Insider Series: Resident Artist Karen Zalamea
For this iteration of In Conversation, BAF speaks to Vancouver-based artist residency program participant Karen Zalamea. With a primarily photography-based practice, Zalamea’s intricate compositions explore the play of light and matter in space. To create her BAF Gallery show, ‘When the sun rises, we keep the fire aflame’, Zalamea worked from source material shot in a variety of locations across North America. She manipulated the photographs by printing on silk, canvas, and other unconventional materials, then experimented with cutting, folding, and collaging them. The finished show represents the development of exciting new directions in Zalamea’s practice.
With this show, you set out to bring a fresh perspective to landscape photography, a genre that is certainly heavy with tradition and history. Did this creative goal ever prove challenging, or frustrating?KZ
I wouldn’t say that this work was initially rooted in bringing a “fresh perspective” to landscape photography. As with any of my projects, I aim to rigorously consider the way I approach photography, the way I engage with the medium, and the manner in which this engagement is in dialogue with the subject matter being photographed. Certainly an awareness of the genre’s legacies and conventions will seep into that engagement, as it would within the framework of any genre. I was more invested in thinking about representations of space and about perception as an embodied experience—and I flesh out these reflections by thinking through photography.
The source materials for the show were photographs taken on a cross-continental road trip. Did you plan this trip with the intention to create works of this nature, or was this something that developed on its own?KZ
The only plan was to drive from Vancouver to Austin, Texas and back through states I had not been to, including Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico. At the same time, I was thinking about location photography, and how my practice would take shape outside of the confines of the photographic studio.
I could not have anticipated the way these photographs have materialized. This is the unpredictable nature of creative process, stemming from curious points of inquiry and subsequently developing into material research. I definitely was not anticipating laser-cutting inkjet prints on silk while I was focusing my 4×5 camera in the Bonneville Salt Flats!
It was a two-year process, originating from the road trip, through editing negatives and digital files, to printing test images on different substrates.
What drew you to remove your practice from a constructed studio context and take it into the outside world, and to these locations specifically? Was that experience ever uncomfortable?KZ
I started a location-based project while on an artist residency in Iceland in November 2015, and at that time was reflecting on how my practice could exist beyond the seamless backdrop and strobe lights—studio tools which I had grown comfortable using in tandem with the camera.
Within six months, I experienced Reykjavik in winter and Monument Valley in mid-summer. In retrospect, I realize I was seeking out extreme landscapes (and extreme weather!). I was consciously disrupting my typical modes of photographic production, plus inserting myself into unfamiliar surroundings.
I have always been interested in the challenging and generative nature of setting up parameters for each project, and this was a continuation of that. Of course it’s uncomfortable, but it’s important to purposely muddy the waters of your practice from time to time.
‘When the sun rises, we keep the fire aflame’ experiments with the photograph as object, using silk, canvas and other materials to stray from the typical context in which we see photographs displayed. Is this treatment of the photograph as object a new phenomenon in your greater body of work?KZ
Photographic prints are objects. With my previous body of work, Light & Variation, the majority of the photographs were mounted and framed. Two of the photographs were printed on vinyl, the first directly adhered to the wall, and the second peeling off the wall. The final presentation I selected for the photographs was heavily considered and in conversation with the work itself, and the volume inhabited by the vinyl photograph coming off the wall sparked further questions about how photographs can exist in space.
The works in When the sun rises, we keep the fire aflame were ways of addressing these questions I posed for myself.
Can you give us any insight into your choice of title?KZ
I had heard different iterations of this phrase over the years, and I think it is often interpreted in line with perseverance. However, I read it in relation to the conditions of photography and the conditions of seeing.
How do you see your practice evolving after this show, and do you have any upcoming projects or plans to share?KZ
The cutting, folding, and collaging of photographs in the exhibition was a new direction for me, and it feels like the beginning of something that can be pushed further. I am curious to see where this type of material handling can lead. I have a couple tentative location-based projects on the horizon in two very different parts of the world. Stay tuned!