I met Katya over a decade ago when we were both students at Cooper Union in New York. In school, she was the gregarious class clown and cool girl, making irreverent, slapstick paintings and art-cum-standup comedy that charmed students and professors alike. Back then, her energy and work evoked the joie de vivre and sarcastic bite of being young, able-bodied, plopped into the epicenter of the art world. Shortly after I moved back home to Georgia in 2015, Katya wrote to me, explaining that she had ended up in Athens, Georgia, and was eager to reconnect. Her life circumstances and energy level, however, had changed dramatically since her undergraduate salad days.
Shortly after graduation, Katya faced the oppressive, debilitating effects of several autoimmune diseases she had been skillfully suppressing while at school. As she was forced to convalesce temporarily at her family’s home in Florida and ultimately settle in a quiet, small city with access to ample rest and healthcare, Katya’s bright prospect of forming a life as a well-connected emerging artist in New York came to an unexpected and harsh end. When people asked why she moved to Athens, Katya jokes that she wished she could say, “Because of my rash and my diarrhea.” Now, after calibrating herself and accepting to the realities of living with an invisible but taxing bodily reality, Katya has developed a robust art practice that has been increasing in visibility and scale at an ambitious clip.
When we started hanging out two years ago, Katya was just beginning to establish herself as an exhibiting artist, showing works in friends’ project spaces (including mine, Species). Since then, she has presented a large-scale installation at Atlanta Contemporary, received the Wynn Newhouse Award, and was selected as a McDowell Colony resident. Later this month, Katya will present her first solo show in New York, “Hysteric Signs,” at White Columns. After visiting her new studio on a recent Sunday afternoon, it was easy to understand why she has received acclaim both in and outside of the South. If her earlier installations and murals could be described as riffing on the cute and decorative, her most recent work has shed the domestic queasiness of feminized patterns and colors for a harsher and more confrontational visual language.
The new works are gargantuan—not only in scale (which is awe-inspiring coming from such a relatively small person), but also in complexity and energy. The wall-bound sculptures are, at the same time, corporeal and architectural, sloppy and expertly constructed. The mega forms read as glyphs, enlarged bisections of a body, or letters. In her past works, Katya painted murals to contextualize smaller clay and plaster components— ceramics that read here as nipples, turds, or tummies—as a means of inserting the body into the patterns and architecture of an interior space. Now, it’s as though the body horror suggested by those earlier works has instead become architectural in scale and construction.
Each work is comprised of an elaborate array of materials including plaster, latex, used medicine, sewing pins and spools of thread. Channels formed within one work are filled with scented wax, transforming it into a giant candle. Each work appears to be the result of many months’ effort, all of them having been constructed by Katya herself, with help from friends from New York visiting Athens, or her husband, who was also our classmate. This work’s layered qualities and demonstration of painstaking, handcrafted labor evoke the obsessive energy of Southern self-taught artist environs like St. EOM’s Pasaquan or Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden. But instead of proselytizing fundamentalist Baptist messages, or creating a mother ship for futuristic benevolent aliens, Katya’s project is one of inward world-making.
Describing her illness, Katya says that “[autoimmune diseases] are the sickness of the body as a manifestation of the sickness of the world.” She firmly believes that the toxins, pollutants, fertilizers, and preservatives writ large in the American ecosystem are, if not a cause, then certainly an exacerbating influence on such diseases, which are often treated by medicines filled with their own menagerie of artificial chemical compounds. Her sculptures, in turn, manifest the horror of an ill body and an ill world as a microcosmic, frenetic nest of material mash up.
Katya’s references are laid out on a table for me and other visitors to her studio to explore: Eastern European folk dolls made by her grandmother, constructed around recycled Soviet-era bottles; a psychosexual family photo of her and her brother posing, creature-like, with plastic bags as bodysuits; books of poetry; and her backyard chickens’ eggs filled with insulating spray foam. This material collision between intimate, familial space and the alien, plastic garbage of the modern world displays the same tension between humans and toxins suggested by Katya’s works on the walls behind these references. Components of each work are wrapped, sewn, sprayed, stretched, and contorted to achieve overall construction as a distinct object.
My favorite part of watching Katya’s practice grow and expand over the last several years has been the slack-jawed wonder I feel every time I see a new project. Each development in her work feels immense, exploratory, and dynamic. I know the physical difficulty of executing these works takes a toll on her, yet each project seems to demand more stamina, more space, different energy. After years of bodily restrictions requiring her to effectively table her art practice, Katya is regaining creative speed with the reckless abandon of a beautiful tornado. I’m waiting patiently to see the next mutations of her spectacular world and the ones that follow.
Katya Tepper’s solo exhibition “Hysteric Signs” opens on Thursday, September 27 at White Columns in New York. Her installation How Does the External Shape Shape the Internal Shape remains on view at Atlanta Contemporary through December 16. Watch Tepper speak about her work here.