, or had not had to make do with little, I would not enjoy all the time I spend alone working, and I would not be as creative with the use of materials. And also childhood fed my feelings for justice and fairness. During the 50’s and 60’s in small towns things were kind of unfair for girls, I was treated unfairly. I see my purpose as using my art to help other women feel strong.

The view of women was warped. I remember in college the Sisters of Charity telling the girls that to keep a husband you need to have a child immediately, and if it is not a boy, you need to immediately have another one. I left that college after my junior year.

Sometimes I rebelled. My grandfather was from Italy, and the Italian side of the family would have these reunions and after the visiting and eating the heads of the extended family would have a “meeting.” Years back, I was living here and teaching at Rice, I went to a reunion and of course was the only woman who wasn’t married, and decided to attend the meeting, figured I would pay my dues and do the newsletter. Well my uncle told me to get out. He said, “no girls allowed this year.” So I told them what I thought, “even a dog could go into that meeting, even some man I casually fucked.” And now I’ve gone and said “fuck,” and you’ll quote me.

VBA: This is Pan sweetie, “fuck” is appropriate.

KB: The family was shocked and totally silenced. I grabbed my stuff and left the reunion. That evening things exploded. My cousin reported it was like a match to dynamite, it shook up the family. He said their meeting lasted until three in the morning, with heated exchanges, some of the women asserted themselves, and my uncle stepped down as head of the family. It changed the family dynamic.

Karin Broker, Finding Jesus, 2009, Antique Christ
 figure, wood, wire, crystals, rhinestones and
 miscellaneous, 17.5” h x 4.5” w x 4.5” d

VBA: You make three-dimensional artworks that include Catholic ritualistic objects such as rosary beads. They mirror a jewel-like aesthetic, yet the unrefined, fake stones and dark content negate the notion of beauty. I’m thinking of the bead-covered crucifixion sculpture Finding Jesus, and the three-dimensional “hearts” made of beads, rhinestones and religious metals. Say something about their ritualistic source, and incongruence.

KB: Ritual is fundamental. I used to play classical piano (points to a baby grand piano), and when I was a child I played the organ in church, and went there every night to practice. The priests didn’t want the lights on, so votive candles illuminated the church and the ceiling was covered with painted images. I absorbed this atmosphere in a deep way, the look and mystery of the place. This was more than a eureka moment, it was a huge revelation, to be in seventh grade and be aware of my first art installation. This all took place before the Vatican ecumenical council. After Vatican II that ceiling ended up being painted white, because a bunch of cardinals surrounded by Renaissance and Baroque art decided some American churches should be painted white. I’ll never forgive them for that. But I knew the power of that environment. I also sang, all the Latin masses, I was the good girl, and I loved, loved, that I could make people cry. I even had a huge statue of the Virgin Mary because I was going to be a nun, probably because I desired peace and quiet. Rosary pieces and rhinestones appear frequently in my art, and I associate them with the glitz and surface stuff that distracts many, such as when looking at a girl, and also with water drops, and particles of fractured light. The crucifixion in Finding Jesus was an antique from Mexico, very old and expensive, and I distorted it with beads on wires that pierced the figure to speak of a bigger theme and symbolize the abundance of “stuff,” money, power, you’re supposed to hate gays, all the other stuff projected onto Jesus. It should be so simple and pure – be kind, love one another – what covers the figure is all prickly and makes it difficult to see. It’s all “too much.” My “hearts” have colored beads wired together. We all have sadness in life. My sister Pam died six years ago of breast cancer, and my brother died a year ago of pancreatic cancer, so by putting all that together I was artistically mending a heart.

VBA: When I saw the clusters of blue and black rhinestones that cover Black and Blue Boys, my mind went instantly to the jewel-covered chalices and reliquaries you see in church vaults all over Italy. The viewer is jolted by that artwork’s visual drama, but its pistol hints at ominous content.

KB: That box is not pretty, it symbolizes being hit, beaten and bruised, which happens to women and young girls.

VBA: Let’s talk about your up-coming museum show, what are you showing?

KB: The opening reception is Friday, May 30, from 6-8pm, and it runs through August 31. I plan to show eight collages, sixteen gravure collages, nine boxes, seven nailed two-dimensional pieces and 24 three-dimensional wired objects on boxes.

VBA: And another book is coming out.

KB: The Contemporary Drawing and Painting Bible, also by Thames and Hudson, is scheduled for publication early Spring 2015.

