Lily Kuonen forges a hybrid breed of multimedia ideas with her “Playntings”While some artists might revisit their ideas, Lily Kuonen revisits, re-addresses, re-thinks and re-assembles both her ideas and very work in pieces she calls “Playntings.” Using familiar raw materials such as canvas and paint, the 28 year old Kuonen also assimilates tools such as vise grips and lumber into her pieces, blurring lines between studio/piece, installation/presentation and, ultimately, art and artist. Kuonen’s work is almost hyper-contemporary in the sense that she is perpetually changing and “upgrading” her art in an ongoing methodology and approach that she describes as “repurposing.” A singular (in her own words) genealogy is formed as Kuonen continually reassigns materials from old pieces into the new, her work forever evolving from the ancestral lineage of prior concepts and experimental approaches.
The Arkansas-born Kuonen is an arts educator as well as artist. After garnering a B.F.A. in painting from the University of Central Arkansas in 2006, she completed the Savannah College of Art and Design’s M.F.A. program (also in painting) four years later. Since then, she has worked as an Assistant Professor of Foundations and Drawing at Jacksonville University. Kuonen’s work has also been featured in two dozen group shows, solo exhibits and she is also becoming a regular in speaking at colleges throughout the east coast on topics such as art foundation and studio disciplines.
Kuonen, Tiffany Whitfield Leach and Savannah-based guest artist Rachel Evans will be exhibiting new work at the “Clay and Canvas Open Studio” night on Saturday, April 27 from 5-8 p.m. at 2642-6 Rosselle St., in Riverside. That same day from noon-8 p.m. CoRK Arts District is also featuring their open studio event, while a stone’s throw away Jeff Whipple and Liz Gibson will also be opening the doors of their MetaCusp Studios.
I spoke to Kuonen on the evening of Tuesday, April 23rd. What follows is a transcription of highlights from our talk.
Starehouse: What’s going on? Are you preparing for you show on Saturday?
Lily Kuonen: Mmmm-hmmm.
S: So that’s going to be you, Tiffany and Rachel Evans?
S: Is she [Evans] a cohort from SCAD?
L.K.: Yeah, I knew Rachel from SCAD; originally she was at SCAD Atlanta and she wound up transferring down to Savannah during my last year there. She goes there and also works at the museum of art, at the SCAD Museum of Art now. I’m not exactly sure what her title is.
S: She’s bona fide, as they say.
L.K.: (laughs) Yes.
S: Is there a collective theme to this show or is it new works by all three of you?
L.K.: Yeah, it’s new works. We are doing these bi-annual, open studio nights to kind of split the year. Also, since we are academics it is kind of easy to split a year in November and December, at the end of that fall semester for our students, and at April-May also ends a semester for our students. We are doing two shows a year, here, and it’s always showcasing new work and we’re also bringing people in to feature them. The first time we ever did this it was just Tiffany and I and the second time we featured Mark Creegan and following that we had Eric Adams and Jessie Gilmartin. And now we will feature Rachel and this is the first person that we’ve had outside of Jacksonville. There are a couple reasons for that: one, we are trying to flip flop back and forth between “works on the wall” versus “works on the pedestal” or involving artists that use both somehow. Like Mark, an installation artist where they can do something specific with the space. But any rate, everybody coming to mind that we asked to do it just had a show recently or is going to be in a show with either Tiffany or me very soon (laughs) so for the sake of not trying to be redundant we thought “why don’t we reach outside of that?” Also, I originally thought of Rachel as an option because the name of our studio is “Clay and Canvas Studio” and Rachel, or at least what I know of her work and if it is still fairly consistent, has been involved in both painting and ceramic work or mold-making. So she is also kind of a hybrid between “on the wall” and “on the pedestal.” I think she is having three wall pieces and two sculptures? I can’t really remember right now (laughs) but she’s kind of a natural selection in that she already is kind of involved (laughs) in the actual title of our space.
S: She’s the ideal guest.
S: How many pieces will each artist have at this show?
L.K.: I’m not exactly sure. I know that Tiffany has four, new large sculptures and also several new smaller sculptures. And she has a mix between non-functional and functional ceramic work. And some things that appear functional but it’s more sculptural (laughs) and kind of a hybrid between that. She’s also doing, and this is something that I learned from her, ceramic artists will do what they call “seconds” where it’s work they might have had for a while or had been in other shows and they’ll do, for lack of a better word, a kind of discount (laughs).
