In the Make: Studio Visits with West Coast Artists
by Nikki Grattan
“Most of my portraits act as masks for whatever is in my head at the moment.”
If you’ve been reading IN THE MAKE with any regularity you know by now that most artists do not work out of envy-inducing massive, airy, light filled spaces… no, often the artists we visit are making their work in cramped, shared studios with limited light and breathing room. But still they manage to show up in these less-than-perfect spaces and make work that they believe in and are committed to. This reality can be at once daunting and inspiring, and after visiting so many different studios I can’t help but think that the space art is made in somehow, however quietly and modestly, shows through in the work.
I would say Kai has one of the lovelier, more solitary studios we have been to. Both he and his wife Clare Elsaesser, who is also a painter, live in the small and beautiful coastal town of Jenner, just over 70 miles north of San Francisco. Their home looks out onto big swatches of silver-blue water and land fringed in green, and because the location is fairly isolated one can’t help feel faraway out there, as if you were standing out on the edge of the world. It’s magnificent and lonely, and leaves you feeling haunted in the way that lush, entangled dreams do long after you have woken up from them. And in this remote place, surrounded by cool air and coastal mist, Kai makes his work. Downstairs from their home in a separate space, Kai creates richly textured, fractured portraits in somber, wistful hues. He paints from photographs instead of live models and freely manipulates his subject by using multiple images of the same person, or even sometimes images of different people. He also incorporates unexpected references— like the look and feel of eroding metal and chipped wallpaper, which inspire specific qualities to the texture and abstractions in his paintings. Kai’s portraits are less about identity and instead point to, “quiet, solitary moments”… and the emotions that “we don’t often share with others but we all experience.”
The faces and bodies in Kai’s portraits seem to simultaneously emerge from and disappear into their muted backgrounds, revealing a rhythmic tension that is both uncanny and comforting… like a quick flash of a long forgotten lullaby.
How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
My work consists primarily of isolated portraits. Here and there I’ll paint figures, landscapes and still lives but I always go back to the face. Over the past few years the subjects have become more fractured and hidden, which helps to illustrate the idea that they don’t represent specific individuals. My intent is to create portraits of an emotion or sense of being, nothing too specific, mostly people lost in thought. The backgrounds are almost always simple abstract spaces, often merging with the figure so that the focus is directed to a specific location.
What mediums do you work with?
I paint with oils (mostly Williamsburg, Michael Harding or Old Holland brands) on raised wood panels. There are a few mediums I mix into the paint, Oleogel, Velazquez Medium and Walnut oil (nothing toxic since I don’t have ventilation).
This isn’t really a medium, more of a tool, but for the past year or so I’ve been painting using a variety of materials in addition to brushes, metal paint scrapers ranging in size from 4 – 24 inches and sheets of plexiglass and metal. I tend to get impatient some times and with these tools I’m able to cover more ground, scraping and applying paint in a way that feels much like sculpting. They add a great energy, help to build texture and create lots of wonderful accidents.
You’ve described your work as “focusing on the moments we keep to ourselves”— can you further explain what you mean by that?
I like to paint quiet, solitary moments. Times we don’t often share with others but we all experience. A large part of who we are as individuals is spent in our heads, thinking, wondering, and dreaming. It’s something that I think universally connects everyone. I like to focus on those times and hope that the viewer will appreciate their representation, as well as being able to relate to the paintings in a personal way. Hopefully the same painting could show a sense of regret or a fond memory depending on who is looking at it. No one in my work represents a specific person or idea so there shouldn’t be any associations other than the viewers’ own interpretation.
Does personal history work its way into your practice? How might who you are be reflected in your current work?
I don’t have specific elements of my history directly represented in my paintings but who I am is what the paintings are, if that makes sense. Most of my portraits act as masks for whatever is in my head at the moment. I suppose everything that’s happened to me in life somehow becomes part of the work, not directly but as a direction or sensibility. My paintings have grown more in the last four years than in the whole decade before, mostly because I have grown more in those years as well. The paintings are also my (and hopefully others) escape from this culture of being barraged with advertising and media everywhere you look, they carry a sense of peace and calm that is hard to find sometimes.
