Contributed by Sharon Butler / In “Dream Paintings,” Ken Weathersby’s solo show at Minus Space, the surfaces of his tidy geometric abstractions feature carefully crafted, oddly shaped holes. Handwritten passages of text have been inserted into the voids, as if the painting were an oversized frame for, and possibly the protector of, the tiny messages. Upon reading them, I realized that their content and style had a surreal quality, and it turns out that each snippet is from Weathersby’s archive of remembered dreams. I wondered if the painter, who has customarily combined dissimilar things in his work, had been reading Freud. I reached out to ask him a few questions about his unusual, thought-provoking new paintings. 

Sharon Butler: Recently I was rereading Freud, particularly his theories about dream interpretation and his case studies. Now, over a hundred years later than when he wrote down and studied his own dreams, I interpret them very differently than he himself did. Have you been reading Freud and thinking about what these dreams might mean?
Ken Weathersby: I did read Freud’s writing on dreams and have thought about dreams in that way, but quite a long time ago. That’s not something I’m thinking about when I’m making these paintings, though. As you know, in previous paintings (in my last show at Minus Space), I inset images of ancient sculpture. I wanted to set up an encounter between things different in kind: figures (or representations of figures) embedded in and encountering abstract painting.  The dream paintings started with the idea that inset texts would set up another kind of encounter, embedding the paintings with something farther from the language of the painting, something not even visual, written narratives.  The dreams were “found” content, yet I was the author (or at least, no one else was).   
So, I do see dreams as a kind of gift from the unconscious, but I’m not interested in interpreting them. It’s more about just paying attention to and working with these things that arrive automatically. 

SB: Are you drawn to other artists, contemporary or historical, who use dream content? Besides surrealists?
KW: I started making the dream paintings through the very particular route that I mentioned before, so my approach is not like the way I’ve seen other artists use dreams. So, especially once you mention surrealism (which I return to below) there’s nothing I would point to as perfect precedent. I do like Jim Shaw’s matter-of-fact fidelity to the strangeness of dreams as a source. Maybe a more pertinent connection is film. I watch a lot of films and I have often felt those experiences as something that draws me toward making my work. Of course there are films that are about passing between different levels of consciousness, like with the work of Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, or with Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, or many other examples, but I mean this on a less literal level. Seeing great, imaginative, radical works of filmmaking, whatever the subject, can be a dreamlike absorption into another world and at the same time it often wakes me up to new possibilities for my paintings.  

SB:  I’m curious about the selection process. There are so many ways to choose, each having a different meaning in terms of the final painting. How do you decide which dreams to use? Is there something you are looking for in the ones you select or is the choice random, picked out of a hat?  How do you decide which type of abstraction goes with which dream?
KW: I have a file of dream texts going back about six years. There are a couple of hundred of them, all listed in a single document in the order in which they occurred. When I started to make the dream paintings, I decided to use them starting with the first one and continuing through them in order. At the same time, separately, I have folder of visual ideas. Many of them are from found patterns—old wallpaper or fabric patterns, mosaic floor-tile patterns, but also some geometric compositional formats I’ve invented myself.
I brought these two sets of things, the collection of dreams, and the collection of visual patterns together, while avoiding any determination of what would be produced. Avoidance of preconceived pairing was important to me. This is the relationship to surrealism I see in this work, more than the fact of using dreams. It made space for something to be produced by the intersection of these two unlike elements, the narrative and the pattern, the textual and the visual. 

That’s like the dream in a larger way, since it is the taking on of something that arrives unbidden. I said above that I don’t invest in doing dream analysis to unearth buried meaning in my dreams—yet at the same time, I can see that the dreams contain bits and pieces of memory and maybe worries, desires and fears, etc. In a similar way the patterns and configurations from my image file contain forms from the past of art and visual culture, along with aberrations and distortions of all of that material. 
Ken Weathersby: Dream Paintings,” Minus Space, 16 Main Street, DUMBO, Brooklyn, NY. Through January 30, 2021.


(interview originally published at

Interview by Isabel Hou for Interlocutor

You currently have a solo show at MINUS SPACE in Brooklyn displaying the Dream Paintings collection. Two strong components of this collection are recurrence and geometry; the lattices in “292” and “302,” for instance, and the patterns in “310” and “298.” The transcendental nature of dreams placed against such a grounded background can be viewed as a stark juxtaposition. What do you hope to convey through this contrast — or rather, are the backgrounds and stories complementary to each other?
Yes, it is about those thing encountering each other, though I don’t know if dreams are transcendental. I am not interested in dreams as something prophetic or profound; they might just as likely be banal or meaningless. The interesting thing is that there is something genuinely uncontrolled about them. We are bombarded by narratives and statements all the time, but unlike all of that, dreams cannot be deliberate manipulations. They are not the product of a marketing pitch or an ideological strategy. They can be infected by those things but they don’t answer to them. They are beyond the grasp of control. So I am placing them within an object, an abstract painting, and I’m interested in these two kinds of things conjoined. The painted part and the text each have distinct properties but no predetermined meaning, so the painting, which is the meeting of those two elements, and its meanings are the products of that interaction.

