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Kate McCabe

Kate tell us a little about your background


I've been involved with most aspects of art making and writing since I was a child. My mother had a dance school under the Church St EL stop in Philly and would oil paint still lives in the kitchen. I had a proclivity for ghost writing other catholic school kids' short stories in 4th grade English class and got my first 35mm camera when I was 15. Photography as a teen led me to film school at University of the Arts and there I discovered experimental animation, which to me is the ultimate combination of the alchemical: rhythm, motion, dance, and magical, lyrical storytelling. I moved west to study Experimental Animation at Cal Arts under the innovative Jules Engel, where artists of all disciplines learn to make moving images, moving paintings, or sculpt with film. It was there I was reminded to make my own rules and to access any tool that works for each idea. It was this recognition of my abilities as a hybrid artist that allows me to move fluidly between mediums. To paint, for me, is the ultimate freedom. To make a film, a process of precision and deep discovery with sound design. To write, a place for legends and diaries and portraits of the people we know. It’s a form of intuitive kinetics, this dance between techniques. I can't separate my paintings from my photographs, my photographs from my writing or my writing from my films, although they are all very distinct and have very unique directions and themes of their own.

Tell us how you ended up here in the high desert?


I made a short film about feeling isolated in Los Angeles, which utilized the sounds from the Apollo 11 landing as a metaphor for being an explorer in seclusion. This film "Milk and Honey" was being designed with all California sound effects and needed music that was California bred. I approached low desert musician Brant Bjork (Kyuss, Fu Manchu) to see if he would give me some of his tracks and he agreed. When he saw Milk and Honey finished he asked if I would make a feature length visual album for him. This was in 2004. I came to Joshua Tree and to the Rancho de la Luna to shoot him recording, and within 3 desert smitten months I bought a house and committed to being in the Mojave. The feature is called "Sabbia" (Italian for 'sand') and shooting this vast, wild, wonderland is what brought me to the high desert and I’ve never wanted to leave.


What has surprised you most about the area? Have you noticed a change in yourself since moving here?


The desert is full of surprises! It's so much more alive than people realize. The eco system here is vibrant and thriving. There's not a day that goes by where still after 11 years, seeing a roadrunner doesn't put an immediate smile on my face. We didn't 'go camping' in Philly. We went down the shore, where "wilderness" meant drug-taking teenagers on the Wildwood boardwalk or NYC’s lower east side on a Saturday night in the 80's. The desert and hiking the dog (found 6 months in to my stay on my land) has made me a more complex person, one who can be alone with their thoughts under the big sky's promise, one who respects the outlaw nature of people seeking space and solace. I've also learned how to adapt here the way the critters do, to innovate to find income streams, to work harder than I ever have. Making a living here as an artist or otherwise is the only flaw in the plan of my very happy life here.  I've been challenged here the way early homestead women in the area were who lived alone. The peace helps you find strength; the community helps you solve problems. I can't imagine living in a city again. I'm a desert girl, so much that I even love the summer here and have been known to remind the unrad that don't understand; by saying "What the day takes away, the night gives back."

How has the desert influenced/changed your work?


In my decade here, I've made my biggest body of work, in a sense I have done most of my 'growing up' whilst in the desert. I've made a feature film and over 10 short films, paintings, works on paper, 3 succinct collections of photographs and published 6 books. Proof that when I came here to make art and live, I wasn't messing around.

Sabbia was the first art piece I made about the desert and I was forever changed. I used to chase storms with my 16mm Bolex and intervalometer, intuitively seeking out a wilderness psychogeography. Sitting in the desert filming the light change after long periods of time, enables you to become part of the landscape. I also was able to paint here as a counterpoint to this precision animation technique of time-lapse filming and I gained a following for these very whimsical cartoon paintings where I tied text, slogans, and lyrics together with these very friendly characters: a Yeti, a Rabbit, a Beet, a Marshmallow and a Pill. I had not worked that way before even as an animation student, so that's what I mean too by saying painting is a form of freedom and play.