S: Sure. That’s actually quite smart. It’s a pragmatic idea.
L.K.: It’s kind of cool. She’s going to have a tent outside that will feature the “seconds” and the featured work will be inside, so that’s also a way for her to move some stuff out and showcase the newer works inside. She also balances between having work here and she has a steady gallery in North Carolina. I guess I would say for Tiffany, there are lots of smaller things but there are also four, new large sculptures.
S: What are you bringing to the show? You’re in the studio right now so are you kind of at the eleventh hour of finishing things up?
L.K.: Yeah (laughs) and my studio time has been divided up in a strange way this semester. And I don’t know why, but whenever we do this, the April-May show in particular, I always have several other things going on.
S: You have a lot going on right now, oh, and before I forget, belated congratulations on being featured in “Studio Visit” magazine.
L.K.: Oh, thank you, yeah!
S: That’s a cool thing. Now how did that come about? Did they come to you or what’s the deal?
L.K.: Well, I received an e-mail for a call for submissions and it’s a juried selected process. I think I submitted maybe five images to one of those online servers, and like most submissions, you pay something (laughs).
S: Sure, sure. A lot of those things are like that, “Who’s Who in Art?” or whatever…
L.K.: Right, so it was a juried process and then they have a curator for the magazine who selected the handful of artists and they picked the work. So that’s how you get in. But it’s very cool because it goes out to something like 2,000 galleries all around the nation and it’s published by Open Studios Press which also publishes “New American Paintings.”
S: Yeah, yeah I love that magazine. It’s a fucking beast!
L.K.: Yeah (laughs) it’s one of those art magazines that is actually well known (laughs).
S: That’s a real feather in your cap. So your show is also kind of running concurrent with the CoRK Arts District Open Studio event [also on April 27], true?
L.K.: Right and that was kind of an interesting thing. We had already picked our date and planned to have it and had Rachel lined up for our bi-annual event and I got an e-mail from, Noli, at CoRK?
S: Yeah, [illustrator] Noli Novak.
L.K.: Yeah, and she mentioned that they were doing an open studio event earlier in April and unfortunately I was going to be away speaking at a conference at the time and Tiffany also had another function in North Carolina … at any rate, we weren’t available. So I wrote her back with our sincerest apologies that we would not be able to do it and then she wrote me back surprisingly and said “We’re going to move our event to match yours.” So that was kind of a happy accident. This will be the first time that everyone in this area is doing something like this, where CoRK proper with all of the artists there, as well as Jeff Whipple and Liz Gibson’s studio [MetaCusp] along with our studio. So we will all be in cahoots with this (laughs).
S: All on Saturday.
L.K.: Yeah, all on Saturday but there’s [CoRK] is longer; there’s takes place from noon until 8 p.m. and our time had already been in place and we didn’t change it due to things like the artists involved and donations coming in but ours does end at the same time as theirs.
S: Did your studio’s location kind of precede the CoRK studios showing up there?
L.K.: Well, I think CoRK is kind of a dominant force in the area and I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean it in a good way (laughs).
S: Yeah, yeah I know what you mean. “But do not look CoRK directly in the eyes.”
L.K.: (laughs) I think that just by the nature of proximity we are automatically associated with them to the greater public.
S: But it seems like when I was still at Folio Weekly you were sending me notices for your shows before they [CoRK] were really up and running. I can remember you trying to explain to me where you were located and I was wondering “Why are they over in that barren land”…or at least you didn’t tell me “We are over across from CoRK!” as a reference point.
L.K.: (laughs) We’ve actually been here roughly the same time that CoRK started when they had the first space open, which I think was CoRK West or something like that … they were moving in getting all set up that same summer that we moved in here. I actually spoke with Dolf about renting a space in the new renovation area but it just wasn’t going to work out, timing-wise for us, which is why Tiffany and I found this space here. And then CoRK kind of blew up and became a really wonderful thing so I think we both consequently benefited from the close proximity, I think that it could eventually be something much more interesting and inspiring, you know?S: Well, how is your view as the neighbor? It’s great for the arts community but do you keep finding wayward artists wandering around in your yard?
