Controlled Burn: Artist Kathleen Kucka
February 3, 2019
Text by Robert Kiener
When I tell Kathleen Kucka that someone once described her artistic process as “painting with fire,” she smiles, pauses, and replies, “That’s not far off. I can see what they mean.”
Taking a break from a work in progress—a ten-by-eight-foot canvas—in her expansive mid-nineteenth-century barn/studio near the Litchfield County settlement of Falls Village, Kucka explains how she burns a series of semi-solid concentric circles into the canvas. “It’s really pretty basic,” she says as she shows off an electric fire starter with a loop-shaped heating element. “It’s the same thing people use to start their outdoor charcoal grills. I used to use a hotplate, a butane torch, or an iron, but I found this to be much easier—and safer.” She uses water to help control the size and shape of the burn.
After scorching an abstract design into canvas or paper, Kucka often adds paint or colored fabrics, giving her work an extra depth and dimension. Her style has been called “naturalistic,” and she confesses many have compared elements in her intricate designs to amoebas or cells or other forms that appear in nature. “I’ve long been interested in the organic as opposed to the geometric or hard-edged compositions,” she says.
Kucka’s designs may be abstract, but they are not random. As one critic noted, “They instead create patterns organizing the experience of the piece, like lyrical footsteps of a dance.”
Says Kucka, “I’ve always been intrigued by mark making, and I have experimented with using thread to make my mark or pouring paint onto the canvas. But I kept going back to burning.”
Part of the allure of burning is that each mark is unique. “And because each of these marks grows in its own organic way, they feel more alive to me.”
Kucka’s work has been featured in numerous one-woman and group shows and is widely collected. Among the museums that own her work are the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, the Birmingham (Alabama) Museum of Art, and the Weatherspoon Art Museum at the University of North Carolina.
The Cooper Union (B.F.A.) and Hunter College (M.F.A.) graduate admits she has been inspired by twentieth-century artists like Lucio Fontana or the German-based Zero Group, minimalists who believed they had to destroy the canvas in order to bring it back to life. “Their interest in being destructionist, the way they often slashed or punctured their work, appealed to me,” says Kucka. “By sewing, pouring on, and burning canvas, I was making my mark as well as entering into the discourse of abstraction.” Because a burn cannot be erased or removed, she considers it to be a metaphor for both destruction and change.
Kucka splits her time between her Connecticut studio and a space in Brooklyn, New York. “I think of myself as a dual citizen,” says Kucka with a wry smile. “Burning was an issue in Brooklyn. I was always freaking out other artists who would smell the smoke and think I was going to burn down our studios! (She never did.) I’d often resort to doing my burning up on the roof where wind was a constant nightmare. Now, with this space in Falls Village, I can burn as much as I want and no one is bothered. Such bliss!”
Typically, she will scorch a canvas in her Connecticut studio and bring it to her Brooklyn studio, where she may add paint or layers of fabric to finish it. A work can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to complete.
“I like to work on several paintings at the same time,” says Kucka as she points to a just-begun piece in her Falls Village studio. “That one is giving me lots of trouble, and I admit that I’m struggling with it. I hope I can eventually get through it and out the other side. Having a nearly completed painting nearby gives me hope, buoys me up. So I like going from one to the other. Well, it works for me!”