Duplex: Your work is a combination of found object and concrete, how did you come to start using concrete as a medium?
Colin Kippen: I think it helps to know that my background is in jewelry and metalsmithing. During my MFA I wanted to work bigger and more cheaply while still thinking my metalsmithing thoughts. A lot of this work stems from a language of jewelry – you have a colorful rock with a support structure, this is exactly what this is. It’s a piece of colored concrete that has a support. In jewelry, I cast the metal and set the stone, while here I am casting the stone and setting the metal/found object. The paint–that angled color–provides the illusion that allows for an uncanny presence while the found object gives it its sculptural quality. I use a fast setting concrete and the funny thing is, I’ll always end up with a time bomb. A thirty minute window, so a lot of the pieces end up with a rough casting to them because I end up having to huff and puff around trying to put things together. At some point you give up and let the concrete win and make do with what has happened. The pieces usually benefit from my lack of ability. It’s important that the materials and the process have a really big say in the way a piece comes together. It’s no longer me forcing something.
D: You can even go further, and I sure you do with the jewelry analogy, the rock is being shined like a diamond in the rough.
CK: Exactly, there’s even a word, it’s called “chatoyancy,” it’s French for cat’s eye. A tiger’s eye has it, when certain grain structures in the rock are hit by light it looks as though there is an eye in it. Star sapphires do it too. Because of the way my painting happens, when you walk around my work, it sort of has that chatoyancy, an iridescent screen quality. And there’s a backwoods sort of beauty. This whole outdoor studio area has a backwoods aesthetic. The rusted and misused tool really speaks to my background in the hills of Vermont. There’s something about that haphazard piles of rusted stuff. Those are the kind of objects I’m drawn to: the idea of a fresh object with something old. How do you negotiate that and create something interesting from banal scraps? Another part of the process: I think about the parking strips and free piles as urban beachcombing. I arrive at pieces while on runs with my dog and late night walks. A lot of times I am trying to force a relationship between the cast and the substrate.
For this piece, I found the glass tabletop about a week after I found the satellite dish. The German word for table is “tisch” which is from Latin, “disc.” It just so happens the root word “disc” is the same for “table” and “dish.” The viewer doesn’t know it’s a tabletop I’ve cast- it’s an index, but I’m not even telling you that in the description. I’m telling you it’s concrete, acrylic and a found satellite dish. I realize that a lot if it is how I justify the joining of two disparate things.
D: Is this linguistic marriage important for each piece you make?
CK: For a good portion of the last year, words have really been important to the start of a piece or in the post-rationalization after something is done. Sometimes I feel like I use the word as a crutch–that need to justify, to add reason–so lately I’ve been pulling away from the need for dictionary justifications. Many of the smaller pieces at Duplex don’t have a linguistic component to them–there are still things that relate the two objects together, they are just more simplified or more conceptual. For instance, four of the pieces in the show will have electrical components attached to casts of plastic takeaway containers. They are linked by the fact that they are both components of transport and delivery systems (electricity and food.)
D: You obviously have to negotiate the weather when you’re working outside, how do you feel about the debris that gets collected on the work
CK: Most of the time I do protect the pieces, for ones that I haven’t shown yet; I’ll just dust them off before showing them.
D: Your material is pretty sturdy.
CK: Yeah it’s pretty forgiving. There’s a piece in the yard from my MFA show that birds have been pooping on. The spray paint I was using was sugar based so squirrels like to gnaw on it too. It’s interesting to have a process like that continue after the piece is done – the idea of an outdoor piece being exposed and the exposure being part of the conceptual process behind it.
D: Because of the weight of the concrete, your work can sometimes seem slightly dangerous. They are so beautiful on the surface but my brain is trying to figure out the reality of the sculpture.
CK: This table, the Spool Table, is going in the salon at Disjecta. It’s probably one hundred and fifty pounds of concrete. You might be able to sense that weight from the buckling and degradation of the spool itself but the colored surface entices you to forget about it.
D: Have you used anything to try to make the pieces lighter?
