In Conversation: Russna Kaur
Through her unique mode of abstract painting, Russna Kaur synthesizes her equally unique life experience. Her vibrant, modular and large-scale way of working speaks to her background in design and biology as well as her identity as a woman of colour – initiating an open dialogue with her viewer while remaining completely true to herself.
In this interview, Kaur discusses her poetic approach to titles, how drawing holds her paintings together, and what abstraction means to her as a contemporary South Asian artist.
Oftentimes, abstraction is coded as both White and male, inadvertently reinforcing the assumption that racialized and female artists’ purview is—or ought to be—representational. Representation can mean mimetic work, which seeks to represent reality, but can also allude to representation as political visibility or visual equality. Would you speak on your relationship to abstraction in this context?RK
This is a challenging question! When I was studying painting, I would get asked this a lot – during my defence I remember someone brought up the point, can anything actually truly be abstract? And, naively, I thought so, but if you really think about it, everything that I’m working with while I’m painting – the shapes and the colours and the materials – they come from something, nothing comes out of thin air. So then I started thinking, maybe it’s not simply an abstract work, maybe it’s an abstraction of real life.
Thinking back to all the major influences on my work, from my experiences in science or my mom’s design work or even religious spaces, amusement parks, all these things that have had such a huge impact on how I see the world; instead of painting these spaces and taking a representational approach, I’m choosing to abstract these things through painting.
Abstraction is the method that I’m using to engage with my viewer, to have interesting conversations, or even just to express myself – I’m fascinated with colour and it’s such a huge part of my life and scale and texture and surface. I want to talk about these things too, not just the fact that I’m a South Asian artist.
My experience going through the education system here in Canada, has been that, ever since starting to take art classes, I’ve never been taught by a non-white person. There was maybe one professor, during my undergrad, that wasn’t from a white North American background. So from a young age, I was exposed to very specific artists and never saw myself reflected in what I was looking at. Not only was it difficult for me to express to my family that art was what i wanted to do, but it didn’t make it any easier that I couldn’t give any examples of other women of colour who had made a career in visual art.
I felt like there were certain expectations of me and what my life would be like, and that pursuing something like visual art went against that. I feel like I broke through that expectation, but then, once I was working as an artist, I was expected to create work in a certain way because of my identity; my skin colour, the fact that I’m a woman. A lot of South Asian artists, even contemporary ones, do use more traditional imagery.
This all led to me feeling stuck in a way, like I’d broken one mold and then found myself in another – like because of my identity, I was expected to address or talk about certain things in my work. This is why it became so important to me to find ways to still have the conversation about South Asian identity without it being super obvious, or sitting on the surface of my work; I don’t want that to be the only way the work can be read.
I feel that maybe if I leave it open-ended enough, other people from other cultures or walks of life can enter the piece in their own unique way, and through that I can take the time and space to actually engage with them, and maybe that’s when the conversation about identity comes out – it doesn’t have to be the first thing that you see.
Line is so present in your body of work. It functions to pull viewers in, move us around the surface, and sometimes to force us back in order to take it all in. How does drawing fit into your practice?RK
There’s a couple different ways I can answer this question. Especially during this residency, I’ve been thinking about how I use multiple surfaces, and I became really aware of the spaces in between the panels, whether they line up or don’t, that kind of stuff. It’s like line is a tool that I use to connect these very separate surfaces together. There’s different areas of the painting where one line will kind of seamlessly go to the next panel and connect, then there’s other areas where there will be a clear disconnect. I’ve been thinking about that tension between the surfaces, and whether I should be super concerned about making everything connect with line or just allow the surface to do what it’s going to do because it’s on multiple panels.
Drawing has always been a pretty huge part of my life. I didn’t always have the opportunity to paint at such a large scale, that kind of happened after I moved to Vancouver. For many years, I did smaller scale work, and drawing is something that is a common denominator through all these life experiences and disciplines that I’ve entered and exited. Even just thinking back to when I started my educational career, in Biology, drawing in that context is very specific and there’s a lot of restrictions to it. I did many biology labs and you have to make these super detailed drawings, there’s super fine lines and a lot of them have to be done with a ruler. It’s all pencil, there’s no shading, and everyone’s drawings end up looking the exact same, but there’s something about that – being hunched over a small lab book and drawing these really delicate diagrams, that definitely stuck with me.
Also, with my mom’s design work, it’s very specific the way you have to draw to communicate your ideas to someone who’s going to manufacture something. Everything has to be clear, easy to understand. I also did some commercial textile and surface design work, and again, it has to be easy to understand, appeal to a wide audience – there’s very little room for your own creative touch.
I became so used to that way of making a mark and then, when I switched into Visual Art, suddenly there’s no rules and you can do whatever you want. And so now, the way that I approach line is a combination of many different things and ways of thinking about line and how it can convey a certain message – but now, I can use it however I want to.
