The Hills are Alive: Karin Bubas captures the drama of soap operas and landscapes

Karin Bubas: Fallon Playing Tennis (2009): Watercolour on paper, from the series Dynasty. All images courtesy the artist and Monte Clark Gallery, Toronto and Vancouver.Karin Bubas: Fallon Playing Tennis (2009): Watercolour on paper, from the series Dynasty. All images courtesy the artist and Monte Clark Gallery, Toronto and Vancouver.

By Vanessa Nicholas

Vancouver-based photographer Karin Bubas has a bold and unapologetic taste for sentimentality and kitsch. Her subjects have included plastic flowers, vanity tables and the casts of the television dramas Dynasty and The Hills. Her most recent works also reveal a growing interest in colour and nature.

Here, Bubas and Toronto-based writer and curator Vanessa Nicholas discuss the photographer's increasingly diverse practice, which touches upon everything from Lauren Conrad, Vancouver forests and traveling to the moon.

Vanessa Nicholas (VN): I took a real interest in your work when I saw your With Friends Like These works on display at what was then Clark & Faria here in Toronto. On my wall, I still have the exhibition card picturing your drawing of Whitney Port. Can you tell me about how this series began and what initially interested you about The Hills?

Karin Bubas: Lauren Crying (2009): Chalk pastel on paper, from the series With Friends Like These…Karin Bubas: Lauren Crying (2009): Chalk pastel on paper, from the series With Friends Like These…Karin Bubas (KB): I was originally inspired by a pastel show I saw at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris called Le Mystère et l'Eclat. One artist in particular, Paul Cesar Helleu, had these simple, soft portraits of French society women, some of whom were the most attractive and famous women of the time. I was interested in Helleu’s use of Realism at a time when Impressionism was clearly the celebrated technique. When I was back in Vancouver, I wondered who could be considered today’s version of those society women, and I settled on the celebrity “It Girl".  We had an unusually cold winter in Vancouver that year so I was indoors watching a lot of television, including The Hills. I thought that the emotional display of the cast members would make excellent subject matter for pastel portraits.

VN: Initially I saw these as updated Byzantine icons – as singular, worshipped figures with almost saintly emotional attributes, like Lauren’s tears or Whitney’s stare. Did you ever consider this reference?

KB: I’d never really thought about them in terms of icons. My subjects do float against the backgrounds in a similar way to Byzantine icons but I was definitely more interested in the idea of the traditional society portrait.

VN: Which character did you draw first? Did you set out to complete a comprehensive portrait series?

KB: I began by drawing "Lauren Crying". I was captivated by the repeating teaser ads for the show on MTV, which would always include a shot of Lauren with the sad black mascara tear rolling down her cheek. It just seemed like such a poignant moment to draw. The rest of the portraits evolved after drawing Lauren a few times.

VN: It feels like an obsessive work to me because you've evidentially spent a great deal of time meditating on this cast of seemingly two-dimensional people. Was it an obsessive exercise for you? Did you develop sympathies for anyone on the show after spending so much time with them?

KB: Clearly, I have some problems! I mean, what artist would devote so much time to watching episodes of The Hills, studying the cast and drawing them? (Laughs) It did become an obsessive exercise, especially as I was invited to have a solo exhibition of the pastels six or eight weeks after showing a curator just a couple of completed drawings. I was in a time crunch to create the entire series, and I devoted most of my time that summer to watching and re-watching episodes. I definitely sympathize with Lauren Conrad and appreciate her as the moral centre of the series. 

VN: You, of course, have turned to popular culture before with your Dynasty series and the Night of the Hunter watercolours. What drew you to these cult TV and film classics?

KB: I certainly feel nostalgic for a certain kind of picture-making that no longer exists. With the Dynasty series, I was responding to the style of the 70s and 80s and the indulgent lifestyles depicted in the show. When I first saw Night of The Hunter (1955), it completely blew my mind. I’d never seen a movie like it before. The use of sets and stages to construct the outdoor scenes, like those of the children floating down the river at night, create an incredibly terrifying viewing experience that left me feeling haunted.

Karin Bubas: Smoke in Ultramarine Blue (2011): Archival pigment print, from the series Colour Fields.Karin Bubas: Smoke in Ultramarine Blue (2011): Archival pigment print, from the series Colour Fields.VN: Dynasty has an enduring popularity, and it certainly parallels The Hills as a soap opera starring the rich and good-looking. Tell me about your interest in this subject.

