Beauty in Shitville

“I never want to make anything that looks decorative” – Kottie Paloma’s new exhibition is a figurative portrait of humanity
By Ella Joyce | Art | 11 May 2022

Kottie Paloma, ‘Palagonia’, 2019, Acrylic on Canvas

Kottie Paloma is holding an unbridled magnifying glass up to the darker side of humanity in his latest solo exhibition at Saatchi Yates Gallery. Harnessing a penchant for social commentary since the beginning of his career as an artist in his early twenties, Paloma has fine-tuned an artistic style that combines tackling the perils of modernity with techniques reminiscent of early figurative painters Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner. Continually drawing from the environments that have defined him, a nomadic way of living has seamlessly assisted the development of his craft: moving across the USA and Europe discovering a diversity of art scenes, he now knows exactly what he does and more importantly, what he does not want to do. 

Before he got the call, his London show had already been curated by Saatchi Yates co-founders Phoebe Saatchi and Arthur Yates from his website and Instagram alone, with the concept taken care of, he was allowed the freedom to simply paint. Slowly developing into a retrospect of his works from the past three years, muted colour palette canvases are adorned with obscure imagery elusive enough to maintain an air of mystery yet anchored with an evident sense of intention; allowing the viewer autonomy over their own interpretation. The exhibition also houses the debut of his latest series, The Naked Woman, a figurative set of works delivering a pastiche on the classical nude. As variations of the feminine physique are painted against a muddied backdrop, one work carries the apt title, Searching for Beauty in Shitville – a perfect summary of Paloma’s outlook on both his art and the world around him.

Kottie Paloma, ‘In Sad Town, There’s No Baby Lemonade’, 2021, Acrylic on Canvas

Ella Joyce: When creating this exhibition at Saatchi Yates, was there an overarching idea you were aiming to articulate?
Kottie Paloma: The show was supposed to already have happened two years ago, it got postponed because of Covid, they approached me in 2020 probably a week or two into the first lockdown and I was just like, “Cool let’s do it!” They had already picked out the works for the show and I like working with them because they curated everything, which allowed me to just paint and do what I do without having to care too much about the final outcome because I knew they were smart and in charge. The show was supposed to be in September of 2020, then got pushed back to April of 2021 and now finally it’s happening. It was great to go to London, I took my whole family, my wife and two kids.

EJ: It’s been a long time coming.
KP: Yeah, I bought everybody new clothes! [laughs] Both kids lasted for ten minutes at the collector’s preview before my wife had to take them back to the hotel and at the main opening they lasted maybe 45 minutes. It was extremely exciting, it’s the best show I’ve ever had in my life, they have such great staff there.

EJ: What’s your creative process when putting a show together like that, was it different knowing they already had a very clear idea of what they wanted?
KP: It was nice with them because I got to just paint. I paint every day, six days a week mostly, so I had enough material for them to choose from but they had already curated the show from my website and Instagram before they contacted me. For me, that was quite strange and exciting at the same time because I’d never been approached by someone who had obviously put a lot of thought into what they wanted from me before reaching out. My typical experience was with galleries who’d rather I curated the show and came up with a theme. But with Saatchi Yates, I fell into this really nice trust factor, as time went on they had sold a few of those paintings and the collectors wanted them so over the last year I’ve had to make new works, which was nice because they already had a selection of older works and it didn’t make sense for them to only take older works because so much time had gone by. It gave me a year to experiment and get into my new studio in Germany, create some new works, and let them make a mini-retrospective for the show because the works are from 2019 to 2022. Every couple of months I would send them a new PDF of what’s available and they would curate from that PDF, then I would set those aside and we just went from there.

“I’m in a place now where I’ve done so much and I have so much in my head, so much of a history that at any moment I can tap into those resources without having to be in those areas.”

EJ: It feels as if this body of work is unpicking a darker side of society through your unique wit and satire engrained. Has social commentary always been something you’ve expressed through your art?
KP: I’ve always had this narrative quality to my work even if it’s an abstraction. In the beginning, I would take more from the world, like what you would see in the news or current affairs. I didn’t even have a studio in San Francisco throughout my 20s and 30s, so wherever I lived, part of my bedroom was always the studio and I couldn’t create large works. I didn’t know how to do anything on small pieces, like, “I’m either a big painter or I’m not a painter.” [laughs] Now I’ve figured it out but I was in this apartment in Downtown San Francisco and it was very small, so I just started making books. I had a friend who was curating a show of artist books and he said, “Hey if you want to be in the show I need you to create a couple of books,” and so I did. They were really raw and rough, all bound with masking tape and I’m sure they’ve all fallen apart by now, but from there I figured out how to make better publications. They were audio-based books and had text bubbles so everything you read you could also listen to with headphones. On Wednesdays, I’d have spaghetti dinners at my house and invite friends. We’d just have a tonne of food and booze and then we’d record the books. So when you’re in the little installation I’d make, you would put these headphones on and flip through the books. It was easier for me because I was way more social back then, San Francisco was like a party. I knew California so there were internal comments I was putting in book form and I made like seventy-five of them. In my personal collection I only have three or four left because they all got sold to libraries around the world: Harvard’s special collections library or if you go to Stanford or the Bavarian State Library in Bavaria, they have a couple of books there, too.

