Kate Rohde in conversation with Sophia Cai
Kate Rohde’s studio is situated on a quiet street in Melbourne’s inner north. Located in a former warehouse that has since been transformed into dual living and working quarters, Rohde’s ground-floor studio is filled with materials and tools, works in progress for exhibitions, as well as containing previous works from the artist’s decade-plus long career.
When I visit for the first time, Rohde is generous with her time and shows me individual works in her studio. I feel like a golden ticket visitor to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, mesmerised by the candy-toned colours of her creations, uncovering hidden gems from the artist’s past, present and future. There is a life-sized swan sculpture (‘made for a show at Tarrawarra’, Rohde tells me) to a collection of bangles in Rhode’s trademark resin (‘a collaboration with Alexi Freeman’), and a table covered in white fake fur that I observe on closer inspection are sculptures of fantastical animals.
I then notice the concrete floors, which are speckled with spots of coloured paint and resin, a visual diary of sorts that traces the artist’s previous projects in the studio. In the kaleidoscope of colours I see bright hues of aqua blue, hot pinks, dark emerald greens, imagining the works that they would have come from. Rohde is known for her colourful imagination and exuberant style, and I am not disappointed by the glimpses I see in her working space.
By far the most commanding piece in the studio is one that has not yet been finished. Sitting atop the central table is a resin work still in its cast, and also the largest vessel Rohde has made to date. This work will be a central piece in Rohde’s solo exhibition at Craft titled ‘Luminous Realms’, which will be a major survey exhibition for the artist. Rohde is excited to speak about this exhibition, which is a timely show for the artist following the birth of her first child, and a busy past year of exhibitions and opportunities.
Sophia Cai: Let’s start at the beginning: You studied fine art at university, but over the last ten years your artistic practice has diversified and taken on quite multidisciplinary directions that include gallery exhibitions, art fairs, design commissions, jewellery objects, as well as fashion collaborations. Do you make a distinction between design, fashion and art in your work, or do you see these different practices as one?
Kate Rohde: I guess now more so than ever, I see all my different work as very closely related. I think the idea of the artist working solely in one domain is actually quite a contemporary idea, and a bit of an illusion. Historically, artists were skilled workers and produced across different areas – a classic example here being Leonardo da Vinci, the quintessential ‘Renaissance man’, who did a bit of everything. It seems like a recent phenomenon where artists are becoming much more specialised. This also seems like quite a Western construct. For example in Japan, craft remains highly venerated, imbued in the broader culture and given a great deal of respect.
Personally, when I first began working as an artist I did feel more pressure to create or make works that were ‘fine art’, but as time has passed I have come to realise that it is actually much more interesting to work across different fields. Not only does this broaden the scope of opportunities, it also affords me chances to learn and develop through new ideas. I think that once you open this door, you realise the benefits of having a more expansive, open practice.
SC: It is really interesting to hear you talk about this, and how it has been beneficial to remain open to different practices and approaches, rather than strictly define yourself or your work. For instance, it’s fascinating that you use resin as a primary material in your handmade works, something that is heavily processed and reliant on industrialised processes and technologies. Was this something that you consciously explored in your work?
KR: I started using resin originally because I liked its material qualities. It was only after using it for a while that it dawned on me that I was using the same material that a large percentage of everyday items in our contemporary world are made of – although wielded in a different way.
SC: Plastic is so ubiquitous, it’s disposable, you can get it so cheaply, but your practice seems to elevate its throwaway nature to something that is a lot more considered.
KR: Yes, I feel like what I make is a lot less refined than what you see being produced in factories and manufacturing plants. From the moulds, to the sanding and finishing, it’s all streamlined and automated in these places. Even with all my hand-making and building skills, as well as the individual attention I give to my works, I can’t compete at all with those industrialised processes.
SC: I’m interested to hear what you specialised in at university; did you have a background in sculpture or casting? When did you start working with resin?
KR: I actually studied painting at art school. I originally made a lot of soft textile-based works, because I didn’t have any real training in using sculptural tools and materials so I came to it through a more round about way, using materials and techniques that were familiar to me.
When I did Honours at the Victorian College of the Arts, I had a very basic lesson in resin mould making and casting from a fellow student, and from then I was self-taught. I think being self-taught has been good because although what I make is not necessarily demonstrating perfect or ideal methods, I have developed my own methods that work for me.
SC: Do you think that is the difference between people who work with the same materials in a professional studio craft context and contemporary art context, in the sense that there is a level of expectation with output or its finish?
KR: I definitely think this is the case. Certainly before I started making functional objects such as my recent jewellery for Pieces of Eight, when I was just making sculptural art pieces, the idea of the finish wasn’t really central. For resin for instance you need to do a lot of sanding, and I didn’t really do this for my early resin sculptures. It’s almost horrifying for me now to think back on that, but gradually as I started making more functional wares like jewellery I realised the necessity of all this sanding and finishing. Perhaps if you begin as a craftsperson, those values of refinement and finish are there right from the beginning.
