Published  30/03/2016

Kelly Chorpening: ‘The whole relationship between image and object or building for me has been a kind of theme for a really long time’

Kelly Chorpening: ‘The whole relationship between image and object or building for me has been a kind of theme for a really long time’

Studio International visited Horatio Junior gallery in southeast London to talk to the American artist about her exhibition, Immaterial Statements, and the things that influence her practice


MK Palomar: Can you tell us about the work on show here.

Kelly Chorpening: This is a show of mostly very new work – the inspiration for it came from a series of drawings that are on show downstairs, which I made in the later part of 2014.

MKP: Can we go downstairs now and see those works?

KC: Yes, and on the way you’ll see the rest of the work, how things have gone from flat to 3D.

When they asked me to have a show here, I was interested in how idiosyncratic the space was, and how I could respond to it. I’m not that keen on clean white spaces. I like the work responding to the space it’s in. The stranger the space, the better.

Here is the oldest work in the show, part of a series of 10 drawings I made, kind of on a whim. [Chorpening points to a line of four drawings titled Correspondence No 10, No 4, No 6, No 8 – all made in 2014.] They all depict backs of paintings.

MKP: These are objects that you’ve drawn, rather than invented forms?

KC: Yes, working from photographs and conservation textbooks. The next stage would be to actually get permission to work in a museum, to work from them directly.

MKP: What are they?

KC: I don’t know what all of them are – this one [points to Correspondence No 4] was the first one I did – I was quite interested in the way it was looking out at you – the little hooks on the back and these funny bow-tie shapes. Those kinds of things are the conservation involved in saving it – as an object. The other side is a Giotto painting – Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata. It’s a terrific painting – you know probably know it, it’s a strange image, like science fiction. But it wasn’t about the well-known front. It became about me thinking about the heroics to preserve the object, evidenced all over the back, hundreds of years of people continuing to care for the thing.

This is what I’ve become really interested in, but again, at the time, the series was done without thinking this through. That came later. It was for an exhibition here at Horatio Junior of artist-designed books. My series of 10 was in a specially designed folder that had little tabs in the front, so each drawing could form a cover for the book. Like an interchangeable book cover.

MKP: Does each individual one have a title?

KC: No, but they’re all numbered – it says in the press release which numbers these are.

MKP: Did you choose them because of the backs – or because of what was on the front?

KC: Because of the backs. No 4 has a special life for me. It hangs in my studio side by side with a reproduction of the front (Giotto’s Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata). I keep looking at the reproduction of the front and the reproduction of the back and thinking about the relationship between the two, especially in this painting, because it’s such an amazing image, and its conservation is amazing too. I can see this developing further in future.

MKP: It’s the shape of a house, not the shape of a painting as you would imagine.

KC: Yes, in that time all panels that paintings were made on were crafted objects. It wasn’t a matter of having a canvas and putting a frame round it, and then later getting a frame made. In fact, there’s another part to this painting that would have been attached to the bottom. But all the parts were integral. So that’s very different to say this one [points to Correspondence No 6], an oval-shaped painting, a much more recent 19th-century panel. So I wasn’t consistent in terms of the period I was looking at, I was looking at different ways stickers would be randomly placed around the back or a wax seal, numbers, handwriting, all that kind of thing.

MKP: And what materials are you using?

KC: [Points to Correspondence No 10, No 4, No 6, No 8] These are marker pen and pencil.

MKP: And the colour – is that marker pen as well?

KC: Yes, that’s marker pen

MKP: They’re quite small [21 x 17cm] – was that the book idea?

KC: The size of them was meant to make them look like little faces at 1:1 scale. I was thinking of this funny encounter of looking at the back of these paintings and the dumbness, the blankness of the object kind of staring back. A lot of the other work in this show was based on these, but on a larger scale. Plus, I was interested in pushing it in another direction.

MKP: Tell me about this one here, this larger work that almost looks like a map of America, Ghost 56 x 76cm (2016).

KC: It does, doesn’t it. [laughs] This is the most recent piece in the whole show. Have you noticed on building sites when they’ve demolished a building, they put up this black fabric with wooden battens screwed into it? It’s the same everywhere, used to cover the profile where the building used to be. These traces are all over the city.

MKP: You mean on the side of a wall?

