Alison Karasyk in Conversation with Rebecca Warlick

Alison Karasyk:  The first thing that I wanted to talk to you about is this transition that you went through from engaging with more traditional means of painting to using urethane as a form for pouring. And making work that, as we’ve discussed, cures within minutes. I’m curious as to what attracted you to that process and how you got started.

Rebecca Warlick: It doesn’t really feel like a hard transition. I’m not committed to anything, but I like the speed of this urethane. Paint is something you can kind of push around as liquid, and then it freezes, but it takes a long time for different kinds of paint. And in my art school experiments, I started with oil paint. And then I went to acrylic, and then when I went to grad school, I went from acrylic to actual plastic, because acrylic is plastic too. So it went from being like an hour-long window of working to being a two-minute long window of working. Which for me was a way to go back to the basics of picture-making.

Alison Karasyk: The basics of picture-making?

Rebecca Warlick: Yeah, or just to really have to make decisions and not be pushing things around, thinking, oh that blue looks good over there. Or does it look better there? To be like, no, this is what it’s going to be.

Alison Karasyk: It seems much more instinctive. 

Rebecca Warlick: More instinctive, yeah. You have to trust yourself more.

Alison Karasyk: How did mold-making come into your practice?

Rebecca Warlick: Well, since I’m using these materials for mold-making, I thought that mold-making was just something I wanted to get better at anyway. And there was something about using an object, and having that object kind of degrade in meaning over time by repeating it. Sort of like when you repeat a word over and over again, it loses its meaning. There were certain things that had significance that I was trying to get at, to use these objects like paint, like brushstrokes. And the mold-making is just a challenge, a personal challenge. I did it because I like to challenge myself. 

Alison Karasyk: There are a lot of artists who are obviously working in painting and in sculpture. But I think that what’s so exciting about the work in this space is that you’re kind of interrupting or challenging processes that are intrinsic to these mediums. Is there any point of exploring these as separate?

Rebecca Warlick: You mean like the difference between painting and sculpture?

Alison Karasyk: Yeah, or the combining of the two.

Rebecca Warlick: I don't know. I still see these as painting, having a surface that has a lot of potential on it. I feel like with sculpture, when you’re fabricating something, you have to really know what you’re doing, or at least have a vision in your head. And if you’re not fabricating with sculpture, then you have to really know every step of what you’re doing technically. And I am getting more literate in the technological aspects of what I am doing, but I still feel very much like I’m thinking like a painter.

Everything is very open. For the vision to unfold, rather than to have the vision have some kind of fidelity to an original vision, like I would be with a sculpture. But I’m also interested in moving, in thinking with my process how to make objects that aren’t on these planes, you know? In a more painterly way. 

Alison Karasyk: Can you speak a little bit about some of the objects within the sculpture at center? Like the corn, for instance.

Rebecca Warlick: There is a lot in there that comes from mold-making, and that is a meaningful thing to me, but I’m not trying to make it very literal. But the corn is really funny to me. I think that corn is really funny right now, especially for humans. I kind of knew that I wanted to have corn in it for some reason. I think corn is a really interesting object. It’s rhizomatic. It’s knobbly. It’s sort of sexual. It’s weird.

But also it’s a grain, and I was thinking about agriculture and how that probably changed humans. We know that it changed human society in many, many ways. And I was reading this paper about corn and how people have kind of,  how corn is not a natural thing. We’ve evolved corn from grasses to sustain large cities and populations. So corn and grains are one of the reasons that we have large populations and that we can feed each other. But it’s also a big contributor to pollution, and it’s not even that good for us. It makes people sluggish. I was reading that it has this psychological effect. And not just grain-sensitive people, but everyone in general. So it’s interesting thinking about how we’ve evolved alongside the corn and grass. And the way that it affects the body.

Alison Karasyk: Especially because there’s corn in the sculpture titled America, which has particular resonance right now. And to that end, I’m curious to hear you speak a bit more about the works that seem to allude to or reference art history and pop culture. I’m thinking of Blonde Hesse and The Big Green One, and there may be others.

Rebecca Warlick: I was talking to my friend Kate about faces, and how primal they are, and how it’s like the first thing that you look at as a baby. Like your development as a child is very much related to gazing into your mother’s face, or anyone’s face. Anybody with a face and an expression. And how easy it is to see faces in things. When I made these, it was really, really instinctive. And I think that some psychological aspects like that came out of it, just intuitively. This one is historically related to that Goya painting of Cronus eating his children.

Alison Karasyk: So it is a body.

Rebecca Warlick: It’s a body, yeah. That’s some feet. She’s eating it. But I thought it was interesting to have it be this girl, with this nice cool hair, and vacant eyes, just eating it. Because it’s just a human thing to be suspicious of the next generation and to try and hoard power and I wanted it to be kind of open for anybody, even a young girl with green flesh.

