Have you ever gone into a museum or gallery and saw a splash of color, some squiggles or perhaps a seemingly simple black or white painting on a canvas and said, “My kid could do that?” You were probably looking at abstract art, which, according to the dictionary is art that is expressing ideas and emotions by using elements such as colors and lines without attempting to create a realistic picture.
Clyfford Still, an Abstract Expressionist painter said, “I never wanted color to be color. I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse together into a living spirit.” This quote is as close a description as I can get to describe, Kim Piotrowski’s body of work, Catch and Release, at the Linda Warren Projects in the West Loop.
I met with Kim at the gallery this past weekend. Her show will open this Friday, which, not coincidentally, is the gallery season opening in Chicago. Kim is a prolific painter; her work is abstract, colorful, rich and tasty. When I told her some of the pieces made me hungry, she said she’s a baker and there is some of the rich textures in her painting that you get when icing a cake.
I asked Kim if she has always worked in the abstract, or like Picasso, was she trained classically and moved to the abstract. She told me that in high school she loved still life and figure drawing. Her teacher recognized her talent and suggested she begin taking classes at Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY. It became her sanctuary. It was there she was inspired by the work of Clyfford Stills.
Stills use of scale and negative space made Kim see things differently. Every day she spent at Albright Knox, she walked through the galleries and looked at his work. “Mark Rothko, who painted the void, the future, sound or touch, also inspires me. I think to paint what you can’t name is brilliance,” says Kim. Interestingly, Rothko referred to himself as a realist painter, not an abstractionist. She, and the other students, would sit in the gallery and paint from the works hanging there. While most everyone worked from the representational paintings, she was drawn to the abstract.
When I told Kim that I found abstract art intimidating, she seemed surprised. I asked her how people are supposed to look at her work. She said that looking at her paintings is pushing life’s pause button. She just wants people to enjoy them. Some see things in her paintings, say a horse; she thinks that’s great. “I didn’t put a horse in that painting but I love that someone sees it.” She just wants people to take pleasure in the visual experience of looking at her paintings and nothing more. When I asked Kim, how she responds to the comment one often hears from viewers, “That’s priced at $3,000! My kid could do that!” She laughed, “I would say I’d love to see what they would create!” And she means it.
Perhaps you or your kid could paint an abstract painting while looking at one in a museum or gallery but could you paint it if I sat you in an empty studio with a blank canvas, a brush and some paints? I doubt it. A couple of smart, researchy-type gals from Boston College did a study in 2011 entitled Seeing the Mind Behind the Art – People Can Distinguish Abstract Expressionist Paintings From Highly Similar Paintings by Children, Chimps, Monkeys and Elephants. The title pretty much explains what they discovered during their study.
Some have tried and even successfully profited from the “my kid could paint that” idea. Perhaps you remember the story of four-year-old child prodigy, Marla Olmstead, who took the art world by storm in 2004, creating and selling abstract paintings. After 60 Minutes took a closer look, it appeared that Dad, an amateur painter, might have been helping out a bit. And in the satirical Peter and Jane-Learning With Miriam stories by Miriam Elia, the children go to the art museum to learn about life. While looking at a painting, Peter says, “I could paint that.” “Well you didn’t,” says mummy. End of story.
But Ms. Piotrowski can make abstract paintings, and in recognition of that, Linda Warren has handed over all of the gallery space to Kim for this show. Kim was compelled to build a maquette of the gallery in order to figure out where she is hanging all of her art. In addition to that, she is working on a forty-three by thirteen foot piece directly on the wall. It will be spectacular to say the least. If for no other reason, come out to the gallery to see this, because it will be painted over when the show ends.
One of her paintings, a colorful, blingy piece entitled Mama Bear, has kept me up at night, while I plot and plan how to scrape up the cash to purchase it. As I’ve written before, I’ve probably not spent more than $500 for any one piece of art and now I’m trying to convince my husband that we need a painting that will cost thousands of dollars! But as Kim said and I totally agree, you’ll spend thousands on a vacation that is fleeting and the art you’ll have forever.
How does Kim make these paintings? She starts from sketches that come from her mind’s eye. She keeps notes by her bedside because she often wakes up in the middle of the night with clarity about the resolution of a painting or the perfect title. She photographs her work in progress, which she prints out on paper to help make decisions on the next steps of selecting color and forming composition. She experiences stream of consciousness and joy. She is most peaceful when she is drawing.
She never allows her paintings to get too pretty, she always puts elements in to interrupt the flow. Why? Because life is like that. Her paintings are an expression of life; they are playful and organic. When I asked her why she puts in the sections of opaque paint, she told me that the flat, opaque areas are in many of her paintings and they allow her to manipulate the spatial dynamic in the painting. I’m not quite sure what that means but those opaque sections give me relief, a way out of the energy of the painting. My eye gravitates to them and I visually gobble them up along with the sections of gold leaf (bling).
One of the other things I love about Kim’s work is that each piece is given a name, like a child, before it goes into the world. The name may be given to the work before, during the making of it or after it is done. I find this especially interesting because abstract art is often labeled “Untitled.” I am not saying that those “untitled” painters don’t put as much effort into their work but I am saying that there is a reason Kim is naming them and that is a gift to her viewer, maybe even a lifeline for some of us. It certainly makes me, a mother of four, with kids starting to leave the nest, love Mama Bear even more.
If you want to feel like a kid in a candy store without the calories, come to Kim Piotrowski’s show, Catch and Release, at Linda Warren Projects. She has created an incredible, colorful, joyful and delicious body of work.
Kathleen Thometz is an artist and writer. She lives with her husband, kids and three doodle dogs. You can experience more about her at www.kathleenthometz.com