KC: Yes. So if you edit out a lot of the details you end up with this network of little lines that almost seem to be encoded with some kind of a message. Almost a creative statement on the part of the construction worker who put them up. Quirky decision-making as to where the battens are placed, sort of like – Ah, that’ll fit here, and so on.

MKP: It almost looks like the I Ching [yarrow sticks that accompany the ancient Chinese Book of Changes. The reader throws the sticks – and reads the book’s interpretation of the pattern in which the sticks have landed].

KC: Actually each one [each stick] is nailed on or drilled into the buildingsoit isn’t as random and light as that, but in the way it’s drawn, editing out all that information, it can appear that way.

MKP: And as an image on the wall it’s almost asking to be read – some kind of notation or something. Or understood as some sign of one kind or another.

KC: Yes. In a way, it’s difficult to talk about this as the most recent image without talking about the other things, but the other things in the show are drawings on cut-steel objects and the limits are very defined to the object and the drawing.

[Chorpening leads us through the basement area into a large open underground space.]

MKP: It’s a great space, isn’t it?

KC: Yes its great – you can see what I mean by it being idiosyncratic. So the space enabled me to do things like hang a piece on a column, something you’d normally avoid [points to the work titled 267 in Pink (2016) – 15 x 23 x 18cm. This work is attached to the pillar and curves up and off the surface]. It’s steel. So to rewind a little bit, I had this idea about these backs of paintings and the relationship between front and back and I’d made some drawings – very large-scale drawings – that were quite labour intensive; repetitive mark-making covering the entire surface. I had an idea for a kind of subversive gesture, to hang them so the drawing was facing the wall away from the viewer. I then cut out part of the shape, so some of the drawing would be revealed, like it had been peeled away. Working with paper in this sculptural way is terrific, except that over time it doesn’t hold up. And I had a creatively useful disaster in that the paper tore terribly and spoilt the drawing. It was a two-metre-high drawing, weeks of work, but this disaster got me thinking about what I could do, how could I still make drawings on paper, but defy gravity with something more durable. So this is the solution I arrived at, which was to mount the paper to steel. Though the steel is only three millimeters thick, it’s not fooling anybody when you see it, but it’s doing something that paper wouldn’t be able to do on its own. And there’s still a lightness to it, a kind of elegance and awkwardness at the same time.

MKP: And you chose not to do anything on the inside of the steel – is that because you didn’t want to hide the steel?

KC: There are a couple that I have. Not on this one Underbelly (altar piece), 2015, but I have on that one [points to Tried and Found Wanting (2016)], and there’s one upstairs.

 MKP: [Looking at Tried and Found Wanting (2016)] That’s extraordinary because it’s reflecting the pink so strongly [from its hidden underside out on to the wall]. Tell us about the shapes of these pieces – they look to me almost like tongues.

KC: They do look like tongues. There are three pieces in the show based on the same image ofthe back of painting with an unbelievable network of wooden battens crisscrossing the back to prevent it from warping. It’s from a conservation manual on how to save wooden objects, and as an image it looks so much like a portcullis, or a doorway or window. I thought there were really nice visual associations that one could make with that, that could be developed in an almost slapstick way. With drawing, I could take something that’s so solid as a material, that’s not meant to be bent, and bend it. Depending on the orientation, it looks like a tongue. There’s another piece upstairs where it also seems to open out like a tongue, and this was based on that drawing that had failed, where the paper flopped out. And if you could [points to Tried and Found Wanting (2016)] imagine that at the area where it protrudes from the wall, it was just paper falling away from the wall, without steel it falls further and further until it starts to tear. But this is doing what happens at that first moment of magic when it flops out and goes … [Chorpening gestures at the elegant lifting curve of Tried and Found Wanting (2016), brushing its surface so that it quivers].

MKP: And also now that you’ve touched it, it’s got a slight rhythm to it – a slight motion – so the idea of being sculptural and being in motion, is that important to your work?

KC: I wanted there to be a funny tension to it, a nervousness to it, a question whether it was stable or not stable.

There’s a piece upstairs I can show you that has progressed this aspect a bit further, but this one, Tried and Found Wanting (2016), I definitely had in mind having the other side painted a colour, so that intensity of the other colours here [points to the front side] would be enhanced by the surrounding colour glow reflected from the underside on to the wall behind.

MKP: Resonated.

