Virginia Billeaud Anderson
In 2013 Michael Petry, Director of London’s Museum of Contemporary Art, published Nature Morte: Contemporary Artists Reinvigorate the Still-Life Tradition,
which reveals in over 400 illustrations how leading 21st century
artists have reinvigorated the genre previously synonymous with 17th
century Old Masters. Included with Hockney, Twombly, Hirst and others is
Houston based Karin Broker (b. 1950.) Broker’s exhibition, Karin Broker: damn girls, is currently at McClain Gallery through May 31 and on May 24 she opens Karin Broker: wired, pressed and nailed
at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas in Beaumont. This, the fact that
her parakeet crapped on the late Hilton Kramer’s suit, and flawless
draftsmanship, inspired a recent studio visit.
Virginia Billeaud Anderson: The large scale
floral drawings at McClain are unerringly fine, but it took only a
minute for me to be creeped out by the background text that spoke of
that repulsive man who imprisoned the three women in Cleveland.
Karin Broker: And then the coward hung himself instead of staying alive to be raped in prison every day for the rest of his life.
VBA: A collector asked me the meaning of the
marks on the table sculpture, which I said certainly relate to the
KB: That’s correct. I artistically imagined
Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, Gina De Jesus marking off their days in
captivity, all those years they were kept from their families. Those
women were in dark rooms and at times chained to the walls, beaten and
starved to induce miscarriages when made pregnant by the rapes. One was
forced to deliver the other’s child. The table also references
Elizabeth Smart and also Jaycee Dugard, who was held captive for 18
years, and had two daughters by that evil man who took her.
VBA: There’s nothing like overlaying an
ordinary domestic object with tragic content to disarm a viewer. I had
to rub my hand across the table top to know it was printed. How is
KB: The table was certainly meant to disarm,
even by way of fancy, dressed-up women sitting on the cold hard steel to
read about others, and I imagine if enough sit there the images will
become worn and faded. The table is etched, which involves coating its
surface with an acid resistant hard ground, and also surrounding it with
a wooden structure so the top actually floats in its own bath of nitric
acid. After drawing images through the wax I etched the surface, inked the incised lines and marks and then ground the surface again to polish.
Karin Broker, picture pretty, 2014, Conte on formica with leather bound book, 84 x 60 x 3”
VBA: In the same vein, describe your Conte drawing process. Do you make preliminary sketches or project an
image, and it must require a ladder or repositioning the large panels so
you can reach?
KB: No preliminary sketches or images are
projected. I begin by rubbing Conte dust with a rag to map out an
image, until I get "something" then add to it like a puzzle. Initially
I’m on a small stepstool, and after a rolling chair at my drafting table
when detailing the flowers, I have a tool table and boards clamped to
the edge. My chair, everything is on wheels.
VBA: One drawing includes a list of women institutionalized in a Magdalene Asylum laundry in Dublin. Does the number near each name represent age or years of incarceration?
KB: It’s age. In the
Magdalene Asylums “fallen” women were forced to work. Those of
childhood age were actually born there to incarcerated mothers. I
regret I did not record all 30,000 names.
VBA: I was moved by the amount of research
required to enumerate both accomplishments by and atrocities against
women, as well as by the quantity of hand written text, which must have
been enormously time consuming
KB: It was a huge amount of research. When I
began studying the history of abuses against women and was reading such
things as 80% of those killed in the Inquisition were women, I got
depressed. So I began researching in the other direction, reading,
watching films, following Google links, and learned women were pirates
and warriors, and was astounded by their courage and accomplishments,
for example the Russian “Night Witches” who dropped bombs on Germany. I
would alternate a couple of ten to twelve-hour days of writing with
some days of research, and it was very difficult, and whenever it seemed
too much I would think, Karin you bitch, if you can’t endure so much
less than women who were tortured, raped and killed, breasts ripped off,
all these horrific things, that’s pathetic. If my art helps one abused
woman to know there’s a network of women to offer empathy and support,
maybe even fight for her, I’m proud.
VBA: Text such as “A 19 year old gang rape
victim was sentenced to six months in jail and 200 lashes for violating
Saudi Arabia’s Sharia law on segregation of the sexes” is
straight-forward. “Good girls good girls good girls good girls” on the
other hand is provocatively less so.
KB: What’s sad is so many men still categorize
women that way. If a woman has her own opinion she is not a “good
girl.” A good girl in Pakistan is one who doesn’t read or study, only
cooks, cleans and has sex. I was told once in my position as university
Department Chair to be “more nice.”
VBA: The art made a few men uncomfortable.
KB: Look, I’m not anti-men. I love men. I
actually love their bodies, I love looking at them, those incredible
chests, their butts, although most men would insist it’s their genitals women pay attention to. It makes sense that some men are fearful of the thought of women
standing up to them and refusing to be disrespected.
It was actually Bob McClain who encouraged me to go in
this direction. We were discussing this drawing exhibition and he told
me that as long as he has known my work he has felt my feminist side,
that I was quite the strong female, and suggested I “kick it up a
notch,” just put it out there. Well I left him totally energized, said
OK, no shit, and told my assistant John all my ideas. This is the first
show I’ve ever had that dealt not just with me but with all women. I’m
extremely grateful to Bob and so proud to be working with them.
Karin Broker, nice and quiet, 2013, conte on formica with leather bound book, 84 x 60 x 3”
VBA: Of all the crazy stuff I’ve heard
from artists, you might win the prize for your story about Sister
Jacinta offering you an exorcism, let a priest chase out “disturbances.”
Did you find that insane?
KB: Oh god no. Exorcism was just part of the
whole Catholic thing – saints, spirits. Remember “Rosemary’s Baby?”
There’s not a Catholic who would think that’s weird. You see, even if
you’re non-practicing, this stuff stays with you. When my studio was
completed we had a priest come to bless it. There we all were, standing
in a circle with lit candles around us, you would’ve thought we were
VBA: When I read that the answer to your
mother’s prayer was for you to get the stigmata I wondered if she
desired for you other qualities associated with mystics, sweating blood
in trance like Catherine of Siena or levitating like Padre Pio.
KB: My mother loved Padre Pio. She kept a large picture of him.
VBA: I was in Sicily in October and found his
picture in all the pizzerias and taxi cabs. Where I’m from in south
Louisiana some of those overly pious families turn out a few nutty
children. How come you’re not more peculiar?
KB: My childhood was turbulent, but I was a
very logical kid. My family didn't have much, it was intense, screaming
and yelling, my aunt had thirteen kids. Things were very intense, and I
was pretty isolated, but as a kid it seemed logical, I knew, that if I
leave this, it will be better, I don’t have to be crazy, don’t have to
scream. Everyone has a purpose, I might hate myself when I read this,
but if I connect the dots, it is my childhood that brought me to this
point. Think about this - if I had not been lonely as a child, or had
not had to make do with little, I would not enjoy all the time I spend
alone working, and I would not be as creative with the use of materials.
And also childhood fed my feelings for justice and fairness. During the 50’s and 60’s in small towns things were kind of unfair for girls, I was treated unfairly. I see
my purpose as using my art to help other women feel strong.
The view of women was warped. I remember in college
the Sisters of Charity telling the girls that to keep a husband you need
to have a child immediately, and if it is not a boy, you need to
immediately have another one. I left that college after my junior year.
Sometimes I rebelled. My grandfather was from Italy,
and the Italian side of the family would have these reunions and after
the visiting and eating the heads of the extended family would have a
“meeting.” Years back, I was living here and teaching at Rice, I went to
a reunion and of course was the only woman who wasn’t married, and
decided to attend the meeting, figured I would pay my dues and do the
newsletter. Well my uncle told me to get out. He said, “no girls allowed this year.” So I told them what I thought, “even a dog could go into
that meeting, even some man I casually fucked.”
And now I’ve gone and said “fuck,” and you’ll quote me.
VBA: This is Pan sweetie, “fuck” is appropriate.
