totally ruinous/ totally ruin us: In Discussion with Kim Neudorf

Kim Neudorf. Untitled, 12 x 12 inches, oil on canvas, 2020.

Interview by Adi Berardini

Weaving dream-like, obscured imagery in neutral tones of peach, rust brown, and green, Kim Neudorf’s paintings are dense with textual reference. Although their process starts with collaged images and film stills, the imagery is blurred and abstracted with intricate brushstrokes. With a focus on fluidity and the non-linear, their paintings delve into affectual territory, referencing ‘psychic material’ and how trauma shows up in the body. As mentioned in their artist bio, Neudorf’s writing and paintings “explore themes of resilience, healing, and survival, while seeking to undo easy legibility in order to honor the daily, more complicated modes of visibility and existence”. Recently, they have connected their art with their poetry practice, also referencing poetry fragments through small-scale watercolour paintings. Neudorf speaks more about their process and exhibition totally ruinous/ totally ruin us ,currently on display at Support project space until October 17th.

Neudorf’s work has also appeared at DNA Gallery, London (ON); Paul Petro, Toronto; Franz Kaka, Toronto; Forest City Gallery, London (ON); Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre, Kingston; Evans Contemporary Gallery, Peterborough; and Susan Hobbs Gallery, Toronto. They live and maintain a writing and studio practice in London (ON).

Kim Neudorf. totally ruinous / totally ruin us, installation, 2020.

You take an abstract approach to painting. Do you work intuitively or from a certain representational subject matter at first? Can you further explain your process?

When I work out ideas for a painting, this can begin in visual research, collage, or writing, such as poetry. I get information that is almost always a feeling or signal first. I have to work backwards; I search out more and more information that matches the signal (a colour, a visual expression of energy) and create folders and sub-folders as themes begin to emerge. Then I write about what I’ve found, and through this writing, I start to understand what the signal is about. The word intuitive does not always mean vague or mysterious. For me, it means making connections that skip a step-by-step process, so reverse engineering is necessary.

There’s a lecture by Jan Verwoert on how bodily and facial communication “has no story,” or transmits via affect; affect as transmission rather than an effect or product to be capitalized on. It makes more sense to me to create writing and artworks which use visual fragments, like body-forms rather than figures, to hold bodily and unconscious information.

In earlier paintings, I didn’t include specific symbols or visual information from my reverse-research in the work itself. When I started to do this, I could see clearer connections to my past and daily experiences. I had to make work for a long time to see what it was telling me. I started to see that the paintings create spaces/contexts for bodily and unconscious information to live, to communicate. The states in which that information is in relates very well to how painting can show shifting material space, physical states, and multiple temporalities existing together. The partially clear, rough, scribbly, half-formed material states in the paintings are deliberate. The way in which I use paint actively tries to resist a certain legibility to avoid grafting a false sense of resolution or story onto the work.

Kim Neudorf. inner sanctum, 5 x 7 inches, watercolour and acrylic on paper, 2020.

Your paintings have a sense of closer looking that’s required, almost leaning into a sense of opacity or refusal. How is your work influenced by these concepts, if at all?

The paintings and poems may seem like they are deliberately withholding information, but they give partial, unstable information the way dreams do. It’s not about deciphering a code. It’s about looking at each painting as its own context. A dream may not be at all about its content, but how it feels and the dynamics between people and things in a non-linear sequence. There are eyes, hands, bones, wings, flowers, various body parts, and also layers of energy or even tendrils or veins that link things together in the paintings. I’m asking viewers to think about how these visual elements are linked. How is something mashed together or sliced through (or slicing through) or emitting energy or interference in the paintings?

In the work there is a refusal to be or perform what it is to be “correctly” visible. Every day, bodies exist amidst public and social rules that are not designed to include them, even within spaces that advertise themselves as supposedly safe or inclusive.  In my own experience, feeling unsafe has been such a daily experience that blending in is a form of survival, which is simultaneously part of my own privilege. The body-forms in my work try to exist in a state where they are both themselves, in pieces and in process, and where they mimic their surroundings. There is no narrative or ultimate state or goal—only in allowing a continual, daily movement and transformation of form.

