Mary Gibney talked with Ute Bertog about the creative freedom of not having a set point of view, keeping a question mark about meaning, and developing a conversation between language, color and shape.
Did you want to be an artist as a kid? What did you think that meant and are you living the artist life now, from the point of view of your younger self?
I definitely wanted to have a lot of freedom in whatever I was choosing as a profession, I just didn’t have the word for it as there was no role model for being an artist in my family. Well, there was an aunt, actually my favorite aunt, who was an arts & craft teacher in a local school and I did a lot of crafting with her which I loved. And there was one kid in school, who was a wiz at drawing. Everybody always expected him to become an artist, which eventually he did. So, in my childhood mindset the position of artist was already taken. I know; quite stupid really.
Still, I loved painting, playing with color and patterns and just plain tinkering around. When I got older I always wanted to do something with type, but didn’t know what kind of profession that would be. Now it’s a no-brainer really. Who knows, had the internet and Google already existed back in the 80s, I might have become a graphic designer instead. Those resources weren’t available and my parents for sure didn’t know. Plus getting into art school in Germany was pretty hard back in the day. Though that might have changed now and I am just not aware.
Was being an artist something that your family supported or understood? How did you define your path in reaction to their feelings?
In general, they were supportive, but probably didn’t take my inclination too seriously or probably didn’t know what being an artist even meant. My family thought art makes a good hobby, but as a profession didn’t make much sense. I also decided to go to art school pretty late, after I came to America in 1998. I was already in my 30s and married, so my parents didn’t worry as much. I was too far away anyway. Though really the best preparation for me as a child was that I had a lot of freedom to do anything and freely roam the countryside. There was always something to discover and be creative with.
Who were the artists that inspired you as a young person? Were there particular works which you identified with or was it more of a general sense that you had about being creative? What art and artists do you look at now? Do they give you the same feeling about art and art-making possibilities as when you were young?
Early on I loved Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. I must have seen their work on a school trip to a museum somewhere. I absolutely loved those two artists, even bought some posters from my allowance, which seemed like a luxury. Their work spoke of a kind of a playful freedom I wanted to have for myself. I still like seeing their work in museums, esp. Klee’s work, either drawing or painting. But it’s not something I seek out. Nowadays, I look at artists like Amy Sillman, Cy Twombly as well as many others. They give me the same feeling of freedom in the art-making process as when I was younger.
How did you go about the start of your career? Were you showing right away or did it take you a while to get that going? Did you establish a studio practice right off the bat, go to grad school, spend time in another career; what were the early days of your career all about?
My situation after graduating from MCAD was different because of my Visa situation. I’ve mentioned already that I came to the US from Germany and while I was in college I was on a student visa. In that transition period after college I wasn’t allowed to earn any kind of money for a couple of years, so I used that time to just be in my studio and develop my work.
Luckily a former teacher of mine invited me to join her in her studio space, which I happily accepted. That was probably the best way to keep on doing. For one to have the space and also to feel a certain responsibility towards my former teacher to actually use it. I for sure didn’t want to come across as a flake. All in all, it meant I had a lot of time to work out what I really wanted to pursue in my work.
I was thinking briefly about graduate school, but I felt schooled out since MCAD had already been my second time at a college. Before coming to America, I had spent six years at a university in Germany, graduating with a degree in business administration and economics. I wanted to just be in my studio and figure things out for myself.
Did you meet other artists who helped along the way with your career? Did you find your way into a scene right away? What were the galleries/studios/shows that had the biggest influence on you and your career?
The other lucky thing that happened pretty much right after graduating from college was to volunteer at Midway Contemporary Art for a couple of years. It was like continuing my education in contemporary art in a real life setting. It gave me access to the local art scene for sure, but I already knew most of the people through college. So, yes, Midway had the biggest impact on me. I helped out on several of their shows and was able to interact with the visiting artist, which was great.
Some shows stood out and I still think of them after all those years. Gedi Sibony was one, the group show ‘In The Poem About Love You Don’t Write The Word Love’ made quite an impression as well as David Lieske’s show and Christoph Keller’s project called ‘Kiosk’ that showed his archive of artist’s book that he’d assembled from other artists and places from all over the world. It was a traveling show, picking up more books on the way. Midway’s show was the last one on that tour. Overall it was a very fertile time at the gallery.
Other shows in other locations I have seen over the years that left an impact were the Andrea Büttner show at the Walker a couple of years ago, Vincent Fecteau at the CCA Wattis Institute of Contemporary Art and one in Düsseldorf by the artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. Amy Sillman’s show at the Arts Club of Chicago last year and Katharina Grosse in Wiesbaden, Germany were others on that list.
When did you have the big moment that defined your point of view as an artist? Was it a flash of lightning or more of an organic evolution over time? When did you first become conscious of what made you unique as an artist and how did you react to that?
My point of view definitely developed over time and honestly, I am not quite sure I have arrived yet. It’s ever developing and I like it that way. I want my point of view always in flux. Actually, maybe it is part of my point of view to always question what I do, to fold in other things along the way, other ways of doing, other mediums maybe. For me that’s part of the appeal of being an artist.
On the notion of uniqueness or originality, I am not quite sure I buy into that. The more I do and the longer I have been practicing art, I become aware of how similar rather than different we are. Especially on social media you always find another artist whose work looks superficially similar to yours. Though I think the difference is still there. It’s all in the subtleties and about the angle one approaches the work and conceptualizes it. The unfortunate effect of social media is that everything becomes flattened.
How would you describe your mature work to an outsider? Do you think about your audience much when you create your work?
