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In the Studio: Maria Kreyn

by Allison Malafronte

Maria Kreyn in her Williamsburg, Brooklyn loft and studio

In the four years since I have talked with Maria Kreyn or seen her work, she has been keeping busy with all manner of interesting, unique, and unusual adventures and projects. “What have I been doing in the last few years?” the artist rhetorically asked as we sat down for an interview in her Williamsburg, Brooklyn loft one brisk December morning. “Traveling, wandering, taking on new, ever-larger art projects.” Those recent travels include jaunts to Europe and Asia (including Burma) and the projects include a twenty-foot immersive installation piece titled Chapel of Dancing Shadows, which was showcased at this year’s Burning Man event, as well as several sculpture prototypes in progress on her 3D printer. Not to mention the fact that her name and art became instantly public earlier this year, when her painting Alone Together was featured in the storyline of ABC’s TV drama The Catch. Indeed, it’s been an eventful few years for Kreyn, and in this Q&A the thirty-year-old artist opens up about the unexpected twists and turns of her continued colorful, eccentric journey.  

A view of the living-room area of the loft

AM: You had a studio in Bushwick for several yearsHow long have you been in your current apartment in Williamsburg?

MK: Actually, we’ve only been here two months. My boyfriend and I decided to move out of the city (we were living on Bowery) to this space, and the apartment is big enough that I can use the living room as a studio as well. I really love living in Williamsburg. Of all the places I’ve lived in or around New York City—Chelsea, SoHo, Upper East Side, Nolita, Hoboken, Bushwickthis is my favorite so far. I technically still have my studio in Bushwick, but I’m getting tired of commuting. I just want to wake up, walk downstairs, and be where I need to be. It’s been an adjustment to overcome the insecurity of having other people around while I draw or paint. I have pretty much always been alone or had my studio separate, but I’ve trained myself to let go of that need for solitude. I love when people come over and I just keep drawing. I will literally be in the middle of a dinner party with friends and say, “You guys keep talking, I’m going to go over here and do my thing.”

AM: How is your studio process or schedule changing as a result of your new environment?

MK: I work more, travel less. And having a home creates more incentive and opportunity to dive deeper into the work. Its feels so good in here that I won’t leave for days on end. And that’s exactly the precondition for getting into “flow,” which itself is the only way I can really figure out what I’m doing. Flow for me is when time slows down, I detach from physical concerns and social obligations, and I find myself in this blissful zone where I’m in the work and my intuition completely takes over.It blurs the edges between my life and work just well enough that I don't have any more cognitive dissonance jumping between the two.

The right side of the loft is Kreyn’s studio, where the Sea of Humanity drawings and paintings are displayed

AM: I see that both sides of your living room/studio are filled with recent work. On one side are solitary portraits and on the other are multi-figure drawings and paintings. Are they purposefully set apart?

MK: I separated all the solitary, introspective portraits from what I’ve been referring to as the “sea of humanity.” It’s a hard divide between quiet and chaos. For me, the salient features of humans are their aloneness, and how deep that can go, and their togetherness, and how deep that can go. That’s what I’m exploring in these series: The feelings of isolation and the peculiarities of people’s connections in groups. The source material from the large drawing in the center is an image of a funeral procession from the Middle East. I loved the composition, but what I wanted to explore was the idea that within the movement of large groups of people, you can’t always tell if they’re celebrating, or if they’re attacking. In this photograph, I couldn’t tell if they were revering this former leader or tearing him apart. And so all of this new work you see on the wall attempts to walk that liminal edge between the two: between reverence and violence, destruction and new life. The imagery is dark, but I’m attempting to bring beauty and light to it through how it’s made. It’s not meant to bog you down; it’s meant to grab your attention. More and more I want to make work that is simultaneously very gentle and beautiful, and very aggressive and energetic. 

<i>Even Here</i>, 2015, 54 x 37 in

AM: There are two paintings in the Sea of Humanity series that really stand out strongly for their strikingly beautiful contrasts. What is happening in these paintings [Even Here and Even Here 2]?

MK: When I was working in Bushwick, I felt like I was in such a wasteland. Some days I would just say, what am I doing here in this industrial disaster zone? But my studio was so beautiful to me, it was this haven in the middle of all of this ugliness. So I started painting about this. I love both the chaos and order of a bridge or scaffolding in an urban environment. It’s so intense. It has some sort of strange, steely beauty, even though I wouldn’t want to live near it. So I started thinking about how even in midst of this dance of ugliness that we sometimes find ourselves inwhether it’s the environment pictured here or the wartime images next to itpeople still find ways of having very organic and beautiful experiences, of creating ceremony and sacred space. Humans will figure out how to preserve their humanity. So there’s a sort of sense of redemption in these paintings; that is why there is a figure blessing another figure with water, surrounded by the chaos and strange beauty of the industrial city. It’s a very private moment in a very chaotic, public place. That’s what humans do: We create intimacy, really deep intimacy, with one another regardless of what is happening around us. 

A close-up of Kreyn’s painting <i>Even Here 2</i>, 2016, 40 x 60 in.<br/>Collection the artist

AM: You mentioned that you are doing art outside the normal parameters or expectations of realism and figurative painting. Tell me a little more about the installation piece you completed this year. 

