COVID-19 has had a significantly strenuous effect on the art and entertainment industries, but not everyone views this as a hindrance. Abstract expressionist Kerry Irvine’s latest exhibit, Shifting Spaces, speaks to the forced transitions of 2020 and the silver linings that flourished amidst an exhausting year. Irvine is back in her studio at 3 World Trade Center now, but she spent much of 2020 creating art in her kitchen, as many artists were forced to do.
Before the pandemic, the rising rents in New York rendered it increasingly difficult for artists to find space to create, but luckily Silverstein Properties who developed WTC 3, has allowed real estate access to Irvine, they offer this luxury to a small group of artists. Benefitting a larger number of artists the organization ChaShaMa negotiates use of vacant real estate for artists and creatives to stage temporary exhibitions. Increasingly, real estate companies are seeing the benefits of placing artists in temporarily vacant spaces activating them to raise value and garner eye-balls. Perhaps more artists will, like Irvine, be able to exchange their home studio for commercial real estate as occupancy continues to drop due to the pandemic.
Based in New York City, Irvine grew up in Long Island and is the daughter of a painter. “My mother was an abstract painter. From a very young age, there was always art,” Irvine said. “My sister is also a painter. She’s a realist; she does portraiture. We’re completely different, but she’s really talented. My mom could do both, so it’s like we both got a piece of her. She was super influential in color.”
Throughout her career, Irvine has also been inspired by color, as well as motion, mysticism, and raw emotion. Her work is highly expressive, taking us on a personal journey of vulnerability while allowing room for viewers to bring their own perspective to the given story.
I spoke with Irvine about the struggles of being an artist during a pandemic, how her solo show at Trotter&Sholer has triumphed despite adversity, and what is next for her.
Taylor Engle: COVID has forced you to abandon your studio and reinhabit your at-home workspace. How has this experience been for you and what sort of effect has it had on your work?
Kerry Irvine: Back in March, they asked us to leave the space at WTC, because Cuomo rendered us nonessential workers. I was forced to start working out of my apartment in my tiny little kitchen, but I had done that before, so I kind of knew the setup. I had a little bit of foresight early on luckily, so I consulted Blick, changed from oil paints to acrylic, and ordered some brushes, easels, clear cut paper, and not a lot more. Nowhere near my normal load. I usually use a lot of mixed media.
For the rest of my stuff, I went to the Target craft section and began working with things I’ve never worked with before like markers, kids’ oil pastels, Sharpies. Whatever I could find.
TE: How did you begin to get inspired despite what was going on?
KI: It definitely took a while to get into the groove, but I did, and the Kitchen Series eventually began. In my big space, I can normally work on several paintings at a time, but I had to do one at a time because of the limited space in my apartment. I’m very disciplined in that when I start something, I have to finish. I did a painting every three days or so. I really felt an urgency to work when I was first at home. I had so much time and it was really therapeutic to use my art to deal with the scariness that was going on.
TE: I think that’s definitely reflected in your work.
KI: Definitely! If you look at Kitchen #1, it’s a pretty raw piece. I had gotten much more layered, much more collage-like. When I look back, it feels very tense. I think part of the tension is because these pieces are much smaller than what I usually work on, but it’s just very raw and scratchy and emotional and I think you can see the frustration in it.
TE: How else has the pivot of the last year been for you as an artist? How have you had to adapt/reassess, other than having to work from home?
KI: Well I’m back in the studio now, so that’s a big relief. Even as a painter, which is a pretty solitary career, I still managed to socialize in the studio. Other artists would pop in and chat, or other people in the building. This was a really solitary experience, though. Aside from my boyfriend, there was no one looking at my work, nobody to bounce it off of.
Even being back in the studio now, I still don’t have the traffic I used to have. There are people who just don’t want to go out still, and I don’t blame them. But when I do have clients come up, you can tell they really want to be there. It’s so exciting for them, and they feel safe. It’s really nice to be able to do that for them. We all still feel like we’ve got a big clamp on us and we can’t move as freely, so little escapes like that are so essential now.