You have mentioned visions and dreams as occasional kindling for your inspiration (MS Modern, 2015, and Aferro Studios interview, 2020). How do you flesh out those images and ideas and put them to work?
I would put those two things (visions and dreams) in different categories. There is a kind of beginning of things which I may have referred to as a vision (did I use that word?). If so, what I meant is when an idea spontaneously comes, when an image just appears in your mind. I think this happens to everyone, little thoughts or images or imaginings are in your head for a moment between paying attention to other things, or when about to fall asleep, or other transitional states. I am very committed to paying attention to those moments. Often it’s very subtle and it’s easy not to notice this, and images are soon forgotten. I try to notice and make a sketch or at least notes. Bodies of work I am involved in now started in this way.
The process in the dream paintings is very specific and a little different. With those I am using content that arrived while I was sleeping, in dreams. Again, everyone dreams at night, but normally we don’t remember, or maybe we do for a moment waking up but then we ignore them and they are gone and forgotten. For five or six years I had making a practice of paying attention, writing them down as often as I could, so I thought I could insert a different kind of content into some abstract paintings — instead of photos which I had used before in that way, it would be a written text. It’s even more opposed to the abstract painting than the photographs because it’s not even a visual image. It works differently, has a different syntax. I already had the dream texts so it was ready-made, free content. The dream texts belong to me, I am the author, even though I did not compose them or control what they said. So I began a series of paintings where in each case an abstract composition or pattern contains a dream text (just as the night’s sleep contains the dreams.)

299” has caught my eye time and time again. Perhaps it is the subtle curve disrupting the uniformity of the lattice print, or the unique photograph collaged into the piece. Or maybe it is the dream itself, which ends with: “Tiny figures were lined up against the glass of the window, obscuring the view...Light streamed in over them, making them beautiful.” How do the components of this work — the painting, the collage, the story itself — reflect your dream?
Any answer to that, to how the painted part and the text and the embedded image relate to each other, and what emerges from experiencing that relationship is for the viewer to see, and may be different from person to person. There are a few things I can say, though. In all of the other works in this group, the abstract, patterned part of the painting is hand-painted. This one is different. The surface is actually covered with an old and worn bed sheet. The pattern printed on the sheet is one that interested me because its small square grid in muted browns looked so much like some of my earlier wood-lattice pieces. The scale of the grid was such an exact match to the wood that I actually used other parts of the sheet in one of those pieces, letting the fabric exist ambiguously next to the actual wooden layers it resembled. In dream painting “299,” the sheet itself is attached to the surface with a layer of medium, in place of a painted composition. The slight curve you see is a little aberration in the way the fabric stretches across the plane. I was excited in this painting by the way there is a subtle glowing aura around the inset text area. That glow is a product of the aged and worn nature of the sheet. It is simply so thin in that area that the white underpainting shines through and creates a painterly chiaroscuro effect. I appreciated how this came about through the given, physical properties of the object, the sheet, rather than through subtle brushwork or color-mixing. And it’s not lost on me that this painting with a dream in it is made of a bed sheet that I’ve actually slept and dreamed under, though I didn’t think of it that way until after the painting was made.

You play with perspective in “297,” placing the story angled toward a circle emanating rays. Behind it, a gentle transition of warm hues. This dream is particularly transient. Some lines include: “...someone somewhere screamed...It was strange: a single high unwavering note...When I looked again we stood on a subway platform...A woman lay curled up in a pile of blankets and coats.” Talk a bit about the meaning behind this piece, particularly that behind the physical placement of the dream.
The image part of this painting came from something I saw in a movie theater. There was advertising before the start of a film, giant sunburst across the screen, as a background behind whatever the product was. The effect was simple and stark. It didn’t make me want to buy the candy or whatever, but it struck me as violently (if unintentionally) sublime. I remembered the image and it became paired with this dream text. I thought about the absurdity of the whatever dumb thing was being advertised flying out of a cosmic sunburst, and how for a dream painting, the implied (but uncertain) significance of something emerging from the center of such an image would be interesting.

You have observed that people find aspects of their past in your work, particularly in your pieces involving wooden lattices: “They [the wooden lattices] especially seem to inspire this response...they seem to touch on or be reminiscent of lots of different things, while still being rather particular.” (MS Modern, 2015) Do you think that this was intentional on your part, perhaps a reflection of your own inspiration found within the structures?
The short answer is no, it was definitely not intentional for me to raise people’s memories of other object-making traditions, but I was not sorry to see such associations emerge. The artist and writer Tom McGlynn once looked at some of those pieces and responded that he thought they were something to do with primitivism. For reviewer Mostafa Hedaya, they raised a comparison with mashrabiya, a kind of projecting window screen of the Islamic world, which I also was not emulating (but which is obviously very sophisticated and not at all “primitive”.) My route, in the case of the wooden lattices, was through elaborating the wooden structure that exists behind and supports the canvas in paintings. I was involved with the idea that a painting is a physical thing, not just an image; that its parts could escape their normal order of priority.  I let the wooden, structural part grow beyond its usual role in the simplest way, by building up layers. I think the evocation of other traditions, whether it be the things I mentioned before, or Japanese shoji screens or other things, came through my intersecting with basic logics of structure. I like those associations but I wasn’t seeking them.