What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I feel like inspiration changes on a daily basis. I just started reading a book called Daily Rituals that catalogues the daily routines of various creative people throughout history; it’s fascinating and inspiring and makes me feel much less crazy (Francis Bacon drank 6 bottles of wine a day!). Another book I’m reading is a yearlong journal by the chef of Noma, Rene Redzepe, I’m in awe of what goes into running a restaurant of that caliber. I’ve been looking at images of eroding metal, chipped wallpaper and abstract marks of paint, which inspire specific abstractions of texture in my paintings. I tend to listen to instrumental hip-hop and post rock since lyrics are often distracting, one wrong line and my head is somewhere I don’t want it to be. I’m trying to watch more documentaries and just saw Gerhardt Richter Painting, which was fantastic. Booze is my spark, my current poison is the Negroni, I like to swig on one (or two) while I work. Also, Giants games; if there’s a game on while I’m in the studio then it’s on the radio making my fists shoot up into the air with every run. I’ll shake it off if they lose but when they win it creates a great boost of energy.
What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
My studio has been gradually evolving over the past decade. I’ve worked in a bedroom, side room, garage, basement, basement studio, strip mall office, barn and now I’m on the bottom floor of our house in Jenner. Having worked in so many places I have a big appreciation for a good workspace and I’m constantly thinking of ways to make it more productive. Everything has a place; I have storage for completed paintings and another area for unfinished pieces, I have an office area for computer/printing work, a sitting area, a workshop for frame and panel building and my rolling painting table which houses mediums, tools, paints, reference photos, a custom brush holder and glass palette on top. I get distracted easily so having a functional, organized and clean space helps me focus on painting. I wouldn’t get any work done at all if I wasn’t completely comfortable in my studio; it’s my own little world.
Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
Right now I’m finishing up a large body of work for my upcoming exhibition at Dolby Chadwick Gallery. I had a slow start to the year but I’ve been consistently picking up steam and have completed close to 10 pieces so far with another 20 or so that are close and roughly 45 others that are blocked in. My main goal since 2011 was to be part of this gallery after I saw the Heads show there, which makes it all the more special for this to be happening, I’m excited to be in such good company.
It may sound sappy or not make sense but I was looking around my studio yesterday and realized, for the first time, that I’m making the work I saw in my head 18 years ago, when I was a sophomore in high school; the work I new I would make some day. I could never picture what it looked like but I had a very distinct feeling of what it would be and always new it would come; now I’m seeing it for the first time. Damn, it’s a nice feeling.
Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
I would be honored to be in conversation with Michael Borremans, Jenny Saville, Eric Fischl, Gerhardt Richter, Adrian Ghenie, Lucian Freud, Alex Kanevsky, Edwige Fouvry and Anne Gale (the last three of which also show at Dolby).
How do you navigate the art world?
Most of my career has happened slowly and organically. A recommendation here and there, approaching a space I like or sometimes being contacted by someone who’s seen my work online or through a friend. I have my website, Facebook and an Etsy shop. Etsy has been integral for both my wife and I, because of its international reach I’ve made some great connections, including my gallery in England. I like to stay aware of what’s going on in the art world without becoming too immersed in it so that I’m not overly influenced and don’t lose focus on my own work. I visit galleries here and there but living an hour and a half from SF makes it tough. I always intended to send out lots of submission packets to galleries I wanted to be in but so far I’ve only sent one, to Dolby Chadwick.
Do you have a motto?
Not really but there are two quotes I usually have written on my studio walls. One is What matters is simple by the English chef Fergus Henderson and the other is So it goes by Kurt Vonnegut. Both of these help me focus if I’m having a rough time working.
Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
My exhibition at Dolby Chadwick Gallery, Between Head and Hand runs from September 4 – 27 with the opening on the 4th from 5:30 – 7:30.