I do think of the audience when I create. It’s more in the later parts though. I have to be careful not to let it become overbearing since it can be rather limiting to think about any expectations of the audience. It’s definitely not healthy for me to let that overtake my own intuitions. It’ll only strengthen my overly fastidious and demanding inner critic.
But how would I describe my work to an outsider? I’d start with the importance of process in my abstract - or more to the point non-objective – painting practice. It’s more about developing a conversation between color and abstract shapes and how they relate to each other as a whole.
I often start out with language, but let it go pretty soon since I am interested in the uncertainty and struggle to find the right words for whatever is going on, not in the certainty of language. Abstraction is perfect for that since there is little that can be directly recognized and therefore named. Naming is about categorizing and controlling and I want to keep that in question for a long time. I prefer the freedom to keep it open as long as possible. It’s more about the attempt of putting the work into words and certainly more often than not failing to really get it. It’s more about a tentative approach without ever coming to a definite or correct answer. For me there is always a question mark behind a definite statement about the work. More of a tentative stumbling towards a framework.
What are you working on right now? Is it a continuation of styles and themes that you have worked with in the past or are you trying out anything new? Do you place more value on taking risks or refining your work over time?
The longer I have been working I am becoming more and more aware of painting’s special relationship to time. You work on it over time, which is linear, yet on the surface of the painting it becomes all compacted and simultaneous esp. when there is a lot of subtraction and scraping happening, which reveals previous layers. It is something I want to explore more in the future to make it more apparent. I see it as a continuation of my previous work. It’s a natural progression.
I’ve also been working with clay in the last couple of years and that has informed my thinking as well. I am sure that will creep into my painting as well; not quite sure yet how.
As for taking risks and refining work over time it goes hand in hand. Or rather there is a moment of risk taking, of trying out something new, then exploring that idea further and therefore refining it and so on.
Who are artists that you look to for inspiration at this point in your career? Do you spend a lot of time checking out the work of your peers or are you more of a solitary artist? Where do you go to look at new work?
Outside of looking at the artist’s work I have mentioned earlier, I do use social media to find other inspiring contemporary artists. It’s such a treasure trove and there are so many artists out there doing great work. The greatest inspiration right now though comes from looking at ceramics, both sculptural and functional. I share their love for color and form, working with clay is just wonderfully hands-on and tactile, which I do miss in painting. Painting has more distance built into it and obviously I like that too. It’s just nice to play a little more with that distance between an artwork and the viewer.
How do you start a new piece? Does it come from playing with physical elements, or is it more of a mental germination that eventually gets expressed with paint and collage? Do you use a sketchbook to work out ideas?
Typically, it starts by choosing some language, either a word or phrase that I find interesting, funny or simply strange that I read or overheard somewhere. I then transfer the shape of it into a stencil, which then gives me the first shapes on a canvas. I typically go from there.
Recently I have been letting go of my reliance on stencils more and more. I will use them again further on in the process if I don’t know how to proceed. It’s a good way to interrupt what's going on on the painting surface at that particular moment. It provides me with a fresh impetus for further interventions. I don’t use a sketchbook per se. It’s more of a notebook. Though sometimes I work out color ideas and relationships in there too.
Your paintings have an emotional feeling without being overly instructive in any way. Tell me how you get to the place where you feel something is “finished”, in whatever way that means to you. Since it seems you add layers which partially expose other layers of color and texture, is it hard to know when you have gone far enough, or too far? Do you ever give up on a piece?
The question of when a piece is finished seems to be the hardest of them all. This year I finally realized that it’s not good to come into the studio with the expectation of finishing something. I then tend to screw up the painting and in the end I completely opened it up again. It usually ends up a much better painting though. Now I try to stay away from that mindset, thinking instead more about how to begin again a day’s work. The actual end then is reached more accidently. Something clicks all of a sudden and I try not to fiddle anymore. Instead I live with it for some time and see if it continues to hold my interest.
Quite often, though, I need to do one more intervention or gesture. It typically is not a lot and quite direct. Edmund de Waal, another artist I admire, speaks in terms of a ‘just-aboutness’ of the work. It’s the state where you very well could imagine going on, yet at the same time there’s a certain tentative balance, which could easily tip over again. It suggests other potentialities and further movements or gestures, which keep a painting alive and fresh.
You sometimes allow the image to wrap or drip over the edges of your canvas. It feels almost transgressive. There are shapes that repeat in your art, some are almost like a new language, others look like… a bunny maybe! Or a map or a tabletop. But really not at all. Your imagery looks sort of strangely familiar, like if you relax your eyeballs while looking at it you might find a hidden message. It feels both playful and mysterious. Do you feel you have a message to impart?
I suspect my message is to always question that very message and to not be so very sure about what you receive or perceive. I myself definitely want or enjoy certainties in some areas of my life. It’s just natural to want that security and control over something. At the same time, it’s healthy to have a critical eye on things and try to achieve different viewpoints. It seems a very important strategy especially in our current times.
Do you paint with an audience in mind? When I look at your paintings I feel a connection with you as the artist, that is there’s a conveyance of feeling or emotion within the beauty. The hand of the artist is visible.
I do paint with an audience in mind especially towards the end of a painting or even more when I put together a show. I try to stay away from it though when I am actually in the middle of painting. It’s better for me to be rooted in my own intuitions and to trust those, instead of imagining what people might like or expect. It typically screws up my head and I have to free myself somehow from it.
Ute Bertog is an artist based in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She received her BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Her work has been exhibited at the Kiehle Gallery at St. Cloud State University, MN and the Rochester Art Center in Rochester, MN. Group shows include Center Art Gallery at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI; Soo Visual Arts Center in Minneapolis, MN and grayDuck Gallery in Austin, TX. Ute has been a member of Rosalux Gallery since 2014.