On Friday we debuted a new exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (iMOCA) featuring seven years worth of Kathryn Refi's art called Records. Refi is based in Athens, Georgia and holds an MFA from the University of Georgia, Athens. Her art investigates daily life through the lens of scientific processes. She records data from her normal activities and uses the results to create very controlled art, which ironically gives her more artistic freedom.
Beginning to question notions of subjectivity and objectivity helped lead Refi to the implementation of scientific processes in her art. Just as a scientific experiment must contain controls, so does the process of creating art for Refi; controls serve to make sure that she only collects and represents in the final artwork exactly what data is relevant to the question she is probing. "The controls I put on the work give me more freedom and actually allow me to be free to some extent from the academic training I received as an artist. I don't use many of those things I've been taught, so it actually allows more freedom for the work to just be itself and not have to conform to ideas of aesthetics," she says.
Refi, a self-described creature of habit, has noticed that her daily life is very routine as a result of her explorations. Although the data collected in most of Refi's work that is on display here are directly referential to her own experiences, they still make the viewer question their own personal experience and the world around them. Unlike many artists who focus on a way of working or a specific theme for long periods of time, Refi sets out to explore a question and then moves on. As a result, her body of work is constantly changing and reflecting new questions, ideas and processes. "Ultimately, the questions that I'm trying to answer in my work are unanswerable, and that's half the point, and half the point is just keeping on searching even if you don't find an answer," Refi explains.
Here are some pics of us at iMOCA installing Light Readings (September 17, 2001). As you can see, the work is so large that it takes up an entire wall.
Light Readings (September 17, 2001), 2002, india ink and graphite on paper. This piece involved Refi wearing a hat with a weather recording device that also registers light for a period of 24 hours, beginning at midnight. The data was converted into gray scale; each square in the picture represents one minute of time. A black square represents complete dark, so it is evident when Refi was sleeping.
Color Recordings, 2006, oil on panel. There are seven of these paintings, one for each day of the week. This project saw Refi utilize a hat-mounted device again, this time for recording colors she observed. A computer program interpreted the data using the red green blue color scale, and 729 hues were generated. Each painting is 100 inches across, so one inch is 1% of a day's worth of color observed. The smallest amount of color in each painting is 1/16 of one inch, and the seven paintings each contain between 75 and 125 colors. In the example pictured above, the brilliant band of blue represents the camera detecting Refi's umbrella on a rainy day.
Address Book, 2003, oil on panel. In Refi's My Address Book series of paintings, she juxtaposes technology and analog ways of doing things: she hand-paints satellite images of locations from her address book. Refi had no cell phone during the creation of this series; as a result of cell phones, address books are now nearly obsolete. The views of the locations remind us how much technology has infiltrated our experience of way-finding. We merely plug addresses in to websites that give us satellite images and directions and no longer have to carry hand-written addresses or use directions that we have gleaned from paper maps. The objective format of representation conceals Refi's relationships with the people whose addresses are pictured; some may be close relations while others are addresses she had not actually visited.
Refi's other series of work included in Records is called All Things Considered and takes its name from the NPR radio program, which Refi listens to every day. The series includes 12 works on paper in which Refi listened to the show daily for a month and plotted each geographic location mentioned on a paper by placing a 1/16 of one inch red sticker. Using the Mercator projection as her basis but placing only the stickers on paper, a skewed map of the world emerges that metaphorically conjures the Mercator projection: North America is incredibly well-defined and large, while Africa and many other areas of the world are much less noticeable. Refi has noted that this work is very hard to photograph. The All Things Considered series is the most concrete example of a large realization Refi has made through her artwork: Everything is subjective. Radio news shows, Mercator projection maps and scientific studies are examples of "truths" that Refi knows to be highly subjective, and thus she feels that the blind faith people often place in scientific studies is problematic. "We trust the numbers more than the experience now," Refi muses.
The body of work presented in Records is thought-provoking in its uncommon methodology used in dissecting what appear to be very mundane experiences. Truly beautiful art has emerged from Refi's explorations. The scale and meticulous discipline and detail in each piece in the show is very impressive. The art could function as aesthetically appealing abstract, minimal work even without its conceptual backing, which is interesting considering how grounded and controlled it is by its conceptual basis. Engaging Refi's art means reevaluating one's daily life and what happens within it, as well as engaging questions of subjectivity and objectivity in the world around us.
I had a chance to ask Kathryn a few questions after her lecture at iMOCA. See what she had to say: