“It’s kind of like a Rorschach test,” Kate Steciw tells me, hovering over a giant desktop computer next to a window with a western view of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Steciw is scrolling through jpegs for herupcoming exhibition at Retrospective Gallery—layered images of raw chicken, fishing nets, and terracotta pots that dance in and out of legibility. In her mid-30s, having tossed her cameras aside in favor of imagery purchased online, Steciw is a standout, if unexpected, name among an emerging generation of artists who are challenging the medium of photography. And this morning, from her home studio—amidst the smell of slow-cooking brisket and in the company of her oversized rescue dog, Moose—she traces her path as an artist, one that begins with a childhood spent outdoors in Pennsylvania and surrounded by cameras.
Despite a family history studded with amateur photographers—her father wedded to his Canon, her mother to a Pentax, her grandfather wielding a Polaroid—and a photo MFA under her belt, Steciw’s studio is surprisingly devoid of cameras. “My grandad was like a Polaroid ninja,” she laughs, citing her paternal grandfather as her favorite artist. Though a yellowed Kurt Schwitters book at her side might suggest an affection for the whimsical collages of the German Dadaist, it was her grandfather—tirelessly photocopying, re-photocopying, and collaging—who first sparked Steciw’s understanding of play. “He’s liberated with materials in a way that I find fascinating, and I took a lot from that in my early years,” she confides. “It’s entirely untrained; that impulse, that human intervention, is where I draw most of my inspiration.”
Unlike her grandfather, though, Steciw enrolled her freewheeling spirit at the Art Institute of Chicago for grad school in the early aughts—and learned how quickly it could be squandered. “It was a weird time to study photography,” she says. “[There was] Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman—all very good photographers with high production value.” Feeling disheartened, Steciw questioned her own skills as a photographer. “How do you even make a picture that looks that good?” she’d asked. “It’s like we were waiting for the internet, and for digital, to arrive.”
The “Aha!” moment came a few years later when Steciw found herself among a network of photo alums—hailing from Parsons, Cooper Union, RISD—all with retouching day jobs. Working 10-to-12-hour days on other people’s photos, the group began to email composite images back and forth (think your friend’s face on Governor Pataki’s body). “There’s something to this play,” Steciw had mused. But it wasn’t until her father passed away in 2009 that she began to evolve this banter into fine art. “I thought, if I’m spending all of my time messing with these images and getting so much joy from it, maybe I should really do it. If he’s gone, I’m next in line.”
From there, Steciw parted ways with processing film and gave herself over to what she had: some eight billion jpegs. Nostalgic for those photo-filled shoeboxes once tucked beneath our beds, Steciw feels strongly that digital archives demand further action—“otherwise, they’re in the ether somewhere”—a credo brought to life in her solo exhibition at New York’s Primary Photographic Gallery in 2011. Tapping into her personal archive, the work gave digital files a physical presence; among them, photographs she’d taken of a swimmer were printed on floor mats that scaled the gallery walls.
In the years that followed, Steciw began to embrace stock imagery—and that’s when she hit her stride. Her most coveted works are amalgamations of images sourced online, manipulated, and layered via Photoshop, including those works en route to Retrospective Gallery—the Hudson, New York outpost of Manhattan gallerists Zach Feuer and Joel Mesler—where she’ll open a solo show this week. All of the works in the show are derived from a single Photoshop file, layered with multiple images (a raw chicken, ceramic bowls, leaves) chosen according to color, as crude materials. “I’m composing more like a painter. It is all about tones and hues,” she says. Does she want the viewer to identify the images? “The ones that are most successful to me are the ones where legibility comes in and out of importance,” she says, though quickly interjects: “You do have these moments where you’re like, ‘wait a second, is that a Sloppy Joe?!’”
What began as collaged images bound by traditional frames quickly became more sculptural—and more playful; one piece in the upcoming show, she notes, will droop out of its frame. Recent works have hung from the ceiling or jut out from the walls, while others rest on wheels, like the work shown last summer in Hauser & Wirth’s highly acclaimed show of up-and-comers, “Fixed Variable.” With this momentum, the past few years have seen Steciw’s career quickly progress. Coming off of 2014, when she had solo exhibitions with Higher Pictures in New York,Neumeister Bar-Am in Berlin, and Annarumma in Naples, and following a duo show with LEVY.DELVAL earlier this year, Steciw’s kick-off at Retrospective marks only the first of a slew of upcoming shows, including a three-person exhibition at Martos, and solo shows with Mallorca Landings and Higher Pictures in the next year.
All of this should come as good news for collectors looking to scoop up Steciw’s work—of which there are many—including Los Angeles-based collector Marc J. Lee. “[She’s part of] this thrilling group of artists who are investigating the way that images are made, function, and circulate in our connected digital world,” said Lee, who brought Steciw’s work into a collection teeming with artists challenging the medium of photography—from Cindy Sherman and Robert Heinecken to rising stars like John Houck and Phil Chang. “Her practice is one that asks timely questions about the medium of photography, but without didactic or specific answers. When we look back we will see these pieces as some of the most pertinent signposts of art made in our time.”
According to Lee, 2014 saw new complexity in Steciw’s work, with the addition of custom framing and colored Plexiglas—evidenced as she leads me into a small room overlooking the park, strewn with artfully stacked plexi frames and irregularly shaped cardboard packages. Steciw relates certain aesthetic changes to a tragic incident of the past summer, when a car traveling 30 mph struck her on her bike. “My helmet was smashed,” she recalls. “I was playing with frames beforehand, but the bigger, weirder things have happened since then. It changed me perceptually.”
In an hour in a half, Steciw has happily exhausted the topic of image-making—from the present state to its unbridled future—with candid observations. “Photography goes through these phases where it’s imbued with a kind of magic,” she says. “With the first Brownie camera, amateur photographers turned into the people who codified the next aesthetic wave. I think we’re at another moment like that, with everybody shooting with their phones and sharing on Instagram,” she adds. “[There aren’t] many photographers who don’t know post [production] any more. That adds a whole new layer of agency over these things. I want people to have agency over the aesthetic products of their lives.”
As we’re wrapping up, Steciw, who still moonlights two days a week as a retoucher at a photo studio, admits she revels in the romance of her day job. “I feel like [Charles] Bukowski going back to the post office, just because it feels good,” she says. Seated at her desktop computer, eyes bright—and not just because of a steadily strobing flash as we capture her portrait—she suggests, “Do you want me to do [the retouching] on these, like weird post-production?” She laughs, though I’m certain she was offering this wholeheartedly.