KB: I just love the drama and the backstabbing that defines those shows. I guess I’m fascinated by soap operas and the lifestyle of the idle rich. I love exploring the moments of breakdown and crisis that occur.

VN: Were you surprised by the huge response to With Friends Like These? You were featured in the NY Times and BOOoom.

KB: Yes, I most certainly was surprised. I was initially approached by a blogger from New York who wanted to do a story about my Dynasty watercolours. I told him about The Hills pastel works that I was still working on at the time, and he decided to feature those drawings instead. As soon as his story was posted others fed off of his site. When my drawings appeared in In Touch magazine, I was floored. It was something I’d never fathomed happening and it pretty much made my life.

VN: Has the attention lead to an increased interest in your photographic work? Would you still consider photography as your primary medium?

KB: I don’t think it has led to more attention to my photography; just more attention to my pastels and watercolours. Today, two-and-a-half years later, I still get requests for posters or prints of the pastels. I have always considered myself to be a photographer, but now I am really starting to re-evaluate that. I used to say that I was an artist working with photography. Maybe now I am an artist without the qualifier. Still, there has been a separation between my photography and my drawing and painting work, so perhaps I need to really assess that disconnect. Most people don’t know that I was oil painting by the age of 14. I always knew that it was something that I’d come back to eventually. But, I was intrigued and challenged by photography in a way that I wasn’t with drawing and painting. It seemed that there was an interesting future for photography in the1990s and I wanted to be a part of it. So, here in 2012 I find myself asking myself: am I a photographer or a painter?

VN: How did photography become part of your life?

KB: I first learned how to operate an SLR camera and develop film and prints in the 11th grade. I had supportive and encouraging high school teachers who gave me tons of free time to experiment in the darkroom.

VN: What photographers and/or artists have inspired or changed you?

Karin Bubas: Washing Machine (1998): C-print, from the series Florence & George.Karin Bubas: Washing Machine (1998): C-print, from the series Florence & George.KB: I think I’ve been more inspired by filmmakers in recent years. I love Alfred Hitchcock. It’s the way his films are constructed that grabs me. I also appreciate Sofia Coppola’s sensibility. Stephen Shore and William Eggleston made colour photography the widely accepted art form that it is today, so I’m indebted to them. When I was younger and first learning about photography, I couldn’t help but be influenced by the Vancouver School. I think that meeting and getting to know local photographers who were experiencing successful international careers made the idea of devoting my life to being an artist seem feasible. The problem is that they all made it look so easy!

VN: How else does the West Coast permeate your work?

KB: The older I get, the more I realize how much the landscape and environment of my childhood has greatly shaped who I am. I grew up in Lynn Valley, North Vancouver, and I have fond memories of summer days spent playing in the forest and exploring the nearby canyon with friends. It seems that kids today don’t seem to have the same kind of unsupervised freedom to be with nature that children of my generation did. We were always climbing trees and building forts. Lately, I find that when visiting other places I really miss the air and forests and trees of the West Coast.

It has also recently given me a new appreciation for the paintings of Emily Carr. I’ve realized that I share her fascination with the forest. In fact, I’m going to Vancouver Island to photograph the landscapes that feature in her iconic paintings. It has been 100 years since she embarked on her trip to capture the First Nations villages and west coast forests, so I thought it would be interesting to do a follow-up project on the anniversary.

VN: Interestingly, your latest photographic series, Colour Field, seems to tie together this intensifying interest in the local landscape and your lingering meditations on The Hills pastel works. The conflict you cited earlier between your working in paint and photography is playing itself out in this series – you’ve let pure pigment leap off the page and into a suite of sensitive landscape photographs. They’re such a unique hybrid. Can you tell me about your materials and process for these images?

KB: The idea was originally sparked by an old spy show that I was watching, in which a character is gassed with a coloured smoke bomb. I began to wonder about smoke bombs and whether or not it was possible to “draw” on snowy landscapes by letting the snow act like blank paper. To start, I literally painted on carefully chosen landscapes of forests and snow with various artificial, pastel hues and documented the results in large-scale photographs and tiny five-by-seven oil paintings. It was actually much more difficult to stage the final photographs than I anticipated. The weather conditions and air pressure significantly affected how long the smoke would hold and dissipate. Needless to say, there was a lot of wasted film. Formally, the ice-cream-colour palette in the final series is reminiscent of The Hills pastels even though the subject matter couldn’t be more different.