Recently, your pieces have included portraits — some photographed, others collaged. Visually, this is a shift away from your work involving wood. To what do you attribute this change?
The works you mention with photographs are the ones I call Disjoined Hand. The link with the works using wood is that both are really involved with the object-nature of the art work. The photos of people are physically inset into the surface of the painting, within a recessed, cutout area, to preserve a sense of distinctness of different things put together, but with some unresolved tension about what their relationship is. There is a common thread; the wood pieces also all contained or surrounded some part that was not wood, usually a printed or painted image, so the aspect of collage was already there. 
Those photo pieces, the Disjoined Hand works, followed a group of work that I called Library Hand, in which the inset image was a reproduction of an ancient figurative sculpture, cut from an art history book (I collected many that were being discarded from a library). So in those I was specifically interested in having this mediated thing from the past, a printed reproduction of a photo of a sculpted human image bumping up against the actual, present physicality of the abstract painting into which it was embedded. It’s about things different in kind and also from different times being put together.
The Disjoined Hand paintings with photos of real people came after. With those I wanted the same conjoining of an image of a human with an abstract painting, but without raising the topic of ancient sculpture. So I photographed people that I knew, and those images became the inset photos. I don’t think of them as portraits, since my interest was in what happened between the image and the painting, that relationship, rather than the portrayal of an individual. But of course they can be read in different ways.

The titles of your pieces, you have said, are numbers for practical reasons — the numbers maintain chronological order while distinguishing them from one another. You have also stated that you tend to avoid “more evocative titles” so as to allow open-ended viewer interpretations. (Not What It Is, 2016) However, you categorize your work with [series] titles like Disjoined Hand, So-Called Paintings, and The Path of the Needle. Can you expand on those titles?

For a long time my work proceeded from piece to piece, painting to painting, one at a time. Whatever idea I was working on was the thing, and each piece in sequence was another aspect of that idea. Sometimes I moved on eventually to another starting idea and that would be another body of work. But in the last few years, I find that I have multiple strands, multiple bodies of work happening at the same time. I didn’t plan that and at first it worried me, but I’m very committed to following what feels most compelling in the studio, so I am going on with them. Having those different titles is a way of organizing and identifying the different bodies of work. The Path of the Needle sounds like it might be about heroin addiction, but it’s not. It was taken from a Walter Benjamin quote where he talks about the complicated structure that develops on the back side of a piece of needle-work, which is integral to the structure of the front but not meant to be seen. The works in that category are paintings that deal with the back and underlying support of the painting, often reversing parts of the canvas to show what’s underneath. So-Called Paintings are works that nominally have the conventional ingredients of paintings, but where I don’t use them in the “right” way.

In an April 2020 interview with Aferro Studios, you lamented the negative effect that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on your work. With so much time having passed, how has your perspective shifted, if at all?

The pandemic has had a huge devastating and deadly impact for many, but I don’t recall lamenting its effect on my work. Maybe I mentioned that it led to the postponement of some exhibitions, but it would seem stupid to complain about that in the face of real suffering. In terms of my work during this time, I have found that I have been, maybe strangely, very productive. Unavoidable limits, like not being able to work in my large studio space in Newark for long periods during lockdown, have led me to embrace working within changing circumstances. It has prescribed that I work at different scales and with different tools than I might have otherwise. It has created intense feelings. Indirectly, it seems to have led me to new images and ideas. This, combined with the shutdown of so many things creates an unavoidable subject matter shared by many people at the same time. When the work is driven by circumstances in a concrete way, I think it can connect to reality in a special way. The pandemic is bad in so many ways but it hasn’t been bad for my relationship to my art-making practice.


Interview (excerpt)

(originally published at, 4/2/20)

Juno Zago – How has your practice been impacted by the quarantine?
Ken Weathersby – The suddenly changed circumstances (“isolation”, “social distancing”) have been a shock for me, the same as for everyone of course, with all the unknowns about exactly how bad the pandemic will be. I have not been to the studio in a week, which is a loss. I usually go every day. Over the last year or so, I’ve felt incredibly productive, more than ever, with multiple bodies of work going on at the same time. I’m drawing and working out ideas every day at home. Hopefully I can be back in the studio soon with materials, tools and space that I need.
Other impacts have to do with letting other people see the work. Two upcoming exhibitions, a solo show in California based on my almost forty-year sketchbook series and a group show at a college, have been postponed. A third scheduled exhibition, a solo show about my dream paintings at Minus Space Gallery in New York set for this May and June, may end up delayed as well.