I took those ideas with me when I moved to Berlin. I finally got a studio and I recreated that same concept of this social commentary but on large canvases. I’ve always been interested in that. Art is regional so you kind of adapt to wherever you live in a way. San Francisco was very narrative and comic-based, bright colours with lots of pinks and blues, hard-edged painting, so I fell into that. Then in Berlin it’s darker and more painterly, then I was in LA trying to redo what I was doing in Berlin. It was the first time I consciously said I don’t want to be an LA artist in LA, I want to be my own artist in LA even if that means making art that’s dark or not pretty or not decorative – I had to go with my gut. In a way that’s how I fell into the style I’m doing now.

EJ: That’s so interesting, as you’ve moved across the USA and Europe has the correlation between style and social commentary changed too?
KP: Yeah definitely. I was in San Francisco from 1996 to 2009, then I moved to Berlin for nine months, then to Brooklyn for three years and then back to Berlin. So I’m always pulling wherever I move to, I was always pulling aspects of where I had lived into the new style of art  I’m making now. When I was in Berlin, for example, I was influenced by the Berlin scene and tried to fit myself into that. I don’t think that was wrong, but now I’m in a village where there is no art scene. I think my wife and I are the only artists in this entire village, so I’m not going to other artist studios, I’m not going to art shows, openings or parties and I think it’s the first time in my life where I’m like, “Okay I’ve had enough of all that and trying to drag my art through those environments to keep up.” I’m in a place now where I’ve done so much and I have so much in my head, so much of a history, that at any moment I can tap into those resources without having to be in those areas.

Kottie Paloma, ‘Rumors Of War’, 2019, Acrylic on Canvas

EJ: You mentioned earlier how the different colour palettes you use had changed over time, and this latest exhibition is a lot more muted, was that a conscious shift for you?
KP: It’s funny because I’ve never been able to put the right expression to it but I’ve always been embarrassed by overly bright colours. I tried this a few times, for example in LA a lot of artists use fluorescent colours. They’ll have a black line with hot pink and to me, it’s always like, “Okay you’re showing off, you’re trying too hard.” [laughs] If it’s me, I would use the black line but I would use a rose pink. It’s a little bit like music, I like bands that are more drone-y or the sound is a bit more muted, for example, my friend is pretty famous now, John Dwyer, he’s in a bad called Thee Oh Sees, he first got famous through his band Coachwhips and he sings through an old landline telephone. He somehow figured out how to take the microphone from the telephone and attach it to a microphone  you sing through. I always thought it sounded so cool and that’s how I think about colour in a way. In this muted way. People have to figure out how to get into it a little bit, I guess. Also I think I’m more successful when the colours are dirtier.

EJ: Who or what are your main influences?
KP: You can name any great dead painter and I’m probably inspired by them. Philip Guston had a huge effect, Basquiat‘s drawings but not really his paintings, a lot of early Willem de Kooning figurative stuff, plus his early abstraction. Max Beckmann and most of the German expressionism from WWI to WWII. I’m doing more figurative stuff now because I’ve always been inspired by figurative work and in the Bay Area we had a figurative movement before I was born. The two stand-out stars would be David Parks and Richard Diebenkorn, they had both been in New York for a very short time and hung out with Franz Kline, de Kooning and that whole scene. Then when they got back to the Bay Area they kind of rejected that and thought that art should have some kind of formality, they were more like European artist in San Francisco, to me. They wanted to take the element of what the New York guys were doing but add it to figurative and I always thought that was brilliant.

San Francisco is the only city in America that’s almost like a European city in terms of the way it’s is laid out, but it wasn’t cool to paint like that because that was something that happened a long time ago. I had been doing abstractions for years before this and adding text either to the top or bottom of it. They were really great paintings and I probably made about 300 or 400 of them and they’re all in my archives not to be shown until I’m dead. [laughs] They’re more for my kids to inherit one day, and I always like the idea of combining abstraction with something recognisable, but everything I had seen from other artists always looked super cheesy to me, too over-the-top, or they were trying too hard or there were too many colours in there. Lee Krasner, she’s a big influence on me and I think what she was doing with these yellow and black paintings at the same time Jackson Pollock was doing these kinds of things, hers were way more spectacular. There’s always certain art you see as an artist that you’re a little bit envious of, you’re like, “Fuck I wish I had done that!” [laughs] But of course, that was done about fifty years before I was born, so I saw a way through her that I could achieve what I actually wanted to achieve, and a lot of it was to eliminate colour and bare-bones it.

