Some artists desperately want you to know the deeper meaning of their work. They labor over provocative titles and spend countless hours reworking their artist’s statements. For those artists, the joy in art is the insertion of themselves into a work — the knowing of the creative soul behind the work.
Then there are artists like Karrah Teague whose personality is obscured behind endless layers of paint. The joy in their work comes from the openness of interpretation as the viewer searches for intentional strokes in utter chaos.
“I like to make work where I’m not sure how it’s executed,” Teague said.
For two years, Teague has been creating gloriously abstract paintings from her home studio. Each finished canvas looks like a brilliant explosion that forces the viewer to reassess the limits of representation and authorial intent.
Throughout June, Teague has participated in the Yards artspace’s residency program. On August 2, Teague will debut the work she created at the Yards.
Landscapes From Another Planet
Perhaps the painting that is most representative of Teague’s current work is the cheekily-titled Mystery Science Theater. Upon first glance, it looks like a chunk of urban wall that’s been repeatedly defaced and painted over. You can see the wall’s intended colors, peach and yellow, peeking out behind monolithic streaks of black and white. It’s a study in the type of controlled chaos displayed across all of Teague’s paintings.
In search of a subject, the eye is drawn to a particularly dark splotch in the upper left corner. The black paint oozes down to a vast opening of textured white which makes up most of the painting’s upper third. The color seems dragged on, as if by accident. Beneath it are layers of multicolored paint stretched in every direction.
The bottom third of the painting is even more off-kilter. Yellow and red appear in bursts flanked by specks of white that almost seem like they dripped from Teague’s brush in a flurry of activity.
Viewing Mystery Science Theater for the first time is confounding. There seems to be no discernable focal point–no explanation to hold the viewer’s hand and guide them through the work.
Yet, if one takes a step back, one can see an alien landscape etched in bold lines buried underneath the scraped black and white. One might see the craters of the moon or the desert landscapes of early Star Trek episodes.
Teague, however, sees a work in limbo.
“I can never tell if a painting is finished or not,” Teague said.
Mystery Science Theater, like much of Teague’s work, was born out of spontaneity. While streaming the riff comedy show, Mystery Science Theater 3000, at home, her television glitched. Instead of robot puppets watching a B-Horror film, she was watching a scrambled, multicolored, and frame-delayed picture similar to what non-subscribers of Cinemax saw when they flipped through the channel in the ’90s.
Teague fixated on the psychedelic transmission and began to see the painting within. She snapped a photo and quickly got to work.
Creative Release for a Professional Artist
Teague’s irreverent inspiration for Mystery Science Theater might be disappointing to those who think artists should insert a deeper personal meaning into their work. For Teague, however, the absence of personal meaning is precisely the point.
Teague works as a tattooer; a profession that requires her to create images for other people. These images can be deeply personal for a client, who often have a preconceived notion of what they want. Some even ask artists to recreate an already extant image.
“I was making tattoos and tattoo-based designs, but it all stayed so traditional,” Teague said.
Popular tattooing is, to a certain extent, making art out of other people’s biographies — but without the liberties a biographer would take. Rarely does a biographer allow their subject to dictate the most important parts of the book. That sort of thing is up to the biographer’s creative judgment.
Yet, a tattooer is beholden to the whims of their clients. What the client wants, the client gets. Even if a placement or a shading choice seems suspect to the tattooer, they still have to submit to the client.
While Teague loves the work she does, she needed a creative release. Through painting, Teague is free to create whatever she wants. Even when she’s trying to paint an object, Teague said, she isn’t trying to make a strict representation of what’s in her head.
“It’s about creating with movement and building with the paint. It’s about responding to what happens,” Teague said.
When Teague paints, it’s almost as if she’s possessed by the image she’s creating. Her process starts with drizzling the canvas with a liberal amount of whatever color seems closest to her. That paint is then spread across the canvas with a large paint scraper Teague bought at a hardware store.
The paint spreads unpredictably, a byproduct of the tool which is meant to remove paint rather than apply it. As Teague repeats this process, she enters a state of no-mindedness. There seems to be no deliberating, just layers on layers that baffle any semblance of a concept.
Finally, she angles the canvas toward her studio door, takes several steps back, and considers the work.
“When you look at a painting from far away you gain a different perspective,” Teague said, “Sometimes it’s more powerful and sometimes it’s dull.”
After a brief moment of consideration, Teague cuts lines into the paint with the edge of the scraper to demarcate sections she’ll emphasize. She works on gut instinct, never allowing a moment to second guess herself.
Constantly Creating and Refining
Even though painting is a personal release, Teague still produces work at the speed of a professional tattooer. At work, Teague frequently has to bring a tattoo from concept to finished product within a single day. The same tempo and dedication are utilized in Teague’s crafts.
“I don’t like to zoom in too much or render. It’s just not what I’m good at. I like work that I can do quickly,” Teague said.
Teague’s studio is filled with piles of finished canvas. Each canvas exhibits a distinct conceptual phase that Teague worked through until it was completed.
Two years ago, Teague was making black and white line drawings on homemade canvases. For a few months after that, she worked through a Basquiat-light concept before devoting canvas after canvas to recreating a portal she saw in her dreams.
Teague said that she works through each concept until she feels she has come to its logical conclusion. As for her current layer-and-drag paint phase, she isn’t sure where it will go.
“Now that I’ve made progress, I feel like I owe it to myself to keep going,” Teague said.
Just like her concern with Mystery Science Theater, it’s hard to tell when a work is done. Especially when you’re never fully satisfied with the work you make. Yet, that’s where the joy in Teague’s work lies.
While some artists make pallid gestures at authenticity and call it art, Teague buries herself in her work. What the viewer sees isn’t the artist, it’s the artist’s process. It’s up to them to decide if the work is good without the crutch of Teague’s biography.
Teague, of course, hasn’t decided if her work — or any art for that matter — is truly good.
“Making art is a very human thing to do. You know, [you] make this thing that means nothing and then say ‘This a good one,” Teague said, “I just want to make one good painting.”