In the studio with Penelope Kupfer, visual artist whose critical outlook of practice focuses on questions of identity, selfhood and the family under a patriarchal system. We met with Penelope to tell us more about growing up in the South of Germany, her greatest influences, and unexpected sources of inspiration.
When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?
I never defined for myself what I was doing until I experienced it through friends and family. I spend my formative years in Berlin where everyone is an artist but really seeing it for myself happened when I started studying fine art on my BA, also seeing it through my peers.
Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?
I am from South Germany, raised by a Spanish mother. My father was not around. We would go to Spain every summer holiday. That’s when I fell in love with Goya and Velazquez in general paintings at the Prado in Madrid. Back home I would look at my mothers art books and catalogues for hours. Conflict and interpersonal relationships are an important part in my practice which I draw from lived experience.
Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice artistic work?
I always had a ‘Why not’ attitude and would just follow my instinct. I had an urge for experiments and drama and started very early with performance work, crossing boundaries of fashion and art. Later I went back to drawing and painting. There was a curiosity about how to paint when rejecting traditional forms of painting and I spent a couple of years on the computer.
During my BA I felt challenged to question painting and cycled through discussions about the validity of painting which in the end made me fall in love with painting again.
What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from?
After going through the experience of pregnancy which alters profoundly one’s normal state, a re-negotiation of space and time with one’s own body and mind must take place after giving birth. During lockdown of the covid pandemic this became even more apparent as well as the systematically discrimination and gender inequality within working families with children as most women were forced to give up their jobs or just work double hours to include childcare and home schooling to the schedule. I am interested in the role of women in art history, making invisible women and mothers visible and proof that one can make work and have a career with children. It is just a matter of determination, passion and endurance.
Who & what are your greatest influences?
Art historical painters like Goya, Velazquez and Rembrandt. German expressionism, Otto Dix, Georg Grosz and Paula Modersohn Becker. Contemporary painters, Nicole Eisenman, Dana Schutz and Tala Madani. There are many more but I would like to focus on these ones.
An unexpected source of inspiration?
‘The Everyday’, repetitive chores, my children, friends, my cat. It was so obvious that I couldn’t see for a very long time! I call it the ‘Dorothy Effect’, you are trying to go home but you have been home all along.
What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?
The universality of the simplified gestural paintings and colourful works will enable the audience to engage with the work on an emotional level whether they have children or not as everyone has a mother, and always will be able to connect that way. My paintings hover between figuration and abstraction to leave space for the audience to find space for their own reading. Exploring a contradiction of humour and madness, light and dark, softest touch and hardest punch I am hoping to create an experience that will help to bring closer a very personal and bodily experience of sharing one’s own space and reclaiming it at the same time.
What events in your life have mobilized change in your practice?
During my MA I have changed my practice quite dramatically. After years of questioning painting and the validity of painting I made peace with the love of painting. Interests in sculpture and print are nicely tied into the practice and enable me to extend my painting into space or three dimensional sculptures. In print I am enjoying the lack of control and in parts chance that surprise me and adds a great deal to my painting practice.
What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?
Music, space, time to get into ‘the zone’. I am stretching and preparing different grounds, multiple canvases, found materials like fabric, wood, objects, I am creating an environment around me with the ability to shoot from the hip. Several canvases and grounds spread out in the studio, paper stapled to the walls is the preparation. I am very speedy in the making, many different surfaces are important to not lose momentum. It also helps me to not overwork and if I get stuck in my decision making to move on to the next work. Everything starts with drawing.
I draw a lot before I start painting. After drawing I mix colours. Then I paint.
Tell us the inspiration behind your works?
Often pushing emotional states I ask myself how to depict a feeling. How to paint someone crying while cycling with the wind blowing away the tears and how those tears and hair and wind can melt into a movement. How the material the paint solidifies this feeling while chewing on cotton wool. Inspired by this thought I made the self portrait ‘Cotton Wool’.
Something in the future you hope to explore?
Site specific work like a mural outdoors. Animation of my drawings. Photo etching. A collaboration with a theater play.