More importantly than all these elements for me are my Mojave Weather Diaries, which are sketch book comics that I started self-publishing in 2008 to coincide with my art shows. I had stumbled upon books written in the 50's by a few homestead women. My favorite is one who lived down the road from me, June Lemert Paxton. She left her family in Pasadena and moved to the desert for her health where she wrote countless poems and letters. I was compelled to add my voice to this lineage of bright, smart, enraptured desert women as a modern day homesteader woman living alone, recording the environment I love. My films are dark and complicated, my paintings are humorous and lively, but my personal and insightful Mojave Weather Diaries might be my legacy.

What do you appreciate the most about your life in the desert?


The desert is an immeasurable gift. In Philly, I had no choice in the matter of being tough and being streetwise. I even had boxers teaching me to shadow box while I waited for my mom's ballet classes to end. Imagine, at the age of 4, still in my ballet clothes, giants of the ring teaching me to be a warrior. This part of my upbringing closed me off to a lot of things. To be tough, meant you scrutinized situations and people and sized them up before letting them in. This was a valuable skill to have as a punk kid and then later navigating the film industry in LA, fortunately. In the desert, however, I learned how to let go: of expectations, of people, of tension. I appreciate that I am akin to silence here, that the wind, that endless wind, could mirror my emotional state, and that I learned to walk as a form of meditation with this beautiful dog. I joke that I feel like I'm in the Witness Protection Program because I feel like I started a life so unlike my childhood, running the streets all hours of the night. In the desert I've finally become the most evolved version of myself I've ever been. I also have a relationship with the sky here that had been beyond my celestial comprehension in the city, it’s a deep part of my being now.


We had the chance of visiting your solo show in Joshua Tree, can you talk about the body of work in the show?


The show at Taylor Junction in Joshua Tree was called "The Ineffable Inevitable" and included work on paper, paintings and photographs as well as my feature Sabbia (now 10 years old!) projected on the patio. When that title came to me, I knew it best described the variety of work I could show as the indescribable things that were bound to happen. I'd been making collages of heavyweight boxing champions posed against large abstract shapes comprised of painted elements I'd made. I refer to them as my existential shadow boxers and made a zine to accompany them telling the story of boxing and it's relationship to my upbringing in Philly. I love a good existential joke and even have reserved one day of the week as "Inner Nihilist Thursday." This boxing series was very serious in that way representing Man vs. Unknown Forces. I made about 30 pieces in this style. Earlier in the year, I'd made work for what I hoped would be a "Lovers” themed show in San Francisco and they changed the theme to “Electric Naturalism”, so the curated focus shifted to my surreal landscape photographs and ghost work.  I had this series of paintings started for that culled from children's coloring books of the wild west and went to work expanding those themes to include clever takes on the ways we communicate.  These paintings featured cowboys and Indians doing what looks like high fives with Saguaro cactuses or each other and they are called "I Only Secret Five." They embody that uneasy feeling that we have about secret societies and then turns it upside down into a giggle realm. I'd also been playing with four foot Xeroxes of my photographs of wild horses with layers of gesso and paint and I featured one of these as the hero piece, "Babe, really?” The gal and guy wild horses portrayed had a thing where he would nibble on her butt and she would meekly protest. I caught the moment with his head resting on her backside. It’s one of my favorite life moments. The guy horse is named Pony Boy.

I was also able to fill the hallway there with large photo prints of my apparition series called "Shipwrecked in a Field of Air", where as a nod to the idea of the Camera Lucinda; I am documenting humans as literal ghosts in the landscape. Other photos I included were some of my Magritte inspired desert self-portraits where I am part of the landscape. From my Electric Naturalism show, we hung everyone's favorite nature photo: my penis shaped cloud, photographed in the wilds of the Pioneertown sky, titled "Head in the Clouds."

Frankly, I'd been working as a chef for so long to survive in the desert that the minute I had my studio time back I have not stopped producing. This show while being bold and humorous also showcased what is quickly becoming my most prolific period. I hadn't really thought of it that way until now, which is good, or I might have created a little extra anxiety only a shooting star could ease.

You are also a filmmaker, can you talk about your work in film?