Alison Karasyk: So what about the color blocking that’s happening in the face? Is that just a fun way to play with color, or are there any references that you’re thinking about?

Rebecca Warlick: Well, it kind of just happened out of my process. Like I started it kind of blind, and then created this shape. You notice, this head, it’s very important that it’s a big head. But before, there was a lot of different ideas going, and I kind of thought, color blocking, it’s like a messed-up Alex Katz. Harry Potter.

Alison Karasyk: You used the term “hoarding power” which leads me to want to ask about your work, The Hoarder. I’m always a bit suspicious of those two ducks that are kind of peering down, and also the use of chroma key blue. When we were talking with Karen and David, they called it Yves Klein blue. When I look at it, I think of it as Sondra Perry blue.

Audience member: So which blue is it?

Rebecca Warlick: It’s actually the legit chroma key blue, from a can like you would get at a set shop or other places for productions. It’s the real blue they use, so the camera doesn’t pick up.

Audience member: Oh, like a green screen.

Rebecca Warlick: Yeah, exactly. And it’s that exact formulation. It covers amazingly well, and I think that’s why I decided to call it The Hoarder, because I thought, by covering stuff, I’m sort of hoarding secret information. But also, those ducks are casts of my grandmother’s ducks, and she’s an avid collector, so I thought it was kind of funny. Not to call her a hoarder or anything.

Alison Karasyk: But that the painting is almost engaging in an action. 

Rebecca Warlick: I think the animals and all the cute stuff, it kind of came out of it in a way that any painter would make anything. Like you see what works and it’s a gut feeling. It’s just instinctive. And it might as well be abstract, but it’s not. There’s some kind of psychology in there, but I hope that it’s not just about ducks or about, like, cute things.

Alison Karasyk: Going back to the green screen, I feel like you’re thinking through color as a way to make some things disappear and to exaggerate others. This also relates to the painting Nine-Eleven. The splash of yellow paint might be my favorite detail. There’s something about this gesture of brightness towards the bottom of the substrate. Another thing that I think is really amazing about this specific work is that it’s actually a mold of another painting, right?

Rebecca Warlick: Yeah, I made a mold of another painting. And I made about eleven casts of it. That’s one of them. It’s just a urethane cast with liquid plastic. But that one says nine-eleven. 

Karen Hesse Flatow: Is this the ninth of the eleven casts?

Sam Cooke: Whoa. It probably is.

Rebecca Warlick: I wouldn’t be surprised. 

Sam Cooke: Because of the number. It has nothing to do with 9/11.

Alison Karasyk: No loaded symbol.

Sam Cooke: Exactly.

Alison Karasyk: But you almost don’t even process the words. That’s what I think is so amazing about that work, your usage of language, and then the color, composition and the textural elements. The fact that it just gets murky at the bottom, there’s just something that always draws me in.  

Rebecca Warlick: Yeah, I was kind of afraid to write nine-eleven out on it. And then I thought I should go with what is frightening, or what seems wrong about it. But it felt like something so right, you know? I just had to do it. And I think that’s a good strategy in general in my work for me, is to do the thing that is scary, because usually there’s something to that. I did it like that because when 9/11 happened, I was like 11 years old. Not that that is really meaningful that I was 11, but I was at the age where I was very concerned about growing into a young woman, and wearing clothes and stuff. And I was shopping at Hollister and Limited Too. So I designed the Nine-Eleven around that kind of shirt design. Like if I was going to make a graphic tee, like a ring tee, with glitter and stuff, like nine eleven, there would be the little yellow bird in the corner, and it’d be kind of cool. But it wasn’t cool. It was irrevocably sad and horrible for the world. But it’s not going away.  

Alison Karasyk: Speaking of challenges and facing things that are difficult, I’m really interested in hearing you talk about your use of expanding foam. Because this is such a layered and built up composition, and we talked of course about the corn and some of the more specific mold-made details, but I know this is such a process of coverage and layering, and I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit about how the work came into being?  

Rebecca Warlick: Yeah. It was one of the casts of this, actually. It was one of those paintings that I laid over a mannequin, and I let it become like a human. When this plastic is curing, it’s really malleable, and you can mold it. It’s hot. So I had it become a human shape in the front, and then I filled it with expanding foam and I put it in a garbage bag.

 Alison Karasyk: Why?

Rebecca Warlick: Because it won’t leak. I mean, not just garbage bags, but any kind of plastic. And I just built up the form over time using expanding foam and plastic and tape. But that was the original. I didn’t know what this would look like until I made it. Then I made a mold out of it.

