May 2017

Kate Nielsen is a Brooklyn based artist, designer and illustrator. Her practice combines varying figurative and abstract representations, united by technique: a unique process of layered and collaged paint peels. These seemingly disparate portrayals coexist throughout her work and are often combined in the same piece. A current series of work depicts abstracted landscapes created from cutting, collaging, and reworking textured mats of layered acrylic paint. The carved cavities reveal stratified layers of contrastingly bold primary colors coupled with soft pastels. The paint become autonomous, requiring no backdropping canvas or foundation, instead supporting itself by the characteristics of its own properties. Kate’s work was featured earlier this month in a three person show alongside Steph Becker and Libby VanderPloeg at Calico Gallery. I visited Kate in the beginning of May at her Greenpoint studio adjoining the gallery.

Picnic: First, I wanted to talk about your work in the show, and your relation to the other artists, how it came about…
Kate: It came about from [the director of Calico]’s wife, he was throwing out a lot of ideas for group shows and when he said the three of us, she said “Yeah you have to do that.” When we were initially talking, we weren’t sure exactly how it was going to work together. We’re all friends, we love each other’s work, they are two of my favorite artists. I originally wanted to do more figurative work, which is something I used to do a lot more, but they’ve fallen out of my paintings lately. I tried to come up with something for a little while but it just wasn’t making any sense. Scott [the director] wasn’t worried about it, he always saw the link between us. When it actually went on the walls it totally made sense. I think the colors and palette all actually work together really nicely.

[Pictured above: Works by Kate Nielsen on left wall, works by Steph Becker on right wall, on view at Calico Gallery]

P: It shows a descent into abstraction. Libby’s work is very figurative and representational, then Steph’s is a little more reductionistic or primitive, and then your paintings are essentially abstract. You are calling this series “Land Paintings,” is there any reference to topography or cartography?
K: They are inspired by my trips to the desert, the rock formations, the lakes, the landscape. It can go from 200ft below sea level, to an elevation of 10,000 or 11,000, so you have all these different landscapes in one park.

P: When you’re looking at the different layers in the details of these paintings they look like excavation sites carved into the landscape, showing the different stratified layers of sediment built up throughout history.
K: Which is what it looks like out there.

P: How many layers are you generally putting down for it to be pliable enough to get this effect?
K: It varies per painting, I would say on a minimum I have to get to 20 or 30 before it will really hold up, but somewhere between 20 and 80 on average.

P: Are you preparing before hand or are you working as you’re going? Do you have a sketch or an idea of what it’s going to look like when it’s done?
K: No, they form organically, I can plan out the color layers, how I want them to look, and I can plan out how some of the holes will look by building up the paint in different ways. But overall, no. I like it being a more organic process, and letting the edges rip and letting it build up how it wants to build up. Sometimes I add extra things to break it down, to make it crack, to stress it for extra texture, then build on top of that.

P: Are you mixing your own pigments?
K: Sometimes. I always want to make pigments from the landscapes. I’m always putting rocks in my pocket. I don’t have the proper tools though.

P: Since there is a waiting period, letting the layers dry, are you working on more than one painting at once?
K: Always, I have this pile of pieces.

P: You start on a glass plate and peel them off once they’ve built up enough?
K: Yes, this [table] is for bigger ones, and I have a lot of little smaller pieces of glass.

P: You’re not only layering and subtracting you’re also adding more paint after you’ve made cuts?
K: Yes. I don’t have an example but the latest version of figurative pieces that I’ve been doing, which have been few and far between, I collage them on the glass side, so it’s actually a complete solid piece and completely flat.

P: They become sculptural, when you’re bringing in the dimension of the wall or the dimension of the matte behind it.
K: I was just talking about this with David B. Smith, we had a very good talk about the relationship of the pieces to the wall, and he made me think about the fact that they are kind of like very thin sculptures, more so than a painting, which is why I have the one attached directly to the wall in the show.

P: This work seems like an obvious departure from your more illustrative work, when did you start employing this technique and how did it come about?
K: I think originally it was probably from my glass palette. I was using a paint peel technique in my early illustrative pieces, that [pictured above left] would be a transitional piece. All of the different parts are paint peels collaged together.

