A conversation with: Russna Kaur

written by Jonathan Alfaro
A conversation with: Russna Kaur

Russna Kaur (b. 1991, Toronto, ON; lives and works in Vancouver) graduated from the University of Waterloo earning a BA with a major in Fine Arts: Studio Specialization (2013) and the Emily Carr University of Art + Design (2019) where she received a Master in Fine Arts.

Kaur was awarded the Gathie Falk Visual Arts Scholarship, the University Women’s Club of Vancouver Graduate Scholarship, the Audain Faculty of Art Graduate Teaching Fellowship and was shortlisted for the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Canada Graduate Scholarship. Kaur has been an artist-in-residence at the Burrard Arts Foundation in Vancouver and the Centrum Emerging Artist Residency in Port Townsend, Washington.

She is the recipient of the 2020 Takao Tanabe Painting Prize for emerging painters in British Columbia and the 2020 IDEA Art Award. Her work is in the permanent collection at the Vancouver Art Gallery and the VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation. She is currently a sessional instructor at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

We managed to sit down with Russna and have an open conversation about her work, what she’s up to most recently and what’s yet to come.

Jonathan Alfaro: Hi Russna! What’s new since finishing your MFA in 2019?

Russna Kaur: Since graduating from Emily Carr, I’ve shifted the way I’m thinking and even talking about my practice. I’ve always been fascinated with this concept of facades, objects seeming one way but being something else, and spaces of spectacle like amusement parks. When you enter amusement parks, festivals or carnivals, it’s very overstimulating, there’s so much to look at. Whether it’s excitement, or peace, these spaces are constructed in a way to give the illusion of joy or temporary relief from everyday mundane life. I became really interested in what it is about these spaces, how they’re constructed that gives off these feelings, is it the colours, sounds, smells or just the ‘over-the-topness’ of it all? Why is it that when we exit these spaces that all of that is gone? Especially when talking about amusement parks, growing up my family spent a lot of time in Florida visiting the many theme parks there. I think that left such an impression on me, there would be moments where you walked up to a building that’s so fantastically painted and once you’re up close you it’s not even a real building. It’s painted as if it were a real building but there’s nothing inside—not even a door handle. You’re surrounded by all this stuff that makes you feel happy, but there’s nothing really there. I’ve been thinking about how this is connected to painting and how, similar to these spaces, are simply facades.

Jonathan Alfaro: I’ve never thought of the relationship between painting and space that way. When you were doing your residency at the Burrard Arts Foundation in August last year, we were having a conversation about textiles and using different materials as surfaces for painting. I liked that as a viewer, although the paintings are composed of multiple surfaces we experience them as a singular artwork. It parallels the experience of seeing those fantastically painted buildings at the amusement park.

Russna Kaur: Even if I think about colour, I have people tell me that looking at my paintings makes them feel “happy and uplifted” because of my use of bright, vibrant, and very saturated colours. When I think about colour in my paintings, maybe to a certain degree it’s there to demand some sort of attention. However, I think colour is a lot more complicated than the simple reading of “yeah it’s joyful.” I think there’s a lot going on beneath the colours, maybe a way to distract from some of the thoughts I have while painting or that I’m trying to think through, or process through painting. Like how you mentioned painting does become a sort of front or facade. If you take the painting off the wall there’s nothing to it, it’s just surface, there’s no inside, there’s no behind—it’s just the surface of the painting. I’ve been playing around with having the painting go over the edge of canvas, and then even kind of expanding onto the wall. Maybe in some way the painting wrapping around the edge gives the illusion that the painting could continue or there’s more to the painting than what is on the surface. When I also engage the wall the painting is on, I feel like it’s giving this illusion that the painting can continue.

Jonathan Alfaro: I love that your paintings that are installed at the Gordon & Leslie Diamond Health Care Centre are so integrated with the wall. Well, I guess the painting is actually both the wall and the canvases. Were you playing with pulling the painting around the edges of your paintings at that point?

