Katerina Lanfranco is a Brooklyn-based artist who makes paintings, drawings, sculptures, and mixed media installations. She earned her BA from UC Santa Cruz and her MFA from Hunter College, City University of New York. Her work has been represented by the Nancy Hoffman Gallery since 2006, and is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Kupferstichkabinett (Museum of Prints and Drawings) in Berlin, and the Corning Museum of Glass. She teaches studio art at museums and various institutions of higher learning throughout New York City. She has been awarded several artists residencies including a six month creative artist residency in Kyoto, Japan through the Japan/US Friendship Commission to study traditional Japanese arts and crafts. In addition to teaching Drawing and Imaging at Parsons/The New School, Lanfranco is Chief Curator at Brooklyn’s Trestle Gallery, and is the founder and director of Rhombus Space.
ADHT’s Casey Haymes meets Katerina Lanfranco in the faculty lounge of the University Center. Room 308C is a compact cube but contains a round table and chairs. They sit. She reads the questions he’s going to ask.
1. Katerina: You’re entering into my world here, with these questions.
Casey: You know the show Mystic Geometry as the maker, the messenger, the philosopher… I know of Mystic Geometry as an asker, explorer. What don’t you know about Mystic Geometry? What might readers and I know about Mystic Geometry before seeing it?
Katerina: I’ve always been interested in abstraction and the sense of reason and logic that comes from geometric abstraction. I work with the platonic solids.
Casey: Maybe I didn’t enter far enough into your world; I don’t know what platonic solids means.
Katerina: The most simple, beautiful, perfect, and symmetrical 3D forms: Tetrahedron, Cube, Octahedron, Dodecahedron, Icosahedron.
I want my work to be more than just visual and formal. As I was working on Mystic Geometry, I knew I was working with how they represent different elements: earth, air, water, ether, etc. And then I started connecting them to colors, and the colors were connected to music notes, and the music notes connected to seasons, and the seasons related to times of day and to symbolic plants. It was this web. A lot of it was really intuitive, too, a great discovery like: the cube represents earth. There’s an above and below relationship in this. As above, so below–I thought about this, trying to remember where I’d heard it, what it means. A unification in the balance. I did these paintings, and decided to call them vision quests.
Casey: That’s seriously mystic geometry.
Katerina: I don’t mean to sound hippie.
Casey: I truly enjoy it. Do you get a lot of reactions in your classrooms when this part of your story emerges?
Katerina: One of my students today said, “This class is so relaxing.” I encourage discussing multiple ways of knowing, just like the multiple ways of learning we talk about when discussing education, whether it’s historical or philosophical, mystical, spiritual, astrological, or whatever approach you want to think about. As an artist, future visualizations become manifestations of ideas. Mystic Geometry is about getting a super large view, which may not be as impactful immediately, but it gives you some space. And it creates a distance from the short cycle of contemporary life. It’s not like it’s the remedy for seeing a big picture, but it’s one approach.
2. Casey: What message of our generation (X) connects, sparks through your work? How does it speak with your students?
Katerina: I’ve always included social issues in my work. But early on I wanted to take body politics out of it, to make it extremely accessible. For a long time I was using animals as a stand-in for humans. I think my (our) generation has a lot of pre-internet memories. I don’t have TV at home. I allow limited online time for my kids. I think it’s important that the internet is not the default mode—to be online, to move in a virtual speed, a flickering state. I had students in class today saying they wanted to go on a social media hiatus, and they wished they could be ignorant of Instagram.
My paintings have a deep perspectival space. The viewer is confronted by this large geometric form that’s super easy to understand. And then you, the viewer, encounter all these conceptual, physical layers. And in the middle of the large painting there’s this deep landscape space to recede into. I think that what I’m referencing in my art goes way back (through time). I try to teach students about the really deep history of visual culture and references and the various ways to be inspired in their own work. I have been studying in botanical symbolism in my own work. I’ve brought it in as a project for both of my classes this semester. For the Drawing/Imaging class, we went to the botanic gardens and drew from plants and talked about symbolism of wysteria, clover, and the grass we were sitting on.
Casey: It’s timeless to pay attention to plants.
Katerina: Whatever I’m going through in life manifests itself—everything is a self portrait—and it percolates into the teaching.
3. Casey: In the tug-o-war game between time and meaning, what’s your position on the rope? Do your hands hurt? Do your feet dig into the grass? Please break this metaphor.
Katerina: Sometimes there’s a sense you can’t have enough time to do things that are meaningful, so I try to go with the flow, and whatever it is, work with the flow, whether it’s studio practice or teaching, or professional art stuff that’s not hands on. On my studio days, I wear my scrubs. I try not to dissipate energy by trying to do too many things at once. I choose really big concepts for my shows—if I’m going to work on this or that project, it has to be commanding, it has to be thick and rich and interesting, it has to be a discovery. My hands sometimes hurt literally because I use them so much. But it’s a good hurt, like when you exercise and your muscles complain.