MK: The name of the installation is The Chapel of Dancing Shadows, and it’s the first time I took an idea and designed/built it in installation form. Both a strength and possibly a weakness of my process is that I constantly want to be making things, and when I think up an idea, I will find a way to make it, regardless of how long it takes or how much it costs or whether or not it has a home. I had traveled to Burma last year and noticed how the spaces and architecture of the chapels create this atmosphere that makes people want to be worshipful and meditative. I was curious about the type of experience people have inside these temples, and I wanted to explore that. At its best, painting for me has always been an altar, a space of contemplation abstracted from any ideology. The logical next step was to create that feeling as an immersive space, so I started building scale models of structures. The installation is, in the end, about the drawings on the walls and serves as an extension of the images. They are a surreal, mystical blending of mythology and science fiction, which creates a whole narrative world completely outside of our own. I’ll eventually compile a roughly 200-plate book. I designed the chapel to contain the first twelve plates. []

 I think it’s really interesting to take visual content and infuse it into an experiential space rather than just a framed painting on a wall. The Renaissance artists understood this; they saw the imagery as an extension of the space. This project really set me on an interesting path of conceiving and creating more three-dimensional work while learning more about engineering and math as it relates to art. When I paint, I’m used to taking a piece from concept to completion in the privacy of my own studio. I’m not used to creating something so big that I can’t handle it myself, and this project required me to work with many people, particularly on fabrication. It definitely pushed the boundaries of my skill set and experience. I actually think a lot of two-dimensional artists are well-positioned to work in three-dimensional spaces. I would love to see more institutions allowing people to propose projects that are more installation-oriented.

The artist and friends outside the <i>Chapel of Dancing Shadows</i><br/>Photo: Peter Ruprecht

AM: How did your painting Alone Together end up in ABC’s TV show The Catch?

MK: The producers were looking for a specific image to drive the storyline of the series, and they scoured the art world and Internet looking for something that matched their vision. When they found Alone Together and contacted me, it was out of the blue and unexpected. They used the painting as a narrative device that drove the emotional content of the series, so the painting ends up in every episode of the first season. It’s what binds the two main characters together and what creates some of the drama. They actually wrote me into the script, so Maria Kreyn is a character in the show. The whole thing was so surreal, and I was totally unprepared to handle it from a PR standpoint. But it was an awesome experience because it derived entirely from the merit of the work itself and had nothing to do with me promoting myself or being a talking head through social media or any of those other things we sometimes feel we have to do to be seen and heard. 

The inside of Kreyn’s installation, <i>Chapel of Dancing Shadows</i><br/>Photo: Peter RuprechtAM: What is your opinion on the position artists often find themselves in these days of having to do a lot of self-promotion, marketing and PR? 

MK: I think it’s really tough for artists because the artist has to be more forward-facing than the actual artwork these days. It’s all about the business of art and how well your work is branded and promoted. For artists who are more introverted, and for whom the work is more important than the artist, this is a very awkward position to be in. For me, the work is about the work, it’s not about me. I think this is a real challenge for a lot of artists who are trying to earn sustainable positions for their careers. They end up in a very forward-facing position or else they have to foreclose on a lot of success. It’s great when the work can speak for itself. That is my goal.

AM: When you start receiving mass recognition and awareness for your work, does it lessen some of the vulnerability associated with art-making or give you a sense of validation?

MK: In this case, yes, because the attention I got as a result of the TV show was exactly the kind of attention I want. I was getting so many emails and letters from people all over the world saying how this painting moved them or reminded them of something or helped them deal with something difficult. There were literally hundreds of emails paragraphs long, sent from total strangers, full of gratitude. When you work alone for a long period of time, you start to wonder if you’re really contributing anything worthwhile to the world. At the end of the day you ask yourself: is this just a personal ego project, or is this really important? You want to feel like you’re having an actual impact on people, not just playing this narcissistic game about how great I can draw or paint or think. That’s why I was so deeply touched and humbled by the whole experience. But, let’s also be honest, there are always moments of insecurity and vulnerability as an artist, no matter how much recognition and applause you get. I vacillate so much between loving what I’m making and believing it to be useless. But because this is the path I have chosen for my life, I just keep going, no matter how I feel. My advice to young artists is to just learn to dance with that shadowthe doubt is part of the process.

The 3D model Kreyn built when conceiving the installationAM: Who have been some of your most influential teachers or mentors?

MK: I learn by watching others work. After two years at the University of Chicago, where I studied math and philosophy, I lived in Iceland, Norway and Paris. Every once in a while Odd Nerdrum would show up, and I would get to watch him paint. Meeting him and watching him work blew my mind; I had never seen an artist practice over a long period of time. His work ethic and regimen are phenomenal. I think anyone interested in figure painting needs to visit him. I’ve had several people in my life like that: just by allowing me to observe without dialogue transformed the way I approached the technical side of drawing and painting. When I studied drawing at SORA, Bruno Surdo helped me enormously in learning about line quality. And Chris Pugliese helped me take huge strides forward in a short time when he and I shared a studio.

AM: Is there a painting or project you’ve done recently that you feel particularly proud of or that you think best represents who you are as an artist today?

MK: I’m actually really proud of the Alone Together painting because I see how much it served people. It hits on an archetypal experience that every human will have in some form or another in his or her life. I never would have expected it to become public and to have received the amount of positive feedback that it did. That painting was just me processing something autobiographical, and to see how many other people it reached or that others could relate to it or also find something of relevance in itI mean, that is really all I want as an artist at the end of the day.

<i>Alone Together</i>, 2012, oil, 25 x 19.<br/>This painting inspired the storyline of the first season (2015) of ABC’s TV drama <i>The Catch</i>