Like looking through the window of a moving car: In conversation with Claudia Keep

Landscape painter Claudia Keep shies away from the grandiose and the impressive, the main attraction and picture postcard view. Instead, what she offers us in her luscious oil paintings is a window on the world of the everyday: familiar and banal scenes from daily life—a curve in a road, an almost empty parking lot, a building across the street. At first glance there appears to be nothing special about these scenes—they’re non-views, quickly passed over and easily missed. But this is precisely what appeals to Claudia and catches her attention. Working from photos she takes with her phone, Claudia doesn’t always know exactly why she’s attracted to a particular scene. But through the painting process—gestural brushstrokes and restrained colour palettes—the humdrum becomes imbued with emotion and the traces of people now absent from the scene.

The act of looking is central in Claudia’s work. Compositional framing devices such as windows recur frequently. Viewing Claudia’s work we’re aware of seeing the scene through someone’s eyes: a personal perspective. So what these landscapes offer is less a window on the world but someone’s impression of it—these scenes are important because they are coloured by memories and experiences that give banal places singular resonance and meaning. Claudia doesn’t tell us what these are, instead leaving it hanging in the air but impossible to miss. In this way her quiet landscapes are less studies of natural scenery than inverted self-portraits.

AMM: Hi Claudia! To start us off, can you share a piece of advice you’ve received or an experience you’ve had which has profoundly influenced your art making and/or career as an artist?

CK: The year after college was a really difficult time for me—I wasn’t painting at all, then I moved to Maine to work for an older artist. He ended up giving me free space to paint in his studio; this generosity, and demonstration of faith in me as an artist was a huge turning point for me, and I don’t know that I would have ever painted again without it. He also had this amazing work ethic; it was inspiring to see an artist who supported themselves solely through their art. I felt accountable to take the best advantage of the opportunity. It really instilled in me the importance of work, and disabused me of the idea that art is about moments of inspiration, sometimes that happens, but it’s mostly just work, like anything else. There are so many times I feel discouraged and uninspired, but feeling like I was expected to show up every day and keep painting was so important.

AMM: Looking and observing is an essential skill for an artist. In your practice, this is foregrounded conceptually and compositionally. Please tell us more about the role of looking in your work and approach to art.

CK: Looking is kind of everything. I feel like that is where the real hard work lies. So much work is done off canvas, if you will. All my work comes from my own observations. Most of my time making a piece is looking and thinking about the reference photo or subject, and then a lot of time stepping back and staring at it. I feel like the actual, physical act of painting doesn’t take that long.

What’s appealing in other painters’ work is how they see things—their eye. Being technically gifted is not enough.

Someone pointed out to me that many of my paintings are mediated views; through things, like fences or windows, or views that are partially obscured. I guess a lot of my work is sort of about the experience of seeing something. Looking through a car window, or a curtain, stuff gets kind of mutated, you see parts of things—it’s amazing how so much can be communicated with a sliver of light or color. It’s more exciting, I think, to see something partially, and to have to do some work, as a viewer. It’s more interesting than to see whatever something is completely, I guess I’m rather a voyeur.

‘Night time visitor’ 8″x10″ oil on masonite

AMM: The mundane scenes in your painting are made fresh through luscious paint and gestural brushstrokes. How does mark-making relate to subject matter in your work?

CK: My mark-making has evolved. A few years ago I was painting really thick — lots of paint, very textural brush strokes. I work a lot thinner now, because I can achieve what I want without all that paint —the thickness of paint wasn’t what was important.

Mark-making is important compositionally—I think good paintings are ones that are able to have a dynamic quality as well as still points, allowing the viewer to rest. Much of this is achieved through quality of mark-making. Some of my mark-making is unintentional, or born of simply painting a lot, like handwriting. But I do also think about parts of the painting that need to be smoother, more opaque, or scratchy; a wall with a shadow on it will be more convincing if it has solidity and less visible brushstrokes, while the shadow can be looser and more gestural. I think there is a lot of humor that can be communicated in the relationship between how something is painted and what it is, so that informs my decisions about mark-making as well.

AMM: Do you paint from found or your own imagery, or maybe memory? What are your research and sourcing processes?

CK: I paint primarily from photos I take with my iPhone, sometimes I paint out the window of my studio, or from a still life that I set up, and very occasionally from memory. There is something that feels very “now”, very contemporary about the quality of an iPhone picture. It’s also simply a function of practicality—I always have my phone, and so much of the imagery I am interested in is momentary, lending itself to being captured in a photograph. The photos I take are good for spatial relationships, shadows, proportions; they serve as reminders, starting off points, but I’m not bound by them, I change things. I think it’s important to me to have actually seen what I photograph, because colors never come out the way I want them to in photos. I also end up using photos of things I see because nothing I could ever dream up is ever better than what exists in real life, nothing is ever as strange or as surreal as what I see in real life. I think I’m lucky because I am easily impressed by the most mundane things —sometimes something as simple as a shadow on a wall will truly make me stop in my tracks. I take pictures all the time, things will jump out at me, sometimes, in the moment I’m not entirely sure what it is about the “composition” that I like. Sometimes it takes months, even a year before I know how I want to paint something.

‘Sleepless in bed study’ 12″x14″ oil on masonite

AMM: What is your approach to colour in your work? How do you use colour to heighten mood and tone in your figurative visual language?

