Kevin Warth is a visual artist working primarily with photography, but also incorporating installation and fiber arts into his practice. Engaging with issues of identity, sexuality, and the body, his art is defined by his experience as a gay man in postmodern society. He often draws upon his academic background and is influenced by disiplines such as queer theory and semiotics.
He works as the Visitor Engagement Coordinator at the KMAC and leads the Visitor Services team in thinking about the artwork: how they talk to people about the artwork, and how to coordinate programming for the museum. He's also a founding member and contributor for Ruckus, a critical art journal focusing on artistic excellence in Louisville.
Five-Dots: How long have you been in this studio?
Kevin Warth: Just over a year. It was a year in March.
F-D: You had just recently graduated, were you in another space between your time at University of Louisville and here?
KW: I actually worked out of my apartment for a little bit and hated it because I need to compartmentalize. I’ve been here since then and it’s worked out pretty well for me.
F-D: When you moved in, did you have an idea for how you wanted to lay it out, or did it develop organically?
KW: I had no concept of layout going into it and so it has radically changed. I’m finally really happy with it. I recently acquired a ton of plants and it has created a warm, welcoming environment that makes me want to be here. It’s been really important for me to be able to create that environment because I can get really lazy. I do enjoy spending time in here now and I’ve been able to work on stuff more, which has been great.
F-D: Has the location of the studio affected your work practice, or the work, at all?
KW: When I was looking at studios, I had considered places like Art Sanctuary or here, but I ultimately opted for something that would be more private. Although I do, in a way, kind of miss having that sense of community, the location is perfect for me because I live right down the street. I also work kind of erratically so I’ll come in, work on something for a couple of hours, leave, and then I’ll come back and work on something else again. That’s the way I like to work. Having this space definitely allows me to get messy, which I wasn’t able to do when I was working at home. There are certain types of projects, things like this mass of thread that I’ll dip in this glue substance to adhere it, that I definitely wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing at home.
F-D: Can you describe a typical day for yourself?
KW: On my days off, I usually will come into the studio later in the morning and work on a few pieces and water plants. I might go home and fix something for lunch, then come back later in the evening. I try to come in after work when I’m feeling particularly motivated.
F-D: Do you have a pretty set schedule with the KMAC?
KW: It changes a little bit, but my days off are usually Monday and Tuesday, so I can plan to that a bit.
F-D: When you’re in the studio, is there any kind of rhythm or work pattern to your work process?
KW: I will usually put on music or a podcast when I come in.
F-D: What podcasts and music are you listening to?
KW: I’ve listened to like, 60 episodes of Lore in the past two weeks. When I was working on these embroideries, that’s what I was listening to constantly and I’d be here for two or three hour periods just chugging through episodes. I mostly like one-off stories that I can come in and out of. I only recently started listening to podcasts rather than music, and with music; it’s a mix. I really enjoy Future Funk and Vaporwave, and classical for the studio; but really it’s just whatever I’m in the mood for that day.
F-D: How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
KW: I see myself, first and foremost, as a queer artist. I’m primarily engaging with ideas about identity, so that often comes through portraiture. It’s so hard to talk about because I have so many things that I’m exploring, but I think identity is at the crux of that.
F-D: As far as your photography work, is it arranged or is it still life?
KW: How do you mean?
F-D: Are these entirely composed and designed images, or are you taking situations that are already existing, and then pushing them?
KW: In my work that explores BDSM, there’s always some level of fantasy that I’m enacting, but I think there’s also plausible situations.
F-D: Have you been shooting a lot?
KW: I did a show at Garner Narrative in October of last year and I had been working heavily for a year to prepare for that. Now I’ve just kind of taken the opportunity to do more experimental and fiber work. I’m calling this an “experimental year” because I don’t have a show, so I’m just trying new things and seeing what happens. It’s nice to have those periods where you can do that.
F-D: As far as your material exploration, how is that tying in with your work with identity and personal history?
KW: In all of these kind of non-representational works that I have up here hanging on the wall, I use both bodily discards and materials that resemble that. This one has hair in it, but I also use fingernails.
F-D: The kind of things that we choose to remove from our bodies and would normally toss away?
