+500 / Kristen Letts Kovak

When I meet Kristen Letts Kovak to talk about her dual gallery exhibitions at 707 & 709, she tells me that she looked over my prepared questions at lunch today. “Oh, I’ve just jotted down a few notes,” she says casually. A quick peek at her notebook reveals impeccably neat handwriting and when she speaks about her work, her thoughtful, sharp responses leave me fumbling as she drives our interview. This precise, laser-focused attention to detail and control Kovak wields is anything but lost on her artistic practice.

Sourced from Pittsburgh’s own Carnegie Museum of Art to foreign collections from around the world, Kovak constructs and obliterates museum displays with her balanced use of representation and abstraction. Her work invites viewers to examine not just the artifacts she depicts but the way in which they are preserved and exhibited as well.

That being said, to declare Kovak our guide would be missing out on the opportunity to investigate reality for ourselves. In On Looking, reflections in glass cases one would typically ignore, become focal points in Kovak’s paintings. By reaching beyond the paper’s edge in White Noise, Kovak’s installation forces viewers to observe further as she brings out mundane to bizarre structural elements of the gallery itself.

With a new found heightened awareness, I’m reminded of John Berger’s canonized text Ways of Seeing. To quote Berger, “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.”


Your work vibrates between representational and abstract realms, could you elaborate on your relationship between the two?

I often hear people talk about representation and abstraction as the flip-sides of the same coin and I don’t really think that’s accurate. I see it much more as a continuum between the two. When I am in the process of making a piece, I feel like the decisions are the same: It comes down to what color and what shape I am putting next to another. Some of those combinations will naturally yield representation while other edges will fight each other and appear as abstraction…Representation and abstraction are not an either/or. In my practice, I move fluidly between them.

How long have you been interested in this way of working?

I can see early dabblings of these interests probably 10-15 years ago. I’ve been working on these paintings for about three years now and the drawings were all made in the last year.

Speaking of drawing and painting, do you find yourself working from one to another or vice versa? Is that an ignorant question?

It’s not an ignorant thing to say! When I’m working on the paintings, I do draw first. For me, I’m drawing as a way to think about the painted image, not as an exercise in drawing itself…Where as, when I’m creating the work in White Noise, I’m thinking about drawing in terms of line, value and rhythm. That being said, I would say that in both shows, each work involves a tremendous amount of layering. One of the differences with painting, is that my marks can obscure what’s underneath, and mask what’s there.  Where as, in the drawings every layer is revealed.

Eyewitness oil on wooden panel 2017

Do you consider these works still lifes? Does a particular moment, artist or period in art history influence you?

There was a time when I got really interested in Trompe-l’œil (‘deceive the eye’) paintings. I spent about three weeks with every book I could find on Trompe-l’œil. I just needed to stare at them until I could figure out what made a Trompe-l’œil painting different from a still life… What were the choices that the artists made to make these feel so dimensional? I wasn’t interested in how this person had a more refined hand, or more realistic approach. Trompe-l’œil really had more to do with exaggerating existing phenomenon. I started to notice that elements would be overlapped more so than is typical in real life. Shadows would be increased to imply a larger distance between objects…

…And what that means is, things felt realistic to us because the artist has changed them. What I had always thought of as this ideal version of reality, was as Plato had clearly warned, only trickery and deceit. When I was creating this work, I tried to just pay attention to what I was seeing. But, when you don’t filter that information, you don’t always get an illusion either.


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The Slippery Slope (detail) graphite on paper 2017

Where do you position your viewer in the work? Are they also trapped behind glass or are they peering in with you? Where do you place yourself?

I think there is a definite triad between artwork, audience and artist. It doesn’t seem like it’s enough for me to say, “I saw this and I want you to see that I saw this.” That doesn’t seem sufficient for the relationship because it puts the artist too high in the hierarchy. What I am interested in, is the audience looking at the work and saying, “But that’s not how I saw it.” When an audience can do that, it opens up a conversation about how each of us are perceiving the world. And once we can start to question whether or not what we see is the same as what someone else sees, it opens up a much broader conversation on tolerance and acceptance.

I think this difference in perspective that you’re talking about compliments and parallels the fact that you have a dual exhibition in the two galleries. As an attendant, it’s interesting to see how a visitor interprets the work depending on which gallery they encounter first. Visitors really become detectives after they see your installation in 709.

In 709 I tried to highlight what I saw when I looked at the gallery itself—approaching it in the same way I approach my paintings and drawings. In White Noise, the audience has to walk into a new viewpoint. I wanted to get across that everything deserves to be looked at. There are some things in 709 that are oddly so subtle, that I will probably be the only one to notice them. And I’m ok with that.

Kristen Letts Kovak, White Noise
Installation view of White Noise at 709

What draws you to these traditionally beautiful objects?

In a museum, there are three main parts to every display. There’s the artifact, the explanatory text, and the spatial context they exist in. We’re clearly supposed to focus primarily on the artifact, and then on the historical context and finally on the museum itself (or to outright ignore it). However, I’m interested in that part the most. It’s the context that changes what the object is. When you look at what I chose, you see that these are functional objects. These are artifacts that had a life and a use very tightly tied to them. They were dirty at times, somebody scrubbed them, there are chips missing… but in all of those cases, they are displayed as if their intention was only to be seen.

When we display things that way, we’re actually stopping history at a certain point. We’re saying that we want you to imagine this at its heyday, in its moment of creation or of pristine existence. But the objects have had this whole history since then. This body of work is about an animated way of seeing. It’s about seeing something over a period of time and observing it from different angles as the light changes.

Kristen Letts Kovak, On Looking
Installation view of On Looking at 707

What’s next for you? I heard you’ll be curating a show at Space soon.

This summer I’m curating an exhibition at SPACE called Identity Play and the artists that are in it utilize the strategies of childhood to try on persona and explore the complexity and sincerity of one’s identity. Their work will lead us through an exercise in multiplicity. The artists are Scott Andrew, Atom Atkinson, Patty Carroll, Zoë Charlton, Rick Delaney, John Peña, Bibiana Suárez and Imin Yeh.

Note: Interview was originally conducted for the purpose of this article for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust but was cut down due to space limitations.