JZ – Walk me through once again, your cloud of skulls, where did it come from? And how did it take on its present meaning?
KW – I started painting the skulls in early 2019. For years I’ve had a life-sized model of a human skull on my desk where I teach. One day during class I wanted to do a demonstration of palette knife painting for a student, and picked up the skull as a model. So the first one was made unselfconsciously, not thinking that I was making art. Otherwise, I probably never would have chosen to use that image.
As some days went by, though, I kept looking at it, and thought I’d like to paint it again. As I made more of them, it began to feel like something. It was strange, because it was unlike the more conceptual, abstract, constructed kinds of painting I had been doing for years. There were elements I had not dealt with in my work since the early 90s: chiaroscuro modeling, figure ground issues, drawing from life, representation. It was interesting to find myself unexpectedly involved with those things. At the same time, from piece to piece, I stuck to preliminaries that were there (almost by accident) from the start. There was no breaking up or articulation of the background. The skull just floated somewhere in the middle, so in a way there was no composition. The skull always facing to the left. The whole image was built up with color underneath, but always moving toward gray or black.
There are 93 of the skull paintings and I will want to show them together, in clusters, as they are in my studio. They are most interesting as a group. I find that the color becomes visible, and the variations from one to the next in how they are painted become expressive when they are together. To answer your question about meaning, I’ll say that they are about grief. They are about what we are witnessing now and will witness in the future.

JZ – So first came the skulls, and now the skeletons. I see your skull paintings much more as expanding on a still life prompt that took on a different meaning and proportion, whereas the skeletons are much more geometric and dynamic at the same time. It seems like it could’ve been a straightforward thematic progression, but maybe it wasn’t?
KW – The skeletons came from a few different factors.
One is that, looking at the skull paintings in my studio every day, sometimes I saw (involuntarily imagined) some extension of what was there – picturing a neck or even ribcage and arms within the space connected to the skull.  I could sense how that would change the space it floated in.
Another factor was that I built up the grounds in the skull paintings from layers of bright color, layer upon layer with darker tones on top, feeling very rich and muted at the same time. So this evoked for me certain kinds of abstract painting, some particular artists’ work. I thought of Rothko, especially some of his early paintings and also the really late, black ones. I thought of Brice Marden’s dark monochromes. The kinds of paintings I thought of worked with muted, nuanced color on a big scale, so that you could really see it. Even though clustering my skulls brought out the color in an interesting way, I wondered what the things I was making would be like larger. I had this thought but it couldn’t go anywhere at first. When I was a student in the 80s, there was still a holdover from the fifties abstract expressionist era – a cliché of people trying to re-do, or still do Rothko paintings. I love Rothko, actually, but there was something really backwards in that, something unbearable.  So the idea of just painting big, dark color fields directly seemed uninteresting.
But there was another factor – I had this dream. I dreamed that I was doing some figure drawings that were all about proportion in space. In the dream, this was related to something that exists in classical art and art history, which was part of my education. In Greek sculpture the proportions implied in the figures can reflect harmonious, mathematically derived, and geometrically expressed sets of relationships. The height of the legs in relation to the torso, to the head, might express the ratio of “golden proportion”. Also, you might find in a Renaissance painting that the composition is divided similarly, in order to create a sense of both liveliness and unity. 
OK, that’s the background of what was evoked in the dream, but in my dream this was being expressed by skinny, spindly figures on a page who posed and gestured with their legs and arms in a way that made their wiry bodies into dividing lines of space. It was a kind of absurd joke on the classical idea, with these ridiculous figures acting out the proportional divisions, rather than embodying them.
That was the key. That showed me what to do with the skeletons. They are dividing, or measuring, or marking the space. At the same time they are marginal to it. They exist on the periphery, dominated by the “nothing” that is the ground, to which their gestures refer us. And that ground, that open territory, can then be abstraction. It can reply to the ground of Rothko or Brice Marden, because in another way it is kind of a joke on all that too. So, as with the skulls, I found my way into being able to use this image which remains one of grief, and can allow myself to because it has its own internal criteria.



