Interview with “Spectacular Beasts” artist, Travis Kerkela

by Admin on 05/09/2011

This week, the second of our interview series of artists currently exhibiting in the Spectacular Beasts group show at Incline Gallery is artist Travis Kerkela!

You’re not from Bay Area– you attended school here and stayed. Any particular reason you’ve stayed? How do you find living and working in San Francisco unique from other places you have worked?

Actually, after graduate school I moved back to the Upper Penninsula of Michigan for a family emergency and stayed there a for a year. I found myself working for money cutting down trees with my cousin, and turning them into lumber in a portable sawmill. I had a one way ticket back I hadn’t used so I decided to come back and visit for a couple weeks and do some odd jobs to make money for a ticket back to Michigan. I was lucky enough to snag an on-call job on the installation crew at SFMOMA and I’m still here 5 years later. For anyone who has grown up in the woods, living in an urban environment is quite a rough transition to make in many ways. But I think I put up with the lack of adequate and affordable space out here because I love all the other things the bay area offers here so much, most notably the people. Also, I feel like I’ve shoveled enough snow and swatted enough mosquitoes for a lifetime anyways.

What would you like to pursue in your art-making? If any, in which ways would you like to see your artwork change?

In the future I hope I find myself making the type of paintings that I never would consider as of now.

Images are very illustrative and quickly read until an uncanny undertone is detected– similar to a manipulation of a found object or image. Is that a fair assessment of your work? Do you find images to work from, or is it completely your own thoughts?

Both, some paintings are based more from a single photo while others are done from many or none at all. When its from a single photo there is more of a stress on transforming it into an image I can take authorship of. But I’m trying to get to the point where I don’t have to depend on photographs as much.

What inspires you to keep making art and how do you continue to be motivated?

That’s a great question. I haven’t even figured out why I chose to be a painter in the first place. It’s a very slow, tedious process with no promise of reward. The best explanation I found is that I think I have a type of temperament that feels compelled to sit and focus on a single thing when I have spare time. Why I chose painting I don’t know, since to be honest my interests aren’t really centered around the art world as much. I’m much more drawn to the study of esotericism, and observing the “fringe thinkers” in the realms of physics, biology, astronomy, history, and archaeology, etc.. So I think that what my job is as a painter, is to serve as a record keeper of that “archetype”, so to speak. Ideally, I would like to reach an audience that isn’t necessarily all that “art savvy”.

You have a remarkable luminosity and you’re great at capturing the texture of your subject in your work. I’ve also noticed this is one part of your paintings that is often worked on and aggrandized more than other techniques used. Why? Is this the part of painting you like the most?

I’m focusing on those aspects a lot cause it’s what I’m striving to develop. After graduate school I realized I had no eye for color, so developing an interesting palette is the most important aspect to me right now.

Your subjects focus on molecular biology, whether a dissection of what is under the skin or physical manifestations of illnesses or diseases, like wounds and sores. To many, these subjects might be uncomfortable to look at, whether in or out of an artistic setting. But your work enables them to be appreciated and admired just on basis of material aesthetics. How do you feel about your choice of subject matter?

That’s something that I struggle with quite a bit. I understand that my choice of imagery can be seen as “dark” or “creepy”, but I simply don’t see it that way. To me it’s all fluff. I feel that my generation has become desensitized by popular culture bombarding us with such extremely graphic images that we now have license to take something that could previously be considered to be shocking and use it in a multitude of different ways. After working at a museum for several years, I have noticed that it doesn’t matter what you make, there’s always someone out there that will take offense to it. It’s easy to offend people. So it isn’t my intention to make anything that would offend anyone, I want someone to see something beautiful and ethereal in my paintings where they normally wouldn’t expect to. That I believe is what my challenge is.

Draftsmanship on paper is commonly seen as secondary to painting on canvas. Yet, your drawings are quite large and done with just as much, if not more intricacy and detail. How do you choose your medium for an idea? Do you prefer drawing or painting more? How are the two different for you?

I don’t understand why drawing gets seen as secondary, but I have to admit I rarely draw anymore. I’ve also never kept a sketchbook. I think I’m just drawn to the painters that were great colorists, and I hope to be able to control color in that way. So I mostly make paintings these days.