Artist based in Hoboken, New Jersey
Anya Kotler, Portrait of the Artist
Tell us about yourself, what's your background?
When I was a kid my family moved around quite a bit. I was born in Ukraine, lived in Moldova for a bit, and mostly grew up in Israel, before relocating to the US in my late teens. Growing up, I certainly did not see myself as an artist, and with a full genuine passion pursued the sciences, later getting my undergraduate degree in Molecular Biology. It was not until late high school that I began fiddling with drawing, and getting a suspicion that I’m tapping into something of importance, later embracing it much more fully in college. I took my first painting course in college with Professor George Dugan, who became my mentor and dear friend. He taught me everything that really matters about painting. He showed me how to see a world of utmost beauty, which I always had an inkling of, and encouraged and helped me when I was going through hard times. His wit, vitality, and wisdom are unforgettable and his words and outlooks on life are permanently with me, informing the way I move through my work and through life. In retrospect I can see the threads throughout my childhood that always pointed me to my current work, however I was not aware of them at the time. I vividly remember how after painting for two years or so I found myself at the point of no return. I resolved to call my parents and inform them that my biology career is not going to progress. Understandably, they were rather concerned. After that conversation, my friends helped me down a few shots too many, and I woke up the next morning with a hangover and the realization that my life has switched from an avoidant question mark, to a sense of clarity that was both terrifying, and euphoric.
The Poems 2021 Oil and pencil on panel 24” x 18” x 1”
"For me, the concept of stepping into water is a shedding, or stripping of accumulated layers, a stepping from something familiar and perhaps comfortable, into something unknown, chaotic and unpredictable, something that takes courage and blind faith."
The Conversation 2020 Oil on panel 13.25” x 23.25”
What are you currently working on and where did the inspiration for it come from?
I tend to work on a number of different paintings at the same time, which allows me to move in multiple directions, and always have something to do, even when I’m stuck. One of the larger works I am currently trying to figure out appears to be part of a sequence of three or more paintings, two of which I have made over the past year. They all, in different ways, have a common narrative of a figure interacting with water. In “Escape From The Garden” the figure just about places her foot and toe into the water. In “To Step Steady”, the figure steps up to her thigh into the water, and in my current painting which is as yet untitled, the figure is walking up the stairs, emerging from the water.
Working on some current paintings
Together they form a loose narrative of a very simple act – stepping into the water, and emerging from it. This ritual has been very significant to me, inspired strongly by the Jewish practice of the Mikveh – an immersion into water for the purpose of purification. For me, the concept of stepping into water is a shedding, or stripping of accumulated layers, a stepping from something familiar and perhaps comfortable, into something unknown, chaotic and unpredictable, something that takes courage and blind faith. It is a necessary means of passage to some other side, an act that requires both immense confidence, and resignation. The water means different things to me on different days.
Home 2020 Oil, acrylic, gold leaf, fabrics, wood, concrete, plaster, canvas, yarn, copper wire, silicone, plastic, crayon 88” x 74” x 18”
"Home" displayed at an exhibition at Silvermine Gallery, New Canaan, CT
Innovation does not only happen in the field of technology — it occurs everyday in an artist's practice. What do you do for inspiration?
Constant innovation is an essential part of my practice. I feel that each piece (and each part of each piece) is a new and different problem than anything I have done before, and each new problem requires a new solution.
"Escape From The Garden" displayed at an exhibition at Pen and Brush Gallery, NYC
For example, when I paint hair - in one painting it shows up as a thick impasto of many colors that mix and intermingle; in another it shows up as strings of Burnt Umber paint that is squeezed out of a small hole in a Ziplock bag, like cake frosting; in another, I paint the hair as a flat crisp pattern of black and white striped spirals; and in yet another, I make tiny holes in the panel into which I implant pieces of thin wire, which stick out of the surface. I am not exactly intending to reinvent hair every time, it is just that the thought of repeating a previous solution usually makes me lose interest and feels irrelevant in the new context. I want to stay on my toes, be surprised and find what else is possible. This applies not just to hair, but to every part of each work.
A relief that I am currently carving as part of a larger painting
New ways of making demands new ways of seeing. I think this pursuit of new ways of seeing is what drives my work in the first place, and makes it meaningful for me. It forces me to seek new perspectives on those aspects of our life and world that are absurd, mysterious, unfair, beautiful, conflicting or obscure. A way to not necessarily understand or make sense of things, but to expand and see more.
A section that is painted from life, on canvas, to later be cut out and attached to a larger work.