(originally published at, 4-4-16)

Tracy DiTolla: When did you first decide that you wanted to be an artist?  Was there a specific clarifying moment for you?
Ken Weathersby: In high school I was hanging around with people in rock bands. I was interested in drawing, writing and music, most excited by doing creative things. By my first year of college I was depressed and desperate because I didn’t have a sense of what to do with myself in the future. Becoming an artist wasn’t particularly visible as a path. I couldn’t see any path that interested me. In retrospect I understand that growing up in the south, in Mississippi, gave me limited exposure to cultural possibilities. At the University of Southern Mississippi I eventually took some studio classes from a professor who told me I had a “damn gift” for art. He also challenged me with an ultimatum: that I should either get serious about art (I was just drifting) or get the hell out of his class. That was a turning point. I didn’t get the hell out. Instead I got really involved with painting. After college I went on to graduate school for painting at Cranbrook in Detroit. After completing my MFA I moved back to Mississippi briefly, but after a couple of months I packed up and moved straight to New York City.
243 2015 acrylic & graphite on denim, collage 26 x 28 inches
TD: You often cut out or cover certain parts of images or of the canvas.  What leads to your decision to take things away and replace them with other images or materials or geometric designs?
KW: I want to make a thing that does something particular and specific in relation to your act of looking at it. The way the parts of the painting are arranged might deny you full access to what one would assume is made to be seen, like when the painted face of the canvas is hidden. Maybe a painting is foregrounding something that is normally just a non-visual support, like the wooden stretcher or staples. It could be transposing its parts in a way that presents like a puzzle, or messing up your perception of a pattern with slight displacements, like a grain of sand in an oyster. Generally each painting is doing something different. For a number of years, I was doing this in a visual language that was geometrical, abstract and material, but excluded representation. Occasionally I borrowed human shapes from sculptures or paintings from art history, but they would be barely recognizable as figures the way I used them, just contours filled in with painted pattern. More recently, though, I’ve been introducing collaged images into that situation. Usually they are photos of heads or figures from ancient sculpture. The presence of these entities speaks to the act of looking in different ways. They can become a kind of proxy for the viewer, reacting to some abstract thing within the painting which they connect to with their gaze. So they model or re-enact our encounter with the painting itself. Or sometimes they are bursting into the middle of an abstract painting, as if they had opened the wrong door by mistake. It’s another angle on the idea of an encounter. The through-line in all of it is looking at an unknown thing or situation and pointing to the space of not knowing.
256 (girl swimmer) 2016 acrylic & graphite on linen, collage 38 x 30 inches
TD: The painting, 256 (girl swimmer), seems to be a good example of your recent practice.  Can you talk a little about this piece?
KW: The two collage elements are photo illustrations that I found in old books. The one on the right is the image of a girl resting near the water and looking off toward the center of the painting, where there is an oval of abstract pattern painted in contrasting colors. Below the photo you can read part of the caption, which identifies her as a “girl diver”. I changed the description a little to “girl swimmer” in my title. On the opposite side of the painting, mirroring her position is a photo of a classical sculpture. Its head is missing, but the body is at the exact same scale and in the exact same posture as the girl. It is a mirror image of the girl, but it is a boy. It too would be looking toward the abstract form in the middle of the painting, but it lacks a head, and therefore can’t look.
255 2015 acrylic & graphite on linen, collage 21 x 27.5 inches
TD: What is the reason for the titles of all your works being numbered?
KW: I title them with numbers as a practical way of keeping track of them. It distinguishes them from one another and the numbers represent the order in which they were made, so I can know chronology.  I tend to avoid more evocative titles because I want to leave people’s responses more open-ended. I don’t want to over-direct interpretation, which, for better or worse, is up to the viewer. I sometimes add in a parenthetical title, if one emerges organically while I’m working. If I want to add one of these titles to the number on a piece, but think it would be too much, I will compromise by reducing that part to just initials, a kind of code.
TD: You have said your work is very concrete and is all about the physical aspect of it, but you often incorporate images from ancient and medieval art history into your pieces – are the choices of collaged images you include in your work based solely on aesthetics or does their original meaning and context play a role as well?
KW: Before, I was playing the physical against the optical. It was the material structure of the thing played against the abstract painted image. Now I’ve added in the images of human beings by way of these photographic reproductions of historical sculpture, taken from art history books. It’s a convention of the medium of painting historically to draw upon classical figures in composing a painting, as, for example, Manet did in composing “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe”. I am using that convention but in a more blunt and contemporary way. Usually I pick these images based on what they are doing, their gestures or movements, and especially on how they seem to be casting their glance in a particular direction, and the nature of that glance. In cinema there is the basic mechanism of the eye-line match. A figure looking in a certain direction relative to the frame of the screen will make a strong connection in the viewer’s mind to the thing shown in the next shot, after a cut. I am working with cuts too. Cutting into the canvas surface literally, and also in the sense of putting things side by side that might seem to exist in different spaces and times. But the eye-line makes a connection. Since the particulars of the situation differ (each figure is different, each painted pattern is different and their placement in relation to each other is different) different implications emerge.
221 (derrière le miroir) 2014 acrylic & graphite on linen, wood, reversed mirror 30 x 24 inches
TD: The figurative, collaged elements in your work are, in part, to direct the gaze of the viewer – is it important to you to have some control over the viewer and how they look at your work?
KW: It’s not about controlling how they look at my work, but about going into something that isn’t always explicit in art. This is the situation and space of looking. When I first started painting, I was interested in op art, and my first paintings that worked were about optical effects, grids of calibrated color that were retinally active. That kind of painting throws the viewer back on their own acts of looking. They can become aware that what they see is tied to their own eye movements and other visual apparatus. That is stuff we are usually free to ignore when looking at other types of painting. It implicates us in the experience and ties us to the object in a conscious way. In addition to that, in my work now, I am placing different spatial dynamics side by side with the abstract and optical, and giving you the dissonance between them as something to experience. On one hand, there is a frontal space, where the grid or abstract geometric image is projecting out at you, and generally doing some of the stuff I mentioned above. That is happening in a perpendicular axis, between you and the painting. Opposing that is what I call a diagetic space, where the eye-line (or sometimes other elements) promotes a lateral reading within the space. That tends to create a slightly fictive or even narrative space while the other type of space is more iconic. In historic art there are precedents for this. For example, in a Duccio altarpiece, you have an iconic Madonna or whatever in the center staring out at you, confronting you as you confront her, while around the rest of the painting you have angels or other figures looking at each other or moving laterally through a depicted space. The two things co-exist but are contradictory and it provides a certain energy to the painting.
232 2014 canvas, wood, collage 30 x 24 inches
TD: You seem to have an interest in texture, what brought the change in your recent work – stark, white canvases from the black canvases with random brushstrokes, and the backward canvases and pieces with wood?
KW: I do like texture. I think of that now mostly in relation to how something is made, and that it is made by hand. I don’t go out of my way to produce a certain texture, but I allow my methods of putting things together, using wood, paint, linen, graphite, old photos on paper, etc. to show, and to have a level of roughness as well as a level of precision. The relationship of those two things co-existing (looseness and an idea of perfection) can be interesting. It’s not my main concern but it is part of how I work now. On a certain level, having little runs in the paint or visible layout lines of graphite, or spots of glue just gives the viewer something to see when looking at the work closely, a reason to zoom in. It gives clues to how things were made, but I’m not committed to an earnest idea of truth to my materials and processes either—sometimes I play with that situation to “lie” with the material structure, to let it look like it is put together in ways that it is not. That’s just more of what is happening in my work generally: playing around in various ways with the ambiguities of looking at a thing or situation.



