I think a lot about simulacra and kitsch, and how much they shape the world we live in today.
In his ‘Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young’, Oscar Wilde advises his juvenile reader that “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible”. As with many of Wilde’s epithets, below the camp irony of the one-liner lies a more profound observation. Far back in the evolution of humankind, long before Homo sapiens, there was Homo habilis – the maker. The accelerated development of our hominid ancestors began with the creation and use of tools, extending our natural limitations and eventually taking us to the top of the food chain. With industrialisation and the later technological revolutions, human beings adapted to lives of increasing artificiality.
The artist Kelda Van Patten creates photo-based imagery that disrupts the sedimentation of artifice, artfully confusing the vegetative with the simulation, the object with its image. And yet none of this is natural, all of it is, in a sense, artificial. The flowers of the garden and the fruit of the orchard are hybrid forms coaxed into being through the artifice of horticulture. That said, they are bound to the contract of all living things, that in time they will die and return to the earth. Not so the simulations in Terylene and plastic that will bloom and remain ripe for ever. Less still, the digital images that lie dormant as binary code, to germinate in the printer as lush but insubstantial food for the eyes.
These creations are unapologetically heterogeneous – rich patchworks in which brazen juxtaposition is flaunted rather than discreetly blended with a digital airbrush. The lively colours and forms draw the eye, but subtly disturb the imagination, reminding us that what is made clear here is more often hid from our awareness. Contingent and unstable, the images push the idea of the artificial to its limit, posing the question: what lies for us beyond our duty to be artificial? And, as Oscar Wilde goes on the write, “What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.”
What first drew you to photography as your medium of expression?
I am a K–12 art teacher, so I work with a lot of different mediums, including drawing, painting, printmaking, and ceramics. It wasn’t until, in 2018, I decided to go back to graduate school for my MFA that I got back into photography again. I really like the way a photograph can be both a fiction and a simulation of reality. And I am fascinated with the way that the medium not only allows me to use light and shadow, but also blend collage and drawing.
How did your still-life work begin?
I was making these really ephemeral three-dimensional collages in graduate school – brightly coloured string, pieces of fabric, torn up found photos – which I then hung on the wall to create shadow effects. It just made sense to take photographs of these arrangements, so that I could experiment more with the light and shadow. I also realised that I could work with these photographs in post-production, which opened up endless possibilities. I started looking at the work of other still-life photographers and found this really inspiring. Artists like Lucas Blalock, Daniel Gordon, and Sara Cwynar.
How are the images constructed?
I use a lot of second-hand plastic plants, fruits, and artificial flowers, which I find on eBay or at thrift stores, along with pipe cleaners, string, cut paper… I also collect vintage gardening books and old perfume bottles. I have a range of eighties and nineties bed sheets that make great backdrops. I start by arranging my still life on a table. I shoot with a medium format digital Hasselblad and sometimes place a sheet of clear acrylic between the still life and the camera, which I can draw onto using glass markers.
While I prefer doing the majority of the work within the still life arrangement itself, I do like to go a little wild in post-production, changing the colours, adding fake shadows or virtual dew drops. But a lot of the surface marks that might appear to be digital additions are actually part of the physical set-up. It might be quicker to do this in Photoshop, but I like the way that physically creating these marks slows the creative process down. Ultimately, I want to create a world that hovers between the analogue and the digital.
You draw an interesting connection with Homeric legend in your image of carnations and bananas, connecting our digital present with an ancient past…
This series title, ‘Always in Flower and in Fruit’, is a reference to King Alcinous’s orchards in ‘The Odyssey’. The idea of an orchard that never has any down time and is constantly producing fruit or blooms struck me as a dark and humorous metaphor. The artificial purple carnations stand in a press-moulded vase (an image downloaded from the Metropolitan Museum’s open-source collection), press-glass being an industrially mass-produced form that imitates the look of cut glass. Along with the flowers, I photographed an aging bunch of bananas and some artificial plastic ones. I made various photographs of the set-up and then cut up those prints and taped then together in new arrangements to be re-photographed.
I sense a feminist undertow to your work, especially in the series called ‘Dining Room Pictures’.
I was thinking about how the still life has often been considered the least respected of painting genres, compared say to religious or history painting. It was also the genre that women often worked in, not the least because domestic objects such as bowls of fruit or vases of flowers were easily accessible to women when their proper place was considered to be within the home. I wanted to investigate the way these cultural and domestic spaces engendered social constructs for women, such as prettiness and politeness.
In the case of ‘Dining Room Pictures’, I borrowed the term from the genre of early twentieth-century American still-life paintings that were literally meant to be displayed in the dining room, as a testament to the host’s ability to provide lavishly. I wanted to bring this up to date in an ironic way. To explore what still-life might reveal about today’s age of late capitalism when we are inundated with images and simulations. While dining room paintings were small, I decided to make mine larger than life at fifty-eight inches across [c150cm]. And, of course, there are the digital alterations as well, which really bring the photographs into the contemporary space.
Much of this work has been made over the past three years, the period of Covid 19. Has the pandemic affected how this work has evolved?
