Q+A with Kevin Appel, by Jill Singer
In the long list of ways that New York differs from Los Angeles, we’ve always been particularly fascinated by one: New York can be a very physically demanding place to live, but it is not a difficult city to understand on a psychological level. In Los Angeles, the living is easier, but there seems to be – especially among artists – a constant grappling to define and understand LA as a place. LA artist Kevin Appel explains it this way: “Los Angeles has always had a bit of an identity crisis partially due to the external view of LA as having this superficial mentality tied to the film industry. It doesn’t have a long lineage of a canonical or intellectual history, as opposed to New York.” He should know: Appel is a native Angeleno who has called the city home for almost his entire life – save for a brief stint at Parsons for his BFA – and he’s been steeped in the city’s history and vocabulary since birth. Growing up, his father was an architect and his mother an interior designer, so it makes sense that the city’s structures and surroundings would eventually become his subject matter.
Appel has run the gamut over the years in terms of materials and media, but his latest body of work involved a strict kind of collaging, a mixing of photography and paint on a single canvas, and a recurring geometric motif that’s meant to approximate a kind of architectural scrim. We were first introduced to his work through Maharam, who commissioned the artist to create a wallcovering for its digital projects division. But once we began going down the rabbit hole of Appel’s work, we knew we needed to know more.
Q: We were first introduced to your work through a piece you recently did for Maharam Digital Projects, so let’s start there. Can you tell me a bit about how that project came about and how it fits into the larger scope of your work?
A: The Maharam piece came out of a body of work I was working on in 2010, where I was using found imagery from nature books that I had in my possession – some from when I was a kid, some that I’d found out in the world. These were books from the ‘60s and ‘70s that had an old-school, offset lithography quality to them. The idea was taking an idyllic setting and giving it a little bit of a bittersweet cast.
In the case of the Maharam project, I layered two more layers on top of that. One was a photograph of trash that I took myself in the Salton Sea out in the desert. It’s of colored plastic that washed up on the beach there and formed this beautiful confetti. (The subtext, of course, being about an environmental cataclysm or loss as opposed to something beautiful.) Then the third layer is a screen image I’ve been working with for some time, which in this case is a veil of triangular forms that goes over the top of the image. To me, it has to do with the effect of looking at architecture or living within architecture: the idea that you’re looking either at the architectural form, which would be the triangular grid, or looking through that out to something that’s more natural.
All of this is really indebted to ideas of abstraction and looking at painting, which has been primarily motivating factor for decades.
Q: What exactly do you mean by that?
A: Well, the idea of taking two forms of looking or two ideas about interpreting imagery and having them collide on one surface. On the one hand you have this photographic element, which implies a space that you can cast yourself into – the idea of painting as a kind of proscenium. Bit that you have these abstract forms on top that bring you to a very here and now, very present quality in the work. My interest is that it becomes an existential conversation in the way that you deal with existing in these two places at once. I’m also interested in imposing the forms of high modernist painting on top of a less pure ideal of abstraction.
Q: This veil you talk about using – sort of a geometric obfuscation – is a recurring theme in your work.
A: Yeah, I’ve been working with architecture for a few decades now, and it’s gone through a lot of iterations. I think in this case it’s about diluting things to an essential form that acts the way that architecture would as you exist in it. So to put a screen in front of a natural environment causes an abstract view of looking at and living within architecture.
At the same time, I don’t look for very specific reads in my work. A lot of it has to do with a felt environment. There are two things going on with the grid and the covering up. One is actually that act of covering up a given image. To me it becomes an act of both obliteration and reclamation. I’m getting rid of the photographic form and talking about what that means to mow over the landscape with something that is visually less natural. At the same time, there’s a celebration or an underlying optimism, because I’m doing these things as an architectural proposal, reclaiming the landscape with a humanist view of this architectural format.
The best-case scenario for me when a viewer comes across these images is that they call to mind images of Western expansion, the desert, hippie communes, dropout culture, and things like that – but in a nonspecific narrative way. It gets these things to float around your mind but then you’re in the position of identifying what it is you’re looking at.
Q: Did you study architecture?
A: No, but I come from a family of architects and designers. It has always interested me in its psychological possibilities. It’s where we eat, it’s where we live, it’s where we have families and have sex and work. Everything takes place within and around these structures which are either things that we have control over or don’t. Architecture always has the ability to point towards cultural references that are both historically and politically oriented. That fascinates me in terms of the ability to discuss and think about societal issues through aesthetics.
Q: Like a lot of Californians, you seems to be drawn to the desert. Can you talk about what the desert means in the context of your work?
A: The desert in general fascinates me for a lot of the same reasons it seems to draw other people: empty space, a sort of quietness, a clean environment that has the ability to dissolve and eat up everything in its path and still remain the same. The plastic in the Maharam photograph from that viewpoint speaks to me. It’s amazing what the light and the weather in the desert can do to any material thing.
I’m interested in the Salton Sea, though, as a failed site. The flooding of the Salton Sea happened by a manmade mistake, and over the years it’s gone through iterations. It was a resort-type utopian environment frequented by Hollywood stars; then it flooded again, which wiped that out. The salt and chemical content of the water causes fish to die, which means they then float to the surface and come to shore. So there are these white sand beaches made up of fish bones and fish heads. It’s at once incredibly beautiful and incredibly devastating. That as a representation of an ecological failure is interesting to me. It’s an evocative place. There are a lot of shacks and the detritus of people who have basically dropped out of mainstream society and tried to build a life of their own out there, you see a lot of instances of hope and ingenuity but also a lot of failures.
Q: You used to do a lot of interior paintings. Was there something that sort of flipped the switch and directed your interest outside the home?
A: The trajectory across all this work follows a narrative of dissolution, a breaking up of the space. Because I work from a more intuitive mindset, it’s not as if I sat down and said ‘I’m going to do this and then I’m going to do that.’ But when I look back at it, it went form a virtual space that had a lot to do with architectural representations viewed either through a camera lens or the computer. These were idyllic, almost utopian spaces, although there was a level of human remove in the works that caused them to have a bit of dystopian sensibility.
But going from those interiors, I started to think about more psychologically legible representations of the home that caused me to move outside and start working with this pitched roof structure, something that a child would draw if you think of the idea of ‘house’. Then the house became increasingly compromised over time, to the point where either a domestic or ecological cataclysm caused this form to collapse and turn into piles of architectural debris or material. That was probably sometime around 2006 or 2008. After that is when I started working on top of photographs.
It’s almost as if I’m taking parts of this dissolved structure and recomposing them on top of the photograph in a much more linear and abstract way. It almost acts as a resolution of the failure that took place in the earlier group of work.
Q: How much of your work is inspired by California and, more specifically, Los Angeles?
A: At the risk of sounding too local, I would say a lot. The inspiration and source material I’ve worked with has come from this area quite specifically: Case Study houses, the influence on Case Study houses of International Style architecture and also early Japanese architecture. Even when I started dealing with these house structures, the salt-box structures, I was thinking of a less rarified California than the Case Study project would imply. Now it’s off to the Salton Sea. So California as a backdrop to the kinds of issues that interest me ecologically and socially has been pretty consistent. It’s where I’m from, it’s what I know, and these things get into my work whether it’s conscious or not.
Q: Your process is often evident in the pieces – rough brushstrokes, or the layering you spoke of. In terms of how you create, which techniques or materials speak most to you?
A: I’m all over the place. Right now I’m working with photography – mostly film – which I scan and then print digitally onto large surfaces, and I’m also using UV inks, oils, acrylics. But there’s a kind of mad scientist quality to the studio practice. My application methods don’t tend to be very traditional. I do use brushes but I also use trowels and silkscreen squeegees and different kinds of faux finishing tools. As much thought as goes into the why of why I do something, there’s also this more ecstatic quality to my studio practice where you get in there and you’re up to your elbows in the materiality of things. That’s what really gets you up in the morning.