Nathan Mullins at MS Modern interviewed me:

Ken Weathersby is an artist from Mississippi who has been making paintings in New York for twenty five years. Mississippi Modern recently got the chance to talk with him about his process via email.

Ken Weathersby | “178 (hLLL)” | 2010 | acrylic paint film with removed area over wood scaffold over linen | 36 x 24 inches
Mississippi Modern: When I look at your paintings, I can’t help but think of sound. I can almost hear your paintings. I think it has to do with the tightness of the grid with which you work creating a kind of visual buzz. That buzz carries with it a timbre that is specific to each painting. And when you decide to deviate from your grid, it’s almost like a chord progression. Can you speak to this? Do you think in terms of sounds or vibrations when you create your paintings?
Ken Weathersby: I am primarily thinking in spatial and visual terms—the painting ideas come to me specifically as something to be seen, yet I do know what you mean about music. The retinal thing that happens with the grids can definitely seem like a kind of buzz or hum. The deviations from the grid that you mentioned come in a couple of different ways. One of those is the kind of deviation that emerges in the form of glitches in the pattern—when the paint runs or bleeds a bit, or when adjacent rows don’t quite meet or overlap. It’s not intentional, but I allow it and it is always a matter of deciding how much to interfere with that. Since most of what I do is done exercising as much control as I can, it’s interesting for me to see what productively escapes that control, to find out when precision matters and when it doesn’t. For me, calling those phenomena “glitches” comes from electronic music that uses glitches, incidental sounds, as elements of composition, like in the music of the band Oval. The other kind of deviation from the grid, I don’t know if this is what you mean, but another deviation is the things that happen to break up or open or undermine the dominance of the visual, painted surfaces. Things like cutting into the paint film or inverting it, or setting it next to or behind something more structural. If I was going to refer to that aspect in musical terms, I might talk about it as counterpoint rather than chord progressions. It is about opposing something with something else to create a standing relationship of difference (or dissonance).

