This month I have for you a thought-provoking interview with Washington D.C.-based artist Noel Kassewitz. Her work is intentionally low-tech and has a “jerry-rigged” feel. She explains why and how her aesthetic speaks to concerns about climate change in our discussion below. We also discuss her work’s relationship to significant historical events like the French Revolution, and why she thinks understanding the past will help us to better understand our present.
Your work blurs the lines between painting and sculpture, and cultural artifact and survival tool. What do you seek to communicate by creating work that crosses so many boundaries?
“How does an artist prepare for climate change?” This has been the essential question I have returned to time and time again over these last few years. Understanding art’s cultural value but non-essential nature in disaster scenarios, I recognized the need to expand my work’s utility. When great calamity strikes a civilization, the “superfluous” – that is, the arts, literature, humanities – are often the first things to be eliminated in favor of the basics needed for survival. So by trying to make my works inherently useful, I attempt to safeguard them from being left behind or destroyed. I create painting hybrids that exist as aesthetic objects and conversation starters in times of stability and function as flotation devices in potentially flooded future-scapes.
What inspired you to address climate change in your work?
My works have always conceptually dealt with environmental concerns and questions, which I believe stemmed from my childhood in Miami and the Yucatan of Mexico, where I spent time in the ocean and around marine mammals. I remember being concerned with climate change even as a child (I was a voracious reader), but as I got older, I was increasingly alarmed by how little had actually been done to mitigate it. When I first started specifically addressing climate change in my works, in 2015, still so few people were taking the topic seriously. It actually felt like some kind of cultural faux-pas to be addressing it in my work – as if being concerned about the environment was inherently uncool as an artist. Yet, the role of the artist is to synthesize the cultural moment and present it back to the viewer for self-reflection, so I was spurred on by this existential societal apathy. It’s been heartening to see the shift in conversation that has occurred in this past year, but there is still so much to be done.
Please tell me about some of your most recent work, The Weight of Paradise (I Wish You Were Here).
A figure lays heavy and buried under sandbags while paradise-like video projections of sunset play across the blank slate of their face. But then, glitches begin to reveal themselves within the video projection, proving that the saccharin sweet story being consumed isn’t all that it seems.
I first started working on The Weight of Paradise (I Wish You Were Here) when I lived in Italy three years ago. While there I did an artist residency in Carrara, where the marble for Michelangelo’s “David” was sourced. I was taught the ancient art of hand carving marble. I didn’t fully know what form the final project would take, but I knew I wanted to fuse art history and contemporary culture, which seems to happen quite a lot in my work. I began with a traditional human bust, but carved it in such a way that I could later project a video onto its surface. A couple years later, after working with so much buoyancy in my works, I wanted to create a very heavy piece, and the final form for the sculpture came to me.
Your work is intentionally low-tech and jerry-rigged. Why did you decide to take this approach?
I think there is a lot of incredible artwork being made that explores and exploits new advances in technology, but I chose to go in the other direction for a specific reason. We live in a world where constant adaptation at breathtaking speeds has become the norm. I find it interesting trying to navigate this digital moment in a much slower paced physical body and find a lot of correlations to that within traditional forms of artwork like painting and sculpture. Simultaneously, the majority of the world’s population does not have the luxury of simply “moving somewhere else” or using technology to save themselves in climate crisis situations and will instead be forced to jerry-rig solutions to survive and adapt to newly inhospitable environments. Therefore, finding ways to adapt, or maladapt, my works to a world rapidly leaving them behind has become an interesting metaphorical concept for me. I don’t want these to look clean, crisp, and digital. I want the human-hand to be visibly present – raw, and messy.
What do you hope viewers take away from your work?
History has a way of repeating itself when forgotten, and I constantly liken this moment to the two decades preceding the violent French Revolution, known in art history as the Rococo period. This time during the final years of Versailles was characterized by a pastel palette and a focus on the playful, decadent, and frivolous by a governing aristocracy who were intently ignoring the warning signs of a system out of balance. Sound familiar? I want contemporary viewers to walk away with a deeper understanding of this moment we currently are in through foiling it against other pivotal time periods. This allows us all to realize how ridiculous some of our own priorities and choices actually are. I hope this understanding can help us choose to create a different reality for ourselves.
What’s next for you?
My project, Rococo Remastered: Sunset on the Empire, where I floated past the monuments in Washington, D.C. on one of my paintings, was acquired by the University of Maryland for their permanent art collection this summer and will be on exhibit this September. In January, I have a solo exhibition opening here in Washington, D.C. with International Arts and Artists that will feature several of my newest works using re-purposed pool-floats in paintings to reference art historical counterparts. It should be playful, bizarre, and sobering all at once, and I’m really looking forward to it. Further down the pipeline in 2020 are exhibitions in New York and Miami; readers can stay tuned to any of these events by visiting my website for announcements and signing up to my email list serve (I limit my email updates to once every 3 months.)
(Top image by Kassewitz & Kassewitz, 2019.)
Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.