Rachel Klinghoffer

Monday 1 June 2015

Rachel in her studio

Rachel in her studio

Rachel Klinghoffer greets me at the door of her studio with her customary warm smile. It’s been stiflingly hot in New York this week and the air conditioner is going full pelt to cool the small studio space, located on the fourth floor of an old Brooklyn warehouse. She has just been taking photos of finished works for documentation, so one side of the studio is set up as though for an exhibition, while the other is cluttered with tables and boxes of collected materials. This contrast seems to aptly reflect both sides of Rachel’s practice – her wonderfully chaotic and vibrant creative process, and the resulting works, which are surprisingly calm, considered, intricate and with a balance in composition that can only be described as instinctual. I first spoke with Rachel at the SPRING/BREAK Art Show, where she had a solo exhibition curated by Marly Hammer, and after several busy months we finally managed to meet again and follow up our conversation. 

LC: So materials are clearly very central to your practice. And I think we spoke a little about this at Spring Break but let’s go over it again… How do you source your materials?

RK: So I have a rule in my studio right now – the items that I’m using, the new assemblages that I’m making, are coming either from items that I’ve used myself – whether it’s old paintbrushes, old buckets, there’s a lot of used bras and underwear… my running shoes, things I’ve travelled everywhere with – but then also there are items that are given to me. So the past few months I’ve been using a lot of items from family heirlooms, things from my mother, my sister. It’s a lot of women’s clothing right now. And I’ve been trying to play with different ideas, different groupings of these types of materials, and how to categorize them beyond just a formal [consideration] – shape, color, etc. And really think about the content – what happens when these materials are combined or different variables are added.

LC: I can see a rainbow of colors happening here… [referring to an overflowing collection of materials and objects arranged in color order on the table].

RK: When I’m starting a new body [of work], or if I’m just getting a little lost in the studio, I find the best way is just to throw out a bunch of materials that I’ve been collecting and see what’s working with each other, or what’s not working, look for different ways I can group it.  It’s important for me right now to think about hard and soft combinations, and what happens [when I combine them]. Do the items get lost if there’s such a tight grouping? I want to have moments of visibility, versus everything having the same kind of treatment. So I’m trying to figure out what are good combinations. Should I just do this type of braiding in one spot, should this just be bedazzled up the wazoo...So I’m playing with breaking down the vocabulary – that’s my project for this summer, really breaking down the vocabulary and separating it out.

LC: So what is it that draws you to these materials? Why do you choose to use materials and objects that have been previously used and have that personal connection to you?

RK: I think you hit the nail on the head…

"There’s a reason it’s called ephemera – ‘things around’ – that’s a really magical word, and I honestly think that there’s such an energy to objects." 

People[’s]…old clothes may be garbage or disregarded, you know, detritus. But I think that there is a charge, there’s an energy, there’s a whole history behind what that object has done, and a function. I think there’s a lot of magic to it, that it’s had a whole life, and that it can turn into something else and [it can] have a whole other life. I think those are really romantic objects, and I think the sampling of those is really exciting…I am adding materials – a limited amount of adhesive and wires, and magic sculpt or hydrocal, different coverings for surfaces. I think the base of it, the heart of it, is these objects – these things that have had another life.

LC: Yeah. They’re imbued with their own stories and meaning.

RK: Sometimes the items are completely noticeable to the viewer, and sometimes someone can’t tell or pick out what an item is. I like to have a spectrum of visibility of the object – if they’re hidden in plain sight…or if, over there, the shoes are…reveal[ed] on a certain part. I like to play with that.

LC: I really like that, turning these gross old running shoes into something beautiful, giving it a new life.

RK: I also think of trophy animals. The idea of mounting this thing on the wall – what happens with that? It gives them importance, it raises them I think, elevates them to another spot.

LC: Definitely yeah. So, can you tell me about the process that you go through to create these works?