Russna Kaur: No, this piece I’m currently working on for a project with the Frye Art Museum is probably the first piece where I’m playing around with painting around the edges in this way. I think this painting will be the first time that I’m actually thinking about trying to create the illusion that the painting can could continue or there is more to the painting than you can see. This painting will ultimately be photographed, and then digitally reproduced, printed on a really large banner, I think approx. 16 x 20 feet. It will go on a front facing wall on the outside of the museum. The project is a part of the “Boren Banner Series,” which is a new public art initiative by the museum, I will be the second artist to participate. I’m still playing around with the arrangement of it, I don’t know, it’s getting somewhere, almost there.

Jonathan Alfaro: One thing I really appreciate about your large paintings is how they bring me in. Initially it’s the size and the brightness, but they’re not just that. They take up so much space that you’re enveloped by the painting. I think that’s where all changes you make are so effective. As a viewer we can see the memory of your painting. There’s so much more than what’s on the surface—it forces you to look.

Russna Kaur: I think that’s one of my goals, avoiding a quick read of my work. That’s why I turned to abstraction. I am really excited by the fact that this painting can change in so many different ways by working on panels. During the process I can plan and sketch digitally, and I like seeing all of my options in front of me, it allows me to make changes along the way and see them quickly. Then when it actually comes to painting, I’m forced to slow down. With the multiple panels there is that sense of spontaneity, if I paint it according to my sketch, it doesn’t necessarily have to end up like that, or isn’t even going to end up like that even if I want it to. Sometimes when the painting feels stuck it’s this nice opportunity to bring the painting back to life. If there’s a certain section of the painting that has fallen flat, instead of just continuing to add on paint and layer paint, sometimes paint isn’t the solution. So it’s sort of like a ‘get out of jail free card’, I’ll just swap two panels and then all of the sudden, the painting opens up again. It gives me a sense of comfort that, okay, if something isn’t working, I can swap it out, or I can flip it upside down. One of my favourite artists is Mark Bradford. I remember, he was talking about his painting process and how he essentially paints with paper pulp. As he’s layering this pulp, he’ll include really long pieces of rope under all the layers. This rope will be kind of hanging off the edge of the surface. If he ever feels like his painting is stuck or not working in a certain area he uses it as his tool to rip through all the layers and bring the work back to life.

Jonathan Alfaro: How long have you been working with that process of segmented paintings and shifting panels?

Russna Kaur: Going into my MFA at Emily Carr I knew working large was where I was heading. So when I got to Emily Carr, and realized that the studio spaces were tiny, I was like, how am I going to do this? I started to working on multiple small surfaces, putting them together in the Grad Gallery just outside of the shared studio space and started to piece together my larger compositions. It was Elizabeth McIntosh that opened me up to this process. I remember working on a piece during the program, I had two 48 x 48 inch panels stuck together, and felt like the painting was kind of stuck. In a meeting with her she suggested, “Why don’t you just add two more on top?” It was that simple statement that totally shifted my approach – I was so excited that there was really no limit then, as to how big the painting can become. So I suppose it was a logistics thing at first and became a pretty important part of my practice. I like the sense of play and the sense that the painting is a living thing. It can shift, grow, shrink, breathe.

Jonathan Alfaro: I love the idea of evolving the paintings like that, it’s amazing! So, what’s next for you? Any exciting projects?

Russna Kaur: So the very next thing is this painting for the project with the Frye. I need to take today to figure out if I want to switch the two halves . I’ll have work in the upcoming Polygon Art Auction, and the Arts Umbrella Splash Art Auction in October. I will be in a small group show in a really great space this summer, and there could be a few other exhibition opportunities as well. I feel like I need to make more studio time.

That’s kind of why I like working in a live/work space. I usually give myself something to do in the studio, every day. It’s really close, just like five steps away.

Jonathan Alfaro: Well, Russna, Thank you for your time, I’m really excited to see what the future has in store for you!

Russna Kaur: Yeah! No problem.