L.K.: (laughs) I mean, as far as being their neighbor, it’s fine. Our last open studio was actually the first time lots of CoRKers (laughs) came out for it which was really great. Because we’ve been to a lot of shows over there it was nice to have that reciprocation and we both visited Jeff and Liz’s studio as well, because they’re also kind of our immediate neighbors. Actually a new artist just moved into our building, so now there are three of us over here.
S: It seems like an observation I have about CoRK, and I want to ask your opinion about this and I might just sound like a big asshole saying it or be misconstrued, but it seems like there are so many shows happening there every week or every two weeks that it is hard to keep up with them. Now I think this is part of the deal that if you rent a space you can have a show every year, so this could be the sheer math playing out to fulfill that agreement and put those shows up. But it seems like the shows are really based on the event of the opening reception. But if those shows were up for maybe a month, people could really have a chance to digest it and absorb what is being exhibited. I acknowledge that it could just be me and I am really slow, I mean, I like listening to 20 minute John Coltrane songs too, but do you know what I mean? Do you have any thoughts on that?
L.K.: You think that the shows are kind of short-lived?
S: Well, it seems like they happen so quickly, I wonder if it is just the contemporary mentality towards faster information and…
L.K.: Right, there are so many. I know that every artist involved there can put in a bid to have a show and there are some really beautiful spaces for the work to be seen and now they have the visiting artist program (…) but I think that it’s a lot of (…) competition that we’re not necessarily interested in (laughs).
S: And I don’t think anyone is in competition but it seems like with most galleries a show will last a month, six weeks, just for the work to be up.
L.K.: Yeah, I don’t know about timing-wise but maybe it is, kind of like you were saying, a reaction to our society where everything is kind of streaming (laughs) at us and we are constantly reloading all of the time.
S: Well, that is my thought exactly, reload and refresh your mind. But it’s okay. I’m not out to solve anything in this interview (laughs) I just value your opinion and wondered what you think.
L.K.: For us it is really just that idea that for this show we are opening our studio, we are opening our space, it’s about being hospitable, about being a good neighbor, that kind of thing. We really want it to be a relaxed setting. Our studio is really humble and we have a quote “art gallery area” that only has white walls, that is what makes it gallery-like (laughs) but I really think that makes for a much more relaxed setting for people to really experience the work and feel more comfortable. Sometimes something that is very dignified, like going to a show at The Cummer, might be harder to actually get into the work (…)
S: Due to the actual space that it is presented in?
S: Absolutely. Some things I would only want to experience in a museum like The Cummer while others would seem odd if placed in that same environment. And your work, too, seems really contingent on having that certain space. When I interviewed you last year, we talked about this; how your work can even blur the lines between installation, environment, paintings and sculpture (…) do you have a rough idea of how many pieces you will have at this?
L.K.: Ummm, well I made this new series of single pieces and there are ten in that series and then I have a series of drawings (…) there’s probably going to be, ten (…)
S: Are the drawings kind of a return to that form for you?
L.K.: Well, I’ve been playing a lot with these kinds of text-based drawings (…) I guess the impetus of it was for “The Highway Gallery Project,” when I did that for the Florida Mining Gallery. Text and wordplay have always been a part of my work, even the fact that I made up a word (laughs) to describe my work [“Playntings”] so it’s always been an underlying kind of intellectual exercise of my work, but I hadn’t really explored it to this extent since that moment. And since that time I’ve done a larger series of about ten, text-based drawings and I’ve done a couple of smaller, text-based paintings and I have about three more text-pieces that are going to be in this show. And then some drawings are just exploratory drawings that are preparatory sketches; I call my drawings either “primary” or “preliminary” and so “preliminary” means that they are going to lead to dimensional work and “primary” means that they are a stand-alone piece. So there will be a mix of those and I’m also thinking for the sake of my own mental exercise that I need to pull out a bunch of drawings that I’ve been doing over the past year, so there might be an installation of those drawings, too. We’ll see if I get there or not (laughs). And I have a cinderblock piece.
S: Is that the piece, “Want”?
L.K.: Yeah, “Want.”
S: Boy, I love that; that is fantastic.
L.K.: Thanks, that’s the one that is going to go down to Boca Raton to the Boca Raton Museum of Art.