RK: It shifts…like I was talking about breaking down my vocabulary right now. I think that means a lot of different things to me. I’ve been doing a lot of writing, that is, list making. I think that list making has been kind of a big deal for me right now. It’s how I visualize things. On the table, you can see I’m breaking things up, like a word map. This goes with this because of this… So the processes change a lot. There’s a lot of looking and playing with the items, whether it’s turning them upside down first and sometimes I want to really alter the object before anything is even done to it. It’s important for me to find all spectrums of the variables, like how much can I tear something, how much can I pull it before it’s not noticeable, or what if it completely disintegrates. If something is completely bleached out is there anything remnant left of what was on that piece of fabric? So it really shifts from breaking it down, to dipping it, to braiding it. It’s important for me to pull from a lot of different processes, from very traditional painting elements, thinking about patinas and sculptures, to thinking about collage and braiding, and thinking about processes from when I was a kid, like lanyard, and learning how to tie your shoes, and weaving. So the processes vary, from as little physical interaction or intervention, to the whole other end of that, where you’re melting something down or completely covering it, where the actual silhouette of the shape may not be visible anymore.

LC: So you don’t have a specific idea of what you want a piece to end up like when you begin working with it?

RK: It’s more of an intuitive process. There’s not, I do this then I do this then I do that. It’s more like – I have variable A, I have variable B, maybe there needs to be a C,D,E.  it’s a mixing and matching of different variables at this point.

LC: And then how do you know when a piece is finished?

RK: (laughs) That’s a good question. Hmmm, I think this is hokey in a certain way but I do believe it’s true – it’s… you just know it’s done. Like this newer piece right here, the top part of it was something, an element I’ve been working on for over three years. I keep touching this original souvenir from a vacation, and kept moving it and sanding it and drilling into it, dipping it again, and it didn’t have its right counterparts. So it just didn’t quite feel right. So certain things maybe are really quick, more of like a quick gestural action and then it feels done. And then other times it just doesn’t feel right and I have to keep nudging it or maybe I cover it up, literally put it away, and then bring it back out.  And some things may be in the same state but just sitting in a certain spot in my studio for months, or like I said that piece had been sitting for a few years.

LC: I’m always interested to ask this question and a lot of artists seem to have that same response – that you just know when it’s done.

RK: Yeah, it just kinda speaks to me...

"If I’m getting a sensation that [an object has] turned into something else, than what it originally was, that’s really a major goal of mine at this point – having that transaction: where it turns from what it originally was to its new life, its second, or maybe even third life…So it’s when the transformation feels complete."

LC: So where do you get the titles for your works?

RK: At this point the titles for my works are coming from the soundtrack of what I’m listening to at the period of time, either when the materials came from or during the actual making of it. It goes on rotation. I mean, I have an extremely eclectic taste in music – I listen to everything from like the Grateful Dead to hip hop, it’s all over the place. Sometimes there’s just ambient noise and sometimes I can’t listen to anything. I go through different points where I’m reading lots of poetry-esque things. I’ll pull from language – Shel Silverstein is a poet that I always seem to go back to. He wrote children’s poetry, and I like his simple yet playful language. Everything from him to Mallarmé. But I would say right now it comes from music, it comes from songs that I’m listening to. So it’s like I’m pulling from language that’s already in the air in that sense. I’m feeding back from what I’m seeing in the work. I don’t want to tell the viewer at all what to see or think, but it’s nice to get them to spark something, to nudge them to think about it in a certain way.

LC: That’s interesting. I think the idea of pulling from language around you really fits with how you are using materials – the titles are like a form of found material.

RK: I just feel that there is, without being negative – I think it’s a positive and realistic way to look at it – there is so much information in front of us that is already generated, there is so much material that’s right here in front of us. I don’t need to be starting from scratch in the sense – I can start from scratch by using everything that’s there before me. That’s my job: how I feel engaged and responsible is to resample that, and make something new out of what we already have. There’s so much in the pile!  There’s so much!

LC: Yeah. There is. Endless, endless supplies.

RK: Endless. Yeah! And ideas and writing and history. There’s such a rich history. And I think that’s part of being a maker now too.

LC: Definitely. So I see your works as a form of self-portrait. Does that resonate with you and how you see your works or how you would like other people to see them?

