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A Conversation with Former Dallas Artist Keri Oldham

by Lanie Delay 15 Dec 2009 12:53 PM

Guest blogger Lanie Delay holds a BFA in studio art from SMU and is currently living and working in New York. She recently caught up with former Dallasite/current Brooklyn resident Keri Oldham for a conversation on what she’s working on and the state of the Dallas arts scene: Lanie Delay:  So, I want to ask […]


Guest blogger Lanie Delay holds a BFA in studio art from SMU and is currently living and working in New York. She recently caught up with former Dallasite/current Brooklyn resident Keri Oldham for a conversation on what she’s working on and the state of the Dallas arts scene:

The Fantastic World of Lisa Frank #1

Lanie Delay:  So, I want to ask about what your new work is like and what you’re working on now.  You have a really diverse practice, where you do pieces with sound and pieces that are more sculptural, that have performative aspects. And then there are these great watercolors also that you get a lot of attention for.  So, what you’re up to these days?

Keri Oldham: Well, I’m kind of in the processing mode right now; I just had that show at CentralTrak featuring watercolors, and I love watercolor – it’s something that’s kind of always developing with me.  Watercolor is definitely a process that really opens me up in a way where if I don’t know what to make next, inevitably I’ll come back to watercolor, because things just have this way of happening on the paper.  I don’t have to worry about control. But what is also interesting about them is that they are so… they’re probably [the] more literal of my pieces; they’re more accessible, I think, to people, whereas the sculptures are more abstract.  Right now, I’m all over the map.  It’s so funny: I think I work more in terms of ideas.  A certain idea will come to me, and I, well, even more so than medium …

L.D.:  When you say you’re transitioning, are you still making the watercolors where you have the disfigured or exaggerated body parts of people?

K.O.: Yes, definitely. I’m definitely still doing watercolors.  Right now I’m actually working on a series – there’s a couple of them on the wall here – that started off in digital collage, and I’m using colored pencil over the top of them, and then I’m re-scanning them in.  I love everything 80s, and I love Lisa Frank binders and Trapper Keepers … those ultra-colorful, fantasy-inducing images.  So these new collages show pop-culture love and relationship dynamics, where it’s couples I’ve photographed in ultra fantastic environments with rainbows in the background and lights coming out of their heads.  I’m not exactly sure where they’re going to end up right now; I’m just having fun with the process.  What I ended up doing next was rescanning them into the computer, and then creating a new image for them – so like, this final piece over here is actually the one I’m happy with, which is more of an abstract.  So they start off with two figures diagramming a relationship, and then they slowly breakdown into one single figure abstraction.

L.D.: This reminds me of how in traditional printmaking, especially with metal plate systems, you would have the states of the plate, and that you would make your prints, and then you would continue to work on it [the plate], and it would just continue to evolve.

K.O.: Definitely.

L.D.: I am kind of stunned at some of the similarities that we seem to be working on, just in terms of this discussion.  The themes are different, but some of the processes are actually really similar, so I’m kind of wondering if you’re hearing of other people doing that right now, or is it part of something that you see as kind of … I mean in some ways it seems almost inevitable that, not only would people do it, but that people would do it here in this location where their space is limited and there is so much fascination with graphics.  Obviously a lot of artists’ day jobs are doing graphic work and things like that.

K.O.: Oh, definitely.  But I like the idea of mediums collapsing, where you can go ahead and think about the computer and digital media just in the same way you would think about collage or pencil or painting.

L.D.:  That they all become just tools.

K.O.: Yeah, exactly. And I liked the idea, like with this one right now… of a piece that started off digital, was layered with colored pencil, and now I’m thinking about going all the way – making it truly gory by collaging over the top of the digital/colored pencil mess, just seeing how much –

L.D.: Like actually physical, manual collaging back over it?

K.O.: Yeah, just how many different mediums I could possibly combine.  Break all the rules of what you’re supposed to be doing in terms of “medium,” and maybe come out with something that is still coherent.  So I’m really interested right now in actually gunking it up and seeing how far, just how many mediums I can possibly collapse into one piece.

L.D.: I love it. I love it.  I mean, I completely understand your sentiment about sort of breaking the rules about keeping these things kind of separate.  In a way, it seems like, how long can you do that?

K.O.: I know.

L.D.:  And … you have to kind of get your feet wet.

K.O: You do.  You have to take risks.  And it’s funny, I haven’t used colored pencil in so long.  Actually, our drawing group that we started has made me sort of get back to drawing, and [realize] “Wait, this is really fun.  I haven’t drawn in a really long time.”  You know what I mean?

L.D.: Same for me, actually.

K.O.: But I think, ultimately, it’s funny, you know, because you combine all these mediums, but then you want to create something coherent in terms of an ultimate world.  And these pieces that I’m working on, they’re not quite there yet, and that’s part of the fun for me …  figuring out where they will go, and how they will end up.  I have certain images and ideas about the kind of the direction I want them to go, but…

L.D.: Do you see these in a way as imposing order, or breaking order?

