Is power achieved merely through finesse with form? I suppose that we know well that pictures do not have to look particularly real or shocking to stir the heart or make the mind tremble. Rather, while this can move us, it is the unexpected that makes work truly stand out.
Indeed, while the formal models of scientific illustration and renaissance painting are important in the work of the American painter Katy Wiedemann, there is also an element of insistent strangeness. I can as well point to a certain rawness and horror that seems laid out in terms that are nightmarish and a bit coroner’s table, e.g. her contemporary take of Judith Beheading Holofernes, the painting so gruesome that I shall only show a detail, and invite you to visit her portfolio to see more if you so wish.
When I asked Katy about formative experiences she mentions a lifetime of vivid dreams, more often than not disturbing and even violent. In many ways, making art is an expression of this place, an act she describes as a harnessing of such imagery: “Art also became a way for me to separate my dreams from reality and repurpose them into something which inspired creativity instead of fear.”
Katy’s work can be quite shocking, take for example Rebirth of the Scientific Model, a work of nearly 7 feet tall.
“As a child, I frequently visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art and was most interested in the martyr paintings. I was raised Jewish, so the Christian imagery was foreign to me at the time. I was always intrigued by the passive look on the figure’s face while enduring such brutalities. This sparked a life long interest in theology, particularly theological art. So, after returning from Italy, a place where I was surrounded by beautiful theological paintings, I decided to create a painting that reflected both my interests in theology and anatomy.”
“The flayed figure simultaneously references both the Christian martyrs and the anatomist’s cadaver. In death, both have supplemented a movement larger than themselves, whether that be religious or scientific. In this painting I used my admiration for theological imagery to emphasize my reverence for the scientific method.”
RB: You are quite interested in the armature of the human body as well as that of many species, what draws you to this subject matter? I particularly love the way you depict skeletal form beneath skin in the Repose pictures.
KW: I find the structure of the human form, and all natural forms, riveting. As a culture, we tend to see the internal structures of the human body as something that is morbid and is most often associated with horror and death.
I believe that this is a mistakenly placed stigma. The bones, muscles, and organs of our bodies are what give us life. They determine our external appearance far more than the thin layer of skin that encapsulates them. To only associate them with death does not do justice to the incredible nature of the human body.
RB: Please tell me about your renaissance technique, the glazes etc.? What is your process and range of materials? Way of working?
KW: I have always been fascinated by the renaissance masters, particularly the quality of light that is captured in their paintings. My process begins with preparing the surface I am working on, whether that be canvas or wood panel, which involves several layers of gesso, sanded between each layer. I then paint the entire surface with a medium value oil paint to set a neutral base for the under painting. Each of my paintings begins as a monochromatic under painting, using just one color, usually a burnt umber, plus black and white to establish the values and details of the painting before addressing color. I then will add in fine details using an egg oil emulsion, which I make using egg yolk, stand oil, damar varnish, distilled water, and raw pigments. Lastly, I use many translucent layers of oil paint mixed with stand oil and damar varnish to create subtle, yet complex color structures, using the light to enhance multiple layers of color instead of a single, blended hue.
RB: As a technically focused artist, e.g. working in the anatomy and science illustration fields, and a practitioner of renaissance style painter, how do you push yourself both technically and conceptually?
KW: I constantly scrutinize my own work. I frequently will hang a finished piece in my room for a period so only I will see it in order to analyze its flaws. When I can identify what areas I am struggling in, I try to plan my next project with whatever that weakness was as the focus of the piece. For example, for quite some time I found it very difficult to paint hands and feet. So I spent a significant period of time going to museums and focusing on the extremities in figurative paintings and I set a rule for myself that if I was to paint a figure, at least one hand or foot would need to be in the composition. This became such a focus of mine that now all my figurative paintings not only contain hands and feet, but they are often the focal point.
RB: How do classical painting canons play into your way of working? And in turn, the natural world?
KW: Classical painting canons play a significant role in the light structures of my work. I love the sense of lighting, which comes from classical renaissance paintings, particularly chiaroscuro lighting and the sense of volume that it creates. I also prefer to depict my figures in the nude, as the classical painters frequently did. I see it as a celebration of the human form more than anything sexual, an idea that has been somewhat diluted over time. The natural world of course is my primary source of inspiration. In my work I prefer to depict as few man made items as possible. I find the evolution of life and the innovation of nature far more interesting than anything man has been able to produce.
RB: Are there certain artists you admire particularly? You mention you actually favor artists whose work is quite different from your own? I find that when writing something particularly challenging, the best thing I can do is read about a topic completely apart from the one at hand, or even another form of text, such as poetry.
KW: There are many different artists, which inspire many different fields of my work. I am greatly inspired by the techniques of anatomical artists, such as Jean-Baptiste Marc Bourgery and Henry Vandyke Carter, and renaissance masters such as Caravaggio and Botticelli.
However, I have the most admiration for artists whose work is very different from my own, whose work is more expressionistic. Some of my favorites are Otto Dix, Egon Schiele, and Francis Bacon.