CK: I was embedding denim insulation to try to lighten the concrete a little and make it more fibrous, but it didn’t make the piece lighter. For some reason perlite is a lot better. There a few pieces that are surprisingly light with the use of perlite.
D: Do you usually position your object precast to plan out the sculpture?
CK: It’s almost like a visually scrapbooking that is happening. There’s an ability to do over certain parts of these sculptures in terms of texture I am a casting, the object that gets embedded in it is a little bit difficult to remove afterward. So it is a little bit like pulling out old negatives and using that as a way to revisit an old photo. That’s the idea of it being in the “stew area” where I have other pieces waiting to be reconciled. There is the idea that the piece will arise out of happenstance and trusting that eventually something will come together. That’s different than the process I had before when I was metalsmithing. It is very top down. You have your idea, you draw it out, and you execute it. You already know what it’s going to be before it’s done. This concrete process has been very freeing for me, because it’s freeing myself to trust that eventually something will come together.
D: If you used an object in a cast, and deemed it successful, is that object discarded or do you reuse them?
CK: A lot of them are destroyed in the reveal. You could cast them again, but they no longer have the same textures. I’m not really interested in using the textured thing itself, I have specific reasons for using found objects and that is support. It’s more important to me to create the cast and then that object has served its propose. Even this piece of tin from its previous cast, it’s going to be a different iteration. This ceiling tin was something that I found about a year and half ago. I tried one piece but it didn’t work. It’s just such a great pattern and it relates the cross hatching that is going on in the back of the ladder. As I get familiar with the way these pieces come together, there becomes a higher success rate in terms of what intrigues me in the found texture. I still hope when I peel off the cast, there is something under there that is stull unexpected.
D: What a good excuse to buy cookies too!
CK: Exactly, and a good excuse to make use of the really great, quasi- architectural features of the packaging. Some part of me always likes to think about the person behind the packaging, the designer. They came up with the ideal way to ship cookies. There are a lot of great formal qualities that you don’t really notice when your rinsing it out to put in the recycling bin. By giving it a concrete cast, it strips away of its plasticity, its weirdness, and really allows you to see what it is structurally. I have a Henri Bergson quote that really speaks to the phenomenological presence I’m trying to bring out in these pieces. Using paint for image is not really something I am interested in, but a lot of it is trying to wake up the cold dead concrete to give it a little spark. The paint serves to expose the surface and reveal things about it that you wouldn’t see otherwise, for instance, these topographic ridges. I like to try to encourage a close look but from a distance keep an iridescent or glowing quality with the way the paint is applied. This is from Matter and Memory:
I should convert it into representation if I could isolate it, especially if I could isolate its shell. Representation is there, but always virtual – being neutralized, at the very moment when it might become actual, by the obligation to continue itself and to lose itself in something else. To obtain this conversion from the virtual to the actual it would be necessary, not to throw more light on the object, but on the contrary to obscure some of its aspects, to diminish it by the greater part of itself, so that the remainder, instead of being encased in its surroundings as a thing, should detach itself from them as a picture.
D: That’s awesome!
CK: Yeah, That idea of converting form into image and paint and color have a really good way of compressing or bringing out formal aspects so that in the end it has this 2.75D quality(as opposed to 3D), the paint sort of takes a little bit of the concrete’s dimensionality while bringing out parts you weren’t expecting. That’s what I’ve been thinking about in terms of how to work with these surfaces, how to pop them off the wall in a way and make them appealing. There is a curiosity of wondering how something would look if I cast it but to able to have it also have some conceptual footing is important.
D: July is a big month for you! You have a few shows as part of the Disjecta Biennial; can you tell us a little about that work and how it differs from your work at Duplex?
CK: Most of the work for the Biennial is on the larger side of what I can make by myself in my back yard. The outdoor settings at Project Grow and c3:Initiative can really accommodate this scale. The intimate size of Duplex dictated smaller and more wall-based work allowing you to really look closely at the work while still giving a reward for peeking around the back: wall sculpture!