Kim Neudorf. totally ruinous / totally ruin us, installation, 2020.

Your recent work in the exhibition totally ruinous/ totally ruin us is connected to your writing practice, and more recently your poetry practice. How has poetry influenced your art (or vice versa?)

Recently I attended a workshop on metaphor in poetry, and I was surprised to learn how a lack of linear narrative can provoke some extremely negative reactions. I’m very new to poetry, but I’ve recently found that it is the closest form of writing to allow very personal, unprocessed information to communicate in its natural form, in a way that doesn’t force it into a normative, linear narrative. Finding a way to tell your story can be lifesaving, as every other form of communication can feel designed to violently suppress and reject that story. To not feel safe to communicate is traumatic. Information that needs to be externalized often appears in abstract or exaggerated forms, which can cause knee-jerk reactions. I want to be compassionate to that kind of externalization.

How is this body of work in totally ruinous/ totally ruin us influenced by healing and psychic material?

The inherent violence of being projected into a story that is not one’s own can embed itself within the body and create specific behaviours of self-protection. Trauma becomes embedded in my body in a way that it reconstitutes rather than rejects, like shrapnel that it grows around. The words that I associate with this are always very sharp and painful, appearing as tiny abstract fragments, which feels like the body getting rid of toxins. I started to see this reflected in my work, along with themes like disembodiment, dysphoria, gestures of contact and intimate touch, and the abstractness of emotional energy. The body-forms in the paintings are also genderless or nonbinary, and I think it says a lot when viewers want to project specific, digestible or normative identities onto them.

The term ‘psychic material’ can mean the way unprocessed trauma or energy take certain forms/states that interrupt daily life, or how trauma shows up in the body. Maggie Nelson writes about how psychic material won’t accept being hidden and controlled in private space but emerges in ways that are very public. My body has often reacted in extreme ways when I had no tools or language to process experiences. In somatic- and trauma-informed therapy, there’s a term ‘co-regulation’, meaning that to create a safe space for someone to feel heard/seen means you need to know how to self-regulate, or not be triggered yourself. Part of this can mean knowing how to decipher your own energy and emotional stuff from others. The body just stores all of it until it’s externalized or until it comes out on its own involuntarily. Visual and verbal externalization, including writing, can be accessible, daily strategies of healing.

The title “totally ruinous / totally ruin us”, as well as the small text paintings, are riffs on poems that I started this summer. Only after I read the poems did I realize that they were referring to recent experiences of violence. Part of the process involved revisiting my writing about those experiences, and listening to the information between the words, like a kind of mishearing. This was a way of getting closer to the information stored in my body.

My brain also supplied some cinematic references, which added a lot of comic relief to the process. The exhibition title also refers to astrology, specifically the 8th and 12th houses, which can be about forms of “undoing” from within, but instead of something negative, the tools for healing in this instance are internal and appear only after undoing, or ruining, old, unhealthy patterns.

Kim Neudorf. para dies, watercolour and acrylic on paper, 6 x 4 inches, 2020.

Who are some artists that influence you and your practice?

Joy Hester influenced me when I started art school in my 20s, and I’ve been returning to her work. The eyes of her figures are prominent and inward-looking, and cartoony without losing their emotional edge. Didier William, Lee Lozano, Gertrude Abercrombie, Michaela Eichwald, Amelie von Wulffen, Leonor Fini, and Jutta Koether are also big influences.

I’m also reading a lot of Johanna Hedva, CA Conrad, and Ariana Reines, and the work of poets who flip or subvert language in a way that gets at hidden structures of power within so-called common or everyday exchanges, as well as showing how multiple temporalities exist in the same space – Harryette Mullen and Gertrude Stein especially.

Do you have any future projects or news you’d like to announce?

I have some writing projects in the works that are in process, including collaborative writing I’m doing with Liza Eurich (more information TBA at a later date). During the present state of the pandemic, it makes more sense to me to focus on learning as much as I can online, particularly from contexts and voices that help me think beyond my own perspective and privilege.

totally ruinous/ totally ruin us is on display at Support Gallery, London ON from Sept 5 – October 17, 2020. To view more of Kim Neudorf’s work, you can visit their website or Instagram.

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