S: Congratulations. Before I take us even further off-track, let’s talk again about some of the things you have going on, You have this show [“Clay and Canvas Open Studio”], you have the group show, “The Apartment” [a collaborative effort between Kuonen, Thony Aiuppy, Staci Bu Shea, Sterling Cox and Edison William being presented at an Avondale apartment]. Is that still happening?
L.K.: Right, that’s still happening. We are having our open house for “The Apartment” on May 10th from 5-8 p.m. and that’s going to be the kick-off event. But it’s really modeled after an actual open house or if you were interested in looking at a property, similar to that. And then we are hosting several different kinds of programming as we occupy the space for a month.
S: So did the plans for everyone to live together “Brady Bunch”-style or, rather, “Brady Bunch-meets- Joseph Beuys”-style kind of fall through?
L.K.: (laughs) Maybe that’s a good way to put it. We are occupying the space, we are not necessarily living there together, there are proposals for us to maybe stay a few nights and have some sleepovers and things like that, we have cooked there and that kind of thing so we are occupying it in the terms of utilizing it so the exhibit is “home-like.” So that is definitely part of it. And then the programming that will be going is a variety of events that we as occupants will host for the public to experience. We’re pretty much using Craigslist exclusively for advertising.S: Staci [Bu Shea] had mentioned this idea and that’s kind of cool.
L.K.: Yeah, pretty cool.
S: I wonder what some hopeful tenant will think when they show up to rent this apartment?
L.K.: Well, we are kind of interested in that, if that might happen (laughs). And we are borrowing from the language that is being used to advertise and apartment. So that’s happening in May. I had work selected for the Northeast Florida Sculptor’s show that will open, I don’t have my calendar in front of me but I think it’s May 3rd, and I think the show is at Ethan Allen Home Center in the St. Johns Town Center [The opening reception for the show “In Situ” is held from 6-8:30 p.m. on Friday, May 3rd at the Ethan Allen Design Center, located in the St. Johns Town Center at 4939 Big Island Drive, on the Southside of Jacksonville. The show is on display through June 7]. The idea for the show was to showcase how artwork can be viewed within the home setting as well, if that makes sense?
L.K.: So the works will be interspersed among the showroom, so it will be kind of like almost a mock-installation of things (laughs) and I have two pieces but I consider them one. And actually, one part of it was a piece that was at the Cummer [during last year’s Folio Weekly Invitational Artist Exhibition held at The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens] so I kind of broke that piece apart to make this newer work. And then sending the cinder-block piece down to Boca Raton for the All Florida Juried Exhibition and that opens beginning of May as well.
S: Please tell me that you are showing “Shitty Grid” at Ethan Allen. I love that piece but admittedly like the idea of the words “Shitty Grid” being uttered over and over in a furniture store.
L.K.: (laughs) No, not that one.
S: Oh come on. You sold out.
L.K.: (laughs) It was too large for their specifications.
S: So it was “Stunted”?
L.K.: Yeah, “Stunted” is one and there’s a piece called “Seamless” that goes with it and they’re kind of a male/female duo. So “The Apartment,” the Boca Raton show, Ethan Allen and this show, all in this month.
S: That’s a lot of activity for sure. I want to shift gears here and talk about you in your studio and what you do. When I interviewed you last August, you told me that when you were a child your Dad began adding-on to your family home, and I guess he is still doing this, the house is still changing.
S: And you described this as “the sentiment, the motivation of the ‘continuous project’ that resonates in my studio process.” Could you elaborate on that mentality?
L.K.: Well, for one thing there is this idea that when I embark on a “set” piece, whatever that’s going to be, I really don’t usually know what the actual outcome is going to be or what the resolution will be, how it will actually resolve itself.
S: So even though you might even have a “Preliminary” sketch, you have no idea what the end result will be?