KB: The family was shocked and totally silenced. I grabbed my stuff and left the reunion. That evening things exploded. My cousin reported reported it was like a match to dynamite, it shook up the family. He
said their meeting lasted until three in the morning, with heated
exchanges, some of the women asserted themselves, and my uncle stepped
down as head of the family. It changed the family dynamic.
Karin Broker, Finding Jesus, 2009, Antique Christ figure, wood, wire, crystals, rhinestones and miscellaneous, 17.5” h x 4.5” w x 4.5” d
VBA: You make three-dimensional artworks
that include Catholic ritualistic objects such as rosary beads. They
mirror a jewel-like aesthetic, yet the unrefined, fake stones and dark
content negate the notion of beauty. I’m thinking of the bead-covered
crucifixion sculpture Finding Jesus, and the three-dimensional
“hearts” made of beads, rhinestones and religious metals. Say something
about their ritualistic source, and incongruence.
KB: Ritual is fundamental. I used to play classical piano (points to a baby grand piano), and when I was a child I played
the organ in church, and went there every night to practice. The priests
didn’t want the lights on, so votive candles illuminated the church and
the ceiling was covered with painted images. I absorbed this atmosphere
in a deep way, the look and mystery of the place. This was more than a
eureka moment, it was a huge revelation, to be in seventh grade and be
aware of my first art installation. This all took place before the
Vatican ecumenical council. After Vatican II that ceiling ended up
being painted white, because a bunch of cardinals surrounded by
Renaissance and Baroque art decided some American churches should be
painted white. I’ll never forgive them for that. But I knew the power
of that environment. I also sang, all the Latin masses, I was the good
girl, and I loved, loved, that I could make people cry. I even had a
huge statue of the Virgin Mary because I was going to be a nun, probably
because I desired peace and quiet. Rosary pieces and rhinestones
appear frequently in my art, and I associate them with the glitz and
surface stuff that distracts many, such as when looking at a girl, and
also with water drops, and particles of fractured light. The
crucifixion in Finding Jesus was an antique from Mexico, very old
and expensive, and I distorted it with beads on wires that pierced the
figure to speak of a bigger theme and symbolize the abundance of
“stuff,” money, power, you’re supposed to hate gays, all the other stuff
projected onto Jesus. It should be so simple and pure – be kind, love
one another – what covers the figure is all prickly and makes it
difficult to see. It’s all “too much.” My “hearts” have colored beads
wired together. We all have sadness in life. My sister Pam died six
years ago of breast cancer, and my brother died a year ago of pancreatic
cancer, so by putting all that together I was artistically mending a
VBA: When I saw the clusters of blue and black rhinestones that cover Black & Blue Boys,
my mind went instantly to the jewel-covered chalices and reliquaries
you see in church vaults all over Italy. The viewer is jolted by that
artwork’s visual drama, but its pistol hints at ominous content.
KB: That box is not pretty, it symbolizes being hit, beaten and bruised, which happens to women and young girls.
VBA: Let’s talk about your up-coming museum show, what are you showing?
KB: The opening reception is Friday, May 30,
from 6-8pm, and it runs through August 31. I plan to show eight
collages, sixteen gravure collages, nine boxes, seven nailed
two-dimensional pieces and 24 three-dimensional wired objects on boxes.
VBA: And another book is coming out.
KB: The Contemporary Drawing and Painting Bible, also by Thames & Hudson, is scheduled for publication early Spring 2015.
VBA: I bet you never thought this neighborhood
would become all gentile and expensive, it’s unrecognizable from when I
hung out here in the early eighties. Back then there were knife fights
at the bar on the corner of Knox and Washington. My car was stolen a few
blocks from here.
KB: It’s totally transformed.
VBA: Remember how cold the beer was at
Roznovsky’s? Because I spent a lot of time there I did a painting of
their façade as a gift, and it was awful, but Mrs. Roz thought it was
boo-tee-ful, and hung it over the door. Very few of the old houses,
like yours, are left, and your studio is splendid.
KB: I loved Roznovsky’s. I actually built my
studio in two days, got artists to come help, it was like an old fashion
barn-raising, and then I took time to finish the inside.
VBA: How do you decide what to make here and what to make at the farm? I heard you have horses.
