Katie Rose Pipkin and the new art
Listening to Katie Rose Pipkin, I've come to believe that I inhabit a world that will find me obsolete well before I'm ready to pour out the inkwell.
It happens while talking with the 22-year-old artist on the patio of Wild Wood Bakehouse by the university area. She's sporting the anachronistic look of today's youth in a (totally Eighties) heather gray, wide-necked top, remote tattoos, and geek-chic rectangular eyeglasses – which allow her to say things like, "I'm not a code expert. I do HTML, CSS, and occasionally a little Java. It's something I used to do when I was a lot younger," without coming off as precocious. I'm not as much halted by the complexity of the tools that she describes as I am by the feeling that I have at last acknowledged the Internet for all its potential, and now I'm horribly embarrassed.
"The Internet is a fundamentally new medium, which is exciting because you don't get those all that often," Pipkin says. "And that's totally discounting acting and performance and bodily work. We're looking at purely visual, flat stuff. You just don't have that many developments anymore."
Lately, the Austin born-and-bred artist has been experimenting with a technique called glitch video. I've seen young graphic artists in Santa Fe likewise insert poetry or famous quotes into video code, and I imagine viewers witnessing Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 for the first time felt similarly: The work is hard to decipher and a little off-putting, but you realize that everything is about to change, and quickly.
Pipkin's own forays into the unknown have been accelerated by a string of recent achievements. Last summer, her artwork appeared on the cover of the album Celebrity (Empire of Emptiness) by prodigious local fiddler Ruby Jane Smith. In November, she was named Artist of the Year: Early Career at the 2012 Austin Visual Arts Awards. This April, she showed her pen-and-ink drawings in a grayDUCK Gallery group show, while simultaneously hosting a collaborative installation/performance called Basements Were Rooftops during Fusebox Festival. Then, she created live visuals in response to music by the local band Boy Friend at the Austin Museum of Digital Art in May. And her puppet designs appeared in the 7 Towers Theatre Company's recent production of The Pillowman.
This might be all in a day's work for your average Austin "creative," but Pipkin was also recently welcomed by the Texas art establishment when the Texas Biennial selected one of her digital projects for its fifth edition, beginning at the end of the month. This personal success, combined with her reputation as the Great Collaborator, makes Pipkin something of a local myth: The visual artist, whose transition from raw creativity to accomplished technician, will finally give Austin a seat at the table with San Francisco, if not Los Angeles or New York.
"When I first met Katie Rose, I announced that she was going to become a very well-known artist," Olivia Pepper, Pipkin's partner in the shuttered Wardenclyffe Gallery, says. "I still think so. I'm more than confident that she'll be that 'Austin legend.'"
The daughter of Turk and Christy Pipkin, Katie Rose had an idyllic childhood, she says, exploring and playing around the rural family estate in Bee Cave. She traveled extensively with her parents' nonprofit, the Nobelity Project, as early as 8 years old, according to Christy. The family went to Ecuador, Ethiopia, Kenya, and many other locations to shoot documentaries on global issues like education, health, and the environment. By 14 or 15, Katie Rose was taking stills to accompany the films.
"We could be standing side by side with cameras in hand, and the photographs would turn out so different," Turk says. "You could tell who was the great artist."
The Pipkins disclaim much responsibility for the talent of Katie Rose, saying she was born "with her way." Christy remembers when Katie Rose was 16, studying on a grant at the Art Academy of San Francisco. "She came back and said, 'I don't want to go to art school because they're all crazy.'"
Instead, Pipkin enrolled in the University of Texas' art program to form a wide artistic practice that didn't involve the kind of self-obsession she had witnessed in the Bay Area. Her mentor and professor at UT, Jeff Williams, says that her work was interdisciplinary, "including painting, sculpture, installation, new media, and video."
Williams continues: "Katie Rose is also well versed in philosophy and poetry, which informs how she conceptualizes a piece."
Early Web projects such as Snowfall DESTROYS Three Cars meet an "unabashed" interest in beauty with the classic art of observation. However, the string of unrelated YouTube videos, collected in collaboration with Zonodon Andersonoceros, are really a private fascination, demonstrating little more than the artists' quirks. The project is a vestige of youth, like her pixie haircut and the way she smiles crookedly as a prelude to answering a question. Otherwise, according to Pepper, Katie Rose has come of age.
"She has migrated away from some of the childlike whimsicality and quirky humor ... and explores darker, richer, more nuanced territory," Pepper says. "There's certainly some more intensity to it now, more deliberateness."
This was apparent to me when I first encountered her work at grayDUCK. The pen-and-ink drawings are allegorical, possessing a dark humor that 7 Towers must have recognized when it hired her for the disturbingly sublime The Pillowman.
Pipkin was 17 when she and Pepper met. They prepared the grounds for Wardenclyffe and its collaborative air through a project they called "The Island." "The Island" was really just a "ramshackle bohemian cottage" shared by Katie Rose and Pepper, where they hosted large art events.
Wardenclyffe closed on June 1 so the landowner could attempt to sell the property, now that artists have made the Eastside attractive to buyers. But the partnership sees only opportunity. For one thing, the name seemed less theirs once Wardenclyffe Tower in Shoreham, New York, reopened as a Nicola Tesla museum. For another, the collective has expanded from a two-person creative junkyard into a nine-person organization set on developing 15 to 20 studios and a residency program, among other things. They named the group Cloud to Ground Collective.
"We got tired of running Wardenclyffe on a shoestring," Pepper says. "It started to pick up a little at the end, but mostly we were impoverished artists the whole time."
Meanwhile, Pipkin focuses on her own work. She's headed to Colorado Springs for a public art collaboration; then, in October, to the Joshua Tree Highlands Artist Residency, and she'll be at the Pilot Balloon Church-House in Lawrence, Kan., by February. In September, her new media project, EternalReturn.org, will be on display at Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum in San Antonio during the Texas Biennial.
EternalReturn is a transitional piece. With a name suggesting Mircea Eliade's concept of the relationship between the sacred and the profane, the website depicts motion pen-and-ink graphics of clouds crossing the sky and birds falling out of it. Shea Little, an organizer of the Texas Biennial through the nonprofit Big Medium, says that he was perplexed by the selection committee's choice, adding that while her illustrations alone probably wouldn't have been selected for an event of this stature, her technology-based material shows innovation.
"It's collections of things, documents of daily travel, weird objects she finds, secrets of other people's lives," he says.
Those secrets have been the subject of reprove from viewers who think some of her video projects just encourage the "highbrow art crowd" to laugh at "these common stupid folks," Pipkin tells me. But as Pepper points out, those viewers just may not be prepared to understand the new artistic medium of the Internet.
"I certainly have heard suggestions that her tech-based work is voyeuristic, aloof, robotic, or cold, somehow inhuman." Pepper says. "But that seems to me more a critique of the technology being utilized than of the artist herself."
Katie Rose Pipkin's work may be seen in the West Airside Gallery at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport through Sept. 4. Her work EternalReturn.org will be on view in the 2013 Texas Biennial exhibition at Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, 116 Blue Star, San Antonio. For more information, visit www.katierosepipkin.com.