Mary Kate Maher is the latest artist on Life the Universe and Art. A Philadelphia native who earned her MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Mary Kate now lives and works in Brooklyn. Her work includes drawings, sculptures, installations and video. She has been exhibited at the D.u.m.b.o. Arts Center, NY, and the Stuhltrager Gallery, NY, Vox Populi, Philly, the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania and the Slought Foundation in Philadelphia. Mary Kate talks about her latest project in process here on Life, the Universe and Art.
1. Your latest body of work deals with cryptozoology, whaling and underwater debris. How did you develop your interest in these subjects and how has researching these subjects engaged your practice?
I tend to work from a stream of consciousness, pulling from books, essays, news, movies, etc. I make a lot of notes and drawings in various sketchbooks. While working on one project, I am also figuring out ideas and solutions, which sometimes lead somewhere else entirely. I am constantly building a vocabulary of symbols, which I resort to when needed. I begin with a broad concept and sketch until I have what I think it should look like visually. Once I have more detailed thoughts I begin research.
I have been finding books in the trash mostly from the 1970’s in that Time Life style of pictures mixed with random information on esoteric subjects like the whaling industry, and sea creatures. The books with hazy photographs and oversaturated color meant to educate but always seem a little too fantastical. I began putting thoughts together working off ideas from the previous sculptures I had completed. That work focused a lot on the fragility of life depicted through figures covered in bio-protective clothing and masks. I had been thinking about environmental elements, trapping and hunting for both science and sport. How does anyone become interested in something? You latch on to one small part that makes you curious and you go from there.
2. Your work deals with a tension of representation and abstraction, where do you see that line aesthetically? And how has that tension affected your practice?
This has been my biggest challenge. I am always asking myself how much information do I want to communicate to the viewer and the answer changes from work to work. Maybe “Realism” and “Abstraction” are the terms I should use. It is difficult to pin point. My last few sculptures were, for me, very realistic and figurative. I felt I needed to go in that direction but I can’t work that way all the time. With mold making materials available today for sculpture, special effects, and restoration, it becomes very easy to reproduce and remove the hand from art. Automotive paints become the new finish, cast aluminum becomes the new bronze. They are all very sexy and alluring and can make for interesting surfaces. Hyper-realism amazes me since I know what goes into that process. If it doesn’t reach that goal it falls flat and feels fake. There is a fine line. Lately I find myself drawn to artists like David Altmejd and Urs Fischer whose work is a conglomeration of realism, abstraction, chaos, symbols, everything mixed together. I think we are taught to find order and when presented with a lot of information all at once we tend to shut off. Especially if it’s art we don’t understand at first glance.
I work out of mess because I need to lay everything out where I can see it. It may be on the floor for months until one day it makes sense. I create in chaos, I have tried to change and it just doesn’t work. Just ask my ex-studio mate.
3. You are currently developing a video component for your Cryptozoology body. How has working in video affected your artistic practice?
The video component isn’t so much about Cryptozoology as it is about the idea of the hunt. It’s another aspect of the overall story possibility. I would use the term ‘video’ quite loosely since it was created to be seen with the rest of the body of work and not as a solo project. This is also the only piece that involves a figure in action. The sculptural elements depict what has been left behind, dismantled, or discarded. In the video, one man is preparing himself with ridiculous objects and gear in advance of an expedition. It was shot in low quality, black and white digital video, meant to be reminiscent in aesthetics of 19th century British explorers.
I leave my creative practice open to using different media. I am most comfortable working with certain materials but I am always eager to experiment. I felt in this case video lent itself to what I wanted to portray. To create this in the round would have been too realistic and would have forced the viewer to be in the present moment. Presenting it as a video suggests that this has taken place in the past.
4. Your work has a very distinct aesthetic, both creepy and sublime (which by the way ~ I love!). How have you developed that aesthetic sensibility?
I hold on to every sketchbook. I have some dating back ten years or more. Many are quite embarrassing to me now, but to my surprise, there are similar marks, shapes and ideas in my current ones. Thoughts passed over, familiar quotations, themes, movies scribbled in the margins. I have a love/hate relationship with my personal aesthetic but I feel that it helps me to make personal work. When I experiment with changing how I make a mark or smooth out edges, it may feel new and updated at the moment, however over time it feels ingenuine and I can’t respond to it with a familiar dialog. This keeps me on a constant evaluation. I can’t allow myself to become too comfortable. I keep asking questions.
Creepy is a term that I hear quite often. I don’t set out for ‘creepiness’ but I usually end up there. I am drawn to odd ideas. The body has always been an influence, its peculiarities and abilities. Things are always going wrong naturally in nature and that always opens a path to something interesting and perverse.
5. In a real sense, you make work as a body, not as singular pieces. How does this practice affect your work? And do you conceptualize your work as installations or sculpture? And how does that affect your working process?
I have made work that is singular, but it feels too naked and lonely. Then it becomes orphaned and I hide it away. There is something innate that forces me to work in groupings. The pieces dialog, when together, this doesn’t mean they can’t be separated. Working this way doesn’t limit me. I keep making work around a concept, working and not editing. Once I feel I can step back and analyze that production, then I edit. This leads to reconfiguring and dismantling, maybe even reintroducing the orphan that now belongs. This process does take a lot of time. I have been working with some objects for nearly two years and they are still out on the floor where I can see them.
Top Ten Influences
Joseph Beuys- for his intellect and work
The American Astronaut-for proving a movie can be amazing on no budget
Oliver Jones- for his ability to put my thoughts into words
This American Life- for sharing the fortunes and misfortunes of others
Independent Film Theaters-for keeping it real
Crossword puzzles-for thinking inside the box
Cormac McCarthy-for his books, especially The Road
Road Trips and travel-for adventure and grounding
Valerie Hegarty-for her amazing work
Sunday morning French films in feather beds-for perfect endings to