Interview by Sarah Thibault
I first met Kirk Stoller in 2011 when I moved into a studio next to his in the Dogpatch. I sat down with him in October, 2013 and interviewed him about his studio practice, his new project space, C2C in San Francisco, and living a bi-coastal life.
I wanted to start by talking a little bit about your background as a sculptor, and how you got into art. Also, I noticed we both have similar educational background. We both have BAs in French, did you know that? Then we both got BFAs on top of that and then also MFAs.
I actually don’t have a BFA. But I’ve done art studies.
Oh ok. I was looking at your resume and I was like oh my god you’ve been in school forever.
I work at City College so I just take art classes there.
I see. Can you talk a little bit about how you got into art?
Well, I’ve always done art since I was little, but at a certain point my parents were afraid that I was going to become an artist because they didn’t want me to become a left-wing communist. At that time that’s what they viewed artists as being.
Was this the 1940s?
Their mentality was. But I kept doing art even though I [was] doing pre-med and all these other things to make my parents happy, but I would do art on the side as my elective. So I kept doing that. And then when I moved down to San Francisco, I got a job at City College and started taking printmaking classes. One night I said to the teacher that I wasn’t really an artist, that it was a hobby. And she said, “What do you mean? You’re an artist, you do good work. You’re an artist.” Something simple like that made me think differently about myself and that’s what started my career at that point. I was doing not that great of work at that time, but I was still working toward something, I thought.
So it just took one person to say something. Why did you move to San Francisco?
To do international relations at San Francisco State after spending a year in France for my undergrad and so I knew that I liked that.
So, you broke away from the family and moved to SF. Do you think that your background influences— having this whole other educational background and taking some time to get to art— that it influences the way that you approach your studio?
I think it does. As a sculptor you’re already in the everyday, because we walk around. That’s how I look at it. I think that’s where the materiality, the materials I use, because they are every day. [I choose] materials that have been used in life, not for art, but for other things. So yeah, I think so.
Besides that, my mom’s a hoarder. My artwork, as you know, it’s stacking sculpture. I think that that influenced me a lot too, which I didn’t realize [when I first started], but as I moved forward.
That’s an interesting connection. Having seen your studio over the course of a couple years, I noticed you pick these objects that don’t look like anything, they’re scraps. Hoarders find this purpose for this thing that’s maybe not meaningful to anyone else. I’ve seen the show “Hoarders” and that’s my only basis for it— but they often explain to people as they are going through which items to keep and which to toss ‘No, that’s special, that’s my dirty piece of wood,’ and I feel like in some ways that’s what you’re work does.
I picked up a piece of wood when I was in New York and my sister had come into town with a friend and my friend said, ‘Why are you carrying that piece of wood around? What made it special to you?’ So I started pointing out that when the light hits this fleck of color that’s right here, and there’s this little roundness here. So it’s similar, but it’s not, I have a purpose for that. It’s to create something else, not to just keep a hold onto it like a hoarder.
It’s relatively new that I’ve tied two and two together. That form is interesting to me, to build my sculptures—I think it’s because [I’m used to] waking up and seeing things stacked. [It was] the first thing I saw, things stacked up precariously over my head.
When you get to the studio, like what kind of things motivate you?
I’m actually building— when I build the sculptures, to me they’re never sculptures. More paintings actually. I think of them as paintings. And I don’t think most people would see narration in my work. They’re very abstract and minimal and formal. The color becomes a character, they represent some things. So what I do is I start out by putting two pieces together and see how that works, and then maybe add in a couple more pieces and then it just starts building from that. I build relationships between all the pieces. There’s an interesting curve that goes with this wonky looking split end of something. Whatever makes me uncomfortable and not pleasing to look at, I usually start that way. The sculpture itself could become more pleasing as it gets more pieces involved, but at the core is this uncomfortableness, this wonkiness — I think.
What would be an example of a narrative that you’re spinning?