P: Do you see these as a break from illustrative work or vice versa?
K: That’s how they started, it was a break, and now they just became more satisfying by themselves than the figurative work I was doing. I don’t know if I’ll go back.

P: Do you feel like you’ve lost your hand?
K: For the figure? No, I just think when I’m making something I’m not planning for the figure the way that I used to, so my figures are separate, I just don’t have anywhere to put them. They are the same as they used to be, they’re just missing their background.

P: When you’re working on a figurative paint peel backwards on the glass plates, do you have a sketch you’re working from?
K: Sometimes, it depends what surface I’m working on, if I’m painting on my desk I can tape a sketch to the other side of the glass, but if I don’t reverse it, it’s not how I thought it would look. A lot of the times what I’ll do is paint ten of what I’m trying to do, and one will come out. So I will or will not have a sketch but I’ll make ten anyway, doing one off a sketch and then doing nine others around it.

P: Do you still do portraits and commissions?
K: I do, I’m working on a commission right now.

P: The paint peel paintings seem tedious, and the details are almost microscopic but on the other end of the spectrum you also paint large scale murals, do you find any hurtles working that large? What do you enjoy about the difference in scale?
K: I’m trained in both and I love alternating, it’s a totally different process, I love being able to flip between them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAP: I was reading some of your titles, and especially loved “Chemical Garden.” But also there are “Adaptable Creators,” “Start in the North,” “Ancient Rules Apply,” they feel rooted in a sort of abstract environmentalism, which I don’t know if is a term or if I just made it up.
K: If it’s not a term, it’s an idea that I love. That’s exactly what it is. My titles come from a combination of sources. I take them out of books I’m reading, whether they’re tiny quotes or how I misremember the quote. That is what I’m going for: abstract environmentalism.

P: What are you reading right now?
K: “The Day of the Locust,” It’s a book about an artist in Hollywood in the 1930/40s, it’s an old classic novel, but it seems weirdly contemporary. I like to read a fiction and then a non-fiction. My non-fiction was “Doubt and Belief in Painting” by Gerhard Richter.

P: Where did the title “Chemical Garden” come from?
K: The title “Chemical Garden” came from a workshop at the SVA BioArt Lab, they were having a free workshop on bacteria paintings. Their lab was so much fun. I love plants and science in theory, but I don’t feel like I’m a trained scientist. The people running the program were advocating for citizen science. Chemical Gardens are these kits where you’re adding chemicals to different elements and they’re basically growing into these coral like structures. You’re physically making a chemical garden.

P: Are any other works inspired by science?
K: I have this series I call the “lake series”, and everyone assumes it’s a cell, since they’re by themselves. I love letting people play with the scale of it in their minds.

P: Yeah, now after talking about bacteria paintings, I see a petri dish culture.
K: I’m fine with that too, it’s all organic. I did some bacteria paintings in that workshop, they did not turn out well. We were painting with E.coli.

P: I’ve seen the jewelry you’ve made from the remnants of the cut outs, is it common that you’ll collect and keep them for other projects?
K: Yes I do, aside from the jewelry I usually reincorporate them back into paintings, they go back into other ones. I save them for that.

P: In relation to the jewelry, and creating functional object based pieces, you collaborated on a series of beer steins with FPOAFM, that work is a lot more figurative and narrative.
K: For these I went on the theme of “Rules of Civility,” they depict different public scenes where one side shows people behaving appropriately and as you twist the stein it shows what not to do, the worst case scenario. I use my paint peels in these, as decals, here they are the chairs. I studied illustration so I’m very comfortable in the functional world, making something functional.

P: Are you comfortable creating narratives? Do you write at all? I feel like some of your works, your older survival tip paintings, there is a written narrative there.
K: For the survival tip paintings I was writing. I build a narrative behind all of my work, do I actually write it down? Not always, but I feel a compulsion to put a narrative to everything. With the abstract work I like hearing what other people think they are and just letting them be more mysterious even though I have a narrative behind them.

P: Will you be participating in Greenpoint Open Studios? Do you have any other shows coming up?
K: Yes I’ll be participating in Greenpoint Open Studios and I’ll be in a group show this summer at Paula Estey Gallery in Newburyport, MA.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou can visit Kate’s studio during Greenpoint Open Studios, the weekend of June 3 + 4, 2017. For more information on her work, practice, and commissions, visit

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