4. Casey: If you could be a geometrical shape…?
5. Casey: In thinking of your work as a language, what are the words, sentences, paragraphs, and typos?
Katerina: German is my first language. My understanding of language and sound or language and feeling is strong because it took me so long to be able to communicate effectively. I could speak 3 languages as a child but couldn’t write any of them for a long time. And so I did a lot of communication through images. I’m a super slow reader because my brain forms images while I’m reading, and you can experiment with this by covering your left eye: if you’re a faster reader by doing this, that means you’re right brain is making images as you read. I’m very literal, so when you say “hands hurt, feet digging in grass,” I initially thought literally. Then quickly I go into associative and pictorial thinking. I have an intern now, and we talk about why some art can be considered too beautiful… What is the problem with too much beauty in work? If it’s too easy? Or dismissive? Gendered? Feminine? My work…it’s not explicitly conceptual or explicitly having social commentary or explicitly challenging…there’s an easy entry; it’s about balance and symmetry and beauty, and I really love color. But in the work, I’m trying to embrace a feminine power in it and not feel apologetic for it. The work happens to appeal to women who connect to that part of themselves. And men as well. Everyone is made up of both feminine and masculine attributes to some degree.
6. Casey: There is your installation The Creation of Ursus Horribilis and there is nature and culture and duality. And storytelling. Do your titles speak of a narrative that exists or do they cast the narrative by existing?
Katerina: There’s so much subjective authoring going on that’s based on visual characteristics. I read Foucault’s Orders of Things; it talked about having a starting point in a sequence of difference from that starting point. You can change the knowledge in that order by inserting something that is similar. This idea of simulating, or a fictional entry that shifts knowledge a little bit, is interesting and powerful.
With Ursus Horribilis I wanted to make a diorama that dealt with the tensions we were having between schools that wanted to teach evolution and schools that didn’t because it wasn’t totally proven. I was thinking of the craziness of hybrid animals and hybrid species meant for better transportation or hardiness or hunting. I was thinking how we’re playing God. And what do Creationists think of that? Where does the hybrid animal fit into evolutionary theory? Ursus Horribilis means horrible bear, and is the Latin scientific name for Grizzly Bear. And I was thinking, this is an American icon. It’s larger than life. It’s larger than us. Totally scary, and so we named it a horrible bear.
Casey: What are some examples of hybrid animals?
Katerina: The simple ones are mules (work animal that can’t reproduce). My favorites are Ligers and Tigons, and in that order. I was also thinking about the anti-freeze gene found in salmon that was introduced into strawberries. Here is an article.
7. Casey: What elements buffer you from resolve, allowing a grappling with the unknown and allowing us all to ask questions together? Do the answers motion closure?
Katerina: Open-mindedness and curiosity…mindfulness…buffer me. Having an internal dialogue that is self-aware, too. We all have internal dialogues that are helpful or hurtful, or distracting or productive or whatever. But having one with a certain flexibility and curiosity and openness…I think flexibility is really important; it encapsulates, or has both strength and accommodating qualities.
8. Casey: If an alien species reached out to say hello to you, how would you communicate?
9. Casey: How do you break the silence of a classroom? How do you work with silence rather than oppose it?
Katerina: The Socratic method of asking questions is really great for engaging students, getting them to talk, and it also helps reinforce previously disseminated information. I find that having one person talk all the time is so hard. For the syllabus, we read it as a class, each student taking a turn. I learn their names. I’m a strong associative thinker. Basically, I respond to the environment, so there’s a certain spontaneity, both in terms of dealing one-on-one with students, responding to their work, or teaching. If one student is having an issue with the work, I’ll talk about that issue to everyone so they know and learn, too. And if a student brings some knowledge or insight to the class I share it, too, and there’s an implied sense that whatever I’m showing has value for everyone and that the person whose world I’m sharing has some profound insight—a tool, or a take on life. We are thankful as a class to be exposed to it. I do this with sketchbooks and homework. I like sharing the role of “expert” or “teacher” in the class when I can. I think being monotone, literally or symbolically, can be very tiring (mainly from the receiver/student’s perspective).
10. Casey: Most inspiring Parsons alum?
Katerina: Barbara Kruger stands out as very influential, especially during my undergraduate studies in California. I remember being really impressed by her use of language, text as image, and her installation strategies in her show at MOCA in L.A.
11. Casey: How do we work with—rather than against—differences in perception?
Katerina: Growing up in different parts of the world and in diverse environments, along with my experience in New York City, I feel like even though there are differences in perceptions because of individual experiences and perspectives, there is so much more commonality in our shared human experience. Even though humans are individual, separate and distinct beings, we have all experienced a range of emotions, coinciding with love, loss, fear, triumph, and growth. Essentially a well-lived life that hopefully builds empathy enables bridges between perceptions that honor individual experiences. Like the maxim goes, The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Just switch it to The whole view is greater than the sum of perceptions.
Katerina stands to leave to teach her next class. They thank each other for time. Casey stops the recording and exits the compact cube, the platonic solids, and the rest of Katerina Lanfranco’s world.
For more of Katerina’s world, explore her upcoming show:
December 14, 2017 – January 20, 2018
Nancy Hoffman Gallery
520 W 27th Street, NYC
Opening reception Dec. 14, 6-8 PM (free and open to the public)
Visit her at katerinalanfranco.com.