RK: That’s interesting, self-portraiture has come up a lot recently. And I think they very much are right now, they’ve become very celebratory. I got married six months ago, so that doesn’t surprise me. I’m glad that it seems celebratory, and I’ve gotten that kind of feedback. They have become over the past year these very much autobiographical reconstructs.

Actually, for my residency [Rachel recently completed a year as a teacher and Artist in Residence at Leon Goldstein High School in Brooklyn through the Abrons Art Center, Henry Street Settlement], we ended up really focusing on portraiture throughout history – what is portraiture, why do they exist and what’s the point of them. And we talked very much about a record of  ‘I was here’ and this person was important or these characters were most notable. So I showed my students this piece, ‘Too much of everything is just enough’, and they were just like, “Wow, how is this a portrait?” And then they started saying, “Well what is it made out of?” and I said this and that, so they were like, so it’s items from you, and I said yeah, it’s very much a combination of a physical manifestation of who I am at this time. I was excited to be able to talk to them and actually begin to think about portraiture in a much more open way.

And this is also something I’m thinking about, as I have a sidetrack, separate way of collecting. I had a transaction table at the Spring Break fair to collect items, asking people to leave behind something, whether it was meaningful or not to them, for me to make something with in the future. So that’s [pointing to a work hung on the wall] actually one of – I don’t know if I want to call it a study or a finished object yet – it feels like a very different process when I’m collecting from other people… And also the items were very different, they seemed very random. It’s been very challenging to go through them and make connections with them. So something very different happens with that grouping versus the items that I’m visually familiar with or can make personal connections with. 

LC: It’s an interesting experiment.

RK: I’m very much interested in working with larger groups of people to obtain materials in a different way. Thinking about it very specifically, like what does it mean when I’m collecting my old underwear versus collecting maybe underwear from another group of women or men…There’s a lot of different questions to engage with.

LC: And does the work change when you don’t have that connection to the objects?

RK: I think it does, I don’t know how or why yet, but I think it does. It feels very different to me.

LC: So, here’s a predictable question. Who or what, or you know, whatever, inspires you?

RK:  There is so much that feeds into it… I wear a lot of different hats, and I – like a lot of people – have a lot of different roles in my life. I’m definitely an artist, first and foremost, and that explains to me how I’m viewing the world around me, but I’m also a wife, I’m an aunt, I’m a daughter. The people around me very much inspire me. My nieces and nephew – how they look at things with fresh eyes is very exciting, and how they see different forms in the simplest of things. I really learn from them a lot. I’m inspired by my peers – my amazing network of friends, who are other artists in the city, and actually all around, and having conversations with them, their work, learning about their processes… I mean this city is extremely inspiring. Besides the plethora of galleries and work and shows – it’s the energy here, that pace, and even the surfaces that I see every day – the cement, how you know, I don’t just see an oil slick on the ground, I’m like ‘oh my gosh, there’s this unbelievable iridescent…’ – there’s these magical little moments in everything, as crazy as that sounds…

LC: No, that doesn’t sound crazy at all.

"I also think that it’s like part of your job as an artist, to really break down whatever we’re taking in, and creating something exciting and new for someone else to get equally excited and inspired by." 

LC: Have you always lived in New York?

RK: I grew up in New Jersey. I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for undergrad. I moved back to New York when I wanted to live in the city after undergrad and I worked for a bunch of other artists, did graphic design work, a lot of retail stuff – a little bit of everything – for about five years, then went to graduate school at Rhode Island School of Design – I was there for a couple of years then moved back here. So collectively I’ve been in New York I guess over 8 years at this point.

LC: That’s a long time for New York.

RK: (laughs) It feels like it and it doesn’t at all. It’s a very bizarre place where you can be somewhere for so long and everything still feels so fresh.

LC: Yeah, I can imagine that. It’s such a huge city…

RK: It is a huge city…

LC: I can’t imagine there’s any way you could know everything there is…

RK: Yeah…I love the accessibility – accessibility of meeting other people, like you. You know, people who are excited about, not just arts, but viewing and engaging, the kind of community that can come from these speedy interactions.