K.O.: Um, I think it’s both, interestingly.  I think I start with something that feels ordered, and then I try to break it.  I don’t know exactly.

L.D.: So what were you doing before this that you would say led you to this in a sort of natural progression?  If there is even such a direct route.

K.O.: Working with media, is something … I haven’t really exhibited anything like that.  I’ve always been interested in relationships and how we are perceived, especially in relationships with people.  I guess, well, actually it’s funny …  my sculptures are often about that, too, but in a very abstract way – like … how would you describe … wanting to be attractive, or …

L.D.:  Feminine notions of beauty?

K.O.: Yeah, the first sculptures I ever made were actually couples.  This is a set.  And they were kind of these pairings, sculptures that go together and were supposed to stay together.  This was one of the first sculptures I ever made [showing a small pairing of gray sculptures].  And they were couples; objects that go together in their oddities.  You know what I mean? It’s like in a world of things that don’t go together and a world where you’re very much used to being alone, I wanted to create coupled objects that in their strangeness had found a mate.  I don’t know … I’m interested in that dynamic.

L.D.:  This sort of lavender jersey piece over there on the right, did you make that maybe in 2007 or 2008?

K.O.: Yeah.

L.D.:  I think that may be the first thing that I saw of yours.

K.O.: Oh really?

L.D.:  I think I saw it …  actually I do remember: I saw it on a wall shelf at 500X in the first room.

K.O.: Yeah, exactly.  Those are sadder couplings, actually, I made after a break-up.  I’d kind of wanted them to be washed out and package-like, like these, I don’t know, memories, kind of …

L.D.:  When you talk about them in that way, I can see that aspect of them, but at the time that I initially saw them, they had a kind of exuberance about them at the same time.

K.O.: Yeah, oh definitely.  There’s still something about their shape that … they’re still potent.  My newer sculptures are more individual pieces.  I guess this new series I’m working on is coming back to relationship studies, but now in a very pop/fantasy realm.

L.D.: I just recognized that the sort of forms on the sides are actually the image that’s on your Web site.  What is that?

K.O.: Um, it’s this digital collage …

L.D.:  It’s topographical, sort of.

K.O.: Yeah, uh huh.  They kind of look like rocks to me too; they’re very strange, but it’s pixels, layered over and over and over again … kind of painting with pixels.

L.D.: The first time I saw that on your Web site, I thought “Oh, that’s so great.  I don’t know what it is, but I love it.”   I’m going to change gears here for a second.  What brought you to New York?

K.O.: A lot of things in my personal life were coming together, in terms of… I had family members leaving Texas, and… working for And/Or GalleryPaul [Slocum] and I both decided that we were interested in moving to New York around the same time.

L.D.: But did that come about through a decision to come here, versus a decision to leave there?

K.O.: I knew I wanted to move to New York, but it was scary to move here since I had lived here in 2006 when I was working for the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and I knew what I was getting into.  I knew that I didn’t want to move here, you know, and do the starving artist thing.

L.D.: In what capacity did you work for the museum?

K.O.: I was finishing my graduate degree in museum studies from San Francisco State, and I was there …

L.D.:  Like an intern?

K.O.: Yeah, I was their graduate curatorial intern, and they had offered me a job when I was leaving, and…

L.D.:  You turned it down?!

K.O.: I turned it down!  And I decided to move to Dallas instead.

L.D.:  Are you crazy?

K.O.: No!  I know.  A lot of my friends were angry with me.

L.D.:  Well, did you do it because you got the opportunity with Paul?

K.O.: No.

L.D.: That was later?

K.O.: Paul wasn’t even …  I forced myself on Paul!  I was like, “I think you need some help here,” and he was like, “Hmm, maybe you’re right.”

L.D.:  So, you decided to go to Dallas out of thin air?

K.O.: I decided I wanted time to make work.

L.D.:  Well, Dallas is good for that.

K.O.: Yes!  I wanted to curate my own shows.  I wanted to make my own work.  I wanted to live in a place where I could meet people, and … I don’t know … grow as an artist, and I didn’t feel like I could do that in New York at that time.  I wasn’t ready, and now is the perfect timing.  Now, things have  worked themselves out.

L.D.: What do you consider yourself primarily? An artist? Curator?  Writer?  Art worker?

K.O.: Probably primarily artist, but it’s funny because … I couldn’t just make art …

L.D.:  Do you mean psychologically or financially?

K.O.: Both.  I think I need to get away from art in order to make art.  I think it’s easier, or it’s more interesting, to make art when you are also living life.  There are these artists that are full-time artists, and that’s fantastic – they have glamorous studios where they can work all day, and I’m sure that’s good – but I don’t think that would be right for me.  … I also enjoy getting away from art, so that I can later escape back to it.  And I’ve recently been doing a lot more writing as well.

L.D.:  Yeah, I know you write for Art Lies.  Who else do you write for?

K.O.: Right now, I just write for Art Lies, but I’ve been writing more plays, short plays.  I had a small one that they did a reading of at the Kitchen Dog Theater in Dallas, and it was like a revelation.  I was like “Whoa, theater is amazing.”