It depends on what—usually it has to do with an emotional response to something. Starts out there. Something in my life or how I’m feeling, something like that. The color pink is my usually my sisters, and I use pink a lot. I don’t know if it’s my sisters or their room. Because I always wanted to be in the pink room, and I had to be in the blue room. So whether it’s my sisters, or that room I’m not sure. But that’s- or yellow is my family home. That’s the color of the outside, so collectively there’s yellow. And also in New Age you often think of a yellow light to calm you and the glow of the light and somehow that’s related to it.
So it’s very much about the home and you’re roots.
I think so, and who I am as a person. And I think that’s why it’s about the home, because I think childhood patterns or relationships and family relationships create a lot of who we are.
Kind of Jungian.
Very much so.
I’m into that. Now you’re all over the place. Do you think you’re especially drawn to this kind of root-forming themes because you’ve been traveling a lot and you feel like— I know in your [mission] statement on C2C’s website you said you’re feeling like you don’t belong in either location. Do you feel you’re partly grabbing onto that because—
Finding where I belong or who I am or something solid. Which is ironic because the work is not— I mean, it is solid, but it looks precarious.
It looks very fragile.
Which is how I feel my life is, but that’s not what I want. I want something that’s a little more solid. That is interesting. I never thought about that with the flying back and forth, and home issues, and still—but I’m creating non-homes for myself. Interesting.
Or maybe you’re creating self-portraits. Do you feel like your work shifts depending on which city you’re living in? Or where you’re at personally?
I think so. Color-wise definitely. Like in New York they don’t have bright colors like they do here. At least in scrap materials, I have to add them. [Instead it’s] grays and browns and stuff like that. That’s why I think I stand out a little bit in New York because I bring this California sensibility with my color choices. It’s very LA.
How does your lifestyle vary depending on you being in different cities? You go to a lot of residencies too.
Well, even to install a show, the first show I did at Romer Young, San Francisco, when it was Ping Pong Gallery I didn’t know what I was going to do. I kind of had a vague idea. Joey Piziali (co-owner) gave me the keys to the place so I could create. And I did it. And I was pretty proud of that show. So I think that helps me as I do a residency. It takes me a couple days to get the lay of the land. It helps also that I’m using material from the place that I’m at. I have to say that I’m doing site specific.
You are? That was one of my questions. I consider you a studio-based artist. I didn’t realize you think of your work as site specific.
I do actually. It is. I mean, certain colors are New York to me. Certain colors are San Francisco. Certain colors are LA. Certain colors are Berlin. Berlin, for my show there, I took a few things, a couple little small pieces. I didn’t want to ship things. I had a budget for it and it’s really hard to get things shipped over there. So I went there and just scavenged through construction sites and I created all the work from that. A few pieces I brought from here and from New York to bring those influences to Berlin. Kind of like what I’m doing for this project, I wanted to bring everything together. And so it was kind of interesting. When I actually sold a piece from that show I thought it was interesting that people were paying good money for their trash, basically. [laughs] It wasn’t their trash specifically, but it was German trash.
German trash. [laughs] That should be the title of the show! Okay, to get back to your bicoastal lifestyle, if you could paint a picture of how your life is in San Francisco versus New York—
San Francisco is different, I have a full-time job. So there’s all that, that includes the boring hours at work that you don’t want to be there and other obligations.
So New York you only go there for residencies and projects?
No, I work in my studio. I have a studio there in Clinton Hill, and I have an apartment in Ridgewood, just across the border by Bushwick and Queens. I go out more there than I do here. I don’t socialize much here. I’m trying to change this. This project is probably one of the things I’m trying to get me grounded or back into the things in San Francisco, because I kind of neglected it. But in New York I’m always visiting galleries, seeing shows, working in the studio, socializing with friends.
So what was the impetus to start your space C2C in San Francisco?
I’d been thinking about doing it for a couple years, ever since my residency in New York finished and I moved back. So I cleaned out my place and got it ready. Painted it white.