Sam Cooke: This is a cast of it.  

Rebecca Warlick: Yeah, so I was working on this kind of blind for months.

Alison Karasyk: Why do you say blind? Because you don’t know how it would turn out?  

Rebecca Warlick: Yeah, because the original was going to be made in the matter of an hour or something. And, I didn’t know how it would translate.  

Sam Cooke: We went to Kaari Upson’s show at the New Museum. And I remember while Rebecca was making the work in the studio, we kept talking about that show and how all of that work is made from molds. She said that she made them all in a single pour. And she was showing images from her studio that were kind of deliberately blurry. How did she do that!

Rebecca Warlick: Oh, I know. We were so pissed off.

Sam Cooke: I remember you said, you were like, for my first show, I need to have like a big cast. This was our first attempt. We did it.

Rebecca Warlick: Yeah. We stole a garbage can.

Sam Cooke: We stole the garbage bin and crawled inside it.  

Rebecca Warlick: I had to go inside of it, because it’s a brush-on rubber mold. It was a big giant glove of that. And yeah, one of the last touches was the Precious Moments head.

Alison Karasyk: Yeah, I was just going to ask about that head peeking at you as you walk in. It feels like it’s just being slung across the shoulder of a caretaker.

Rebecca Warlick: Well when I look at this, and when I was thinking about it, I think of classical sculpture, and what David Humphrey was saying, the Winged Victory and all that stuff is very much a classical mode of thinking. And the Precious Moments figures are like that for old women. It forms an idea of spirituality in a way. It’s the commodification of cuteness and how cuteness is so useful in art and in life. And this is like the opposite of cute.

Alison Karasyk: Useful how? Like as a commodity?  

Rebecca Warlick: Yeah, babies are cute because you need to be taken care of when you’re helpless. If somebody’s being cute, if you’re cute, like yes, I’ll help you live, cute thing.

Alison Karasyk: So does cuteness have to do with the color choice?

Rebecca Warlick: Not really. I don’t think this is a very cute color. I feel like this is the inside of somebody’s mouth or something. This is really like an inverse vagina, in a way. If you think about it, it’s definitely bodily.

Sam Cooke: Medical, almost.

Audience member: So it’s not pink?

Rebecca Warlick: It’s pink.

Sam Cooke: Coral.

Rebecca Warlick: It’s pink mixed with brown.

Alison Karasyk: Does anyone have anything that they want to ask ?

Ellie Hayworth: I think we had a really interesting conversation a few weeks ago when we touched on the Blonde Hesse, but this idea of cuteness is very interesting and it seems to be a recurring theme in a number of your pieces. Like the Nine-Eleven, the Hollister X with the packaging, the commodification of these kinds of insidious and divisive historical events. And the Blonde Hesse at first glance, and some of the allusions that you mentioned, Rebecca, are also kind of cute and about this kitschy Americana. But there is this deeper meaning. And I think you allude to it with the name Hesse, like Eva Hesse. But I’d love to hear a little bit more about the Blonde Hesse, because I think she’s sitting there and she wants to be talked about.

Rebecca Warlick: It’s Britney Spears. It’s Britney. And I called her Blonde Hesse because of Sasha. But I think that Eva Hesse and Britney Spears have a lot in common, because they were both kind of on to some kind of periphery of something. A new kind of minimalism, or like pop music. And they both were victims of it, in a way. And Britney’s just really interesting, because she’s the seminal pop music figure. There had never been anybody like her before, and there’s probably not going to be anyone like Britney again. I mean, when that whole machine really started rolling, her whole life was under a microscope. And she kind of changed the aesthetic for a long time with her first album. I think it was self titled, when she’s kneeling in the schoolgirl outfit.

Alison Karasyk: With pom-poms in her hair.

Rebecca Warlick: Yeah. She’s looking up at the camera. And I just think she’s really important. 

Alison Karasyk: I always come back to the foot in that work. Someone told me to look for it and I couldn’t find it. It literally had to be shown to me. And so I just love that there are these kind of hidden—

Rebecca Warlick: Bruises. 

Alison Karasyk: Yeah, bruises, secrets. Was that always part of it, to include the foot?

Rebecca Warlick: I don’t care to get rid of the surface, the history of the painting. I think of it as a skin, and it’s really important that that is there, that all the history within it, is still there. And it’s complicated, what the foot represents, because I didn’t start thinking I’m stepping on Britney Spears. But that’s how the hat formed. That’s what happened. Maybe it’s a self-portrait. Maybe it’s internalized.

Sam Cooke: It’s like a ghost foot.

Rebecca Warlick: Yeah. But I think it’s really important in painting that it’s not just totally covered. The painting is a lot about covering things up. But I think that what’s underneath it is the most important. It is very powerful. And so I like to keep those steps alive. 

