Everything I’ve read about Berlin-based painter, James Krone’s, recent exhibit Waterhome centers Krone’s practice around an empty aquarium. The aquarium in question, however, is not present in the exhibit itself. Instead you’ll find a series of paintings hung on the wall, a folding screen dividing the room that is similarly composed of paintings and a stack of paintings face up on a plinth. These monochrome works seem at first either black or white. At first they appear unpainted, as though they were salvaged from a musty basement and hung as testaments of mold and unforgiving sunlight. The marks on the canvas seem to have grown over pure blankness, or pure darkness — like intrusions of time and environment. Slowly, upon closer inspection the range of color becomes apparent, the areas of bleaching and stretch marks conspire to create a cohesive, aesthetic experience. The image of a tank collecting algae is tied in with this work, and I kept asking myself how it — with its self-generating, dynamic ecosystem — connected to painting, especially when these paintings speak so directly to minimalism, and abstraction. Waterhome opened this past Saturday and will be up until February 2nd at Kavi Gupta Gallery. All images courtesy of the gallery.
Caroline Picard: I am interested in the relationship between your paintings and this fish tank — an object that seems present in everything I’ve read about your work, even while it is absent from the physical exhibition space. Without the fish tank, I experience your paintings as these lovely, subtle color fields that reflect back on a collective/historical painting conversation — your works strike me as non-painting paintings, almost. They have been crafted in such a way as to seem like canvases left in a damp basement for an extended period of time — flecks of paint look like tiny blotches of mold peppering the surface. And yet, by incorporating this fish tank, even as a (non-present) totem of the work, your paintings engage the natural world as well. I have started to fixate on this fish tank —What is its relationship to your paintings? Does it function as a muse of some sort? Or does it have a more direct relationship to your painting process?
James Krone: The fish tank was something that I had, was given as a gift at one point because I had wanted a pet lobster. I had some miscommunication with the electrical company at the time and my power kept going off. I was worried that if I put a lobster in the tank and the electrical company turned off the power again, the lobster would die. Also, I realized what a lot of work it would be to maintain a salt water tank. Instead of getting rid of the tank I filled it with water and put it on a table in my apartment and decided that that was enough. I couldn’t tell if it was a sculpture or if I was just keeping water as a pet but I found it somewhat fascinating and it didn’t take any effort to have it there. It was visible and transparent, recycling its qualities through an electric filter. It wasn’t very long before algae started to grow in the water, a rather delicate layer of soft velvety chartreuse. I’ve never really thought of the algae as nature, primarily, so much as an inevitable form of production that was filling a void while simultaneously articulating my incapacity to maintain either an illusion of emptiness or a consistent object. I’m often seduced by points where assumed binaries falter and merge back into one another.
The accretion of the algae persisted and would get quite thorough, creating moments of total opacity and then it would die, or do something that appeared to be entropic, and just collapse off the sides of the tank in sheets of fibers. The process would repeat itself. It seems to be a form of decay but in fact its an active, matter subverting an otherwise sterile space. I admired the mindless production of its cycle and the revolutions of transparency and opacity, persistent and hungry yet apparently neither progressive nor resolute. It is difficult to say whether the algae was a subject coming into being, a subject arrived sui generis or something that was destroying the subject. I think that the paintings work in this way, too.
CP: It sounds like you see a process of painting in the aquarium’s inherent, or natural, process — can you say more about it? How are those conversations wrapped up in one another for you?
JK: I think of the aquarium’s relationship to painting as being about the quotidian and transfiguration, being as a form of continuous maintenance, more than I think about it as nature. Or what is natural? A fungus that eats plastics was recently discovered in South America. I guess I see nature as the incomprehensible totality of everything and just shy away from the references that get associated with nature or the natural (organic, etc…) as they seem to suggest a necessary idea of the unnatural, that I can’t accept.
Maybe if this idea of the unnatural were really just a prudish stand in for perversion then I’d have an easier time dealing with that.
Painting is a thing a person can do quite easily but it will most likely happen in an empty or undetermined space because it isn’t a solicited activity, if it’s of any value. There is no proper or prepared place to make a painting or art because no one is initially asked to do so. If I wanted to be a nurse or make sandwiches for people, there are rooms for me to go to that would be readymade. To make paintings I have to go get an empty room and bring my things there and the person who rents it to me probably says, “Don’t get it on the floor.”
