Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Kori Newkirk: Painter without Paint


Kori Newkirk

Kori Newkirk’s arrival at the pony beads and synthetic hair sculptures for which he is now known is, like so many tales, a curiously winding one. It starts simply, almost too smoothly in fact: as a high school student Newkirk had the luck to study with a metal smith who brought copies of magazines such as American Craft to the classroom. This, coupled with his location in a small east coast college town allowed Newkirk access to, in his words, “a lot of natural things” as well as regular trips to the galleries and museums of New York City. From his parent’s home he “commandeered the family blender to shed paper and add dyes” and seriously thought that he would go on to study Fibers in college.

But Newkirk arrived at art school a painter. He transferred once, to the Art Institute of Chicago with every intention of joining their Fibers program. But during his very first class he decided the program was not a good match and beat a hasty retreat to the painting studios. On an undergraduate exchange program to Brighton Polytechnic in England during the early 1990s, Newkirk became fascinated by the work of then-emerging British artists such as Rachel Whiteread. Inspired by what he had seen in England, he returned to Chicago set on the notion of “being a painter but not using paint”. This desire drew him with a vengeance to nontraditional materials, which he deployed to make “traditional looking things.”

With a BFA at the Chicago Art Institute in hand, Newkirk went on to an MFA from the University of California at Irvine. By the late 1990s he was reading the New York Times at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. “I just thought I would draw and strategize about the next step,” he explains. “I was just out of grad school and stuck in the country with few materials.” It happened to be the summer the tennis player Venus Williams broke into the US Open and Newkirk took note of press coverage her braided hair and beads received. (Apparently her opponents on the tennis court were concerned that the beads may break loose during the game and trip them up if they rolled onto their side of the court.) The beaded hairstyle “had a resonance” for Newkirk, an African-American who grew up in the 1970s, and remembers the style as “something I always wanted as a child but could not have.” Interested in the possibility of “making a picture on the back of someone’s head” he made a beeline to the local Wall Mart and stocked up on plastic pony beads. That summer, his first pony bead curtain was borne. Sadly, he deemed the exploration “horrible…. just a little too kitsch for me” and abandoned the materials for two years. The opportunity for his first solo show brought him back to pony bead curtains and this time he threw himself into the labor-intensive construction. But with two satisfying works completed, he again abandoned the materials for another two years. Since returning to the materials a further time in mid-1990s they have become the mainstay of his artistic practice.

The majority of his curtains are based on photographs, some shot by Newkirk himself, others appropriated. “Things just tell me they need to be a curtain…. that I need to depict them in braids and beads” he explains rather cagily. Newkirk is the first to admit that the translation of image into curtain is not a science. Once an image speaks to him and convinces him of its worth in beads he runs the image through the computer to create a transparency which, with the aid of a projector, acts as a cartoon of sorts. Rather than employ a scientific translation of print to bead, Newkirk works far more intuitively, recognizing that sometimes he must stray from the picture in order to find a way to let the new materials capture the image in their own way. “Things never line up, never want to match the picture,” he chuckles. There are times when “beads go up and down with a veracity. I’ve learned to trust myself, I just know when something isn’t working even if it matches up.”

Considering the material questions Newkirk’s work poses, his imagery is surprisingly traditional. “I never expected to make the imagery I do now,” he admits. “I thought my work would always be abstract, non-pictorial.” But Newkirk has not turned his back entirely on the concept driven investigations of his art school days. Recent works include “Gainer” whose proportions suggest a giant fish tank, while the title refers to a backwards somersault dive. The work largely depicts the surface of chlorine clean water with the slight frame of a grass and concrete edge to make clear that this is not nature’s beauty but man’s – stereotypically a middle class white man’s – ability to dig and fill, suspend and alter, albeit in a calculatedly false manner. The fact that these works are not static – a gentle breeze moves each strand ever so slightly – means that they are physically impossible to pin down. The four-sided works in particular also provide a slippery sense of picture plane and depth as the bead strands both take up space but equally mark the air and emptiness at the center of the sculpture. There is, at the very least, the suggestion that this material emptiness is suggesting a further far more worrying emptiness enjoyed by the owners’ of such middle class bliss.

For the future? Availability of materials is a challenge. “There are so many more colors I want to get my hands on,” Newkirk explains. “Domestic beads tend to be smaller and rounder, while imported beads are bigger and boxier. It is subtle variation but it can cause problems if they are mixed together in one piece.” The problem means that certain colors are available in one shape and not the other. For now Newkirk hand dyes the colors he cannot acquire with Ritz fabric dye. The process tints the plastic but is not colorfast. But solutions to this limitation are on the horizon. He has tested the possibilities of using the machinery that eyeglass manufacturers use to tint the plastic used in frames to great effect, but has yet to acquire the pricey equipment for private use. And is he open to commissions? “If someone gives me a time of day” I am willing to work to commission in response to that. Hopefully the client would trust me enough to respect that I will know what it needs to be.” Beyond that, the only negotiations in his artwork Newkirk willingly entertains are with the beads themselves.

Surface Design Journal (fall 2006: 38-41)

home page image: Kori Newkirk “Gainer”