Audience member: Is there something that’s always the same, like an image, a color, a character? Like with the corn, for instance. 

Rebecca Warlick: I have a deep connection to my grandmother, who gave me these ducks, and who is a collector. And she’s from North Dakota, and she was a farmer. Maybe there’s that kind of ancestral thing. But I don’t think there’s anything recurring, like a symbol or anything right now that I would pinpoint. I do think that there is a constant, actually. I do believe in a constant source, something still beneath something else.

Audience member: So if I see your paintings three years from now, will there be this continuing? 

Rebecca Warlick: I think so. 

Sam Cooke: I think it’s more like an attitude that is constant in her work that I see. I see a style and an attitude. An attitude towards form and picture, almost. Something that’s casual, but intensely sad.

Rebecca Warlick: I do believe that anyone who seriously is practicing this stuff, if you’re serious about any form of art, you’ll find that there is something that is constant within your practice. There’s something constant in your sensibility, whether it’s that some people are ecstatic and some people are not. Some people are very tight about pattern or geometry. I think that my sensibility is a bit about containment and about something quiet.

Audience member: Each of your pieces has a humorous element to them. How important is that to you? It’s a dark humor, I love it.  

Rebecca Warlick: You think it’s funny?

Audience member: It’s kind of a tendency for a serious non-seriousness. I’m wondering how important that is to you.

Rebecca Warlick: It’s really important. I don’t like anything that’s not humorous. I think humor is a good way to approach to the world. I try to be funny. I feel like there is a lot of humor lacking in a lot of art.

Ellie Hayworth: You relayed this interesting little anecdote about the, I keep calling it a putti, like one of those kind of Renaissance angels, but the Precious Moment. And how you used the word “beheaded.” How you felt like you were beheading this little Precious Moment, but also giving it new life. But I thought it was very comedic, and gave it great character.

Rebecca Warlick: So that was a gift of Sam’s. Sam is making casts of these Precious Moments dolls that he found.  

Sam Cooke: “Found.”

Rebecca Warlick: Stole.

Sam Cooke: I gave them back.

Rebecca Warlick: And it was from someone’s garden. He gave one to me, and it was made out of foam, and he said this is the voodoo doll of you. And I was like, voodoo dolls have a bad reputation. I was reading that voodoo dolls are mostly used for healing and stuff, and I think that’s how you approach it. You’re very spiritual. But I’m not. I don’t have that background. So I took my saw and I cut the head off. And that’s why I put it on there, because I kind of felt like there was this connection between me and Sam when we were working. And I needed to have that, my voodoo doll be a representative on top of my own sculpture.

Sam Cooke: It felt natural. It felt like it needed to happen.

Rebecca Warlick: We’re just trying to chase what needs to happen with these works.

Alison Karasyk: How?

Rebecca Warlick: The materials make themselves go forward. That’s how things unfold, through the material qualities and their necessities.

Alison Karasyk: So with Jimson Weed, the first work that you see when you walk into the show, there’s another painting underneath that one, correct? Because we talked a lot about covering, and how you don’t throw away paintings. How did you come to what needed to happen based on the work already there?

Rebecca Warlick: I had been working on that painting for a year or so. And I had just been repeatedly throwing more plastic and stuff on it. And I was reading about Georgia O’Keeffe and I was looking at her paintings, and thinking about how great it would be to go to the desert. But I really thought that there needed to be some kind of graphic resolution to it.

Alison Karasyk: What about the scratching?

Rebecca Warlick: That’s just part of what happens with the plasticine, the way that, I make shapes with this material is with clay that doesn’t ever dry. So I have it on the ground and I roll out the clay in long rolls. And then I’ll make the shape, and then I pour in it, and then it cures and I take it off. But to get it off, I have to scratch it off. So that’s where that comes from. There are also spider webs on it. I was looking at these spider webs, because Jimson Weed is psychoactive. And so, I Google image searched Jimson Weed and I saw these spiders have been given acid and mescaline and shrooms and DMT, and their webs were all really different based on the drugs they were taking. So I was using the patterns from their webs, because I’m interested in the experiences of different drugs.

Karen Hesse Flatow: When we went to your studio, you had already started working on a million other things. What happened after this show? I know finishing that sculpture was a huge thing. I always like to think that is the last edition. But I’m interested in your thoughts, because you’re already in the mix. 

Rebecca Warlick: Yeah, I’ve started making a lot of new work. It’s mostly shaped canvases. And 3D work, which has casts of my own body parts and more of the things that I’ve collected over time. So they’re going to be pretty large, but also differently shaped. I’m moving away from the rectangle. I’m really excited about that. Also looking into less harmful materials.