L.K.: I will sketch and plan but I usually don’t know because I’m doing such strange things with the materials sometimes (laughs) that it’s really a learning process. You know, I just had a bunch of stuff fall apart on me the other day and I thought “Man!” (laughs) so I’m looking for how hard I can push against something or how things work together, too. It’s not always a contradictory kind of feeling but it’s also how things can become sympathetic or supportive for each other in terms of materials and forms and things like that. But the sort of resolution is unknown. I might have a concept of what I think it might be but I really don’t know until I get to that point. And so some people ask me, “Well, how do you know when you’re finished” and it usually has to do with (…) one, I kind of argue that it’s never really finished (laughs) but also, two, I am – and I don’t want to sound like a whisperer or something (laughs) – but I am paying attention to the materials and maybe something dries up, or falls apart, or there’s a point of tension or balance that it reaches and it’s kind of like “Oh, that’s the moment” where it is going to remain suspended for a little while (laughs) and then I also tend to “repurpose” a lot of things, which is also why things are never exactly finished, they tend to kind of keep regurgitating (laughs). That’s actually something that I’m going to be exploring for an upcoming show at the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum.
S: Oh great. When is that happening?
L.K.: That is going to be in Spring 2014; so, a year from now. I’m having a solo show there and the proposal that I pitched to Julie [Dickover, CEAM director] after she asked me to do it was exploring the kind of genealogy that I’m creating by doing this, of how works are tied to other works.
S: At the end of your statement, it says how your work can “only be completed through this sense of renewal.” So you are perpetually taking older works and converting them into new pieces, correct?
L.K.: Yeah, I’m breaking it down, pretty much.
S: So do you have any older work, a kind of finite set of surviving works?
L.K.: (laughs) Yeah, I never really have more than what’s in my studio. Because they are either just destroyed or they go on to be something else (laughs).
S: They evolve.
L.K.: Yeah, they evolve and sometimes there’s a very specific material-link, where you could say “Okay, I saw that material used in this way and now here it is again” or I will physically break something down into waste and use that waste as a filler or something like that. And also there are links that occur almost as these little families emerging, like these are the things that respond to this idea. And so there are also these genealogies that are occurring based on that.
S: Well, I can see it looking at your work online, I see the same colors and little fragmentary things (…) is it possible to kind of verbally walk me through the process of making a piece? I mean, you have cinder block and wood is it like (…) I’m sure that now you have a methodology but is there like a (…) ritual starting point with this?
L.K.: I definitely start by drawing a lot. Drawing is a huge impetus for what I make and also staring a lot (laughs) …
S: Yeah, yeah! That’s an ancient tool of the artist.
L.K.: I tell my students that sometimes just being the studio counts. You’re punching the clock, you are there.
S: Totally. It’s like meditation, you just show up on the cushion.
L.K.: Yeah. And so in the drawing process sometimes it is just weird lines that make sense to me and then I’ll use those as almost a kind of armature to build. Sometimes I think about forms that I’ve already made and what they could lead to next (…) I think an underlying theme, too, is really about balance and tension and power structures that emerge in that and also supportive structures (…) these kind of reciprocal, balancing feelings. And so, as far as the drawing, the “staring” can be all over the place, it can be in the studio, out riding my bike, it can be weird, quirky things that I see, and those things that just kind of eat at you (laughs) after a while and you think “Why was that important, why do I remember that?” like an image of the sprinklers overflowing on the sidewalk, or whatever it is. And that really can come from anything. I take a lot of cues from structures, obviously, with buildings and things like that, but it’s also just other strange things that just happen in our world (…) things that get piled up for a long time and something happens to them by chance.
S: And it seems as if your work has physicality, where there is a basic challenge to literally make them stand up and cooperate. Is that a common thing where the house of cards falls or the dominoes all fall when you weren’t ready?
L.K.: That’s a common thing; I get hurt a lot.
S: Do you, as in physically, literally?
L.K.: Physically and emotionally (laughs). I like the fight. I like the fight that I am not the only thing in play. I think that humans, so many times, like to think that we are on top and I like the idea that I am humbled by it. I like the idea that I don’t know when it is going to snap and pop me in the face (laughs) or fall over on top of me at 2 a.m. or whatever (…) because I am taking something out of that.
S: You mean, other than black eyes?
L.K.: (laughs) Yes and I really like that kind of exchange. How I am very much just another equation in the mix.
S: You are just another material in the piece.
L.K.: Right, definitely.
S: And if you’re lucky the other materials might let you come and hang out. When we talked last year, you also told me how your work is very “exposed” through these materials but you said you still “are very much enamored with painting.” So you started out as a traditional painter, as in paint on canvas or panel, right?
S: So how do you think you still directly bring that painterly sensibility to what you are doing?
