A refrigerator hangs like a marionette, it’s contents—a rotting head of lettuce and spoiled milk—about to spill on the ground: a suspended moment of domesticity about to collapse. From a personal and psychological perspective, artist Kaitlin Trataris (MFA Studio Art, 2016) explores food as a site to critique American ideologies and inequalities, from the American dream and consumerism to gentrification and food deserts.
SFAI: What medium do you work in?
Kaitlin Trataris: Mainly fabric—three-dimensional hanging sculptures—and screen printing. I’m interested in what I think are second class mediums in the art world: drawing, printmaking, and fibers. Drawing has always been where I start and will continue to be where I start.
Has your practice changed since being at SFAI?
I came to SFAI doing a combination of painting, drawing, and photography with embroidery on top of those mediums, but I came here to push myself into things that felt difficult to understand and do.
Part of grad school is to tear you down so you can be built up again. Now, at the end of school, I feel very grounded in what I’m interested in and how to make work connected to these interests but also to theory, history, and what’s happening currently in the world. I’ve discovered a space where there’s a lot to explore.
What ideas and concepts do you explore in your work?
My work looks at domesticity as a site and space for social contracts between people. A lot of my work is sited in the kitchen to explore food and access to food as signifiers for status and income.
I’m also interested in the concept of the American dream, which rewards a specific lifestyle while undervaluing the diversity of people expected to fit into it. I’ve seen this within my personal experience: I grew up in the desert outside of Los Angeles—a suburb in the middle of nowhere where my parents attempted the American dream and failed.
My work often mixes my personal experiences together across time, with past and present combined. I like when that happens because memory and experience are a kind of flattening and stacking of time.
Your work feels very personal, from your line quality to the particular spaces created in your installations. Where do you draw your inspirations from?
Almost everything I make is drawn from my 9-13-year-old self and the house I grew up in, especially the color and material choices. When I was 13 my parents divorced, and this break led to financial hardship . A screenprint in particular—Alphabet soup spelling out “So Tired”—references memories from my childhood in which I was presented foods by my parents, who after working long hours, had to get through the task of preparing dinner. In another work I unknowingly made a table combining the furniture styles of my parents’ house before and after the divorce.
That flattening of memory and experiences over time comes across in your work, whether installation or a work on paper.
Yes, I like to think about tensions in dimensionality, which can show a hierarchy of memory and also direct the viewer’s attention. In the kitchen counter, the three-dimensional chicken pops out more than the flattened knife; and the chicken is a really specific memory for me: the week after the divorce as I went back and forth between houses, I was served chicken every night.
I’m interested in the knife as a subversive object despite its domestication; in this scene I’ve taken away its sharp edge in flattening it, but there’s blood on the counter—evidence that something happened, evidence of potential dangers with the knife and the space.
The installations you create are surreally spatial—finished/unfinished and grounded/floating. How does this influence your work conceptually and experientially?
When I make something and I start giggling, I know it’s good. The surrealness in my work captures a sense of moving through space and time and the absurdity of consumerism. In America we’ve grown to expect the accessibility of any product, whether it’s in season or not. I really want point to the messiness of that: a jar of Mayo always looks appealing because it’s so preserved; a head of lettuce might be molding because it’s natural and will fall apart. I spend so much time thinking about food in my work and everyday life, it’s pretty intense.
The floating objects reference puppetry, sets, or Disneyland—spaces that are around you but don’t feel usable or habitable. In the same way things feel real (or real enough) in my work.
What is the importance of color relationships in your current work?
Color is so important in terms of pointing to status, material, and time. I’m really into the attraction-repulsion sensation you can create around art objects, so I gravitate towards colors that look “off”—like chicken that has been sitting out too long or lettuce that’s right on the edge. This muddiness correlates with past memories, while also contrasting with the vibrant and bright colors of commercialism. I also associate a lot of the colors of the 1980s and 1990s with this mixture of hyper-vibrant and hyper-dull colors—so this color palette places the work within a time frame.