KW: Exactly. Particularly when I was looking at these black ones, I was referencing these turn of the century photographs of abattoirs, or butcher shops. Eli Lotar, photographed these dark (in terms of color) things that so many people had never seen, and they showed the reality of death and what we eat. So I look at those photographs a lot when I’m creating a composition, especially these black ones. It’s one way for me to work through anxieties about dying and our bodies decaying and changing. It’s a series that helps me through those issues.
F-D: So what influences your use of varying media?
KW: It wasn’t until, I guess the end of 2016, when I started really exploring other mediums. I spent the last eight years as an artistic creator solely in photography, so it represents a way for me to explore ideas that I have through other media and to problem solve in that way.
F-D: So, those past eight years that you reference included your time in school. You had access to these facilities: printers, dark rooms, etc, that you didn’t have to pay for. Do you think that losing those facilities altered how you work? Due to cost of production and things like that?
KW: There are. That being said, even though I don’t have access to those facilities, I’m still able to print these large scale photos measuring 24” x 36”.
To add, it definitely is a lot easier for me to come in and work on an embroidery than it is for me to do any of my alternate process photo work. I think I have the set up to do that with this studio, if I really worked on blacking out some of the windows, but it’s so much set up. I would love to eventually get back into doing these kallitypes or the ambrotypes at some point, though.
F-D: So what’s happening with this thread piece?
KW: I’ve always thought about time and history playing a part in my work, so it’s important to have a connection to the materials I use. When KMAC first re-opened after renovations, we had this piece in our lobby by Adrian Esparza. He had unwound a serape and used the this thread over nails to create this huge, abstract installation. When it came time to change out that piece in the lobby, I asked our curator, Joey Yates, if he needed the thread back and he said, “Oh no, he just wants the serape,” so I kept it. It’s been interesting to see how it’s gone through these levels. It’s a tie back to his culture and for me, it’s a connection to him, the artist, and also to my workplace, my own evolution, culture, and my everyday experience. I’ve done two pieces with it so far and this will be the final one. It’s an exploration. It’s very different from what I would normally do, but it’s been enjoyable.
F-D: What media do you work with?
KW: For so long I defined myself as a photographer, so it’s weird to say this, but I’m a multimedia artist.
F-D: Obviously you’re working in textile, paint, photography, embroidery, and I know you’ve dabbled in installation. Can you talk more about the work you have done with that?
KW: My show at Garner Narrative this past October was my first exploration with installation, it’s something that I’m thinking about more and more, particularly going into this newer series that I’ve started with these pieces. This is my contribution to the AIDS memorial quilt and its history, I’m also thinking about the idea of specters and ghosts, particularly this ‘ghost’ of AIDS, because it’s something most people have forgotten about and is no longer on everyone’s mind. AIDS is very much like a ghost.
F-D: If you’re continuing with installation or site-specific elements, do you think that you would continuously pair those ideas together? Or do you see these working as an evolutionary element away from one type of work to another?
KW: I see myself thinking more and more, now at least, through ideas and being able to execute that through multimedia and that strengthening the overall experience and vision of one particular set of ideas that I’m exploring.
F-D: Can you tell us about your process and how it has evolved?
KW: My process is always to make a thousand things and then pick ten of them that are good. This is especially true for photography, but I see the habit carrying over to other work as well; an example of that being these embroidery works. I’m able to do them relatively quickly and I plan on just paring down and ultimately selecting only the ones that I feel best exemplify my idea. I
I think about an idea forever before I begin to execute anything. I read, look at other work, and research-- it’s very research based. I have a couple of books that I’ve been preparing for this body of work with.
F-D: Which books?
KW: Time Binds by Elizabeth Freeman, for one. She unpacks a lot of the ghost metaphors I’m using. That book is so important, it’s about how time can be unraveled and how that can be especially powerful for queer individuals. She also links time to the heteropatriarchy and an idea she refers to as chronobiopolitics, or the various ways that people are connected together.
F-D: When you’re referencing time, are you referencing ‘time’ as a contributor to physics and space or ‘time’ as a historical lens?