CP: You directly speak to the idea of entropy in the Waterhome exhibit description. I want to say this connects somehow to the blank canvas, or the empty fish tank. That these blank spaces inevitably fill up and get dirty. Is this where you are locating entropy? i.e. the fact that “the purity of the void” will be compromised marks a sign of failure? I’m interested in this idea because I feel like it’s somehow based on a philosophical premise of your own, namely that something clean and clear and empty is an idealized state; the addition of mold/small flecks of green color, scuff marks, the apparent bleach of the sun, or errant stretch marks is the function of dilapidation. But you could also think of mold is an additive growth, a positive, productive transformation. And the signs of age and dilapidation on your canvases are fabricated by you — which also seems additive. That’s a rambling way of arriving at my question: How do you think about entropy as a painter?
JK: I think it does speak of entropy. Maybe it’s also a rejection of the notion of entropy. Is entropy anything more than an effect that articulates… what? A disappointment with the impossibility of nothingness? Of permanence?
I don’t know but I don’t like to think of painting on a canvas as going somewhere so much as doing something.
Each painting does end, though, and working on a single painting forever would make it seem far too important.
This thing of dirty is interesting to me because on one hand I do feel at the moment I first touch a blank canvas that I’m somehow soiling it… but claiming a blank canvas is even worse than ruining one.
The term “purity of void” has more to do with a criticality of the notion of purity than it does with championing the fantasy of the void. It’s exposing that there would be this idea of a void or an anti-space and that in the totality of this emptiness, a certain purity would be attained. I see the void as the imaginary friend of the puritanical; some evidence that the desire for the pure is motivated by death drive.
There is a promise of clarity in a glass box and that is probably just an illusion. It’s cruel because we know how to yearn for that illusion. It performs a job until something else arrives and that arrival ruins the illusion. This is both a relief, as it cancels this yearning, and a disappointment, as it cancels this yearning.
The death of a false promise is still a loss.
CP: I am also interested in this idea of choreography and exposure — as I understand it, you apply layers and layers of washes to the canvas and the washes respond to a laid rabbit glue surface, settling permanently in some places as they wash away in others. Is that process where you locate this idea of dance?
JK: The canvases are sized with several layers of rabbit skin glue and then I paint a single wash of paint on them daily. The colors I use are based on the colors produced in the aquarium; viridian, sap green, alizarin crimson and lemon yellow.
This accretion of the layers of paint negates the color of those preceding and the canvas builds towards an ostensible black. Eventually, a section of the sizing on the canvas wears down and begins to resist saturation and even degrades back towards a lightness. I take either occurrence as a signal to stop. It’s an exposure of the painting in that it destroys the painting’s potential to be a monochrome. I either leave the canvas like that or I unstretch it and reverse it. The paintings that get reversed seem to have something more like a personality because of the moments where the support has faltered and paint has bled through. But as much as you see the points where the color has come through you are also seeing the places where it has not.
It isn’t a terribly complicated process, rather deskilled, if peculiar and specific.
The choreography is knowing what I will do beforehand and remaining more or less consistent to that, intending that the repetition of the behavior avoids a narrative of progress.
I’d hope that the paintings are anachronistic, not in the sense of timelessness but in that they might deny tense.
CP: One of my favorite pieces in your exhibit at Kavi Gupta is the stack of canvases — I loved the way you transform the painting into a sculpture and by stacking them emphasize the painted side or edge — a typically marginalized space where accidental drips and stains exist like a dirty closet in a house or dorm room. But you emphasize that side and cover the faces of many paintings. Can you talk a bit about how you decided to stack these works? And did your process of painting change when you anticipated stacking them?
JK: The sides of these paintings were always attractive to me because they look the same regardless of which side of the painting has been stretched. Last February in Berlin I made a different exhibition with this work that included a coffee table consisting of a stack of square Waterhome paintings elevated on rather feeble legs. The dressing screen in this show made that option seem too much like a literal conversation between painting and furniture but I wanted to retain some kind of focus on what is usually, as you said, a typically marginalized space.
There was some playing around with that piece for a while, verticality, horizontality, what a pedestal does or does not do or infer, etc… I felt that it had to be a piece in itself more than just an apparatus to describe the other work. I think it becomes a grammatical elongation of those margins by collapsing the physical space between them.
The process of the painting really doesn’t ever change but different consequences seem to arise as I continue to make them, whether or not I want them to.