Kristin Osterberg: From the Inside Out
A young woman’s red earing catches my eye in the painting “Girl in Madrid” (2019) by Kristin Osterberg and my gaze automatically moves to the magazine on the coffee table which says “future” in a similar shade. Then I notice the young woman’s eyes are closed, is she dreaming of the future? What is the story here, are these auspicious moments of someone’s life or are they loopholes?
“From the Inside Out” Osterberg’s current exhibition at The Painting Center is a focus on paintings made during COVID that are an exploration of longingness and loneliness leading up to the present. They are also experiments in light, perspective, and storytelling. The action in the brush strokes is inclusive. The light comes alive, I can hear the trees rustling in the wind outside the dining room window.
Osterberg grew up in a family of artists, her mother is a landscape painter from Denmark. Osterberg received her BFA in Painting from The Rhode Island School of Design. Although Osterberg works from photographs that she takes of places and people that she knows, she sometimes works from old photos like in “Lunch in Vermont” (2020) which adds to the quasi-personal nature of the paintings. "In the last decade, I’ve accepted that my camera sees portraits better than I do. So, I use my iPhone to freeze reality as visual notes and let my brushes and palette knives create worlds and surfaces beyond photography,” she says.
However, Osterberg paints the figures anonymously and focuses on the overall universal feeling in the work. She wants to break the social stereotypical norm when painting women as in “The Win” (2020). “I love the texture of brush strokes, the presence of figures that hold our attention without being particular persons. I gravitate to rooms frequented by people, where color and light can outshine figures," she explains.
Osterberg is inspired by artists such as Chantal Joffe who similarly describes her process as being less about the picture and more about the thoughts that she is trying to capture. * Osterberg is capturing messages and moods rather than a moment, perhaps but they do go hand in hand.
As Osterberg continues this series of figurative works in her studio. It is interesting to note that she splits her studio in half, corresponding to the left and right hemispheres of our brains, where one half is only figurative painting and the other abstract focusing on geometry, field color and collage. There are outtakes of experiments which show the two techniques together with exciting results.
Kristin Osterberg’s exhibition at The Painting Center continues to March 27, 2021
Tussle: Are you concerned more with the psychology of the environment in your paintings or of the people, or both?
Kristin Osterberg: It’s interesting that either way I answer, you can’t escape psychology in my paintings. But the mood of setting is paramount for me. I’ve done more traditional portrait painting, but I’m more interested in figures within an ambience. For instance, in “The Last Dinner” the dim candlelight and the objects on the table probably contribute more to mood than the two women. By the way, the association in the title is entirely private: This moment was part of the last meal I ate in a restaurant before the lockdown.
T: How do you separate yourself from the people in the paintings, do you want them to become characters with different stories or is it your inner narrative that you hope prevails?
K.O.: I guess it depends on the painting. Often, I want the viewer to take my position and see the world as I’ve shaped it in retrospect. Again: the mood of “The Last Dinner” is a consequence of returning to a moment and placing it in the emotional context of a later one—from a celebratory occasion to, well, COVID. Other paintings are freighted with what I felt at a particular moment. The Apartment is a good example of that. I painted it after my father died. I'd finished cleaning out his apartment and sat on the ground against a wall looking at my own sneakers. Empty apartment. A task completed. The loss of a parent. Obviously, those private associations can’t be understood by anyone but me. But I hope in the bright emptiness of that room one feels a sense of melancholy. On the character side of things, there’s COVID Cocktails. At the center of that painting is a tension between a man and woman. (But I do love those silver shoes!) The green of the lawn and the suburban setting is as important as the people.
T: Can you expand feeling on your process? How do you select and edit the photos you work from and how do you choose what to keep in the paintings and what to take out?
K.O.: I guess my experience with using photos as a sketchbook/source has evolved. Some years ago, I found photos really constraining and dictatorial. Then I chilled out and learned what I wanted to keep and cut—and occasionally what I wanted to introduce. The something that needs to be there but isn’t. I’ve been working on a series “Memories: Not My Own” in which I revisit old family photos (I’m talking about my husband’s or my mother’s family). There I feel I can take license with anything. The car goes out with the second set of chairs. I find paring down other people’s memories easier than editing my own.
T: It was so interesting to see how you separate your studio between the geometric and figurative painting process... Can you expand on why this is an important aspect to your practice and what you hope the final outcome of combining the two techniques will be?
K.O.: At the moment I find the break from figural painting relaxing and helpful to my thinking. The geometrics can be abstractions of something I’ve worked on in more representational settings, and they feel easier. They’re like designs that I used to do for textile companies. They’re fast. They’re unlabored. They fill space in an entirely different way from my other paintings. I handle the brush and paint in a different way. It's great to experiment with mediums I rarely use. And I get this out of it, too: The simplicity of my geometric work helps me edit and simplify my figurative pieces. I definitely see the two-side integrating more and more.