A shaped panel in progress, that later turned into a part of "To Step Steady"
Describe your practice and process. Where do ideas start for you? In the studio or being in the world?
The work is sourced everywhere, in life, in random experiences and interactions, in strange coincidences, both trivial and significant, and in the way other artists tackle those experiences as well. I read a bit too much meaning into everything, usually not having a way to articulate it clearly, and all that makes its way into the work. In the studio, the process becomes very much a conversation. I start out with some element of the general sense I am trying to address that feels most vivid to me, bring it into physical form, and in this translation, it becomes something different than what I had in mind. Now, it can stare back at me, and I have a reference point to which I can listen and respond. When I think too much, I end up with a pile up of decisions that aren’t going anywhere, but when I am able to just listen and respond, strange things happen that lead me somewhere I haven’t been before. While the subject always stems from being in the world, coming to the studio, shutting the door behind me, and embarking on this private conversation is essential.
A small piece of an ancient Egyptian carving that I recently saw at the Brooklyn Museum, which gave me the direction in which to approach my current carving. I was attracted to the way the faces emerge from behind each other.
Drawing with Oscar in the morning
How do you make your work, does it start with a sketch? Can you tell us about your style? How did you arrive at it?
I often do make multiple sketches of a painting when starting out, and throughout the process, in order to figure out where it might go, or what its fundamental juice is like. Sometimes the paintings follow the sketches, but often they do not, there isn’t much consistency here. I don’t know if I have a style, but simply as a result of doing whatever feels interesting to me at the moment, there turns out to be a continuity between the works. For instance I end up obsessing over tiny details and textures, and how they interact with each other. I pile up a whole lot at each painting, because I need that space to observe the accumulation of my own stupid and interesting decisions, to find out what is really going on, which results in a kind of maximalist aesthetic. I adore artists who can convey a powerful sense though simple means, and used to try to fight my maximalism. I suppose I arrived at what I could call my current style by giving up fighting what comes naturally, and being open to change.
To Step Steady 2021 Oil, acrylic, gold leaf, glue and coins on linen, panel and concrete 100” x 62” x 7”
"To Step Steady" at my studio
Many artists live by their routines, working for only a certain period of time of day, listening to dedicated playlists, or eating specific foods while in the studio. Do you have your own studio ritual? What does that look like for you?
I tend to be at the studio on a 10-6 type of schedule most days. I suppose the most ritualistic part of my day is sitting with my cat Oscar for a while each morning, while I figure out my plan for the day or draw. When I do my best work I need complete silence, when I’m struggling with my work I listen to artist interviews, and when I’m cleaning my studio I turn on the radio or some music. My practice is such that it incorporates very different actions, such as detailed painting, loose painting, carving, sanding, general woodwork, etc. Some activities require focus, others are relaxing, and others are physically demanding. This variety is very intentional for me, because it allows me to have something to do for every mood, and also to switch to a very different action a several times a day when I get tired or bored of what I was doing previously. As a result, I’m able to stay busy all day. Usually I keep the works in progress out around the studio, so I can keep staring at them throughout the day, and possibly find a way to solve them.
Installation view of my recent show ''Silent Stars'' at Mayten's Gallery in Toronto, Canada
Who are your biggest influences?
My painting Professor George Dugan, my grandmother, Edwin Dickinson, Marisol Escobar, my husband, Rothko, drawings by children.
Are there books or films that are an important source of inspiration?
It is honestly very hard to filter out the major influences, but here are some that have stayed with me over time, and some that have added recently in no particular order: Dostoyevsky – his uncanny insight into the humanness of humans; “Maldoror” by Comte de Lautreamont – I keep coming back to this wild text; Simone de Beauvoir – a view of freedom that is currently most aligned with my perception; Baruch Spinoza – his cool, and detached yet incredibly intimate analysis of the human experience; and although I don’t watch movies very much, I can watch the film “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” directed by Terry Gilliam over and over again.
Opening Of The Mouth And Burning Of The Feet 2019 Oil, glue, paint tube fragments, fibers, rags on linen 64” x 90”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
First think about WHAT you want to do, and only then think about HOW – from my sculpture professor.
What is the best advice you would give to other artists?
The only advice I can really give is to not waste time doing something to impress others, or to fit the work into some kind of aesthetic or narrative (unless it truly feels in line with what is important to you). Being an artist (today) is a choice to partake in a radically free activity, this much freedom can be quite terrifying, but is worth everything.
Stay up to date with Anya Kotler
Upcoming Workshop in Ireland: https://anyakotler.com/ireland-workshop