VBA: I bet you never thought this neighborhood would become all gentile and expensive, it’s unrecognizable from when I hung out here in the early eighties. Back then there were knife fights at the bar on the corner of Knox and Washington. My car was stolen a few blocks from here.

KB: It’s totally transformed.

VBA: Remember how cold the beer was at Roznovsky’s? Because I spent a lot of time there I did a painting of their façade as a gift, and it was awful, but Mrs. Roz thought it was boo-tee-ful, and hung it over the door. Very few of the old houses, like yours, are left, and your studio is splendid.

KB: I loved Roznovsky’s. I actually built my studio in two days, got artists to come help, it was like an old fashion barn-raising, and then I took time to finish the inside.

VBA: How do you decide what to make here and what to make at the farm? I heard you have horses.

KB: We have two dogs, four horses, one pony, one miniature donkey, and six cats. I make everything at the farm, and then move it back it here. The studio there is new, and so great, so I work there, except for the steel work, all the welding is done here in Houston.

Karin Broker, We Come Bearing Gifts, 2010,
Cast metal, wire, crystals, rhinestones, gold,
semi-precious stones, 13 h x 9.5 w x 3.5 d
VBA: Karin, your articulation is uncompromising, a point critically made by everyone who has written about you. Many “famous” artists lack your skill. Describe your training.

KB: I have been drawing since seventh grade, with equal time devoted to drawing and print making throughout college and graduate school, and had the good fortune to encounter better and better instructors.

VBA: It can be seen that the new conte drawings achieve expressiveness through slight distortion of form. And I recall overreaching voluminous shapes in the 2010 florals on paper.

KB: Expressive yes, I wanted the new works to look like they were moving and weeping, as a cathartic thing for the women killed. I was also trying to make these robust florals “weep” so I let the black Conte drip. The McClain drawings I consider to be like paintings. My flowers are meant as sensual forms grabbing at you for attention and as objects that feel "too much," "too overwhelming." And you got it, I exaggerated forms in the 2010 works, they were made voluptuous to be “too much.”
Karin Broker, 3 fat boys, 2010,
Conte on  paper, 75.5 x 50
VBA: There were important things happening in New York when you were a student, Twombly’s 1979 Whitney Museum retrospective is only one example. Who were you looking at, which artists influenced your development?

KB: I was going to New York and looking at everything and loved looking, but the art didn’t influence me. Instead I was inspired by the weirdest things, people for instance, someone yelling at their kid, I wrote it down and it entered my art. I remember having great difficulty with a print series in graduate school until I simply began to incorporate what I saw around me. As the print shop assistant I took a bit of abuse, so if someone treated me like crap, I made a print about it. It’s not that I illustrated it, but visualized it, which was so emotional, personal, the art succeeded.

Similarly with Europe, I go often, Paris where I studied is my favorite, I embraced it, so different from Penn, Pennsylvania, but the art didn’t inspire me, transsexuals and hookers on the other hand got my attention, I completely responded to those things. By focusing on what’s around me my art in a way recycles memories, it represents periods of time, in the same way someone’s photographs of their kids mark time. That sculpture near you contains all of my husband’s contact lenses, to mark the passage of time, and more will be added. Weirdly I’ve kept all my old boyfriends’ letters, everything written by the bad boyfriends, I saved it, and the letters inspire me and are important to my character, they represent a broad spectrum of memory. I saved all of my dad’s letters and glued them on my art, my art is a response to things around me.

But there is one artist who directly influenced me. At the Whitney or somewhere I came across a book called "The Nazi Drawings" by Mauricio Lasansky and the drawings were phenomenal. I had never seen that before, that level of skill, with a profoundly serious topic, the holocaust, shocking rape scenes, it was enormously impactful, so I found Lasansky at the University of Iowa, and went there for my undergraduate senior year. I don’t think I knew where Iowa was, or the difference between Iowa and Ohio, well Iowa’s on the plains and it’s freezing cold, but I experienced his drawing first hand, not a lot of other stuff has inspired me, except film, newspaper, people’s behavior.

Oh, I do take inspiration from Gael Stack, I love that quality of line in her work, her stuff seeps in to my consciousness, I think I memorized that jittery mark she makes. And James Drake is exquisite in conte, Drake is the only other person I look at. I love his red conte, we seem to parallel each other in line quality and in the love of good drawing, he inspires me to be a bold draftsman.

VBA: So your ill-bred parakeet met the famous art critic.

KB: The bird jumped on Hilton Kramer’s shoulder and pooped, and I was certain he would remember only the mess instead of my art, but it turned out he remembered my art and praised it.

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