Artist in Residence - Kristy Luck

Swill Magazine, Issue #5

Text by Edwina Throsby

Photographs by Caitlin G Dennis


When I ask Kristy Luck what inspires her paintings, she is evasive. It’s not that she’s being difficult, or avoiding the question. But for her to interpret her work for me would defeat one of its central objectives. For Luck, an LA-based artist, there’s a fascination to be found in uncertainty. If you look at her works – lush, painterly and surreal – and aren’t immediately sure what to make of them, that’s just fine with the artist. The idea that there is a ‘right’ way to read a work of art rankles her. “The interpretation [of my paintings], I hope, varies quite a bit from person to person,” she tells me. “That’s on purpose.”


In fact, Luck takes her inspiration from a variety of unconventional places, to create works that – contrary to their free, expressionistic forms and shapes – are highly cerebral and theory-driven. She is interested in how different forms of creative expression relate to each other, and has deeply researched the poetics of language. The titles she gives her solo exhibitions, of which she has had several, hint at this preoccupation: giving something a name doesn’t make it real was a major show in 2021, followed by close to the verb in 2023.


“I wonder what knowledge is, and it has a relationship to language that I want to press into,” she continues. “Painting gives you a sort of freedom. Writing, or language, gives you the freedom to imagine an image, and visual art gives you the freedom to apply language to it.”


By creating work that defies easy description, Luck is subtly confronting her viewers with the limitations of language as our primary means of expression, and asking us to delve deeper to find our responses. “I hope that the experience of my work is like, as soon as you start to apply words to it, you realise how you’re limiting yourself... when you look at something and you start to try and name it, it becomes attached to a thought, which [then] becomes attached to a hierarchy. So I hope I can pause that, the reflex to... say that you know.” In the context of an art world that relies on experts, requires the knowledge of certain jargons and access to particular networks, this elevation of not-knowing feels quietly radical.


This desire to sit in uncertainty, and to deliberately evade any demand for a single meaning, is personal. Luck’s mother was one of a large group of Native American children who were forcibly removed from their families in the 1960s and placed with non-First Nations carers. This inherently racist policy was part of a project of forced assimilation, reminiscent of Australia’s Stolen Generation. While Luck’s family knows that they are Navajo, the broken family and cultural connections brought about by adoption, along with scrappy official records, have left them with a tragically incomplete picture. “The question of my identity is something I am still learning about and the nuance of this questioning informs my work (con- sistently). Interruption or uncertainty due to a past foreclosed and the impossibility of locating origins as definitive contribute to my seemingly opaque positioning in painting,” she explains.


Items from her mother’s history resurface in Luck’s work. A bracelet that her mum made as a child before her adoption has become a recurring form. “It was in a box of objects that I didn’t know existed until I travelled home to visit family... my mum showed me some records of her adoption that were saved and the bracelet was in there... I don’t think I can explain in words why it is important, just that I had an emotional reaction to it and still do. I could spend the rest of my life thinking about it.” The representation of the bracelet in the works is non-literal: in the painting immeasurable red it is a zigzag up a staircase that leads to a vanishing point; in background feelings it seems to border a deep blue pool.


Despite the trauma of dislocation, the family Luck grew up in, in northern Illinois, was close-knit and creative. “My grandmother painted, my mum always painted and was artistic. I think my family always made things, whether it was bracelets, or carving, or making watercolours... I’ve always done it, since I was a little kid... I was really quiet and I learned that I could use it to communicate... I could make friends through making paintings.” Luck began by copying pictures from childrens’ books, but soon began to draw and paint the pictures in her head, a practice that she continues to this day.


When Luck finished school she didn’t go straight to college, concerned that she couldn’t afford it. However, after a few years she applied and was accepted into a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Rockford University, near to where she grew up. In order to pay for it, she worked several jobs. “Maybe the most notable of jobs was mixing paint at a hardware store for years,” she remembers. “I learned a lot about colour this way and it informs how I see and understand colour now. The foundation of my knowledge of colour was acquired through this experience – and not in an academic or institutional fine art setting.”


After gaining her degree, Luck went on to join the graduate program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. One of the perks of enrollment was free entry to the Institute’s world-renowned museum, whose permanent collection includes iconic painters from Monet and van Gogh to Hopper and Hokusai. She recalls, “One of my favourite things was revisiting it constantly, visiting the same works, starting to have a relationship with certain works... I had the experience of seeing works new again, seeing different things, [because] they change. And I mean, I change too of course, that’s how I see them differently.” This sense of evolving perceptions had a profound influence on her own work. “I’m trying to make my paintings especially vulnerable to that experience.”


Luck’s influences aren’t all visual. While film is important – she particularly likes Austrian auteur Michel Haneke, and plays Hitchcock films in her studio while she paints – it is unsurprising, given her love of language, that poetry holds a special place. One of her favourite writers is the Mojave poet Natalie Diaz, whose collection “Postcolonial Love Poem” won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2021, and who, like Luck, explores in her work themes of what can and can’t be known, and critiques the extractive nature of Western systems of knowledge. A long-time journal keeper herself, Luck also finds inspiration in reading the journals of others, “I like the form, or what enters a space that is meant to be free from narrative. And this relates a lot to my work in terms of the interior, contemplative spaces.”


While inner spaces are where Luck focuses her work, the move to LA was motivated by a desire to expand her career. “I love Chicago, but it felt too small for me at the time. And I grew up around there. So I wanted to try another place, and experience a larger world as well. So it felt like LA or New York, and New York still had winter. LA had sun, and I felt the light would help me.” And in her sparsely furnished, light-filled studio, surrounded by works that she has drawn from places both unconscious and deeply considered, it feels like she made the right choice.

February 15, 2024
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