Since coming to the desert and developing this affinity for the landscape, I've been obsessed with the Anthropocene and the damage that may not be undone. I started a landscape film prompted by the unfolding Fukushima nuclear disaster titled "You and I Remain". It's my first landscape film that's not rock-n-roll based and is the last film I may be able to finish on 16mm. In a way the parallel of my thoughts on “the end of the world" and the end of film are big themes for that work. My films before that were very focused on capturing a twilight world, where everyday events are made magical and mysterious, where the film transports people to this heady yet familiar realm. I'm a bit of a camera nerd, so I've always been layering images in camera, or animating with light (“Portraits” film 2001), and I focused on mastering the optical printer while at Cal Arts. There's ways to push into the lyrical side of filmmaking with arresting images and sound design that can still tell powerful stories without relying on the traditional narrative. I've been touring with this 10year body of short films that are my California/desert films and the unexpected stars of the show are a 3 part series of Love Letter shorts, narrated in French with English subtitles. I believe that many people are put off by experimental film and they can often seem inaccessible. My goal was to make a place for my jokes and writing and create this universal look at love and relationships. Who doesn't love a letter? So the Love Letter films have been a departure from my more serious lyrical work and they've been amazing to share this year. I have a few more dates unfolding for this tour into 2017 and it's been lovely to travel to cineastes for solo show screenings that were not film festival related. My next film will be shot in an old Stasi neighborhood in Berlin, as I embark on my first digital time-lapse piece as a surveillance meditation on the city's shadows.


Can you tell us about your influences, your conceptual framework, and the context in which your work fits in to a larger painting/drawing/film dialogue today?


I'm obsessed with the world between the worlds.  The concepts of allowing the subconscious to express itself and the joy of art having an element of surprise have always appealed to me. I've intuitively been drawn to Dada, the Surrealists and Pop art for this reason. I love Magritte as much as Kahlo, Haring as much as Lichtenstein, Oldenburg as much as Brancusi and Calder, Sherman as much as O'Keefe. I feel their work has become a part of my collective unconscious in a Jungian way, working with symbols we inherently share means that art has a bit of magic to it. It is ritual, celebration, sacrifice at the altar…Film really was what propelled me into serious art making and the audience of experimental film is small. You will find more females here behind the camera directing than in the commercial film world and that's one of the many reasons that field is vibrant and lush with ideas. The filmmakers I love from the 60's and 70's were breaking new ground with this alchemical medium and they were influencing painters of the time. My grand-mentor Chick Strand came to filmmaking through Anthropology and shot many of her films in Mexico. She's a founder of Canyon Cinema in San Francisco and an unsung hero who deserves recognition as also one of the greatest, seamless editors of the medium. Pat O’Neill whose archive I manage is another influence. His visual complexity is intuitive and rhythmic in ways that are both gleeful and frighteningly intense. What I love about both these filmmakers the most is not just the long lasting psychic effects of their work, but they were prolific in every medium they put their mind too: Chick had a beautiful body of paintings that rivals her husband’s, Neon Park and Pat has sculptures and drawings amassed from years of not sitting still and taking each idea to task.

I’m also fascinated by the telephone and the absurd profound ways it has affected our lives. I’m currently putting together a full color photography book about it. The book is a bit of an absurdist comedy as some of the photos are of phones in unexpected landscapes. Each photo will be paired with a bit of flash fiction about the ways we communicate. As an artist-made book, I’m thrilled to put an entire collection of my photography and fiction together as a limited edition piece.

The deepest most significant underbelly of my work all lies in the concept of Duende that stems from my mother’s Flamenco dancing and has become the realization of all that drives me. Duende composes the Deep Song or Canto Hondo, which requires an authenticity felt from the ground up and through the soul. Garcia Lorca's vision of Duende is comprised of “irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical”. Simply put, in order to create I must understand that death is near. It’s the battle with the darkness that brings the life, wit, charm and music to my work.

I hope you can tell me as an audience or a curator where this fits in with my contemporaries. It’s the one thing I never think about while making the work. Moving from the film theater screening world into my moving image work functioning as installations in galleries alongside my 2D work is a new path I will continue to traverse. I’m curious where I fit in as I continue crossing over and flit between these two worlds of experimental cinema and fine art. I suppose I can invent the movement as Iggy Pop did with his album Post Pop Depression. Perhaps I’m a Post Pop Formalist, Neo Punk Renaissance woman. Only time will tell. 

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