D: The airbrush-applied paint almost looks like automotive paint, but it’s acrylic right?
CK: I sometimes think of myself working in an auto body shop, it’s more akin to that. I’m still operating in my old habits as a metalsmith: you get something together and you take aim to finish it in a certain way. The paint still is a final finish; it’s not a polish any longer, it’s a way of highlighting certain aspects. And lighting actually impacts them in a big way too. I especially like them in low light.
D: Have you ever seen them in a black light?
CK: I actually have a black light, but it’s kind of a low light. I do use fluorescents in most of the pieces, so they glow. But short of having all of this stuff in a rave, I don’t know how I would show them without creating a full black-lit gallery. It does give it a neat presence. Because fluorescents operate at a lower UV, that’s what makes them really great in evening or morning light. You get more popping of the colors when it’s hidden from direct light. But I like that these can live in any lighting situation.
D: I don’t know much about airbrushing at all, but you have all these overlapping colors and nothing is muddy is over compensating for another color. It’s so cool and it’s a little bit of a mind fuck ya know? How many colors am I seeing right now?
CK: I like to think about printing processes and how colors might build from many different layers. Sometimes you’re seeing 4 or 5 different shades of the same color, other times there is a soft overlay of a complimentary color that just dusts the surface, an analog half-toning. Often I’ll mix too much paint, so other sculptures will get the leftovers as sort of an under painting. That is a good way for me to experiment. Color muddiness is a perennial problem for me–a lot of times I go too crazy with the layers and it gets dull or ugly. Morgan Buck, who I did my MFA with, was great about giving me tips about color that still allowed me to approach painting in a playful way. I don’t look at color theory, I just go with the flow and trust what I think looks right.
D: How did you hone your color palette?
CK: A lot of it is intuitive; but a lot of the colors are inspired by other artists on Instagram and or from gallery visits for First Thursday. To name a few, Anya Roberts-Toney, Michelle Ross, Wayne Thiebaud, Austin Lee, Genieve Figgis, and Eric Fischl. But also from life, like roses and peonies and other natural color combinations that happen around me. But then a lot of the fluorescents are coming in because they really wake up the form. Most of the palette comes out of a call and response with whatever paint was put on before.
D: How often do friends or family bring items to you and how do you feel about that?
CK: I’ve had some luck with people bringing me some really great things. Oliver Wilson who just graduated from OCAC gave me some great food packaging to cast and I agreed with him. During my MFA, I was doing a lot of work with teapots, cutting them up and reassembling them; I would get people bringing me stuff. You become that person, people thought of me when they saw a teapot. Which is sweet, but there is this playful discovery that I miss out on when people are bringing it to me. It’s a weird thing, sometimes is does help to have someone suggest that you look at something, but maybe that suggestion doesn’t come into play until quite a while after.
D: Has your relationship to trash changed? I would hope anyone seeing trash on the ground would make them uncomfortable, but has this process made it more extreme or beautiful for you?
CK: That’s a really good question, during my post-baccalaureate at OCAC, I did a series on all of the things I could find within twenty feet of a trash barrel, then I recreated all of those things in copper. I did have more of an environmental bent to the making process then. I think to me now, it’s not so much the fact that I’m against littering. I think there is something to be said about how that uncomfortable litter could be re-envisioned. When we see that on the side of the road, we think things like “nobody likes this neighborhood” but there’s a goofy part inside of me that thinks “What about the guys who designed it?” some part of me thinks I should have a political statement, maybe it is in there somewhere, but I don’t think about that when I am making it. It’s about recognizing the beauty of these plastic things and their formal qualities.
D: Sometimes when the political is driving the art, it’s hard to look at the work for its aesthetical qualities.
CK: Yep, I want to stand back and get to what Bergson was saying. What can I do as an artist to make the invisible visible? I am always amazed at the complexity and ingenuity behind something like this Hostess cake tray. It’s just a gorgeous Victorian rosette. Somebody is probably paid pretty well to make these things. As a plastics indexer of 2016, I feel like that’s my job to highlight these hidden aesthetics.