KB: We have two dogs, four horses, one pony,
one miniature donkey, and six cats. I make everything at the farm, and
then move it back it here. The studio there is new, and so great, so I
work there, except for the steel work, all the welding is done here in
Karin Broker, We Come Bearing Gifts, 2010, Cast metal, wire, crystals, rhinestones, gold, semi-precious stones, 13 h x 9.5 w x 3.5 d
VBA: Karin, your articulation is
uncompromising, a point critically made by everyone who has written
about you. Many “famous” artists lack your skill. Describe your
KB: I have been drawing since seventh grade,
with equal time devoted to drawing and print making throughout college
and graduate school, and had the good fortune to encounter better and
VBA: It can be seen that the new conte drawings
achieve expressiveness through slight distortion of form. And I recall
overreaching voluminous shapes in the 2010 florals on paper
KB: Expressive yes, I wanted the new works to
look like they were moving and weeping, as a cathartic thing for the
women killed. I was also trying to make these robust florals “weep” so I let the black Conte drip. The McClain drawings I consider to be like
paintings. My flowers are meant as sensual forms grabbing at you for
attention and as objects that feel "too much," "too overwhelming." And
you got it, I exaggerated forms in the 2010 works, they were made
voluptuous to be “too much.”
Karin Broker, 3 fat boys, 2010, Conte on paper, 75.5 x 50
VBA: There were important things
happening in New York when you were a student, Twombly’s 1979 Whitney
Museum retrospective is only one example. Who were you looking at, which
artists influenced your development?
KB: I was going to New York and looking at
everything and loved looking, but the art didn’t influence me. Instead I
was inspired by the weirdest things, people for instance, someone
yelling at their kid, I wrote it down and it entered my art. I remember
having great difficulty with a print series in graduate school until I
simply began to incorporate what I saw around me. As the print shop
assistant I took a bit of abuse, so if someone treated me like crap, I
made a print about it. It’s not that I illustrated it, but visualized
it, which was so emotional, personal, the art succeeded.
Similarly with Europe, I go often, Paris where I
studied is my favorite, I embraced it, so different from Penn,
Pennsylvania, but the art didn’t inspire me, transsexuals and hookers on
the other hand got my attention, I completely responded to those
things. By focusing on what’s around me my art in a way recycles
memories, it represents periods of time, in the same way someone’s
photographs of their kids mark time. That sculpture near you contains
all of my husband’s contact lenses, to mark the passage of time, and
more will be added. Weirdly I’ve kept all my old boyfriends’ letters,
everything written by the bad boyfriends, I saved it, and the letters
inspire me and are important to my character, they represent a broad
spectrum of memory. I saved all of my dad’s letters and glued them on my
art, my art is a response to things around me.
But there is one artist who directly influenced me. At the Whitney or somewhere I came across a book called The Nazi Drawings
by Mauricio Lasansky and the drawings were phenomenal. I had never seen
that before, that level of skill, with a profoundly serious topic, the
holocaust, shocking rape scenes, it was enormously impactful, so I found Lasansky at the University of Iowa, and went there for my undergraduate senior year. I don’t think I knew where Iowa was, or
the difference between Iowa and Ohio, well Iowa’s on the plains and it’s
freezing cold, but I experienced his drawing first hand, not a lot of
other stuff has inspired me, except film, newspaper, people’s behavior.
Oh, I do take inspiration from Gael Stack,
I love that quality of line in her work, her stuff seeps in to my
consciousness, I think I memorized that jittery mark she makes. And James Drake
is exquisite in conte, Drake is the only other person I look at. I love
his red conte, we seem to parallel each other in line quality and in
the love of good drawing, he inspires me to be a bold draftsman.
VBA: So your ill-bred parakeet met the famous art critic.
KB: The bird jumped on Hilton Kramer’s
shoulder and pooped, and I was certain he would remember only the mess
instead of my art, but it turned out he remembered my art and praised
Karin Broker, Two Sisters, 2005, Cast metal, paint, wire, crystals, rhinestones and miscellaneous, 7.5 w x 19 h x 5 d x 2