I started making this work just prior to the pandemic and was working on my thesis in graduate school when the lock down began. It made me question how I could go on making pictures of flowers with all that was going on in the world at that time. But then I started to go on a lot of walks through my neighbourhood, as many of us did. That spring, I particularly noticed the pink camelias – the way they fell to the ground and slowly decomposed, turning from a fresh candy-cane pink to pale translucent brown. It was so beautiful to watch… I realised then that flowers are anything but trivial. I started thinking about how flowers can connect us, reminding us of both life and death. So, I just kept making the still-life pictures and, along the way, objects that happened to be sitting around at the time started showing up in the work: masks, gloves, hand sanitizer…
What underlying themes are you exploring in this work?
I think a lot about simulacra and kitsch, and how much they shape the world we live in today. For example, I love house plants and yet I think about how, as we increasingly disconnect from nature in this post-industrial age, houseplants have become markers of loss.
I wanted to capture that sense in the series ‘Nature Inside’. I had read that, during the pandemic lockdowns, the sale of indoor plants has risen dramatically. It made me think about the way people find solace in nature, even if it means bringing it indoors. And then there are artificial plants, which are so strange… it’s like: enjoy nature, but without any actual form of life… Plastic nature. There is humour in my work, of course – I have to laugh to survive – but I hope my work evokes that sense of loss as well.
I am interested in the relationship between simulation and instability in your work. Is there a resonance here with the still lifes of the seventeenth century which celebrated materiality while reminding the viewer of their own mortality?
I love that you used the words simulation and instability because I think they describe my work and process perfectly. Yes, I am definitely inspired by the still lifes of the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance. They depict a time that is similar to today, except that there was probably a lot more optimism then. It was the beginning of modern capitalism. There was an obsession with materiality, wealth, but at the same time an awareness of mortality, which artists referenced symbolically with decaying flowers, dew drops, insects, or more overtly with a skull or an hourglass.
[Left] © Kelda Van Patten ‘Unforgettable’ 2022 from the series ‘Sentimental Pictures’
[Right] © Kelda Van Patten ‘Even Reality Looks Artificial’ 2022 from the series ‘Sentimental Pictures’
More fundamentally, my work starts with precarious and temporary collaged constructions that are then photographed and re-photographed. I explore surprise and contradiction through the investigation of spaces in between artifice and truth, imagination and the real, mimesis and the origin. My artistic investigations live within a chaotic framework where the very identity of a photograph is in question; the perceived truth of the medium is interrogated.
Do you see your work as kitsch?
Not in the contemporary sense of bad taste that is ironically appreciated. I am interested in notions of sentimentality, what that means, and how it is connected to kitsch and loss. What I think my work does is reference the nineteenth-century roots of kitsch, as melancholic curiosities that evoke desire and comfort while simultaneously masking denial and loss.
How did ‘Fern Mania’ begin?
This series was made while I was an artist in residence at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, on the Oregon coast. I had a month out there, and much of my time was spent walking through the rain forest taking photographs of the sword ferns, mushrooms, moss, and Sitka spruce trees. I took closeup flash photographs of sword fern fronds – using a green gel to intensify the colour – then made prints, cut them out, and clipped them to a plastic Boston fern I had brought with me. I arranged the tableaux – including mushrooms, moss, slugs, and sticks, printed emojis or 3-D models – and re-photographed it against a black velvet backdrop.
What ideas did you want to bring out in this series?
I wanted to challenge myself (and hopefully the viewer) to question perceptions of nature, kitsch, and what we think we are seeing while imagining something beyond. Ferns were a wildly popular fad during the latter half of the nineteenth century, especially among women. This craze, which became known as pteridomania, led to an abundance of derivative production, an explosion of fern-related kitsch. I find the melancholy embedded in nature kitsch especially interesting – the way it incites longing while disguising loss. It alters how we see and experience nature.
What are you working on now?
‘Peaches and Perfume’ is a work in progress. It is a little more dream-like than my earlier work, shot close in, with a pastel colour scheme that suggests a fading over time. I’m continuing to play with ideas of simulation by placing objects side by side with images and multiples. But here I have been thinking particularly about transparency, with all its different meanings – clarity, visibility – which can be understood in both a literal sense, or from a political or personal perspective. I started collecting clear plastic packaging materials and glass perfume bottles, objects that allow light to pass through, so that objects behind them can still be seen. It’s fascinating the way these things create distortions when they are placed in front of more opaque objects. Once photographed, it becomes hard to discern what was optical distortion and what was actually there. I really like how that kind of visual confusion can create a sense of wonder or surprise.
What have you learned about yourself making this work?
I am very spontaneous and sometimes a bit impulsive. My process of creation is intuitive, and it is often only later when I have spent time with the finished work that I come to understand what it might mean. For me, photography operates as a mirror, and what I see often surprises me!
Kelda Van Patten was born in Palo Alto, California in 1972. She has a bachelor’s degree in fine art (BFA) from San Francisco Art Institute, California (1995), a master’s degree in teaching (MAT) from Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon (2005), and a master’s degree in fine art (MFA) from Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland, Oregon (2020). Her work has been exhibited in over twenty exhibitions across the USA, and in 2020 she was named in the Photolucida Critical Mass top 200 photographers of the year. She has been a recipient of several artist grants and has undertaken residencies at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology in Oregon and the NES international multi-disciplinary artist studios in Skagaströnd, Iceland. Her publications include ‘Nature Inside’ [Blurb 2021] and ‘Reverberations’ (with Marilyn Montufar) [Small Talk Collective 2021]. Kelda Van Patten currently lives and works in Portland, Oregon, where she teaches visual art in both K–12 and at tertiary level.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.