EJ: You work across quite a few different mediums but is there one that you feel allows you to express things differently?
KP: Definitely, the abstract pieces in the exhibition give me a lot more freedom for interpretation and it gives the viewer more freedom for their own interpretation. I don’t know what the painting is about until it’s finished – I have in my head where it’s going, like I’m on a treasure hunt [laughs]. I feel like I’m in one of those kid mazes trying to find my way, some artists call that getting lost in the forest or whatever, but I like that aspect of creating a lot. It lets me contradict myself and then go back, erase that contradiction then add a new one, and then add a new truth in there somehow. The figurative paintings are definitely more direct but I still leave them vague enough for the interpretation to still be there. I just wanted to paint figurative – most of these figures I say are sitting in mud and the mud is kind of the shit of society. [laughs] When I talk about my art sometimes it sounds like I’m really negative about the world but I think when you look at it, they’re kind of dumb paintings in a way. Not bad paintings, a lot of artists say they’re bad painters and I don’t think I’m a bad painter, I think it’s dumb, it’s more comical. It’s serious and then a cartoon foot pops out, I like dark humour – the British are best at that.

Kottie Paloma, ‘The Amerikan Human Resource Department’, 2020, Acrylic on Canvas

“I never want to make anything that looks decorative. We live in a world that’s pretty fucked up so I’m not going to avoid that, I’m an artist and I’m making commentaries on the world.”

EJ: There were a couple of specific pieces from the show I wanted to ask you about, one called The Amerikan Human Resource Department and one called Problem Nomadic. They both felt quite poignant, could you give us a bit of insight into those two?
KP: The Amerikan one was created after my daughter was born and the health care system in America is totally shit. Obama created Obamacare and if you make under a certain amount of money per year you automatically get pushed into that healthcare system. We didn’t know that because both my wife and I had private insurance, but when you have a kid they reevaluate your finances and so our kid got pushed into a system called Medi-Cal in California. It was insane, one week I was on the phone for about ten hours just explaining and re-explaining everything – it was really intrusive. I just felt it was a kind of satanic and evil system that was tearing me apart, so that’s where that painting comes from. Now we live in Germany, it’s totally different, you get full coverage.

Then with Problem Nomadic, I was in Germany and Berlin during the beginning of the Refugee Crisis and already in Berlin my wife and I had moved three times in four years and we were getting ready to move to LA. In Berlin, we lived right next to Tempelhofer Feld which is an old airport that’s now a park, people BBQ and rollerblade and ride bikes but they turned the airport into a refugee centre. So I was right there, it was in my conscience. Then we moved to LA, where we also had the border crossings with Hispanics, Mexicans and Guatemalans and in LA we moved four times in five years. I was like, “We’re almost like nomads moving every year or year and a half!” We’re going to move again, maybe to Vienna. I was just thinking about real refugees, real nomadic people throughout the course of time, plus my own personal nomadic history I’m developing. I wanted to paint that in more of a Greek setting, like those terracotta vases with figures, but also a bit abstract.

EJ: This exhibition also debuts The Naked Woman series, can you tell us a bit about the concept behind it?
KP: I started that in December – I still want to know what the concept is! [laughs] It’s still so fresh to me. Arthur called me and said, “Hey we need six to eight small paintings, can you do 40x50cm paintings like the ones that are in the show?” and I said, “Okay give me a week and I’ll get back to you.” I was really struggling with that and I felt like these paintings didn’t work on that small level, they have to be big, or at least bigger than that. I painted those out and made them all burning buildings, so now I have eight oil paintings of burning buildings in my studio. I had prepared myself to make a lot of work because I didn’t know which ones would be successful, I had a dozen other small canvases so I thought I’d see what happened if I just painted a figure. I didn’t know if it was going to be a man or woman, but it just seemed easier to paint a woman. It worked out, so I said, “Okay I’ll paint four more of these.” And it really was working so I said, “Okay now I’ll paint them the same size as the other paintings in the show and see what happens,” then I really fell in love with painting them. Arthur and Phoebe also liked them. I made Woman Sitting in Mud first and it was called Woman on Beach, I lived with it in my apartment for a couple of months and I was like, “No that’s not a beach, there’s no beach in Germany, but there’s a lot of mud.” I was like what else can shitty mud represent? Also, the world feels super thick, the atmosphere has felt thick for the last couple of years – thickness and mud go hand-in-hand to me. There’s no real sense of beauty in them, that’s why I called that one painting Searching for Beauty in Shitville, it is kind of a quest for beauty.

EJ: I loved that title.
KP: Thanks! I also have a dozen paintings of men in the same context, it’s just they wanted the female paintings. It’s also making fun of the classical nude. I was going back to these early references of David Parks and Diebenkorn’s figurative stuff trying to figure out how this series fits into the context of my art, my time on earth with art. I like Henry Moore’s sculptures and I thought these looked a little bit like Henry Moore in a way, they reminded me of that style. I never want to make anything that looks decorative. We live in a world that’s pretty fucked up and I’m not going to avoid that. I’m an artist and I’m making commentaries on the world, I’m not going to paint still life. Currently in America, it’s like every artist is painting still life or everybody is trying to be the next Jonas Wood – I do not want to be that.

Kottie Paloma’s solo show runs at Saatchi Yates Gallery until May 22nd, more info here.

Kottie Paloma, ‘Searching for Beauty in Shitville’, 2022, Acrylic on Canvas


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