In the studio with Olivia van Kuiken

Words by

Alex Leav

In the studio with Olivia van Kuiken

AL: We’re in your studio in Ridgewood, New York. This space is great – located in a cool loft above an auto repair shop. I feel like I’m far removed from the city, but I’m in the heart of Queens. What does a typical day here look like for you? 

OK: Well, I’ve been in this space for about a year. I’ve been loving it; I think it feels more like home than my apartment does. On a typical day, I’ll get up around 10 AM, go for a run, get to the studio around noon, and stay till midnight. I’m a real studio rat. I’m not perpetually painting, though. I read, I draw, I do research. I sit and stare at the work.

AL: It sounds like you have a pretty solid routine. I find it hard to treat the studio as a typical 9 to 5, because my inspiration and creativity comes in waves. 

OK: No, me too. When I’m in a groove, I’m in a groove. Everything else falls to the wayside. I become a total mess. Like, this past week, I’ve been going to sleep at 6 in the morning and waking up at 2 in the afternoon. There are days where I’ve been at the studio for like 20 hours straight. I can’t control when the inspiration or creativity will hit. When it hits, I have to lean into it. That being said I always come to the studio even when I’m not feeling it and try to push through. I’m here every day

AL: Totally.

OK: A blessing and a curse!

AL: Where are you from? Can you remember any early artistic influences? 

OK: I grew up in New Jersey and had a pretty normal and boring suburban existence. My parents weren’t into art, they didn’t know anything about it. My early influences were photographers, Liz Deschenes, Eileen Quinlan, Man Ray. I also watched tons of movies. I wanted to be a cinematographer, which is why I started with photography. I also loved Isaac Julien and Tony Oursler. But all other mediums were a mystery to me until I went to college. I used to sneak out of school and get on the bus to New York and visit museums. I remember visiting the MoMA alone when I was a teenager and seeing an Ad Reinhardt monochromatic painting. I thought, what the fuck? I didn’t get it. I thought it was stupid to paint a black square, but it was still such a strong moment for me.

AL: You’re 26 now. You’ve gone to art school; you’ve established your own studio practice. Do you think that you’ve come to understand why your teenage self was so enamored with the Ad Reinhardt?   

OK: It said “no.” It refused meaning. I was turned off but so fascinated at the same time. Now I love Ad Reinhardt, though. He’s one of my biggest influences. 

AL: It makes sense that you were turned off. I think, generally, people are inclined to look into a painting. They want to uncover some kind of message or story… like, “what is this about? What was the artist thinking?” Engaging with a painting that says “nope, there’s no story here” might be frustrating. 

OK: Right. It’s very easy for people to dismiss abstraction when it’s very minimal. I know I did. Of course, though, the Reinhardt has a message. It’s just a different kind of message.

AL: Perhaps the “message” is the experience that the painting provides. I feel like your paintings work in this way. 

OK: Definitely. When I was a student at Cooper Union, I set out to create paintings that refused meaning but did so a little less obviously. I asked myself, “how do I make an abstract painting that doesn’t immediately read as ‘abstract’? One that doesn’t turn the viewer off in the way that I was initially turned off by the Ad Reinhardt?”  

I’m still working in this manner. In my paintings, I’d like there to be this path that the viewer follows, and at the very end, the path says “no.” The painting allows the viewer to enter it, but there’s nothing obvious at the end of the path. The viewer doesn’t leave the painting being like, “ok, this is about X, Y, Z” Or, some kind of obvious or direct message. I hope the viewer will leave the painting having no definite answer as to what it’s about. It’s a more subtle type of refusal.

AL: Why is that important to you?

OK: In a larger sense, I’m curious about the limits of language and symbolism. There are recognizable symbols and forms in my paintings, but the context is scrambled. When you uproot a symbol from its context, what does that say about a symbol’s ability to carry meaning? What does that say about language?

AL: Your painting “She clock me clock we clock” comes to mind… It depicts a clock, but it's not a working clock. It's distorted with more than three hands that feel all jumbled up.

OK: Right, like, you can tell it’s a clock, but it’s missing some numbers. You can’t really read it; it isn’t telling you anything. The clock doesn’t tell us the time. It’s a painting. A painting is incapable of telling time; it’s a static image. This idea that symbols or language can be hyper-specific but also lose all meaning is so interesting to me. That painting takes this very abstract, ovalish shape, and overlays a clock on to it. A clock is so universal, but this shape is so opaque that when you pit them against each other, they uproot each other. The shape becomes less abstract, but the clock loses its “clock-ness.” If that makes sense.

AL: What does your process look like?

OK: It’s very research heavy, actually. I started reading a lot about semiotics and have been trying to find examples of symbols that exist outside of written or spoken language. I’ve been creating an archive of forms to pull from… shapes and images that feel alienating or come from non-language places. Like, for example, nonverbal autistic people or young children. Then, I try to stay within this archive of forms. That’s my only parameter. When I graduated from Cooper Union, I had all these rules that I had set for myself because of what I learned. No faces, no text, no figures. Blah blah blah. I’ve kind of started to let go of those things. The painting process itself is very intuitive. Once I have the references set up, its total chaos. Someone might come to my studio and see work halfway done, and not recognize the final pieces. 

AL: Giving yourself more freedom. 

OK: Yeah, allowing myself to be a little messier. I don’t love when paintings are too clean. I feel like art has been very clean for the past few years. There’s this impulse, which probably stems from viewing art on a screen where everything is flattened and perfect, to make paintings feel very tight. I think it’s okay for things to be messy and feel crazy. 

AL: I agree. It’s interesting that you mention viewing paintings on a screen, because your compositions almost feel computer-generated. Your lines look pixelated, your forms fragmented like they’ve been cut up on Photoshop or copied and pasted. They’re all made completely by hand, though, right?

OK: All by hand! There’s an obvious digital element to the work, though. So much of communication takes place online. I mean, there are languages that only exist online. For example, a meme may be legible to me and someone else in some kind of niche fandom, that person may be across the world but there is a level of understanding based on subculture. Conversely, i’m sure you’ve had the experience of seeing a meme that feels completely foreign. Language has become extremely provincial and global simultaneously. We’re in a really interesting moment with language and its happening primarily online.

I think that the way a painting reads on the Internet is an interesting phenomenon and one that shouldn’t be ignored. I think we should all be talking about that. We shouldn’t push against technology for the sake of pushing back, we should lean into it. We should let the way we perceive things on computers alter meaning. 

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Alex Leav