The first time I met the artist, curator and gallery owner Kathleen Kucka was at a dinner at The White Hart in Salisbury, CT. I overheard her describing her artistic process, which involved using hot objects to burn canvas. I was immediately intrigued yet couldn’t quite understand how it worked – wouldn’t it just look like a scorched mess? I knew about Kucka’s gallery “Furnace” in Falls Village, whose name suddenly made sense to me, and I asked if I could visit her studio.
Kathleen Kucka was born in East Hartford, CT, and grew up in New York City. She attended NYC public schools including PS 9 for middle school, where she first discovered her love for art. Kucka’s middle school teachers encouraged her to apply to the Music and Art High School (now known as LaGuardia), which at the time was located on West 135th Street in Harlem. She got accepted and spent the next four years surrounded by “so many talented young people – musicians, artists, opera singers; it was an incredible experience. It was the best sense of liveliness and creativity, and it changed my life.”
After high school, Kucka attended The Cooper Union in the heart of the East Village. “Cooper Union was a central place to be if you were studying art – it had excellent facilities and faculty for sculpture and painting.” She graduated in 1984 and later went on to earn an MFA from Hunter College in 1994.
Visual concept over narrative concept
Kucka is a visual artist whose process generally consists of repetitive mark making and abstraction on paper and canvas. Critics have said that her work evokes aspects of formalism, the critical position that the most important element of a work of art is its form, or visual aesthetic, rather than its narrative concept.
In her early work, Kucka often used everyday objects such as irons, hot plates, and charcoal lighters to scorch, or “draw,” patterns on paper and canvas. Much of this work was monochromatic, often in gray, black, brown, and white hues. The resulting images were abstract yet intentional, with each burn mark placed in a measured, sequentially flowing pattern. She allowed the natural result of the burn to guide the direction of the sequence.
In addition to her burn works, Kucka created pieces with sewn shapes and pockets laid out in symmetrical patterns. Her use of traditionally female-associated domestic objects and skills such as irons and sewing elicits a feminist critique, in particular as a metaphor for breaking free. The burning, in essence, “wounds” the object, creating space for healing and rebirth.
From burns to pours and back to burns
In the 2000s Kucka was living and working just ten blocks from the World Trade Center towers during the September 11 attacks. After 9/11, Kucka set aside her burn works and shifted her focus to a style of painting called “pours.” Instead of using brushes, she poured acrylic paint directly onto aluminum or wooden panels. Again, Kucka combineed intention with nature’s unpredictable forces, in this case gravity and the variations of the paint’s viscosity. The result are loosely patterned swirls of varying depths and sizes. The dimension was further emphasized by her use of a muted, earth tone palette.
In 2013, Kucka returned to her burn works, this time by suspending one canvas in front of another painted canvas. She then used a charcoal lighter to burn holes in the top canvas revealing the colors of the canvas underneath. The burn holes are similarly shaped and placed in concentric, linear, and swirling designs. In some, the burns create flaps on the outer canvas that peel away from the interior. The double canvas and complementary colors create dimension and a play with light and shadow, changing as the viewer moves.
In 2015, Kucka started working in a Falls Village barn with high ceilings and open spaces. She notes, “Living in a rural area has been a big change, and I have felt so inspired by the natural beauty of the Northwest Corner.” This deeper connection to nature and the seasons is revealed in her new work.
During the COVID lock-down in 2020, Kucka saw a beautiful space on Main Street in Falls Village and was inspired to open an art gallery dedicated to showing works on paper. The Furnace – Art on Paper Archive opened its doors in the spring of 2021 and has hosted numerous exhibitions.
“It’s pretty amazing when you see people coming into the gallery who aren’t expecting to see abstract art in a tiny village like Falls Village. The beauty is you can hike the Appalachian Trail, get off the trail, have a latte, and see some amazing contemporary art. Falls Village is very special and unique.”
Kucka is currently focusing on an upcoming exhibition in June of her paintings and works on paper at Heather Gaudio Fine Art in New Canaan, CT. •
To learn more about Kathleen Kucka and her work you can visit her website, kathleenkucka.com.
Kathleen Kucka’s next show is opens at Heather Gaudio Fine Art in New Canaan, CT, on Thursday, June 15. Learn more at heathergaudiofineart.com.
Furnace – Art on Paper Archive is located in Falls Village. Learn more at furnace-artonpaperarchive.com.