SC: There is a recent trend I’ve noticed in terms of particular craft practices where people who have been working in the field for a long time or have been trained at particular institutions might have an idea of the ‘right’ way of doing something. At the moment for example there is a big interest in ceramics in contemporary art – although that has opened up further discussions about what it means to work with clay.
KR: Yes, and I think it has only been beneficial for me to engage with these ideas. I do also think this has been a natural part of the development of my artistic practice and career. Perhaps it’s only natural that as I get older my expectations change, and that when I was younger and started working I still had a lot to learn.
I was in the Adelaide Biennale this year and there were two ceramicists in particular – Glenn Barkley and Ramesh Nithiyendran – who both operate on a very fine art end of the spectrum, very well crafted but whose works challenge and push the boundaries of traditional studio ceramic practice and expectations. So that might challenge a viewer who has ideas or preconceived notions of ceramics looking or functioning in a certain way!
SC: I find it interesting that we are still having these conversations now. I almost feel like surely because contemporary art is now so multi-disciplinary, the old adage about ‘craft vs art’ is just not interesting anymore.
KR: Yes, It should have been put to rest a long time ago! (laughs).
SC: I studied art history, so I am also really interested in your continued references to Baroque and Rococo in your work. Can you tell me a bit more about the influence of art history and the decorative arts on your practice? How did you first encounter these ideas?
KR: My first real exposure to this period of history was when I was a 19-year old art student and I went to Europe for the first time. I saw in Austria, Germany and Frances these real examples of Baroque and Rococo art and design. It was the first time that I went to museums that were built in that era, and also my first time seeing art presented in different interiors, not just ‘white cube’ spaces, but interiors that were contemporary to the time the objects were made so you could gain a wider contextual understanding.
SC: Were there any standout museums you remember going to?
KR: The one that really blew my mind away at the time was the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, but also going to the Louvre for the first time. It was incredible to visit these galleries that as an art student you would have heard about or seen in books. Part of the reason I loved it was because in Australia there isn’t really anything like it, the built environment is relatively recent, so this ornate decorative era never existed here.
SC: Do you think if you didn’t go on that trip, your art would have turned out completely differently?
KR: I think it would! Seeing those places and historical sites influenced me a lot.
SC: While your work makes direct reference to Baroque and Rococo, one of its most distinctive qualities is your use of bright colour. How important is the use of colour to you and is it indicative of particular meanings?
KR: For me, it’s not so much about the implied meanings but more about the fact that colours can create a feeling. Colours can have strong psychological effects, and your experience of a space can be completely altered through colour. I’m interested in these experiences.
SC: Speaking of creating strong experiences, one thing I have noted about your work is your focus on creating a Gesamtkunstwerk, or ‘total work of art’ that immerses the viewer. Many of your recent projects such as your solo exhibition at Karen Woodbury Gallery and your contribution to Rigg Design Prize at the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) in 2015 have really shown this. Is this something you will continue to explore, and does it relate to your broader interest in ornamentation and decorative arts?
KR: From the time I was an art student my ideal was always to make works that would operate in a more ‘complete’ environment, if not created by me then in venues that were non-traditional non-white cube spaces, that had their own histories. Places like the Johnston Collection in East Melbourne to a niche museum in Tokyo that contained obsolete teaching instruments, where I had an opportunity to create an installation.
For the Rigg Design Prize, when curator Simone LeAmon invited me to be part of it she said she wanted each of the artists to think of their contribution as a complete interior, not just as objects. For me, that was a dream come true and the gallery supported me in doing new things such as making a custom wallpaper. Working in a larger institution gave me the opportunity to be more ambitious with my vision.
SC: To finish this interview, please tell me more about your show ‘Luminous Realms’ at Craft. What are you most excited about showing?
KR: ‘Luminous Realms’ is sort of like a survey exhibition of the last ten years that also encompasses the time I have been working with resin as well. There are a couple of resin works from my very first big cabinets, and then various vases and vessels that I’ve made. Craft also asked me to develop new wallpapers, and I really enjoyed the process previously at the NGV and was really excited about the prospect of returning to this again.
SC: Your previous solo gallery exhibition was called ‘Ornament Crimes’ in reference to an essay by Adolf Loos, which was highly critical of ornament in art and design. What do you make of this, and the value of ornamentation and decoration versus pragmatism and usefulness? Particularly as artists, working in a volatile climate of political and economic uncertainty, what is the value of art?
KR: Anyone who works in a creative field, particularly in the arts, will be susceptible to these crises of faith I think. We may think that we are working in rarefied ivory towers, or that we are bourgeoisie makers, academic dwellers.
The truth is, while the world could probably live without us, I do believe we also bring a lot of joy to people. What I always loved about art is that it can spark inspiration, and act as a starting point or learning tool to consider other histories, stories and cultures.
As a philosophical thought, art is an entry point into deeper questions and brings a lot of joy to people. While my own art does not directly address social or political issues, I feel like it offers a great escapist option for people and everyday mundane realities, while also acting as a gateway for deeper thinking about things.