KW: Time as we experience past, present, future. One such way that time is complicated is through ghosts; you think of A Christmas Carol; maybe one of the most quintessential pieces of work that includes that ‘ghost’ image, and you have forces from the past and the future coming to impact the present: that’s a similarity or a way that can manifest. If Memory Serves, Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed speak specifically to AIDS; the affective dimensions of it, how its’ ripples are still being felt today, and how it’s something we’ve never really left behind. It also looks at all of these trends within queer theory: a focus on death, feeling out of time, a focus on temporality and how the sociological communities are perceiving this experience within queer culture as a collective Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
So this is kind of how I work, I will look to specific theorists and what they are thinking about in terms of subjects I’m interested in and see if those ideas can inform any part of my practice.
F-D: Do you work with narratives, plot, or any progressing ideas in your subject?
KW: Not distinct narratives. I think the body and identity are felt throughout. My experiences weave their way into my work regardless of whether or not it’s obvious to myself or the viewer in the moment.
F-D: Do you consider your work to be autobiographical and does personal history make its way into your work?
KW: It does, yeah. Even in series’ that might seem to be explorations of subjects outside of myself, my history has to affect it.
F-D: Do you think either of those ideas, autobiographical or personal history, affect your process of making? Rather than the work you make?
KW: I think it does. For example, I have spurts of being very compulsive, and when I was beginning these embroideries, and excited about how they were turning out, I was in the studio every day. I’d never do that otherwise because I like to take some time off in between studio visits. I was here every day for four hour blocks just working on them and knocking them out. I had nine days off in a row and I was here for every one of them. If I get onto an idea, I really, really want to explore it and I can’t wait to see how it evolves.
F-D: What influences outside of the visual arts inspire or impact your approach to making work?
KW: I would definitely say activism. I look at that a lot, both contemporary and historically; specifically during the ACT UP days. I used to be bothered by the fact that I wasn’t comfortable with what we traditionally believe activism to look like, but as I get older, I just realize that I do it through different ways, such as art and writing.
F-D: What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process and how do you make it work for you?
KW: I am someone who has to compartmentalize. If I let all of the facets of my life bleed into one another, I go a little crazy, so I will come here and tell myself that I am going to work for “x” amount of time. That allows me to focus more than I would be able to otherwise. I can also work around my work schedule. I’ll come here on my days off, or I’ll come in after work for a couple of hours if I’m working on a project or if I’m feeling particularly energized. It’s proximity makes it very easy for me.
F-D: Do you see your work relating to any current movement or direction in art or culture?
KW: Yes, I think that temporality within queer theory plays into my work. Queer artists are gaining more and more visibility, if we’re referencing those artists who are working today, sure, I’d hope to be part of that lineage.
F-D: Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
KW: I’ve been looking at Steven Irwin a lot and I think that his work and mine have a dialogue. There’s also artists like Bill Jacobson and his way of abstracting the human figure-- they appear in the same minimal, ghost-like images that I feel show in my work.
F-D: Do you have a motto or creed?
KW: “Always challenge the status quo” or “To make a cake, you gotta break a few eggs.”
F-D: When asked, what do you tell people you do for a living?
KW: I work at an art museum. I’m not an artist for a living and I couldn’t care less if I ever sell a piece. I support myself with my day job, I’m able to create freely without constraints of surviving on my work.
F-D: What risks have you taken in your work, or for your work?
KW: I think there’s always some level of risk when delving into autobiographical work. Presenting things that people are uncomfortable with is inherently risky, but also important. I’ve had to have many uncomfortable conversations, specifically with my BDSM work, such as whether it’s implicating myself in some way. There are also the off-handed comments that you have to take with stride. I had a show two years ago that involved a lot of self portraits that put my emotions and visual self, which I had never done before, on display. Then my parents came to the opening, which was really uncomfortable because it was, like, “Oh hey. . . .I’m naked in this photo.”
F-D: Words of wisdom?
KW: Ask me in ten years when I have something.
F-D: Is there something that you’re currently working on or excited about starting that you can tell us about?
KW: I’m beginning this body of work and it’s this exploration of ghosts, AIDS, loss, specifically collective loss, and time. I was born in ‘92, so the AIDS Epidemic wasn’t something that I experienced first hand and by that point, drug therapy was coming into being. So it’s about this loss of a generation that we’re acknowledging as kind of a community.
F-D: Are you involved in any upcoming shows and events? If so, where and when?
KW: Nothing that I’m putting together right now.