TE: How has it been to navigate rent and reinhabiting studio space for artists?
KI: I’ve seen a lot of people, like the women at Trotter&Sholer, open gallery spaces for artists and it’s really lovely. I think the next thing to happen is that these abandoned Midtown office spaces won’t be able to refill right away, and artists will be able to get deals and open up their galleries in these spaces. I’m also seeing a lot of younger people opening galleries, which is really wonderful.
I think people have sort of rejiggered themselves, and their priorities are a little bit different now. I think as far as art sales go, people aren’t taking those fancy vacations or buying fancy toys or gadgets; they’re sitting at home and realizing they want to improve their home life. To do this, they’re buying decor–they’re buying art. People are looking at their homes as their sanctuaries.
TE: What was your inspiration for Shifting Spaces?
KI: When the girls approached me about a show, I didn’t know if I had time for a theme and whole new body of work, so we stepped back for a moment. My curator Clayton Calvert pulled about 50% from my Kitchen Series, and then some of the work I did after quarantine. It’s all about what happens in different spaces where you work, whether it’s psychologically, emotionally, physically, or some combination. Art was a need that needed to be fulfilled for people. This is what came out of it. I was really proud to get back into the studio and hang everything that I had done as a body, to sort of step back and say, “This is what I did.” When you compare the two, it’s sort of stunning to see what went on.
TE: What has the process been like putting together an exhibit during a pandemic? How does it compare to your previous experiences?
KI: It was good and bad. A lot easier than a normal show, because I took a lot of pressure off myself and put so much trust in Clayton. The work was already there, and everyone was so amazing to collaborate with. It was so nice to have this team come in and tell me, okay, it’s here. I usually have a lot more control over the process, but this time I really just let them take over. That made it way easier.
The saddest part is that my family couldn’t come. My dad is 84 and we didn’t want him in the City. For the most part, I kept the opening on the down low and didn’t send out any invitations. I thought it’d be better to look at virtually, in a nice and controlled way. We did do opening night, and it was really pleasant and lowkey. I said to everyone that worked on the show, “Look, this is historical. We had a successful art opening during a pandemic. We have record of this.” That was amazing.
At the studio, we do appointments now, which is actually helping sales because of the extra attention people feel like they’re getting. We do things more virtually too–people can FaceTime and see the show if they want. Lots of Instagram as well. Things that will become tools for artists in the future, I think. I think we’ll rely on all of the positives that have come out of this for a long time coming. It’s made everyone be proactive and creative and inventive. Just getting the work out there.
TE: What has the Shifting Spaces experience been like for you?
KI: I’m super proud of this body of work. It was really nice to see the show outside the studio and in the lit jewel box in the gallery. It breathed new life into it, and it was just fascinating to see it in that light.
TE: What inspires you as an artist?
KI: I think I’ve always been inspired by light, color, texture, lines, and always emotion. It’s not necessarily a formula; my process is pretty organic. Color is a big thing for me. Sometimes I start with a color story, or the human figure as a starting point, and the rest is very intuitive.
TE: How have your inspirations shifted throughout your career?
KI: I think I’ve become more comfortable in trusting myself and taking chances, listening to other people and other artists. A lot of it is trust. And painting, painting, painting, every day. It varies, though. If I’m not inspired, I’ll do something like indigo dyeing. I’ll just start dyeing linens, or maybe stretch a canvas, cut paper–anything to be working in the studio. That really helps. I’m just always moving.
TE: Who are some artists, or other creatives/professionals, who inspire you?
KI: Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Bourgeois, Louise Nevelson, Robert Rauschenberg, Jennifer Bartlett, Martha Jungwirth, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mark Rothko.
TE: What is next?
KI: Continuing on this path of exploration and work, work, work. Today is really frustrating because I’m not going to the studio, but I’ll probably do watercolors in my kitchen. I’d like to get more into 3D as well, and maybe some sort of installation to go along with my paintings. I’m constantly thinking about what is next. I’d like to have a show in my studio if the world reopens in June. I just want to push myself harder and further.
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