Kristina Paabus: The Plot Does Not Care for Itself
Kristina Paabus, winner of the CAN Journal Prize at the 2018 CAN Triennial, is influenced by the systems and strategies of perception we use to contain and negotiate our surroundings. Working within the polarities of myths and truths, Paabus pays special attention to aspects of our information-drenched society that are often taken for granted or overlooked. Involved with ideas that are steeped in game theory—more about the strategies of games than the games themselves—she uses a variety of stencils, both handmade and digital, to create various narratives that are about decision making. Many of her works have thirty to fifty layers before they’re complete. Her works are one of a kind, laced and layered with thought provoking visual cues, and beautifully balanced with color, form, and texture.
Paabus is Associate Professor of Studio Art, Reproducible Media and Chair of Studio Art at Oberlin College. She earned her BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She also studied fine arts and religious studies at University of Massachusetts Amherst, and printmaking at the Estonian Academy of Arts. Recent exhibitions include NEO Geo at the Akron Art Museum, Belt and Road at the National Gallery (Bulgaria), and the grass is the same color over there at Gallery Metropol (Estonia). Currently, she is preparing for a solo exhibition at Hobusepea Galerii in Tallinn, Estonia that will run from July 10 to August 8.
I visited with Kristina Paabus in her studio at Oberlin College where we discussed her new work and future projects. I asked her to pull back the curtain on her daily routine by answering a few questions plucked from a recent article in the New York Times Magazine about contemporary artists and their studio practices.
Bruce Checefsky: What is your typical day like?
Kristina Paabus: During the semester, my days are steeped in routine, but as soon as there is a break I quickly veer off schedule. Generally, I am on campus three to five days a week and then reserve the rest of my time for studio and life. During summer and winter I am able to dedicate much more time to my studio practice.
BC: How much do you sleep, and what’s your work schedule like?
KP: I sleep far more than I used to, and now average six to eight hours a night. When I lived in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Providence I generally slept very little. My creative work schedule is best when I can focus on writing in the morning, and then work in the studio after that. During the school year I wake up really early, but by nature I am a night owl and prefer staying up super late.
BC: How many hours of creative work do you think you do in a day?
KP: Anywhere between one hour to fourteen hours. Some days are full of other obligations and my creative work is then more focused on research and development. However, my favorite days are when I can just be in the studio all day without any distractions, never paying attention to a clock.
BC: What’s the worst studio you ever had?
KP: I can’t think of a studio that I’ve had that was truly awful, but I have certainly made work at small tables or on the floor while traveling. Mostly though, having a studio has been a priority for me since completing my undergraduate degree. For many years I had an enormous live/work space in Pawtucket, Rhode Island—and although it was freezing in the winter, I still miss that place. When I moved to Minneapolis, I joined the Highpoint Center for Printmaking as a co-op member and also had a home studio. After grad school I had a studio in the west loop of Chicago that had two windows that opened up to an extraordinary view of downtown. It was a fairly small space, but I built storage all the way up to the ceiling and I made a lot of work there. That studio was located right next to a butcher shop and during the day I would often see disturbing scenes of animal parts being dumped into trucks and remnants being washed off the sidewalks. When I was preparing to move to Ohio and cleaning out my studio, I was feeling particularly nostalgic about leaving Chicago. However, right as I was having these thoughts I rounded a corner in the shared studio hallway and a rat jumped directly onto my summer-sandaled feet. That experience made the move much easier, but regardless I still have wonderful memories of that studio and my time in Chicago. My studio in Oberlin has been a really productive space and at 4.5 years is now my longest-running studio. However, rural critters make regular appearances and often leave evidence of their visits. I have also found that artist residencies are constructive spaces to create as they generally provide resources, space, uninterrupted focus, and time to work. During my recent sabbatical, I attended residencies in China, Russia, and Colorado, and also conducted research and created work for six months in Estonia. There I rented a fifth-floor walk-up apartment that had an open lofted studio space that overlooked the historic old town of Tallinn. As artists we often face some form of instability, and our practices have to adjust to whatever our circumstances are. Being able to expand and contract our work based on our situations is a necessity and an exciting challenge.
BC: When you start a new piece, where do you begin?
KP: I generally work on many things at once. How I approach a piece and choose a methodology depends entirely on the concepts that are driving the work. The process of making is crucial to my practice, and it is through the materials that I respond to the medium and further develop my reasoning. For example, drawings are illusionary spaces that are also documents of decision-making. I begin with a line and can see where I want the work to go with each line serving as evidence of a direct choice. Editioned prints are planned and executed rather methodically. Sculptural objects have to abide by laws of physics, so although I have a solid plan when beginning a project, for me there is a lot of trial and error involved in that process. Screen monoprints are a part of my practice that may be most similar to painting. Over years I have created a massive library of hand-drawn, hand-cut, and digital screen films, and I am always making more of these. I work on a large number of monoprints at once, layering stencil upon stencil, while constantly creating specific films for each individual piece. These prints rely on a building up and knocking down of information, and they often take years to complete as the paper becomes heavy with thirty to fifty layers of ink. This series of screenprints developed out of ideas surrounding game theory, but quickly began to mimic our contemporary relationship to the barrage of digital media.
BC: How do you know when you’re done?
KP: The age-old question! Knowing a work is complete is a multifaceted procedure that involves a combination of meeting intentions that I set for myself with a particular piece, being flexible, having experience in my creation process, and re-evaluating the work at every step. While creating a piece I make decisions based on what I want as my final goal, and am constantly questioning and revising that plan while responding to the progress and fine-tuning the concepts. Sometimes what I may have thought would work, does not—but it is precisely that element of problem-solving that I really enjoy. I think of my work as a puzzle or a series of questions that do not necessarily have answers, but rather lead to more questions. Once I see the precarious balance that I have been searching for, the piece is done. That said, not everything that I make gets put into the world, some things are just made as part of my research and others I just destroy.
BC: What music do you play when you’re making art?
KP: Music has always been really important to me and I have eclectic taste. In the studio I will listen to whatever is right for the work that I am doing. Familiar music allows me to concentrate and not be distracted, loud and fast music gives me energy, and podcasts keep my mind active while I am doing repetitive work. Currently I am in a multi-year phase of listening to a lot of Moon Duo and Кино́ (Kino). The latter was a Soviet band, and I listened to so much of it last year that Spotify began only offering me Russian songs as recommendations. Recent guilty pleasures include ’90s music as well as Tommy Cash.
BC: What do you usually wear when you work?
KP: Ha, there is very little difference between non-work and work clothing for me. It is rare that I would wear something that would interfere with me being able to go to the studio or classroom. Over time I have learned and adapted, so now I would say my biggest fashion influence is certainly the practicality of the studio—a utilitarian uniform of sorts, but almost always black. I wear my keys out of necessity, and in the printmaking studio I always wear an apron.
BC: What’s your favorite artwork by someone else?
I don’t think that I could possible narrow this down to one artwork, but rather am influenced by so many artists, movements, craft traditions, and collectives, some obvious, some not. For example, Lee Bontecou, Julie Mehretu, David Hockney, Priit Pärn, Belkis Ayón, H. C. Westermann, Nicole Eisenman, Corita Kent, The Situationist International, Kinngait Studios, and Taring Padi, just to name a few. I could stand in front of Michael Heizer’s North, East, South, West at Dia:Beacon for hours. Works that I had to visit on consecutive days (because one day was just not enough) included Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights and The Aalto Natives at the Finnish Pavilion during the 2016 Venice Biennial.