The Figure and Power Dynamics: Interview with Kirsten Valentine

Kirsten Valentine is an autodidactic painter, living and working in Chicago. 

My work ranges from paintings as small as 2"x3" to as large as 6'x8', from intense and personal portraits to voyeuristic and vague suggestions of bodies interacting. What remains consistent is the depiction of the human figure and the exploration of power dynamics. Sometimes the character portrayed stares out confrontationally or the viewer is offered a glimpse of a scene suggesting violence or domination. Figures and faces are left incomplete - a single eye and a nose signifying a face, a head and a foot a person. The finished composition is complete in its incompleteness, calling on the viewer to fill in the blanks.


Tell us about your work. When did you first start painting the figure? 

I have been fascinated by the figure for as long as I can remember, the human form is beautiful and alluring and frightening and sad and endlessly complex. When I was in grade school I would get my classmates to sit for portraits or draw my dolls when I couldn’t get a live model. I started painting in oils in high school and I was constantly trying to get friends to pose for me. After high school, I worked as a life model. One atelier allowed models to attend classes for free. It was a wonderful opportunity and I took full advantage, going several times a week. The skills acquired working from life are irreplaceable and having that understanding, I believe, is essential if you want to work from photography, as I do currently. You have to be able to see around the figure even when you’re looking at a two-dimensional image.


What is your art about? What do you hope to communicate to the viewer? 

Figurative painting is inherently narrative, but I don’t really believe in making art with a message. If you can clearly articulate an idea in a language then I don’t believe there is any reason to paint it. I leave much of my work seemingly incomplete, large areas are left white and unpainted, an eye and a nose are all that makes up a face, limbs appear unconnected to a visible form, the environment is unseen. Humans are pattern-seeking animals and if something is left out our minds will fill it in. I like to give the viewer the sense that they have discovered something no one else sees, something unfamiliar but personal.

In my most message based work, I have approached the topic of the Holocaust. My father is Jewish and as a child, I spent summers with my grandparents in a Jewish retirement community in upstate NY. My grandparents were Americans but I saw numbers tattooed on people’s arms there, and it had a lasting impact on me. The drama and emotion of the Holocaust are visceral and it’s easy to provoke a cheap, automatic response. I needed to make something nuanced, to get away from the images that are so familiar. I chose to focus on Resistance Fighters, people who are largely forgotten by history and present them as individuals. I did not paint a crowd of wraiths behind barbed wire, I painted intimate portraits, I painted a towering Jew with a gun.


Where do the references and inspirations for your paintings come from? 

I like other people’s trash. I like finding some piece of detritus and extracting my own meaning from it. I collect old letters, postcards, photo albums, yearbooks, and these are my source material and inspiration. My reference material is central to the meaning of my work. If I show an old photograph that I’m obsessed with to someone they might see a boring picture, they won’t see what I see. I seek to isolate and highlight the things that make the image intriguing to me, whether those details are actually a part of the image or part of my imagination. 


Describe a perfect day in the studio. 

A perfect day for me is when I can wake up, take the dog for a walk, and get straight to work without any distractions. I like to listen to documentaries more often than music in the studio. I always have several projects going and I will move back and forth between them. I don’t wait for inspiration, I have force myself to get to work and sometimes it clicks, sometimes it doesn’t. 


Name several artists you admire that have influenced your work. 

There are so many. I adore Picasso, Francis Bacon, Mark Rothko, Barkley Hendricks, Peter Doig, Manet, Gaugin, David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg, Toulouse-Laurec, Anselm Kiefer and Kerry James Marshall, but my style is probably more influenced by Adrian Ghenie, Gerhardt Richter, Alexander Tinei, Julien Spianti, Michael Borremans, Wilhelm Sasnal, and a number of artists I discovered on Instagram, like Daniel Segrove and Lou Ros, contemporary artists who play with the interaction of realism and abstraction. As well as photographers like Muybridge and Dianne Arbus.


How do you feel playing with scale affects the impact of your paintings? 

The impact of scale has a direct correlation to the environment of the painting. I did a 6’x8’ wheat paste and when it was on the wall in my studio it seemed enormous, but pasted on an outside wall in an urban environment it seemed almost undersized. I worked for years on traditional 18” x 24” canvas and switching to very large or very small paintings really opened things up for me. Small paintings are intimate. Most of the small paintings I do I can finish in a day, they are quick, instinctive and experimental. Large paintings require much more planning. I never begin a painting with a perfect vision of what I want it to be, but if I’m climbing a ladder to work on it I need a clear sense of what the completed piece will be. 

The image determines the size I will paint something, is this something that needs the impact of size or something that should be more delicate? But, I am aware that so much of art today is viewed online, on Saatchi or Artsy or Instagram. The online environment removes the impact of size, and everything fits into the screen of a cell phone.


What is something you are proud of in your career so far? 

It may sound cheesy but I'm most proud of not giving up. I wasn't able to finish my degree for financial reasons and without that education, you miss out on exhibition and employment opportunities, as well as networking and the ability to form a peer group. I ended up making my living in restaurants, not in any art-related field, and today I am a Certified Sommelier. Keeping at it without encouragement or success is difficult and even if you love art it’s all too easy to art it takes a backseat to work and social obligations.