Kristen Bartel • WATER WORKS
January 13 – February 22, 2018
Water Works is an exhibition of prints and photographs that look at the incongruous relationship we have with our landscapes. Looking at both the large and small aspects of constructed landscapes, this exhibition is an inquiry into how we understand the natural.
My most recent body of work takes a hard look at how we gauge ourselves against one another and the consequences these relationships have on landscapes, environment and climate; these landscapes range from the preserved to the contrived. The artworks I am creating explore the impact of consumer culture on natural resources within the context of the American Dream. I am compelled by the costs of this idea, both large and small.
I am using print and digital media to create paper-based works that seeks to understand constructs and signifiers embedded in the classic definition of the American Dream. I seat related, yet incongruous images next to one another to better see hidden aspects of their relationships. Photographs shown upside down communicate a sense of disconnection to the viewer. While my use of cookie-cutter shapes reference mass production, which relegates landscape as a thing that is consumable. I hope to call into question my use of duplicable media in relation to mass production. For me, print media is innocent and democratic, yet suspect and accessory to the collective building of “bigger, better and more” thinking.
As an artist invested in contemporary print-media and traditional printmaking, my process remains firmly rooted in multiplicity and duplication. I continue to engage with the idea of autographic versus reprographic modes of production as they relate to my Western understanding of visual culture.
KRISTEN BARTEL is originally from the Southwest and currently lives and works in Southeast Wisconsin. She is a multi-media artist with an interest in historical and contemporary aspects of the American West, ecology, consumerism, and duplicable media. Her current work combines traditional print techniques with drawing and photography. Kristen draws inspiration from her personal and family history and travels regularly to seek new influences. She holds a BFA from the University of Texas, Austin and an MFA from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville where she studied printmaking. Kristen exhibits her work nationally and was recently Visiting Artist in Residence at St Michael’s Printshop in Newfoundland. Kristen Bartel is an Assistant Professor of Printmaking and Digital Photography at University of Wisconsin-Parkside and has work in permanent print collections
The following questions are intended to provide insight into the artist's process, how they got started and what inspires them.
Was there a person or event that got you started creating your art? Does that person or event continue to influence the work that you do?
If there were one person to name it would be my mom, Katheryn. She is an artist, designer, (an amazing) classically trained musician, and person who has just lived a really crazy, diverse life. It’s kind of funny to think about, but I remember my brother making this really awesome painting using a Bob Ross book. It was totally done with my mom’s encouragement. I remember being really envious that he made something that looked so good and “right”. I was making art at that time too and it didn’t look anything like his Bob Ross look-a-like. My stuff was rough and raw and looking back on it, super experimental. I was sort of annoyed with him and his perfect painting because between the two of us he was supposed to play the guitar well and I was supposed to draw well. By that point, we had distinctly worked out those roles within our house, but there he was infringing on my territory. I don’t think he ever made another painting. Likely because he wasn’t influenced to do so. Looking back I realize that the territory I felt him infringing on wasn’t my identity as the house artist but it was on me and my mom’s relationship–like art was the special thing that I had with my mom and he just got too close to that. For a long time I probably made all my “art” for her. I think she influenced my brother and me more than we could ever really know.
At what point did you consider yourself an artist?
Yeah, as the house artist growing up, I guess I formulated that identity pretty young, but as an adult I feel mildly uncomfortable saying, “I’m an artist.” I never said it out loud as a kid and rarely say it now. In some ways I think being an artist is sort of suspect–mostly because I think that people use that term so loosely and really casually take on some prescribed way of being as it relates to a very watered-down notion of what it means to identify as an artist. I guess it’s a role that I don’t take lightly, so I don’t just throw it around like it doesn’t mean anything. There are thousands of years worth of image making that came before me. I’m humble to that and don’t claim much.
Who or what inspires you and why?
Inspiration comes in strange forms for me. It can manifest in a conversation, a radio interview, a song, a general feeling, a view of a landscape and the color of the sky on a particular day or the way the air might feel. Inspiration is a strange phenomenon. I can never really put my finger on it because once I do it fails to inspire in the same way it did before. I try to let inspirations flow in and out of focus, but that feeling of authentic inspiration mostly occurs when I’m outside. The people who inspire me are the people who persevere through hard times and seem to come out the other side enlightened in some way.
What was the first piece of art you made? Do you remember why you made it? What materials did you use and why?
This makes me think about what does and what does not qualify as art, which is a pretty fluid and ongoing conversation I have with myself. My understanding seems to change constantly. With that said, I honestly couldn’t answer that question with any accuracy. However, I do remember the first piece of art that I was proud of–the first piece that I consciously considered art and I put time into. It was a chalk pastel portrait of Jim Morrison. I was a sophomore in high school and really in to The Doors at the time. I still have it.
Are there any programs or learning opportunities that you wish you had as a young artist?
Someone told me recently that wishing is an empty activity. Sure, my youth could have been different, but what it has made me who I am today. I had the luxury of having a very creative mother, an artist in her own right. I also went to a very good high school where no expense was too great for supplies and instruction. Yet Mrs. Bullock, my high school art teacher, gave us nothing but freedom in our approach to making. I actually can’t remember there ever being a single “assignment”. It was her way to just have very high quality materials and some light demonstrations on how to use them–then she turned us loose. I also took private drawing lessons from a local artist as well as a couple of portraiture classes at Laguna Gloria in Austin, Texas. I had a lot of resources as a young person. Sure, there could have been more opportunities, but what I had was more than what most had and I’m grateful for that.