CK: When I first started painting, I was urged by my teachers to paint every color I saw, which was a great education and good training for my “eye”, but I’ve drawn back from that quite a bit. It’s such a simple notion, but one that was rather groundbreaking to me, that I can paint whatever I want, with whatever color I want. I’m not bound by fidelity to reality. I’ve started to limit and control my palette more and more. I want to paint colors that I like, or that work compositionally. I also am interested in a certain economy of visual language. Something doesn’t have to include every color and every detail to be compelling and rich. Color is often how I choose a composition or subject, what I feel compelled by when I’m out in the world. Color definitely is the primary way to communicate emotion, especially in a scene without people, but I don’t always plan that ahead of time, it’s something that I often realize after I’ve finished the painting. I’ve become very interested in capturing the way different weather or the time of day change how otherwise “static” features look, especially in a city—buildings seem so solid yet they take on such different feelings under different light.

AMM: people are conspicuously absent from your paintings. If they feature at all, they’re shadows or walking away from the viewer. What might this represent? Please tell us more about this.

CK: I’m interested in the tension created by a space that suggests something has just happened or is just about to happen—I feel there is a sort of suspension. I think there is a palpable energy in seemingly empty spaces—so many spaces are imbued with expectation, like roads or basketball courts.

I suppose I’ve become less interested in painting figures that are about a specific character or person, and more about some sense of an emotional realism, fidelity to a certain feeling, that is at once personal and general, something relatable. I painted lots of figures and portraits in school—I can achieve a likeness but that’s not good enough, and I’m still working on how to portray people in a way that I like.

I think there’s come to be a subject out of the painting, a very specific view. I think I’m trying to paint what it’s like to be looking out of your car while driving, or walking home at night, I’m interested in specificity, that I think ironically makes work more accessible. I’ve been thinking about less literal portraiture. I guess I’m also walking around alone a lot, being a painter is a sort of lonely occupation, maybe it’s just about that.

AMM: Have you always painted? What about this medium appeals to you and keeps your interest?

CK: I did my first painting from life when I was 11, and after that never really stopped. I’ve been painting for so long that it doesn’t feel like a choice I made. I wasn’t always sure about pursuing a career as an artist, but painting was never in question. Of course the objective quality of painting is important to me—being able to render a subject, and to have that communicate something, but personally, it is also very much about the physicality of making my work, and that is mostly about oil paint. I love oil paint—I love the way it mixes, the way it feels, the effects that can be achieved with it.

‘Car pool’ 10″x12″ oil on masonite

AMM: There’s a quiet dialogue going on between nature and man-made objects in your art. What is this relationship about?

CK: Before I moved to New York, I was living on an island in Maine. The landscape is so beautiful, it’s kind of unreal and overwhelming. Everything, all the time, is so picturesque—ocean, mountains, trees, huge rocks. It’s also a very specific landscape that has been painted by many well-known artists. I didn’t feel comfortable directly confronting the landscape, I didn’t know what I could add to it, or add to a tradition of depicting it. I had an acute sense of it already being done, I had to find my way into it. I found my way in through things I thought were maybe a little ugly or awkward—man-made things, or funny situational landscapes—to me it’s kind of funny to have a little car in the midst of all this absolute epically proportioned natural beauty. The juxtaposition of nature and man-made things are an everyday reality, in Maine or in New York City. For me it’s less a judgment or valuation and more a “moment” that lends emphasis to both aspects of our reality. Maine gave me appreciation of the geometry, and color etc. of the man-made, the painted yellow line on a road made me appreciate the dark color of the trees—that relationship becomes a composition that I can work with. The city gave me an appreciation of the natural, like the grace and curves of a branch, or softness of clouds, that contrast with all the hard angles of city architecture.

AMM: Being acutely interested in observing the subtle nature of things, are you influenced by your surroundings? How does this affect you artistically?           

CK: Yes, I’m very influenced by my surroundings and the environment where I find myself. I’m inspired by the everyday, and I tend to paint things that are local to me—things I see commuting to work or my studio, my friends’ homes—so that makes my surroundings fundamental to my work. I try to live in places that are inspiring to me, artistically. Places that to me are beautiful. In the past when I’ve felt oppressed by my surroundings, it has been very hard to paint. I think I’m possibly getting a little better at overcoming that, but I can’t work everywhere—I need some sense of having my own space, having a studio or part of a room solely dedicated to painting is essential to me.

AMM: What does your studio look and feel like?

CK: I moved to Brooklyn a few months ago, and my priority was just to find a space to work, that wasn’t too expensive, and not too far from where I live. I share a large room with two other artists—I’m lucky and almost always have the place to myself. I don’t have much besides my paints and brushes. My studio has a window, which I like. I’m always listening to music in the studio. I have a plant that was a gift from another painter. My practice is pretty minimal—I don’t use an easel, I really just work on the floor. Someday I’d like a private studio. A friend of mine has a studio in a building with roof access, with a view of the city—that would be a dream.

AMM: When you’re not making art, what are the things you enjoy doing?

CK: Nothing is the same since Covid-19 effectively shut the world down, but before that I liked walking around the city, it’s always inspiring. I like the outdoors—I like hiking, and swimming. l like going to the beach, even in winter. Driving around listening to music, going to galleries and museums with friends. There weren’t any other painters my age where I lived in Maine, so since moving to New York, I’ve been able to meet other painters and do studio visits, which has been nice. I can talk about painting forever. I also love music, I was supposed to go to some concerts but they’ve been cancelled, of course because of Covid-19.

AMM: Do you have any exciting projects coming up? What’s next for you?

CK: Everything has had to be adjusted because of Covid-19. Some plans for exhibitions of my work will possibly be shifted from something you could see physically to something online, but it’s hard to say, so much is unknown right now. There is nothing like seeing art in person, so I hope we can all do that again as soon as possible.

Find out more about the artist: www.claudiakeep.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

‘Evening consolation’ 12″x14″ oil on masonite