L.D.: That’s interesting, because I’ve thought for some time that when I look at the watercolors, that they remind me a lot of the sort of traditional format of costume design sketches.

K.O.: Yeah, definitely.

L.D.:  Do you have that consciously in your mind when you do it?

K.O.: Yes.  Well, what I’m thinking of is kind of … is often Vogue magazine, models expressing, showing clothing or using their bodies in strange ways, but also the sort of characterizations that they create in doing that.

L.D.: This is kind of on a side note, but have you ever met someone who’s like an actor or model type who kind of seems to be on camera even when there’s no camera around, and how incredibly bizarre it is, like their sort of body language and gestures?

K.O.: Oh, definitely.  Actually, I saw a real model here in New York, and they’re so weird looking, they’re so tall, and they’re so skinny, and they’re kind of moving through space with these long limbs, and it’s …  it’s bizarre.  They look like strange creatures, not necessarily attractive. It’s funny.

L.D.:  They’re definitely rare birds.

K.O.: I know.

L.D.:  Do you consider writing and curating part of your practice as an artist, or do you consider them separate things?

K.O.: I think it’s all part of it.  Yeah, definitely.  The short stories and plays that I’m doing right now are directly from the watercolor characters that I make.

L.D.:  Do you feel like being in the city now is changing your work?  Or is there anything as direct as that?

K.O.: I don’t know if it’s changing it as much as I feel this intense energy now behind it.  Since there’s so much here, you know, there’s so many arts organizations and there’s so many other emerging artists, it’s oddly energizing.  I thought for a long time that it was something that might feel intimidating, but it just depends on what you want from the city.

L.D.:  Well, speaking about all the things going on, tell me a little bit about your new gig, your new job at Like The Spice over in Williamsburg, and how you see this as different from the work you were doing at And/Or.

K.O.: I’m assistant director of Like The Spice Gallery.  It’s a great gallery in Williamsburg also representing emerging contemporary artists, most of them in New York; Marisa [Sage] has been in business for about three years.  Working with Paul, we were definitely more new-media focused, which was a unique experience.

L.D.:  You had some curatorial abilities at And/Or, and you did do some curating.  Are you thinking that you may be able to do that here as well?

K.O.: Definitely.  I’m also interested in starting an online gallery that produces shows quarterly and invites other curators to contribute a themed ‘show’ so to speak.  Similar to Zing Magazine, which I absolutely love, but with an online focus. We’ll see.

L.D.: What do you think about all of the things going on in terms of the downturn in the art world … sort of implosion in Dallas?

K.O.: Unfortunately the recession finally hit Dallas … It took about a year for it to kind of trickle down.

L.D.:  Do you see opportunity for the city in that? I mean, obviously there’s opportunity in that, but what form do you suppose that that would take?

K.O.: There’s still so many great artists there.  I wonder if there’ll now be more studio spaces, maybe more studio showings.

L.D.:  Do you mean more studio spaces being built, or do you mean so many people have left that there are more spaces available for other people?

K.O.: No, no!  But, like, I know the Shamrock was organizing an open studio –

L.D.: They did do it.

K.O.: I think that’s fantastic. Galleries closing doesn’t mean that there can’t be shows.  Maybe it won’t be in the format that collectors,  the arts community and the people in Dallas are used to, but um…

L.D.: Do you think there’s room now for more experimental and less commercial endeavors?

K.O.: Yeah, definitely.  500X does a fantastic job, too.

L.D.:  Yeah, there’s a Rebecca Carter and Thomas Feulmer show that opens there this month that I wish I could be there for.

K.O.: Oh, they’re wonderful, they’re so wonderful.  You know they’ve been in business for over 30 years.

L.D.:  Yeah.  I wouldn’t be surprised if places, not only that place in particular, but other places see an uptick.

K.O.: Artist-run spaces.

L.D.:  Well, I think that some people thought that And/Or would be the beginning of the artist-run space scene in Dallas, and I think that in some ways, people may see the demise of that gallery as “Oh, that didn’t work out.”  It’s a weird time right now. People have such … there’s so many speculations about all of this; it’s a very interesting time.

K.O.: Mmm hmm.  It is, it is.

L.D.: Well, what is next for you?

K.O.: Right now, I’m working on this new body of work, and I’m also writing some short stories.

L.D.:  Any hints for what you’re going to do for Mary Benedicto’s Phonography show that she’s curating for The MAC in two years?

K.O.: Not a clue.

L.D.:  Well, then we’ll just keep everyone in suspense for now.

K.O.: Yes.

L.D.:  OK, wel,l thank you –

K.O.: I do want to say that … my decision to move to Dallas instead of New York was one of the best decisions that I ever made.

L.D.:  Yeah?

K.O.: And that in Dallas … I was able to make work there, the arts community there is really amazing in terms of people being supportive, like Paul. Dallas, you know, because it’s a smaller community, there’s an appreciation there for the artists that they have, and I felt that, and I was … I still really love Dallas.  It’s still a great place to talk about art and make interesting work.