What would you say to a young person to encourage their study and practice of art?
Just make and don't think too much. Materials are made to be used and manipulated.
The following questions are intended to create insight into the artist’s practice and why they think art is important.
Is this your first and only career? If not, what other jobs have you had and how have they influenced your artistic practice?
This is my first and only career. Although I have had a lot of different gigs and jobs through the years, mostly service industry jobs, they were all in the vain of getting me to where I’m at now. I actually sucked it up for a good number of years–committing myself to only taking creative jobs and jobs that had to do with art education. I have been an adjunct instructor, visiting professor, taught summer camps, painted signs, decorated, etc. That really helped me stay focused on the objective of getting a full-time academic position at a University. I feel very fortunate to be at UW-Parkside, a place known for its support of printmaking with its Small Print Exhibition. Any printmaker that has worked for any length of time has at least heard of it, if not, shown in it. That kind of history intrinsic to my position as Assistant Professor of Printmaking at Parkside has really influenced my creative practice. It has made me take printmaking all that more seriously–like I have an obligation to the students at Parkside, to show them that printmaking is alive, thriving and viable as a component of a contemporary artistic practice.
Do you like people to see your work/comment on it while it is still in process? Why?
I’m a fairly private and introspective artist. I let certain people into my work while in process, but those people really have earned my trust and I respect their opinion. A non-printmaker looking at a print, like a lithograph, in process can be very confusing. The process is detailed and doesn’t leave a lot of room for interpretation. From a technical perspective it can be very exciting for non-printmakers to look at an art piece process because it is so different from painting and drawing, but overall confusing. I’ve been told that I play my cards close to my chest. I think that means that I am cautious, I listen instead of talk, and I attempt to understand the playing field before revealing what I’m all about. That approach results in slower more thoughtful relations with the art scene, the viewing public, and people in general.
Do you have a daily artistic ritual or routine? If so, how does this help you?
I have a lot of rituals and routines in my life. I’ve been described as “serious” and “task-oriented” even “procedural”. It’s funny because I think we have these ideas of ourselves that don’t match up with the way we actually are. I’d like to think that I am cool and laid back, but that is actually the exact opposite of the way I make artwork and conduct my life day to day. Anytime I am about to start a large project, I make notes on my objectives and then clean EVERYTHING. I won’t lay a piece of paper on a table until I’ve wiped off the table. It’s that type of meticulousness that gets me in the zone in the print shop. I hike, spend time outside, and really try to have quietness and meditative qualities inside my personal creative spaces.
What inspiration/research led you to your current body of work?
Hiking, traveling, home, environmentalism, the Western idea, the American Dream, my grandparents, my parents, my personal histories and growing up in the southwest, current political climates, weather, culture, and so, so, so much more.
What caused you to gravitate toward the materials and processes you are currently using?
I started printmaking at the University of Texas at Austin. I was really into darkroom photography at the time and I found similar aspects in printmaking–namely the aspect of time. For example, the length of time the plate is in the acid bath, the darker the image could be. That related directly to photography in that the longer the film was projected on the paper, the darker the image became. Doing test strips in photography really related to step etching or stage biting in etching. The process was treated very technically and was taught in a similar way at UT-Austin. That was the initial pull toward the medium of printmaking, but the amazing atmosphere of the print shop sustained my interest in print. People work together to run this sort of creative community space. Space where there really wasn’t any room for ego because in order for the shop to run and sustain itself we all had to pull weight and carry it. That energy and camaraderie was the beacon. Lee Chesney, Jason Shoemaker, Karen Thompson, and all the other print shop regulars at UT-Austin were like my little family. It made working and developing a creative practice really easy and fun to do.
The following questions are intended to offer insight into the artist’s current work and what they intend their audience to understand.
What role does process have in your work?
Process plays a pretty large role in my work. Printmaking is the art of reproduction. I think reprographic media, like printmaking and photography, speak saliently to contemporary trends and conditions. One of the reasons I continue to be interested in printmaking is because it’s so closely tied to concepts found in industry and mass production. It has duality embedded in its process; it’s both handmade and reproduced. It lends itself to speaking about contradictions seen in American culture.
How do you know when a piece is complete?
I’m not really sure. I consider most of my artworks as just small pieces of a bigger thing. No single image that I create could possibly communicate what I want it to. I work in series and hope that the connections between the works can bring a sense of understanding. Technically speaking, a print is complete once I have etched, proofed and editioned it, but even then, I try to give old, discarded prints and photos new life by reworking them at a later point. To that end, I guess a piece is done when it can’t be reworked any further.
What is the one idea/thought you hope people will have/take away with them after viewing your work?
I hope that people mindfully consider the connections between things and how meaning is built within and around those connections.
Why do you create art?
I create art for myself mostly because I like to do it. I also make the type of art I do now to better understand the world around me. To understand why I think the way I do. I make it as a way to peel back the layers of incident and to give myself an idea of what might be going on underneath all of that.
What role does the artist have in society? Why do you think art is important to society?
This is a complex question. I suppose the role of the artist in society is to transcend predisposition, or at least try and provide an alternative perspective. I think art is important to society because the roles that the majority of us take on don’t allow for much contemplation on why things are the way they are. Art can really help answer those questions, reveal meaning, show injustices, give perspective and help us reflect on life.
Why do you think it’s important to support the arts?
Most people might think it’s important to support the arts because it supports culture and is really the driver of culture, but I would say it’s important to support the arts because art is critical of culture, it’s critical of itself, it asks hard questions of our beliefs, values and systems. Supporting the arts is supporting critical reflection.