Interview w/Painter Karen Gagich

By E.K. Buckley, published in citylink newspaper

A little over a month ago at the Flat Iron Karen Gagich crossed the hallway leading to my studio to discuss a new body of work in development. She was starting a batch of letters to humanity. Another painter with a studio here on the third floor stopped by, followed closely by a Romanian sculptor. Larry, the sculptor, spearheaded the discussion of this idea, firing question after question at Gagich.

Since that night she fleshed out her epistolary series, "Letters to God," slated to open at her studio for the monthly art walk at the Flat Iron Building.

I asked Karen for an interview as a follow-up to the night that we all, as artists and friends and competitors, among other things, discussed her idea, and how this new work deftly synthesizes a complicated array of artistic commitments in poetry, assemblage, drawing, painting, and public participation to exhibit with her already highly regarded body of works in oil. She agreed to the interview, consulted the I Ching, and handed me a letter written briefly before we began taping. The first line of the letter reads: "This may not necessarily be all true." She was laughing.

"I thought it would be appropriate." She laughed again. She wanted to start the interview with a letter, one like innumerable others composed modestly on typing paper, with pencil or pen, usually with imagery and always abstract, fragmented and poetic. These day to day correspondences led into the far more complicated work she will showcase in May. I asked her about her latest series, comprised of large handmade envelopes covered in imagery containing letters she composed to all those who come.

EB: We're touching on a really specific project that you're working on: an epistolary and imagery driven presentation. How does your development as a painter relate to this new media?

KG: It's quite simple. I use my paint with the language of the brushwork as well as letters; it's all language and vocabulary, a vocabulary base.

EB: To whom are you writing the letters?

KG: I'd like to in invite everyone to read them. But the problem of handling them, you know, in all the constructions I do---well, I have a tendency to think of everything as transitory. So things that do require participation a lot of times, once the thing becomes an object of use and interaction, participation, they may not hold up after the course of the evening. Then it becomes something else; it becomes an artifact, or a record. It's almost performance when you engage your audience, you want them to be part of the piece. You can pull out what's inside.

Karen wore a black bandana with Halloween imagery even though it's April now, smoking another small filter cigarette. The writing in her work is, like the imagery, often abstract. I asked her if these pieces were music or poetry, drawings or correspondences. She nodded at each description, laughing. When I asked about the abstraction in her words, which makes it harder for the reader to absorb, she leaned over the card table for the ashtray and took over the recorder.

KG: It's the subject matter, what words I choose, what's happening around me. If there's crisis in Israel, how do I explain that to my brain? The intensity of war. It's difficult.

EB: Are these letters how you explain this to others?

KG: Yes, partly, it's talking, communicating - is there anything I can do about it, is there anything I can say about it, you want to address the situation. You have to.

Our discussion of the current events led us to her daily usage of a Chinese oracle, the I Ching. I brought up the second element of her opening to the interview, whereby she looked up the passages related to her reading in The Book of Changes.

EB: Although you consult it everyday, a lot of people don't know what the I Ching is.

KG: The I ching is a chinese traditional oracle. It's called the Book of Changes. It's hard to take in a modern sense, these are ancient virtues, ancient societies, and everyone has a role in that village or society. But in our modern day sense, not everyone has a tag to say this is what your purpose is. The I Ching addresses that. And it's always right, not that I always agree with it--- ( laughter) because I'm not that enlightened or I'm just stubborn, but it's totally accurate. It is. And I'm happy for that.

Karen has made the I Ching a part of daily life for years. She addresses it for her morning rituals whether she's cleaning a house (her day job) or about to paint a six-foot canvas, or write a letter to humanity. All issues of uncertainty come to the table where she throws a set of three ancient coins six times.

EB: What about the I Ching attracts you?

KG: It keeps me honest. Keeps me producing art.

She discussed how I Ching has the simplicity that attracts her, assigning and exalting each role of society. The idea of cleaning homes to her is beautiful.

KG: That's where I come from. The lesser than, the poorer than. how you were brought up or where you came from does not close you off from discovery, if you're using the spiritual path, university, I Ching, or surrounding yourself in an environment for expression. That's part of the intimidation, if you're from a small town. I'm from a small town.

KG: Art goes past everything. It does, it just does. It reaches more people than anything else that I know of. Not everybody reads the Bible but everyone sees art whether it's the side of a bus or a painting on a building.

KG: Not everybody's going to get it. I get that a lot. You can find a common language. A common denominator.

"Letters to God" premiere exhibition opens Friday 04 May 02 at 8pm, studio #339 at the Flat Iron Fine Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee.


  view Karen Gagich's work online