KC: Yes. It’s interesting now to be thinking about the design of the drawing, because it does have to be designed with the hanging in mind. Which is foreign territory for me. So there’s the mark-making coming from the source material, an allusion to wood grain – or some kind of a texture of wood, and then I’m actually using real wood battens to hold them up on the wall with the fewest possible fixings as possible. Just a couple of screws to hold it in. So all these things highlight the pun of the material and its imitation.

MKP: And that piece of wood [used for the batten] has a grain very much like the one you’re imitating in the drawing. So it becomes a lot more than just a drawing on its own – it’s a sculptural object and the fixing or framing of it becomes an important part of the equation.

KC: Yes. And the shapes are a little bit ridiculous and there is also an element to the execution of the drawing which is also ridiculous, which is that because of the high failure rate in the mounting process, the drawings have to be made on the object after the paper has been mounted to the curved steel. This has meant a whole series of interventions have been made in terms of the tools I’m using. I’m working on the surface that has to do that [gestures at a curved surface out from the wall] – so having to translate a 2D drawing to a 3D curved surface.

MKP: So there’s a lot of hidden work in what we see. Did you do a lot of sketches and plans?

KC: Yes, that too. There’s some scope for intuitive decision-making in the process, but a lot is limited by the steel needing to be precut and rolled. I have to know what the overall shape of the drawing is going to be, and I can’t change my mind about that once it arrives with the specific perimeter shape.

One of my favourite novels is Middlemarch by George Eliot: it really is a proto-feminist novel. It has this incredible central character (Dorothea), and in the very last paragraph there’s this beautiful, sad statement about how she, and so many others like her, though they have done so much good for those around them, are nonetheless destined to lie in “unvisited tombs”. This insight has been in the back of my mind; I have thought about this book and its relationship to the theme running throughout this body of work, which is about the kind of hidden heroics and engineering, the efforts that go into preserving objects and buildings that are concealed or forgotten. This has significance, and I’m coming at it in an oblique way, but nonetheless, there’s something I think I’m aiming for. This leads me back to Ghost (2016), the drawing we discussed earlier. A building has gone, and until the next one is built, that profile remains as a reminder of what was there.

[Chorpening leads us upstairs to view Folly for the Future (2016)]

KC: This one depicts one of those preserved facades. You see them all around London a lot right nowthis is one right at Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road.

MKP: By the new Crossrail.

KC: Yes. And a huge amount of effort has gone in to save it and make sure it doesn’t topple overin the process of building luxury flats – the facade stays – it probably increases the value of the flats because of its period – it might even be listed. But once you get past that, the building will have no relation to its historical origins. And what lengths they are going to, to save it! So it gave me this idea of making a free-standing drawing on steel, so this was a big experiment to see if the steel, which is really heavy and has been welded to the base, would be strong enough.

MKP: It’s a large piece. What is it, over 6 feet?

KC: Six feet four inches, and it weighs well over 70 kilos. So I have gone from making portable works on paper to this. It’s a whole other game.

MKP: And yet it doesn’t look that heavy because of the thinness of it.

KC: It gives me lots of ideas aboutwhat I can get away with.

MKP: It’s sprung, did you say?

KC: It’s been rolled.

MKP: You push it and it waves backwards and forwards as though it’s on a spring or like a wave –

KC: The material is really strong. There was some guesswork involved. I’ve worked really well with this ex-student of mine – who has cut the steel for me – for me to up skill to do this for myself – I just wouldn’t have the time for it. Anyway, the drawing I made would have been scaled up and sent to a plasma cutter to cut out the precise shape of steel, and then that sheet of steel gets taken to an industrial roller. What we discovered was a sort of ratio between how much curve had to be industrially rolled, and then how much, once bolted to the floor, it naturally curls, so that it looked natural overall.
And it does –

MKP: Yes, it really does.

KC: But what I couldn’t have predicted was how strong it is just with those two bolts welded into that surface.

MKP: You’ve painted the back – but it’s difficult to see it – because this room is so perfectly shaped for this object [the work is tightly fitted into the space so that its not possible to walk around to view the other side] – yet there’s a pink glow shining from the back which makes me want to put my head around to see what’s happening there –

KC: You can do it’s just enough to see that it’s got a bright colour on the back –

MKP: But it’s got more than just colour. There’s a drawing on the back –

KC: There is – but I think for this space – I’m very satisfied that you don’t see it.

MKP: Why?

KC: Because the way the room frames the object and you’re denied seeing that facade–

MKP: And yet you sense there’s something there because of the pink glow.