For me, line is a really important tool to be able to connect these separate surfaces, and hold them together in a way. Line is like super important to my paintings’ reading as one whole, instead of a bunch of separate elements.
Now I’m thinking about the largest piece in the show, ‘They are midway between the sun and the moon’: if you take away my last layer, which is all these thick lines created using cut canvas, the painting falls apart. It doesn’t make sense to me anymore. The lines become almost like – someone in one of my discussions said it looked almost like bandages, physically holding the piece together, and without that it doesn’t have the same completed or cohesive feel – the line ties everything together.
My paintings are kind of made of fragments, and I think of my life as fragments too, as very specific, different experiences, and painting becomes a way for me to piece all of them together. If you take the time to reflect back on your life there’s that common thread or line – an underlying thing that’s holding it together. And so I feel like that’s kind of what my paintings are – all these separate thoughts that are trying to come together and these lines laid on top that are the composition, integral to the work and holding it all together.
Your titles are poetic and evocative, hinting at hidden narratives and private thoughts. Do you write poetry as part of your experimentation and planning, or does your engagement with text exist apart from your artistic oeuvre?RK
This also ties back to the fact that I process things in fragments, I’m not scared to turn things upside down or reverse them. A couple years ago, one of my good friends decided to pursue art therapy. One of the exercises she used to do with her students was create blackout, or redacted, poetry. I started doing it too a couple years ago, I have a stack of poems that I’m always working on.
I became really fascinated by how instead of having the blank page in front of you and thinking of words to add, you could take an existing text that already has its own narrative and eliminate words; how through that process of removal, something is revealed. Once those words that are left behind, they tell a completely different story, and they can also be rearranged or combined with other poems that I dug out of the original text. And it becomes this very personal process – even if you were to get the same page as me, you would cross out different words.
I like the fact that it is kind of abstracted – it doesn’t necessarily always make sense, but to me it does. I think it’s abstracted enough to where it doesn’t impact the reading of the work too strongly. Because I make the work for my own reasons, and have my own understanding of it, but that doesn’t mean that everyone who looks at it has to get the same thing. I think that becomes quite boring, actually.
So for me, titling in this way is an opportunity to still say something without being super clear. Everyone can read it and think whatever they want of it, and it’s not me telling them what to see, it’s more of a suggestion. I feel like through painting, I’m delivering a very specific message but I don’t think my titles have to, as well. I’m sharing so much of myself already that the title is something I want to keep for myself in a way. To not reveal everything, all the time.
How did you start using multiple surfaces, and what motivated you to pick them up and turn them upside down?RK
I’m definitely not the first person to use the multi-surface approach to painting, but for me it started off in the Emily Carr MFA program. I knew coming in that working at a large scale was very important to me, and then I was met with very small studio spaces to work in! So, the multi surface approach is kind of to work around that, to build a larger surface without being able to paint on one massive surface.
But really, Elizabeth McIntosh also had a lot to do with this. She was the one who kind of inspired me. I remember I had two 48 x 48 panels stuck together, and had asked her for some feedback and she said I think the painting needs a little bit more space – why don’t you just add two more panels at the top? When she said that, it was like a light bulb went off in my head, and it really started from there. I fully went for it, and now I really love the process, it’s become an important part of my practice.
I felt that my path to painting, all of the things I’ve done before settling on painting, has been all over the place and not linear, and that kind of carries through in how I approach my materials and surfaces. It’s very weird or odd for me to think about painting on a single surface, because that’s just not how my life has gone and it doesn’t make any sense to me.
I think I’m trying to have that aspect of my life reflected in the work and, also, it’s freedom – an opportunity to play. I’m not restricted by much, the painting can grow and change through the process, multiple panels that can each flip multiple times. The possibilities just open up and that’s really exciting for me – just because there’s no more canvas or panels doesn’t mean that the painting ends at that edge. There can always be more. It’s just a matter of how big or small you want it to be.
You are headed to Port Townsend’s Centrum Emerging Artist Residency in Washington later this year. What will you be working on during that time?RK
I won’t be able work in the way that I’m used to, which is on stretched material or canvas. There’s also going to be a size restriction, just because I’m going to have to travel and would have no way of shipping a sixteen-foot painting, or thirteen panels, back with me.
It’s kind of nerve-wracking, but exciting at the same time because I know a new process will come out of it. I’m considering working on a lot of unstretched material, at slightly smaller scale, or works on paper – something that can be transported a little more easily, and maybe stretched once I get back here. The last painting that I made for the show was ‘Smiling monsters’, and that was very weird piece for me because it’s so unlike anything that I’ve ever made – which is also really exciting.
I think that’s kind of where my headspace is at right now; maybe carrying on that last thought I had during the BAF residency and seeing what else it could become. I’d like to think through some of the things that happened as a result of the BAF residency and carry it on to this next one.
See Russna Kaur’s exhibition, ‘Suddenly her lips sharpened – it was splendid’, at BAF until Saturday, October 10th.