L.K.: Well, a good painter (…) I shouldn’t say a “good painter” (laughs)…
S: You can say a “good painter”; you are totally qualified to qualify that (laughs) …
L.K.: Well, a good painter has a specific color palette maybe or types of colors or brands of paint that they really like to use (…) or if it’s an oil painter, maybe it is a combination of mediums that they really like beyond just linseed oil or turpenoid or whatever (…) and all of them do different things to a painting and this is hard to teach some students because some students want a kit and “this is how you make it” (…) but once you’ve really familiarized yourself with those materials (…) Jim Draper was recently speaking with my students and he explained how he had switched to a different medium because he didn’t like the cloudy, milky effect, he wanted it to be clearer and warmer. So knowing what that does when you make that switch (…) so that was something that I had coming into this, that kind of sensibility and sensitivity of materials.
S: It’s intimate.
L.K.: Yeah, it’s very intimate. So that kind of quality is very much a part of what I do now at least in the form of principle or philosophy. And then other things that might tie it into a painterly approach is that I’m still very much involving a lot of the materials of painting but I am looking at them in a different way. It’s not that I think that it’s limited; it’s really about pushing against it as hard as I can.
S: Well, by your own definition, your “Playntings” are a “synthesis of painting with additional forms and actions” so your very creation kind of jumped out of this search.
L.K.: Yeah, it’s like what is the integrity of painting and what is it when you add something else to it and then add something else to that? Maybe it’s a form, so maybe it’s no longer a rectangle on the wall anymore maybe it’s a different type of form? Or maybe it is a rectangle with other forms added to it, or other materials. But all of the materials I use really “source” my studio so even like, for example, the cinder blocks; they are something that I use in my studio so it “comes out” of that same kind of process. It’s like a good cook who would throw something in that was just on the counter.
S: I noticed that in some of the pieces from 2012 on your site have the stencils of these vises and then presumably those same vises are featured in other works with pieces of wood. So the vise is laying there and it eventually becomes a “color” on your palette.
S: You know what I noticed too, and I don’t know if this is just from the images being captured by a camera, but it seems as if the shadows that develop from your pieces become another form of negative space on a canvas. Are you mindful of that?
L.K.: I try to be and it has definitely inspired a lot of components in pieces, too. When I was living in Charleston, I had a friend of mine cut off these bottoms of milk crates for me and when I had them leaning against the wall in different ways with their shadows (laughs) they became like drawings. And like you say, they engage that negative space (…) and I am interested in the space kind of “in and around” you when things come obviously out from the wall quite a bit. They usually have some kind of relationship to the wall to some degree, like a painting would, so when the viewer engages that space, things like shadow surely become the negative space as well. One time I had a piece that I really only liked for the shadows that it made; I didn’t really like the piece itself (laughs).
S: In your work, I still see how they almost refer back to the body, the human body. Is that deliberate or just my read on this?
L.K.: Yeah, definitely. Because my body is how I experience the world. Even the fact that I am six feet tall with a certain kind of frame has altered my experience to the world. In fact, when I shifted from traditional painting, I had been painting figures. It was much more in the category of “figure” and it has now shifted to “body,” which is different where it also addresses internal structures and life cycles.
S: So much of it is tied into repurposing and reconfiguring them over time, but do you feel like you work is based on any overt sense of story-telling or narrative?
L.K.: Well, that’s kind of what I am curious about and want to produce for the Crisp-Ellert show, with that genealogy structure I am kind of making. I only use that word because I can’t think of another way to describe it, but I would argue that it has some kind of narrative if only by connecting the dots between pieces, or a thought process between things. I like to sit down and just kind of look through works to kind of see that progression, myself. And like I said, I draw a lot and there’s so many things that I’ve never made so I will flip through my sketchbooks and wonder “What was I thinking at that time?” and why did that emerge at that particular time? So I think any artist probably has a narrative as far as the story of their work.
S: In your case, the work is telling the story over time and changing that story in front of us.
L.K.: It is literally making the story. And in some cases, the materials become used up and become exhausted.
S: They go to the studio graveyard.
L.K.: Yeah, but actually I don’t throw a lot away. But I think we only throw out the trash before an opening (laughs) and after an opening.
Daniel A. Brown