"How Does the External Shape Shape the Internal Shape?" by Katya Tepper: Chewing Up Suburbia


Viewing Katya Tepper’s work “How Does the External Shape Shape the Internal Shape?” (on display at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center until July 29th, 2018) is something of an exercise in sitting with discomfort. It is like reading the colorful pages of the Sunday Funnies, trying to find the joke and not exactly landing on it. You flip through them because of the mythology surrounding them, but in the end, Beetle Bailey and Blondie deliver a quiet humor from a lost time and you are lost in the brightly-colored wilderness. Standing in front of the behemoth “How Does the External Shape Shape the Internal Shape”, you find yourself caught in a state of mental digestion, trying to relate the piece’s three breakfasty panels into some sort of comic strip chronology. To my New Age sensibilities, they could also be three tarot cards in a spread from which meaning is to be divined. Either way, the panels appear to be specimens on a table for dissection, already a bit sliced up. The exposed hardware feels like it shouldn’t be there, and you almost wish the piece would be less cluttered, less, well, exposed.

This state of digestion is a central idea for Katya Tepper, which she induces with a cracked-egg shape, “bowls” which jut out from the flat space of the painting, some shape that looks like a big pink slice of partially-eaten toast. Throughout, the intestinal pinks and bloody reds which are also incorporated into the works of Philip Guston (an often-made comparison acknowledged by Tepper) make you want to squish something. In the most literal sense, the title of the work “How Does the External Shape Shape the Internal Shape?” asks us to consider what we consume and how those things change our bodies. The notion of “internal” is easily extended from our internal organs to more abstract ideas such as mind and soul, and “external” is is similarly extended to other consumables such as media and culture.

Brought to attention in the talk she delivered at the Atlanta Contemporary, Tepper is heavily influenced by the underbelly of American landscape, the billboard-strewn roads and strip malls which we often do not acknowledge as being part of our identity, for that would be to truly open ourselves up. The primary colors of corporate logos, extending from gas station signs to the Wal-Mart app and political campaign material, are incorporated into “How Does the External Shape Shape the Internal Shape?” as a reclamation of the process of consumption, a small attempt at saying, “I know what your tricks are” and mocking them by employing them into the advertisement of things cannot be sold: introspection and feelings.

Tepper herself is a seussical feelings factory. She describes her process of creating her handiworked monoliths as “manufacture”. Manufacture, the assertion that traditionally feminine work is no less than the traditionally masculine. Manufacture, the acknowledgment that in modern consumerist society, nothing is outside of it. Manufacture, the reproduction of reproductions of reproductions. Manufacture, the creation of something that is consumed, chewed up, and tossed away to landfills or repurposed into shopping bags for us to buy more things to consume under good conscience. This piece is recycled from the detritus of our suburban wastelands, an environment of which Tepper is extremely concerned with its toxicity. Understandable, given her efforts to make something organic and fundamental in a world where so little, if anything, is. This is no ready-made Duchampian endeavor, it is a process of taking the found objects of our landscape and “stripping them down” to their most fundamental qualities. It begs the question, in a world where even art is manufacture, what is it we consume when we consume art? And where do our physical and intellectual excretions go?

Art has long been used a way to convey wealth, from the portraiture of aristocrats to the treatment of art as investment in auction houses. The commodification of art is nothing new, and its basis is not in its inherent value for how it enriches our human experience, but in how it will appreciate in value for being original. This, even in a world where visual reproductions of art are easily accessible. Turns of phrases like “social capital” and “intellectual bourgeoisie” have arisen to describe those of us who interact in artistic spheres and engage in lofty pursuits of creation or critique in order to make ourselves feel some sort of value. And yet, these sales and social pursuits do not seem to be what Tepper is “manufacturing”, or if taken a few steps further in the market, “selling”. This commodity she creates is so elusive that it seems to be nothing itself. Perhaps, we must look to the world and experience right in front of us--our experience to embody a body, to commute, to eat, to breathe, to process to create. Tepper is selling what it means to be a human in all a human's discomfort, supplying something for which I hope there’s a demand.

Katherine Beaman

Katherine Beaman