How has your work been influenced by the communities around San Francisco?
Since moving to San Francisco four years ago, my art studios have been located in the Dogpatch, Mission, or Potrero Hill neighborhoods, all of which have been gentrified. I’m very interested in the Bayview as a place and community that has been specifically displaced by arts in the Dogpatch. How can people from different backgrounds engage with each other—especially when both the local communities and artists are being pushed out? I think it’s possible to find common ground if we focus on genuinely connecting with people from those communities.
Do you have any projects specifically where you’ve worked in the Bayview or Mission communities?
For a future project I’ll be making screenprints of foods—images given to me by local artists of foods they like—and hopefully selling them in coordination with the Bayview Heal Zone Initiative. I’m also interested in working within the community in West Oakland, which is another local food desert. Both of these communities have made huge efforts to rethink food, food systems, and how they can come together to solve that problem.
At Residence/SF, the space in the Mission I co-founded with Lauren Licata and Anička Vrána-Godwin, we’re thinking about how we can make our space available to serve the needs of the art community and the community at large, rather than any specific vision of our own. We hosted a screening series that included films made in and about the Mission, as well as a show with Dog Paw, an individual who has lived in the neighborhood his whole life and brought his history to our space.
Tell us more about residence/SF (r/SF), the new experimental art space you co-founded and were recently in their Artist-in-Residence program.
residence/SF is a collaborative project with Lauren Licata and Anička Vrána-Godwin; we all met working in the Walter and McBean Galleries at SFAI. Through collaboration, I’ve learned an insane amount about myself and being in a community—all experiences I wouldn’t have had as an individual in the studio.
r/SF is a space for us to try new things—we were looking to challenge this art exhibition culture of standing next to art and drinking. Our first weekend, there was nothing in the space but we held an event called Open to the Public, where we sat inside of the gallery all weekend to accept ideas, suggestions, and proposals from the community. The most interesting part has been curating exhibitions and events by what’s around us, so shows and events have happened quickly—similar to this way of living now, which we jokingly call FOMO [Fear of Missing Out] reality. Our happenings are not necessarily replicated, you were either there or not. We’ve gained a lot of momentum that way.
I was an Artist in Residence with artist Paula Morales in March at residence/SF. In the first half we talked, and in the second half we just created—the place became chaos. During the day we had the curtains open, and sometimes the door. Part of the experience was opening up the process of art making, while also exploring what happens when a space becomes live/work and crosses the boundaries of private/public.
I’m very interested in using the term “work” to describe art. What does it mean to have “work” that’s “art” versus “work” that’s “labor?” I’m only starting to blur these lines between private and public, labor and domesticity.
How did you get involved with the punk rock band, The Dead Alleys?
Artist Ana María Montenegro Jaramillo asked me if I wanted to collaborate on an idea she had: a punk rock band based in Dadism. I’ve always wanted to be in a band, and the best thing about being in a punk band is it’s rawness—that do whatever you want attitude. I think that Dada and punk are pretty copacetic. We now have a fifteen-minute set and have been performing around the city.
Image credits: 1-7) Kaitlin Trataris’ studio; Photo by Stephanie Smith. 8) Kaitlin Trataris, Done, 2015; Screenprint on bristol board, 8 x 10 inches; Courtesy of the artist; 9-11) Kaitlin Trataris, (S)Laughter, 2016; Screenprint on fabric, pvc, thread, plastic, tile, acrylic, 46 x 50 x 65 inches; Photos by Stephanie Smith; 12) Kaitlin Trataris’ studio; Photo by Stephanie Smith; 13-14) Kaitlin Trataris and Paula Morales as Artists in Residence at residence/SF; Courtesy of the artists; 15-16) Performance stills of The Dead Alleys (Kaitlin Trataris and Ana María Montenegro Jaramillo); Courtesy of the artists; 17) Kaitlin Trataris’ studio; Photo by Stephanie Smith.