KC: This is a new direction in the work – and I am currently thinking about what to do next in terms of creating two-sided drawings. I’ve got some ideas based on this …

MKP: And colour?

KC: Yes, colour and likewise the relationship between graphite and steel – I’m excited by how similar they are as colours and surfaces – you end up with this slightly metallic-looking sheen [with graphite] that’s very, very similar to the steel.

MKP: Can you draw with graphite on steel?

KC: Not really – it doesn’t stay – so really it’s kind of crazy to mount a perfectly good white piece of paper and then colour it in so it looks like steel, but I think all of that energy of filling in those gaps is an important part of it. It goes along with the heroics and all the effort that will vanish; no one will think about it once the new flats are built, sold, decorated, bought, sold and so on.

MKP: And did you do this drawing on the piece of steel once it was made –

KC: Yes, I had a drawing that I needed to have in order to get the steel cut. I needed to make sure the front and the back corresponded, the windows are in the same place front and back. [Chorpening gently nudges the tall steel upright of Folly for the Future (2016) and sets it into a subtle wave.] This could be more curved couldn’t it – it could be more dangerous.

MKP: The way you’re pushing it and the way it’s swaying [repeatedly back and forth on its footing], it almost looks as though it might be motorised.

KC: Yes, I wouldn’t be delighted for a stranger to be pushing it.

MKP: No – but it seems as though motion is an important part of it.

KC: Yes, I think definitely achieving some kind of clumsy elegance where it really looks as though it could topple over, but it’s actually very, very strong. I was really pleased with the way it was framed within this space [a confined narrow chamber] and it is really funny because it is the old gents’ toilet [this Horatio Junior is in a disused public house – The Lord Nelson, Rotherhithe], but that has nothing to do with it as a piece.

MKP: It is very elegant – as well as being precarious.

KC: Yes, I think because it depicts a building. It’s large for a drawing – but for a building, it’s too small. So the scale within the room is a bit odd. Look, it’s still moving …

MKP: And these pieces here? [Proving Futile I, and Proving Futile II]

KC: Yes, again, like the piece downstairs [Tried and Found Wanting], with the orange on the back. This is me thinking about that same image, that portcullis-shaped back of painting, and again that failed work on paper I mentioned before, this [Proving Futile II] is repeating exactly what I’d done, except this time it works because it’s on steel. It’s a minor engineering feat to do, to roll part of a piece of steel while the rest remains flat, not that you would think about that when you see the work. After all, I do want it to look easy and casual.

MKP: Yes it does look easy. It’s interesting how these two, Proving Futile I and Proving Futile II, have frames. And the drawings you’ve made appear to be breaking out of the frames.

KC: It’s sort of like a window as well – but then there’s just white [a blank space of wall revealed through the hole in the metal plate] where there’s no view. So now that you’ve seen this other work – that most recent graphite drawing downstairs Ghost 56 x 76cm (2016), by returning to a rectangular piece of paper and thinking about the way that shape inhabits the space of the page, the steel works have enabled me to appreciate that scruffy edge to the overall silhouette of the shape. This couldn’t have happened without doing the shaped steel works, where it’s all predefined and contained. I’m thinking about the more conventional drawing on paper versus the sculptural object, and how they are talking to each other.

MKP: You’ve talked about the development of your current practice – there were a number of other things I wanted to ask you – what difference do you think it has made [to your work] that you have come from America – the physical geographical space there?

KC: I grew up near Cleveland, Ohio – which is not tiny, but where I grew up was suburbia and our house was on the edge of the woods. It wasn’t an urban childhood by any means. We were set free to play in real wilderness.

MKP: Perhaps mistakenly, I think of Americans as having a broader physical view – because of the space there [in comparison with the UK].

KC: Probably, but there is also a feeling distance far away. I think about my love of Giotto for example. Having had conventional art history and really enjoying his work, but it was a really long time before I actually saw anything in person.

MKP: When did you first come to Europe?

KC: I was probably 21, and in that first instance I travelled around on my own – just going to see these things in person. And so what I discovered, and this is especially true in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, is that these are site-specific works. And that’s not something you can grasp in an art history lecture – and [pauses] it made such an impression on me, so much so that this relationship between image and object or building has underpinned my work really ever since. And I think my appreciation and understanding of this kind of site specificity was influenced by having come from America, with the knowledge of his paintings as projected cropped images seen in art history lectures.

