For Documents, we invited Kevin Frances to create an installation in the side gallery, of the (totally impressive and detailed) scale models he uses as a basis for his photographs and prints. In discussing his current series Superpositions, we touched on his very involved process, self-portraits, ceramics and "The Shining."
GAG: Your process is quite involved - Superpositions starts with a narrative and scale model which you use to compose first photographs, then your woodblock prints. Can you talk a bit about what led to this process?
Kevin Frances: At the core of my artistic process is a desire to harness that feeling when you look at something ordinary and it strikes you as new and strange. Building the models lets me look at the thing from every angle, and kind of stumble into compositions that I never would have thought of. Then I take photographs, and the photographs serve a similar purpose. I’m not a careful composer–I take a lot of pictures, everything I can think of. Then I give it some time, for my short term memory to fade, and flip through the pictures, looking for that one that strikes me right away. I think of this as creating opportunities for surprise.
And then finally, the photographs become the woodblock prints. I’ve tried a lot of different media, but I keep coming back to woodcut, it’s endlessly fascinating. I can never quite get a handle on it, every print seems to come out differently than I was expecting. Which comes back to surprise. If I ever did become so good that the print just came out of my head fully formed, I guess that would be the end for me.
GAG: Speaking of narrative, what’s the backstory here?
KF: I’ve always been interested in objects–specifically how a person’s home forms a kind of self-portrait, sometimes consciously and sometimes not. Of course, it’s not a full portrait, but think of standing in front of a shelf of items in a thrift store, observing their scratches and marks of wear, and imagining their former owners.
I had done a project a few years ago about a woman moving into an apartment. It was told through objects, and took place within the confines of her living room. This was the first scale model project I did. For Superpositions, I decided to focus on a relationship. It’s a husband and wife, the wife is a sculptor and has a basement studio; directly above it the husband has a home office, he’s a writer. These two people’s things bleed over into each other’s distinct spaces, just as lots of things do in a long term relationship; boundaries get blurry.
I decided to make the wife an artist because I think artists’ sense of self is uniquely tied into the things they produce. This may actually be true for everyone, but you know, I’m an artist. The husband is a thinker/writer/appreciator of art, but not a maker himself, so he’s got a more detached relationship to art, less emotional, more holistic.
The germ of this project came when I was reading about early American ceramics. Adelaide Robineau was an important figure in the history of studio ceramics in the late 19th early 20th centuries. Before this time, there were usually different craftsmen for the different parts of the process; one person for crafting the vessels, another for glazing, etc. Robineau was one of the first people to bring it all together and do everything herself; bring the craft into the context of art. She and her husband founded "Keramic Studio," the first American ceramics magazine, and he was a big supporter of her work. Of course, I have no idea what their relationship was actually like, but I became fascinated by their story, but it really seemed to flip the script on the old story of the prodigious male artist, and his wife who subsumes her personality in his and the furtherance of his work.
I love the book Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, there’s a part where the narrator says:
My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.
So I borrowed some of their story, but also woven in are references to other artistic couples, like Charles and Ray Eames, and Charlotte Perriand who designed much of Le Corbusier’s most famous furniture (they weren’t, I don’t think, a romantic couple, but they did have a weird and interesting relationship). As well as Felix Gonzales Torres, who makes some of the most profound work about relationships.
GAG: The amount of detail that goes into your models is pretty staggering, how much do you need to get into your “characters” heads while producing them?
KF: Some of the detail is based on my own life, some borrowed from friends or people I know. The most in depth I got in that way was when making the wife’s sculptures. I imagined that she had a background as a more traditional potter, and so has this nagging desire that the sculptures be “functional.” So a lot of them incorporate lamps or cup holders in kind of funny and impractical ways.
GAG: You’ve used the phrase “layers of translation” to describe your process but I think it relates a lot to what your work is about as well. How do you see it?
KF: Each part of the process is telling a part of the same story, but with a different tone I think. Have you seen those videos where they replace the music for the trailer to The Shining and it makes it into a romantic comedy? Something like that. I think I’m not the best judge of the tone of my own work; I’ve had so many people tell me they found my prints unnerving, when I thought I was making a romantic comedy. So for this project I decided to lean into that a bit, injecting a sci-fi/horror vibe into some of the work. In the print Membrane, an in progress clay sculpture is wrapped in plastic, to keep the clay from drying out. But in this close cropped image, it takes on a distinctly Alien vibe. I think science fiction could be a productive lens through which to look at domestic discord. Not in a Men are from Mars way...
GAG: Not to get into too much detail, how autobiographical do you feel this series is?
KF: Oh everything I make is basically a self-portrait, haha. But actually, one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by artist couples who collaborate is because whenever my wife and I have tried to collaborate it’s been extremely difficult! She’s a really talented designer, and I think we work well together on the day to day collaboration of life, but perhaps the creative impulse involves a different part of your brain, or a different part of your ego, and thus requires different ground rules.
GAG: You trained as a printmaker and the woodcuts are in some way the end result of the whole process. What is it about a print that makes it an effective medium for you?
KF: For me it’s really all about process. To get to the final print, there are several discrete steps; first there’s drawing the image onto the blocks, then carving them into the wood, choosing colors, and finally printing. Usually, my prints have about 10 or 12 separate blocks that come together to make the final print. Unlike painting where you have to carry it all in your head at once, I like how much this slows you down. One thing at a time.
The specific technique, water-based woodblock printing in the Japanese method (mokuhanga) has some particular qualities that I really love. You apply the ink (actually a watery pigment dispersion) to the wood with stiff bristle brushes instead of rollers, which allows you to make soft curving blends of color. Overlapping hard carved edges with soft gradients allows you to get the nuanced shape of shadows. The inks themselves are generally fairly translucent, so the feeling and brightness of the paper comes through, almost as if the prints have a light coming through them. It’s really all about light, in the end.
GAG: This series is called Superposition - as in the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics. Can you explain how you came to this title?
KF: I’ve become enamored with scientific terms as metaphors, so much is contained in a single word! In my layman’s understanding, a particle in quantum superposition is not in just one place in space, it actually occupies a range of possible locations, represented as a wave. The act of measuring its location however, by observation for instance, collapses the superposition and the particle settles into one spot. I like this as a metaphor for a relationship. Like they say, “you can’t know someone else’s marriage.” A marriage from the outside is a black box, observation is inherently reductive.