I think it was after the Albee residency last fall that I started really seriously thinking about it. The first artist was very encouraging— not because he was going to be the first artist, he was just encouraging anyway—
‘You should do it man, it would be great!’ [laughs]
‘And by the way, you like my work?’ [laughs] I just decided okay, I have to do it. It wasn’t fun living in San Francisco for me, and I had to do something to change that up. This is just the way I thought about doing it. I think the first—the people I know in San Francisco and I socialize with, they always have this special idea of New York and what New York is, and a lot of them want to go there, whether they want to live there themselves or get their art work there. In New York it’s always, ‘Oh cool, you live in San Francisco?’ They really love San Francisco. So I thought there’s something interesting there that’s happening. And for me, the more I get to know both places, the more that they’re just places to live. They’re different, they’re similar, but there are very similar things: people go to work, they eat, drink, whatever. Yet because people go to New York, say from here, they’re on vacation so they have this really fun time there.
Have you ever thought of building a project space in New York?
That’s why I named it what I did. C2C, it was supposed to [mean] Coast to Coast, but a play on S-E-A to S-E-A, but actually C2C could be City to City. And it also could be Continent to Continent. So I just left it vague enough that I could spread out and do whatever my life takes me. If I live in Berlin I could do a project there, and same thing with New York. If I move to New York I definitely would do the reverse, because that’s my idea. There is some really great art work being created out here in San Francisco that people in New York don’t see—
And vice versa. With New York they want to come out here and show their work and show what they’re doing.
It seems important to have that dialogue between the cities. I think San Francisco has all this really great stuff going on, but it doesn’t necessarily mix as much with the outside world. It’s a bubble of community and we’re all really happy inside it. But then it’s, like, how do you get out of that?
It’s funny, when I first did my residency and moved to New York, the bubble popped. I was living in that bubble, and it was like, okay, the best thing you can do here is win a SECA Award—
I think a lot of people right now are creating their own spaces. Like you, okay, you don’t feel like you’re seeing the dialogue you want, so instead of [leaving the city] you’re creating it here and there’s something really important about that. You don’t just give up and say ‘Oh well, people aren’t responding to the work that I like here.’ Instead you’re saying ‘What am I going to do about it?’
Yeah, and a lot of people in the past would just go away. And if I was in a different situation, I might have done the same thing. But my job is here and I’m not going to leave it at least for a couple more years. So that’s why I thought, ‘Okay, why not bring New York here’, and vice versa.
Other than knowing one of the artists, what was your idea behind the first show? Have you curated shows before?
Yeah, student work at City College, so not really. But I look at curation, or curatorial practice, as an extension of my work. Again, piecing things together, building relationships. So for this show, Vince has been a really good friend, and Zach’s my friend for a long time. But for me, I know a lot of great artists on both coasts, but for me it was not only could their personalities mesh because they’re going to have to work on a show, but also there has to be something in the work that I see that there’s a commonality. And I think it’s not so obvious if you look at the work here, but both artists, they have an appreciation of the medium that they work in. Like Vince feels like the paint actually tells him what to paint; he doesn’t have the control, the paint does. And I think Zach does the same thing with materials.
I feel like you kind of do the same thing with your materials. For me, I saw a connection between their work and your work.
I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I guess it’s my space and I can do what I want. [laughs]
There was a woman who showed up at the opening and she used to work at Mixed Greens [Gallery] in New York. She just transferred here for something. And she was saying, ‘Are you going to just use traditional mediums? Is that all you’re going to show is traditional mediums?’ And I wasn’t even thinking in those terms, I’m not thinking of mediums at all. I don’t think I’d be locked into anything. It’s just a matter of finding a connection that I want to explore, or have two artists explore. So that’s what the impetus of this show is and going forward that’s what will happen. The next one, I haven’t got the confirmation yet for the artist, so I’m not going to say who they are, but the connection came and I woke up from a dream and the two artists were together in my head.
Whoa, that’s very San Francisco.
Yeah, I know it is. That’s the California way. One of them I don’t know that well. She’s a Facebook friend, but I know her work. And the other one I know pretty well here in San Francisco.
Can you say what mediums they are?
Mixed, painting, sculpture, probably much more like this, but the sculpture is more on the wall. But again—
And always one from San Francisco and one from New York?