MM: Another reason I relate your work to the auditory is your fascination with the parts of the paintings, parts that have to be experienced over time. It’s not as if the deviations from the grid are surface level movements. You actually cut into your canvases and create smaller canvases that fit into the holes you create. Some of your paintings have to be experienced in the round because you’ve given precise attention to both the front and the back of the canvas. You’re clearly obsessed with the parts that make up the painting: the support system, the canvas itself, the insets, and the paint. There’s so much attention one has to pay to the pieces that it’s impossible to see it all at once. It becomes atemporal experience; the things evolve over time, similar to music. Can you talk about the parts, the thingness of the paintings, and their relationship to time?
KW: I like the idea of time in the work. The relationships in the paintings pose a kind of puzzle or problem for the viewer, so there is some time built in to looking at them, to working out what one is looking at, or is supposed to be looking at. This happens in different ways and on different levels. The cutting in or reversing or realignment of parts, whatever operation I’m performing on the basic given of a painted stretched canvas, is central. The reason I make the paintings in the first place is because of some initial strange thought, some kind of bothersome idea. For example, a recent idea was to have an abstract painting that was the embodiment of a wholeness and singleness of form suggesting a presence. So it would be something with a concentric, unitary pattern, it would be human-scale and free-standing. Then at the same time I wanted to fracture that whole thing into a thousand pieces, but leave it still standing, fragmented, but poised and holding together. I wanted those two aspects together. So it was a kind of simple, dumb idea in a way, but an idea of a tenuous situation of things in opposition, whole and parts. But then it becomes a question of how that will happen, which entails a lot of visual decisions and a lot of physical working out of structural factors. There’s a dialog between the parts: the retinal and visual, the structural and supporting elements, the flaws or glitches, the image presented and the gaps in that presentation. There is time in it that way too—time invested by me thinking this stuff through, though that kind of time may or may not be visible in the result.

MM: That attention to the actuality of the painting (these are really just stretcher bars, this is actually canvas, etc.) again reminds me of music in the sense that we don’t ever expect music to be anything other than music. One can argue over whether or not a painting should be read for its literal content (the subject matter), but that’s a hard thing to do with your work. I am forced to experience your painting as an actual painting that can’t be read for characters or story because you often don’t include subject matter in your work, and when you do, it’s so enveloped in the formal qualities of the painting, that it almost ceases to exist as subject matter. The representational moments are seemingly playful little nods to art history that pop up with such scarcity that I can only assume they mean a great deal to you. What do you consider to be your subject matter? How do you choose the few representational elements that you include?
KW: I don’t think literal content on its own means anything in any art form, really. Every supposedly literal thing in art is embodied somehow, and the how is entirely involved with the what. So—my subject matter is a poetry that uses the given parts of the language of painting, both with and against itself. My interpretations of what those parts are, and how they can be related or reshuffled, are where there is a chance for something interesting to happen. For a while now I’ve occasionally picked up images of figures to use in my paintings, most recently, images cut from art history books, often of classical sculpture. The main thing I’m looking for is how the figure will connect or contest with other aspects of the painting it is in. I consider the figures and their connotations material I can use on a par with the physical aspects like wooden stretcher bars or canvas, as another part of the given language and conventions of painting. I choose the particular collage figurative elements I do because they have directional gazes or other aspects that I can use, and because they have a certain humor or implications when put next to something else.

MM: You’ve been living and working in New York City for some time now, but you grew up here in Mississippi and got your bachelor’s degree at Southern Miss. The muted tones and exposed wooden stretchers to me reflect an admiration and respect for craftsmanship and honesty, the kind of blue-collar values that can be found across Mississippi and the South. How have your experiences here in Mississippi shaped the work you make now? Did the education you received here impact your trajectory in a meaningful way?
KW: I admire good craft, but I don’t particularly think of myself as being involved in that. I don’t mean what I do to be homage to craft, and I don’t really know what I’m doing as a carpenter or woodworker, at least in the sense of being trained in that. I make up my own ways of putting things together, and find it a very engaging process. I do think a lot about how to make my pieces physically strong and stable and as simple as possible while giving me what I want visually. It’s interesting that the handmade aspect evokes ideas of Mississippi and the South for you—I’ve had people come into my studio and tell me I am making a structure like something that was part of the house where they grew up in Japan, or that it is like a thing that people in Brazil traditionally make. The wooden lattices especially seem to inspire this response. They get a certain look of complexity because of the layering, but they are basically very simple. Through that simplicity they seem to touch on or be reminiscent of lots of different things, while still being rather particular. I did grow up on the Mississippi gulf coast and lived in Mississippi up until the time I left Hattiesburg to go to graduate school at Cranbrook (near Detroit), but I don’t think the constructed aspect of my work is really connected to Mississippi. My education at USM did have a great impact, though. Jim Meade, Vernon Merrifield and Jerry Walden were my teachers and I got a solid introduction to modern design, color theory and other formal ideas from them. The physical structure of my paintings I think started from other sources. Years ago I had a spontaneous vision of one of my paintings making a gesture. In a kind of daydream I saw the painted canvas extend out from the wall and turn around to face the wall, turning its back to the viewer. It was a gesture of refusal, a refusal to be seen. That image took some time to digest, but eventually I began to work with the idea. One implication that emerged was that when this happened, while the painting’s face (the part made to be seen) became invisible, other parts (stretcher, unpainted canvas, staples) were suddenly things to be dealt with. A more basic and substantial insight was that paintings actually have parts in that way, that while normally just the painted image was assumed to be the whole thing, paintings actually have this array of parts that traditionally exist in a hierarchy, some of them invisibly supporting and serving that face. The wooden structures and lattices and all the unusual things my paintings do started with that thought.