LC: I’ve seen you mention, perhaps on your website, the idea of your laborious process. And I’m really interested in that idea of labor and work and effort and why you think it is important to your practice.

RK: For me personally, I value – and I’m not just talking about artwork – I value items that come from something, that [take] blood, sweat and tears.

"With effort means that there’s care and attention, and hopefully skill… For me it’s like the labor of love. You know that if someone worked on this the way they did it must have been important to them."

I really like to have moments in my work where you can be like, ok that looks like a really quick dip, that seems like a simple coverage. But then have points where there is like the detailed beading or how those stones are set or the braiding, and be like, ok someone is really paying attention so maybe I should too. Hopefully it aesthetically catches their eye, first and foremost.

LC: I’m wondering – and this has just come up from our conversation, thinking about these laborious processes, the stitching, sewing, weaving, being very feminine practices traditionally – is this something you consider?

RK: Yes! I really love a lot of the work from the pattern and decoration movement, Womanhaus... Women from the ‘70s – and some of them are actually getting some attention at the moment, finally, people I’ve been studying since I was in high school. And I think this certain group of women that I’ve been excited about, and their mission at that point when women’s lib was just being broken down, it’s very interesting for me to think about those processes in that time context and now in this time context – what has changed contextually, and what does it mean? And I don’t know these answers but I’ve been thinking about it a lot. There’s this text, it’s about ‘femmage’, Miriam Shapiro and Melissa Meyer wrote this in the late 70s, in an all women’s publication – it’s ‘Waste Not Want Not’, about how women throughout history have used these processes to use what’s around us. [i] You think of Gee’s Bend quilts. This group of women in Alabama in this isolated African-American community have created these unbelievable, ridiculous patterned quilts using materials that were remnants from what was around for generations. That’s something I feel…I want to say it feels very gender specific, this taking care of, this mending, it feels very motherly to me. Stitch up what’s already there, give it another life, give it another go – that feels very feminine to me. It honors traditional women’s works, like the sewing we’re talking about, these very decorative types of craft, these craft items. And what happens when that’s mixed with these very fine art modes, traditional modes of painting and sculpture – you know, art with a capital A , as opposed to the ‘little c’, craft. It’s something I very much think about, and I hope that I’m in conversation with these women that I think about and very much respect. Even how contemporary women…or not even just women, just how people are dealing with these kinds of questions. Does someone see gender when they’re first looking at my work? I’m thinking about it but I don’t have answers for it yet… Unfortunately I think that a lot hasn’t changed so maybe that’s part of the revisiting and why it’s still maybe so important to me, that those questions are still, and maybe even more so the fact that it is 2015 and a lot of these things are not broken down yet.

LC: Where do you see yourself in 5 years ideally?

RK: See myself, or my work?

LC: Your work, your practice.

RK: I want to be making. I want to be making until the day I stop breathing. Showing consistently, in the quality that I’m interested in – of artists and work that I’m interested in showing with. I don’t know if resolving, but engaging in a larger conversation… I am very interested in these being autobiographical things – but it is important for me as I’m pulling together new projects that my practice not just be this, an autobiographical reflection, but also reflect more of a collective memory. Being able to shift the scale, having these very delicate items but then also having larger, much larger pieces than I’ve been able to do. To have the exposure to be able to be showing in spaces that are physically much larger than I’ve been working in yet. Bigger in every single aspect, having more visibility… I really hope it starts to go that way.

LC: I hope so too!


[i] Miriam Schapiro and Melissa Meyer, “Waste Not Want Not: An Inquiry into what Women Saved and Assembled - FEMMAGE.” Heresies I, no. 4 (Winter 1977-78): 66-69.
In this wittily subversive text, Schapiro and Meyer, after defining the terms collage, assemblage, decoupage and photomontage, introduce the concept of ‘femmage’, which they define as “a word invented by us to include all of the above activities as they were practiced by women using traditional women's techniques to achieve their art-sewing, piecing, hooking, cutting, appliquéing, cooking and the like-activities also engaged in by men but assigned in history to women.”