Katrine Claassens is an artist living and working in Cape Town. It is here, at the University of Cape Town, that she is currently studying towards a Master’s degree in Climate Change and Sustainable Development – intent on forming a solid basis of knowledge that will enable her to fully communicate her deepest concerns through her art. In her second solo exhibition titled Between the Blue Swimming Pools, she expressed some of these concerns by looking at the emotional landscapes as well as the problematic environmental costs of the one of the world’s most desired living spaces: the suburbs.
Working from old photographs and more recently, from images sourced from the internet, Katrine’s paintings sometimes appear flat and nearly bleached while at other times are layered with a sense of depth. To find out more we spoke to Katrine about her creative beginnings, how her style and approach have shifted since, and what her plans are going forward.
Growing up, was there ever any indication that you’d be doing what you are now?
My father would bring home reams of that old punched computer paper from work, which my sister and I would lay out for metres along the passage and draw on for hours. Although, that might not be the best indication of a future career choice because while I’m an artist, she’s now a lawyer!
After realising that you wanted to pursue a career as an artist, how did you go about doing so?
After high school a lot of people aren’t sure about what they want to do. I was fortunate in that I knew with complete certainty that I wanted to do nothing else but study art and become an artist. I applied for the Fine Arts programmes at Stellenbosch University and Michealis and got into both, but ultimately decided that Stellenbosch would be the best place for me. Having a degree in Fine Art is not a prerequisite for becoming an artist (there aren’t any) but it certainly does help your career in many ways. After graduating and looking at my options I had to make the decision to be an artist for the second time. There are many things you can do with a Fine Arts degree and the reality of what it means to be an artist in ‘the real world’ is not an easy one so I have found it necessary at various times in my life to consciously recommit to this path.
Has your style or approach developed since you first began painting?
Yes, very much so. I first started painting seriously at 17 so over the years there have been changes – in my style of course, but also in the way I approach art conceptually.
In terms of aesthetics, how would you describe your work?
It depends on the painting. Sometimes the work is layered in glazes and has a depth to it, and at other times I paint with turpentine and it becomes flat and almost bleached.
Would you say that your process is more spontaneous or planned – or perhaps a combination of the two?
Because of the actual process I use to make my art (I work from photographs and frequently use photocopies for tracing) some planning is involved. The spontaneity comes in once the drawing stage is done and I actually start painting.
What are you influenced and inspired by?
Manet is an endless source of inspiration for me. For contemporary painters it would be Luc Tuymans and Dana Schutz. The video and installation artist Darren Almond is also a big influence.
How does nostalgia factor into your work?
I think it’s important to understand what nostalgia means. The word ‘nostalgia’ was first used to describe mental illness in Swiss soldiers that suffered anxiety (and a high suicide rate) when fighting away from home. For the painter Luc Tuymans nostalgia is “a notion related to horror.” Nostalgia is mostly related to the notions of longing and melancholy. One walks a fine line when one’s work leans towards nostalgia – you can so easily fall into sentimentality. My work has often been described as nostalgic and I understand why as I work from old photographs and there is often a blurry quality to the work. This being said I think there is a violence in my work which is often overlooked because of the seductive nature of memories. These days I am more interested in ‘solastalgia’, a term which describes melancholy and trauma brought on by personal experiences of environmental degradation due to climate change (amongst other things).
Tell us more about Between the Blue Swimming Pools, and how the body of work came to be.
Looking back I see Between the Blue Swimming Pools as both a conclusion of the subject matter I have been dealing with for years as well as a step towards a new direction, though there are themes that I think will always run through my work. The title of the exhibition comes from the South African singer Jennifer Ferguson’s 1980s apartheid protest song Suburban Hum. The full lyrics go: “It’s not for us to choose anymore / Between the inertia / and the blue swimming pools.” I think this perfectly reflects both the political and environmental concerns in the exhibition. After graduating I lived in Canada and France and the eerie encounters I had with wild animals in the suburbs of these countries led me into an investigation into human trespasses on the natural world. In the body of work I also started moving away from working with personal, childhood images and started to source my photographs from the internet. The internet is where you’ll find the most crude and yet fragile visual noise. It’s a great place to find images to work from.
What have you been working on recently?
Recently I’ve been working on a series based on internet memes.
What are your plans going forward?
After realising that I really didn’t have the solid basis in what I am most concerned about – climate change and the destruction of the natural world – I am currently doing my master’s degree in climate change at UCT. It took a lot of work to get into the course (they weren’t so sure about accepting an artist into the science faculty) but this was completely worth it as I think the solid, scientific grounding I am getting from the course is invaluable in communicating my concerns in my art from an informed point of view. For the moment, I’ve just got back from Montreal where I had an exhibition with the international artist’s collective called 5wolvesnopigs and I’m currently creating a body of work for solo exhibition next year.
What could we expect to find you doing in your spare time?