MM: As a successful artist exhibiting in New York, What advice can you offer aspiring and emerging artists in Mississippi?
KW: I will accept being called a successful artist if we use the following definition: I am having a life that is very focused on art, and I am making the art I want to make. I am wary about dispensing general advice. People are different and have different goals, and maybe different definitions of success than mine. I would recommend doing the best work you can possibly do. Though it felt risky at the time, moving to New York twenty five years ago was a crucial decision for me. Maybe when those aspiring and emerging artists in Mississippi come to New York we can have a conversation about these things. I’d like that.



Mike Rutherford at Painter's Bread interviewed me about my work.
"I have claimed that if there was an easier way I'd take it, but apparently the difficulty is connected with what the work is about, and maybe I'm less interested in the easier way."
Read the whole interview here.



NY Arts Magazine Interview - Ken Weathersby
(John O’Connor interviews Ken Weathersby)
Can you talk about a new piece you’re working on?
Right now there’s something I’m calling ZTE (zombie tableau ensemble).  It’s from an image that appeared in my head a couple of months ago: a group of paintings, a specific tableau. I saw this arrangement, with paintings hanging on the wall and some that were freestanding. They seemed to come toward me across the room. Individually, they resembled paintings I’d already been making, structural stacked wooden grids overlaid with bits of linen, and patches of grid-patterned paint films—the parts of painting all present, but also dismantled, separated.  My first association after drawing this image was the shot that’s in every zombie movie, like in George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”, where there’s a crowd of zombies slowly staggering toward you, facing you with glazed eyes, decayed bodies with rags of clothing hanging off…
Hmmm, some are going to be free-standing: do you still call them paintings?
Yeah, they’re paintings.  Sometimes people want to know if it’s becoming sculpture-- the answer is no.  It’s important to me that they remain paintings. Responding to the conditions of painting gives me a context, something to mess with.  
What are those conditions, for you?
I mean the given, physical terms of painting, like paint, linen, wood, but in my own way of understanding what they could be.  For example, simple patterns fulfill my requirements for painted image.  In my paintings those various given terms tend to get outside their usual roles, do different things. Sometimes the linen support and the painted front switch places.  Sometimes the wood gets itself in between the paint and the linen. Paintings seem to be undoing something about how they would normally work.  The undoing can be a blunt confrontation or an almost invisible cut or substitution.
But back to the patterns you’re using to stand in for an image-- they do more than just that.  They shimmer, they change when you look at them from different distances…
Well, the optical effects suggest spatial illusion or movement, but without depicting anything.  And because the scale of the patterns is tiny, there’s a sense of compression. The strongly contrasting colors that you see from close to the surface cancel each other out from a distance and can begin to turn gray from across the room.
What's been the effect of making miniatures for your shows?  Do you see them now as works on their own? I’m thinking about the ones you recently showed in California.
I started making very small pieces a few years ago, as a way of thinking through paintings, and to see what they might look like before making them on a larger scale.  I also made a tiny scale model of the gallery at Pierogi before my show there in 2010.  So it started as just a pragmatic process. But the feeling of seeing things reduced very small or, when next to full-sized pieces, seeing the huge leap in scale, became interesting, trippy, like Alice in Wonderland. It becomes uncanny and gets the imagination going.  I showed twenty-two very small works, most just two or three inches tall, at “Some Walls” in Oakland in 2011.  So that moved the small paintings into the realm of “works on their own”.  I’m now creating new groups of small paintings around the ZTE (zombie tableau ensemble) idea.  The miniature version has additional interest for me in this case, since to establish the tableau feel, I’m positioning them inside little room-like boxes that I also make.  The box itself is something I think of as a kind of folded-up painting. This lets me think about more physical conditions of painting that join the list of given elements (like linen, wood, paint) that I’m already using.  The tableau allows me to bring in these other terms: the walls, the floor, the actual space between and around the paintings.  In these newer works, I’m bringing those things inside of painting in a way.
I find your paintings very human - they do things we do.  They show a particular side or face, hide things, reveal their personalities over time.  Do you think about these relationships?  
There is an anthropomorphic element that I can’t deny.  One thing that started me doing this kind of work was another dream or daydream I had about ten years ago.  I saw (in my mind) a painting come out from the wall and then slowly turn away, turning its face to the wall, refusing to be seen.  It was a gesture on the part of the painting, suggesting that the thing had a life and a will.  Yet I don’t look for that kind of life in the work too much. If it’s there it emerges on its own. What I feel I’m after, when I’m making the work, is playing out certain situations. Ideas about situations come to me: a painting with two backs and no front, or one with a cut-out area in the paint surface, through which we see another layer identical to what has been removed, or a painting overtaken by a wooden lattice, to the point that it’s almost obscured. I’m inundated with these kinds of thoughts. I’m not thinking about these things in psychological terms. But somehow the paintings themselves do these things that might have human parallels.