Artist Interview with Kori Newkirk
Kori Newkirk is an artist originally from the Bronx, NYC. He is currently living and working in Los Angeles since 1995.
RISA RECIO: What does it mean to live on the West Coast after coming from the East Coast?
KORI NEWKIRK: I have experience in all three.
RR: How has it affected your practice? Has it magnified certain aspects?
KN: When I arrived on the West Coast, I realized, as compared to being in the Mid-west and certainly compared to the East Coast, specifically New York, that I had a greater opportunity to have my work shown and to make the work. But that was because of the economy that was going on, that spaces were cheaper out west. That allowed exhibition spaces, commercial gallery and non com galleries to present work that they believed in, more so than work that they had to present so that they could make money. So that freedom that they had where they could say,“oh, we believe in you, but we know that you might not be so commercially viable, but we believe in your practice and we want to show you” was really helpful… The thought that that was out there was really helpful because there were times where I could be invited to make work and show work in spaces where it wasn’t about money, and even in spaces where it was about money to know that I could just do whatever I really wanted to do without any monetary pressure at that time. But those days are over.
I just realized that I didn’t want to go back to New York City after my MFA and compete with every other recent MFA in the country in order to spend all of my money on my apartment and have my studio be my dining room table. That was not interesting to me, because I had already experienced that and seen that. I was not up for that. Being in LA, has let me be slower. I can take the time to make what I want and to let it sit around without these other pressures that happen to a lot of young artists. It let me figure things out. I know so many slow, slow workers out there as compared to artists in Chicago or in the Midwest, and in other places in particular New York, there are people who are incredibly well respected and they might have a show every seven years. They work so slowly and the environment is ok with that out there. Or at least it was, it’s changing a little bit. I like that, it let me develop in a nice way.
RR: Where would you say Chicago lies in that spectrum or in that different pacing?
KN: I wouldn’t know because I haven’t really been in residence here, but in my mind because we’re in the middle of those places, its somewhere in the middle of that. In LA, we might not have the market, but have the artists. New York has the market and they’re losing the artists. And Chicago is somewhere in the middle, and what is really heartening to see is that in recent years, people have been understanding that you can stay here and still have a career. For a long time, you would come to school here and if you really wanted to do something, you would have to go somewhere else. They didn’t have the collector base, they kind of had the museum support base, but most people would come here just for school and then get out of here really fast. I think what is exciting is that everyone realizes that you can stay here and you can have a career and it’s not just a Chicago career… Its perfectly fine to have a Chicago career, whatever that is. There’s a lot of people here who are incredibly successful with what some might call a Chicago career.
RR: I’ve heard that this idea or sensibility of a “Chicago career” is waning, like right now there’s an exhibit in Brussels right now that is a “Chicago Artists Show” – which is excellent, but it still keeps them as “Chicago artists”
KN: There’s always going to be those moments where those things get essentialized that way and that’s fine. As long as someone’s paying attention. What is a Chicago career, what does that even mean? It means different things to different people. Those things have much wider repercussions than we understand, so we can’t say that having a Chicago career is a bad thing. I think everyone should just make work and not worry about it, and hope that people see it.
RR: Speaking of work, do you see yourself as a storyteller, alchemist, historian… Somewhere along those lines?
KN: Yes, all of them.
RR: In the process, where does it start? With a story? A signifier? Material?
KN: Yes. I can’t answer that question, it starts with all of those. It all depends. Every work and piece is different. Sometimes I am influenced by a material that will generate everything, sometimes I will influenced by an idea… it changes all the time. I try not to lock myself down into any of those things and I try to be open to whatever I see to generate the artwork.
RR: So say you land on something, a material or story, do you feel that it’s important to exhaust that material or story to its full extent or allow it to have its moment and revisit later on?
KN: Yes. It sort of all depends, again. Its all specific to that moment, sometimes I do have to exhaust it through its materiality and through the process. And sometimes it can come so immediately that I can visualize the final outcome at the beginning and I know that when I can do that, it works out really well. Versus other times where I don’t know what it’s going to look like and I will go through all the processes. So it changes all the time, I try to flexible and open to whatever the work requires. I am always in service of the work.
RR: The objects you make, to me, speak to activity – that they are enacted upon or have a history of use or function.
KN: I’m not a maker of things that are performative, but the things that I use or the things that I’m making are dependent on history or activity.
RR: I’m thinking about the pieces you made with the tires with the photographs and then also the shopping carts, there’s specificity or markers or histories within them.
KN: Particularly those pieces, which is interesting because they kind of bookend. They are pulled from the real world, and how those things are used in the real world and my job is to transform them into art while still having some of that attachment to the real world situations that I’ve seen them in. The answer to a lot questions that we have in the studio are already out there in the real world, we just have to be able and willing to find them and identify them. I don’t necessarily have to change it all the time too much in the studio, I just need to absorb that and use that because then people will, hopefully, be able to understand what I’m saying because they have the understanding of how that functions already. I can use the histories already embedded in the materials to change or extend the conversation into my own. Its like a version of appropriation where you can take something that’s kind of neutral, but still has a history embedded in it and build upon that, instead of fully relying on that history.
RR: Do you feel that the strength of work comes when the pieces are in proximity to each other like in exhibition or as a whole? Or can each object stand on its own?