MKP: I also wanted to ask you about something on a very different track – you touched on it earlier – gender issues –and those hidden efforts and achievements [when you talked about George Eliot’s Middlemarch]. Being a woman in the fine art world is different from being a man in the fine art world – and being a woman in the fine art education world is different from being a man in the fine art education world – so how does it work being a mother, practitioner and a teacher? And how annoying is it that I wouldn’t ask a man that?

KC: [Laughs] Well, you preempted my response. You wouldn’t ask a man that.

MKP: No, you wouldn’t (but perhaps I should … next time, I will), and maybe I will withdraw that question – but I would like to know about how you juggle the roles of educator and practitioner?

KC: The model of the successful artist is the heat-seeking missile. They have one thing and one thing only that they do, and they only have friendships with people that support that target. And you know I’ve never been that person, and I do think that there are probably aspects of my character that are gender specific in terms of the amount of things that I can juggle, still maintaining the thread of an idea throughout, whatever the period of time. I think there are men who are educators and parents and practitioners and I couldn’t say that it’s only women who are good at juggling things, but I do think that there is an assumption that women cope with it, so the juggling is underappreciated.

MKP: I think I ought to interject here and say that you are not just an educator, you run the BA drawing program at Camberwell – and so that means that you not only educate but you have to bring together a team of practitioners to do that – and you’re an American and you haven’t lived here for very long –

KC: It’s quite a long time – 16 years.

MKP: Did you do a course here? Were you a student in the UK?

KC: No, and I think that’s an interesting aspect of my experience here. If you are an artist in the UK but you didn’t study here, you don’t have a tribe. That has always been really difficult and if I’d known, who knows what I would have done. You know, once upon a time I was offered a place on the MA fine Aart at Chelsea, which I turned down to study at Hunter College in New York, where I got my MFA. I decided to move to New York instead of moving to London and that was in 1993, so things could have been different, but I somehow ended up here anyway, though without the benefit of having done a degree here and forming a network of friends. But anyway, never mind that, I think things have happened in the art world and are happening, that make it very, very difficult to survive as an artist. So maybe 10 or 15 years ago there were a lot more people who were making a good enough living from their work and not having to teach. But that has changed dramatically. And I think what that means for me having struggled through the demands of teaching versus making my own work – I’ve been the course leader now for nine years – is that in the time that I’ve been course leader we had the crash of 2008, and suddenly all these artists who used to pity me for having to teach are now quite desperate for work. I don’t take pleasure in that, I’m just saying that I think my attitude about the adversity means I was ahead of the game in terms of how to manage different responsibilities, and wanting to be in a position where I wasn’t worried every month about how I was going to pay my bills. That has given me the mental freedom to be creative. Because if you’re worried about those things, it’s hard to be creative.

MKP: Iggy Pop gave BBC Radio 6 Music’s John Peel lecture in 2014 and in it he said that in the creative industries you have to diversify to survive.

KC: Hmmm. I think I’m really lucky – I sometimes resent the increasing amount of admin involved in the role that I have running the course, and also the way, over the past six or seven years, budgets have been shrunk by at least a third if not more. I do resent that because it puts so much more pressure on me. But where I’m lucky is that I’m running a drawing course, and that’s what I do in my work. So the idea of putting together a programme of study in that subject – it’s not a big leap for me – I can enjoy that as an intellectual pursuit, if not so much an administrative one.

MKP: Can you tell us what’s next? What are you working on now? Having produced this exhibition, has this given you ideas for future works?

KC: Yes, it has given me ideas, still working with the steel, perhaps more two-sided drawings. The most recent pieces are not derived from the backs of paintings, but rather they’re other things in the environment that have to do with property values and an idea of heritage that is sort of being preserved, but can reach the point of folly. When preserving that facade isn’t really saving the building, it’s debatable whether all that money and effort going into saving that facade is questionable, whether that’s a valuable thing, whether that is preserving the heritage. Though I’m not dealing with this directly, the cost of living in London and the sorts of social policies being implemented – there are a lot of things that I think about when I’m making the work.

MKP: It’s almost as if you’re taking that epiphany moment you had when you understood how Giotto’s paintings in the Scrovegni Chapel were site specific, and you’re applying it to the environment around you.

KC: Yes that’s fair. And the cartoon-like mark-making, and the silliness of its casual form. It all appears to be saying: I think these are serious, but what do I know? It seems right to make it all a bit ridiculous.


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