And usually I’m trying to do a sculpture versus a 2-d, so there’s a mix there. Because again I feel like that’s maybe a reflection of my work and who I am. So I don’t know if it’s good or bad.
Can you talk about the logistical aspects of your project? For example, part of the project is that an artist from another city does a residency in the project space— in this case Vince Contarino.
The New York artist will get to live in my loft for a week and I’ll relocate to a friend’s place for that time, during the installation. If they are interested, I will also have them teach a workshop for the Office of Continuing Education at City College, where I work. My hope is that during the week that the New York artist is here, they will be introduced not only to the other artist that they will be working with, but also to my other artist friends. For this first installation, Vince actually introduced me to several people who had moved here from the East Coast. The back and forth is a main component of the project. I am planning three installations a year. It seems that that is how many I can manage while also maintaining my own practice, day job, and trips back and forth to the East Coast.
Do you think that working with these artists will change the way you work in your studio and/or do you feel like it changes the way you work with them being an artist yourself?
Definitely it changes how I work with them. It’s more hands on. They did the installation pretty much themselves, but they asked me certain questions — a lot time for permission. Like Zach wanted to know if he could take away my table. But also they wanted my eye and my opinion — lighting, stuff like that. I don’t think they would ask me that if they didn’t know my art practice too.
Do you think it will affect your studio practice?
We’ll see. Again I just think of it as an extension of my studio practice, so it’s part of it already. So, I’m not sure. What I’m hoping is that— I just like the idea of my world getting larger, but also smaller at the same time. The space between my two homes is condensed, but the friends that I have will meet other friends here — make more connections in between.
And I’m hoping that will help friends with their life and their practice too. I’m not Mother Theresa, but I also want to help in some way. I know a lot of artists who make great work and more people should see their work.
Definitely, I think that it’s important to help your fellow artists. That’s the only way to build community, is to help each other out.
That happens here in San Francisco, but the possibilities — once you get past a certain point, opportunities are less and less people aren’t as generous with that information. They are when you’re first getting started, all these people want to have shows and they’ll put you in there with the funky spaces and stuff like that. I think in New York there’s a lot more opportunity so that’s why a lot more people get advancement through their friends – it’s just my opinion.
You have a good viewpoint having spent so much time in both cities.
Yeah, it’s just different. In New York they’re more career—based. And I’m not saying that people aren’t thinking about their careers here [SF], but because the lifestyle is so much easier and relaxed, they’re not pushing as hard. I’m not saying that New York is better than San Francisco in that regard, but it’s just different. Personally I think that New York needs to be softened up a bit and I think San Francisco needs to be woken up a little bit. So that’s kind of what my project is.
So it’s like your manifesto: Wake up San Francisco!
Slow down and wake up.
The best advice I got was about editing. I see a lot of young artists that think everything they do is beautiful and great and everyone will like it. That’s not the case. Never be redundant within individual pieces for a show, if you set up one piece you don’t set up another piece in the work. Look at it and edit everything out. Just like when you edit something you wrote, you can’t say a word multiple times. The same thing, in a sculpture or painting, and so I think that’s—and I think Squeak Carnwrath told me that.
She was my advisor at Berkeley. So yeah, that’s the biggest thing that I always pass on. And the other is just really figure out what you want to say. Everyone does that as they progress, I think, but young artists, they just bounce around. And I think that’s okay. Don’t worry about it, if you leave something on the sidelines because you decide that maybe that’s not something you want to say. Go ahead and destroy the painting, go ahead and destroy the sculpture. It doesn’t really matter. You’ve already learned the lessons from it, and you can put what you’ve learned into the next piece.
Nicole Eisenman, we did a studio visit with her for Linda Geary’s New York class at CCA, and she’s like “kill your babies.” But a little more… [laughs]
But there are important ones to keep, like I wouldn’t show certain ones, but for me they’re important. I remember the emotions I felt when I finished that or I felt so successful with those pieces. Now I look back ten years later and it’s like, those pieces are really not that good, but it was good for me at that time.
It solved a problem for you and you felt really satisfied.
Right, and I would never be here if I hadn’t solved that problem.
Previous posts by Sarah Thibault (below)