KN: I try to make work that can stand by itself, no matter what it is. When I was here as an undergrad, one of the visiting faculty members said, “I don’t really believe that artists have to make a cohesive body of work” and I always remembered that. That gave me freedom to make a lot of different things and have a diverse practice. The way that I work is really good for my soul and for my mind.
RR: I think again, that comes from working out of LA where you have the time and space to develop the diversity of your practice instead of somewhere with higher demands where you feel you have to churn things out.
KN: I’m not a factory. What has helped a lot is access to a lot of materials because of my location in the city, close to the toy district and craft district where all these things come from China and other gadgets that I have immediate access to. So I can walk out the door and find new and old materials and manipulate them in my studio.
RR: Online I’ve found several interviews or bios about you, what I’ve found interesting is all the “isms” around your work – Modernism, Post-Modernism, Minimalism, Formalism, etc. But I found the best ism is when you described your own work as “ghetto-fabulous conceptualism.”
KN: Oh god.
RR: I would love for us to talk about that.
KN: I can’t talk about that. I will say that will haunt me for the rest of my life. That is something I regret saying.
KN: Well in a way it essentializes my work. I’m certainly not from the ghetto. I grew up in the country for the most part. There is some inner city in me, I was born in the Bronx. But that was one of those horrible, one off comments that will haunt me for the rest of my life.
RR: The term “post-Black” – KN: Oh god. Also.
RR: Has been brought up. Which is funny for me reading and digesting these articles after knowing you and talking to you about identity politics.
KN: The whole “post-Black” thing, I still really don’t know how to talk about it. That is at least over a decade behind me and I still don’t know fully what it means. Part of it is a marketing tool, which I understand. But that’s probably another thing that will haunt me.
RR: I guess my question isn’t so much how you feel about it, but more so what has it done. Has it been limiting or has it been a label that has been tacked on?
KN: I don’t mind it so much, it’s been interesting, but am still not sure if I have reaped the potential of it. I think about it in a more proactive way. I’m in the studio and think how can I work on these new ideas that might have nothing to do with that, but that, in a way, is perhaps what that “post-Black” thing is! At times, it can be limiting and other times it can be expansive and open up the potential of what my practice can be.
RR: I think it goes back to this idea of storytelling. The conversation starts to open up or be explored when we as the audience are deciding if are you telling your own story or are you speaking to a larger story?
KN: I try to be a little more universal. That’s always my goal, but still through the personal lens. I have to walk around in this black body. That lens is very different from some other peoples’ even though we might be talking about some sort of universal subject matter. That lets me take that unique stance perhaps. My job is to make the work, you can label me whatever you want, but let’s just look at the work. What was interesting about that “post-Black” moment was everything that came after that. There was a “post-Asian” moment, there was a “post-Latino” moment… all trying to piggy back on what Thelma and Glen were talking about this idea of how perhaps we absorb the lessons of the multicultural era of the late 80s and early 90s, synthesize that and continue to put that work out there. That’s the most important aspect of this lasting discussion, but now 15 years later the world is a little different, there’s room for those difficult conversations and it’s not just about visual pleasure.
RR: The pre “post-moments” artists, let’s say, hinged on or a subversion of an existing power or institution of some kind, but now I feel there’s an attitude of this is how it is and this is how I come to accept my place in the world and I’m just putting it out there.
KN: And that there is room for that, which is the important part. Before both our times, there was room for that, but no one had the key to get in. At least the gatekeepers, for the most part, have been dismantled. There will always be resistance, but there seems to be less and less as time goes on.
RR: After talking about these “isms” and “post-Black”ness, do you feel that the stakes of your work have changed? Are you setting new stakes for yourself? Or are you asserting a new position?
KN: All three. I’m always trying to fuck up my own practice. I’m always trying to confuse people. I’m always trying to be a moving target. Every time something is presented, its sort of different and new in a way, but adds to the larger conversation of who I am as an artist and what my concerns are. It goes back to what I was saying earlier about having a diverse practice and not being locked down as this or that type of artist. And that’s a constant battle that I have.
RR: What has changed for you personally, now that are taking on these different hats as teacher, advisor, curator…
KN: Oh I’m not calling that curating.
RR: How has the experience been for you? And working within these institutions?
KN: Well I grew up on a college campus so I’m a faculty brat. So I’ve known forever how these things run. I never intended to be an educator, but it just happened and it feels right. I think it helps my practice a little bit. There are a lot of good ideas to steal all the time. We can’t think of everything, there are lots of things out there that we can use. I’m a thief that way.
RR: What are you working on now? What you got cooking?
KN: I’m still working on the same thing I always tend to be working on, which is trying to fuck up my practice in my head and in my studio. Try to push it forward somehow, I don’t know into what. Its gotten far more expansive, and less personal. A lot of that has to do with riding my bike to my studio through skid row, the middle of the largest homeless population in the country. So I always think a lot that that’s my audience. I look and take from what I see, whether it’s the use value of the material, like a shopping cart, how the things I see in the gutter or on the sidewalk, how I see people living and survive. That’s the sort of stuff I take back to the studio to try to synthesize with through materials and ideas, as well as larger global concerns that filter in there. It’s less about a localized American conversation. No matter what anybody makes as an artist, its still about their identity, even though a lot of people try to deny that. I don’t have the privilege to deny that, I just try to work with it.