Vertigo (1958): James Stewart and Kim Novak in a colour film by Alfred Hitchcock. © Universal Pictures.Vertigo (1958): James Stewart and Kim Novak in a colour film by Alfred Hitchcock. © Universal Pictures.VN: The Colour Field series feels very magical. The coloured vapour and the forest settings evoke fairytales and myths. What were you thinking about while composing these photographs?

KB: I was thinking about photography and its relationship to abstraction, and I was also interested in how the strange fog shapes juxtaposed within the idyllic Vancouver settings. I was trying to create contrast between various bizarre forms. I also like the idea that making beautiful pictures isn’t very popular and that doing so is an act of rebellion.

VN: Your work is very pretty, actually. Would you describe your sensibility as feminine?

KB: I think my work is feminine in that it inherently comes from a softer and more intuitive place. In terms of photography, I think that a lot of male photographers focus on the science of making a “correct” picture. There is often a strong architectural approach to picture making there that I don’t have.

VN: Generally, you’ve shown a progression of interest from interior spaces to landscapes. Can you comment on that evolution? What drew you out of doors?

KB: Searching for new challenges is what drew me outside. I’ve been shooting for almost twenty years, and I think it is important to create new challenges. It’s been a natural evolution.

VN: I also sense a movement in your practice away from documentary photographs of everyday subjects towards staged or produced photographs of almost otherworldly or fantasy subjects. For example, your Florence and George series is very much about capturing the private home of a couple, looking in on their lives. The Red, Blue, Yellow and Studies in Landscape and Wardrobe, however, are more imagined, theatrical. How did this transition happen? Maybe you feel that making a photograph is more freeing than taking one?

KB: It has been said that my photographic work has shifted in focus from the mundane to the sublime, and I think that is a perfect way of describing it. Early on I was interested in trying to create a portrait of someone through their objects and the environment they created. I was interested in the excavation of our belongings, and in uncovering what our collections and possessions say about who we are. Basically, I wanted to create a portrait without photographing a person. As time went on, I became tired of working with inanimate objects. In recent years, I’ve enjoyed collaborating with various women in landscapes and the spontaneous things that can take place on a photo shoot. I think this shift has also come from my interest in directors and films in recent years.

Karin Bubas: Woman in Redwood Forest (2006): Archival pigment print, from the series Studies in Landscapes and Wardrobe.Karin Bubas: Woman in Redwood Forest (2006): Archival pigment print, from the series Studies in Landscapes and Wardrobe.VN: You mentioned that you love Hitchcock. What are some of your favourite films?

KB: My favourite Hitchcock films are Vertigo and North By Northwest. I like that they take place in and around national parks and monuments. With Vertigo, I’m attracted to the artificiality in the storyline and the film construction. The viewer is never quite certain of what is real and what is not, and the result is rather dizzying, just like the title Vertigo suggests. I particularly love the scene where Madeline (Kim Novak) is walking through the old-growth redwood trees attempting to remember who she is. Bernard Herrmann’s musical score couldn’t be more perfect. It adds this mysterious feel. Actually, my photograph Woman in Redwood Forest is inspired by that particular scene. With North By Northwest, I like that it's sort of the first James Bond movie. There are also a couple of Australian films I really like — Walkabout and Picnic at Hanging Rock. I like how they both show the terrifying side of nature. I highly recommend them, especially the restored version of Walkabout.

VN: Your interest in Sophia Coppola is very evident in your work. Your quiet aesthetic and restrained colour palettes are very akin, and I see a great deal of The Virgin Suicides in your interior shots. Can you speak to what you connect to in her films?

KB: I think there is a dream-like quality attached to memory that Coppola captures perfectly in The Virgin Suicides. Objects take on a great deal of significance after the death of a loved one. Clothing, pictures and letters can tell the fragmented story of one's life. Coppola captures the essence of the Lisbon girls by focusing on what they left in the shrines of the bedrooms. When I saw The Virgin Suicides I’d actually been exploring similar themes with my photography. I’d been trying to tell a story of who someone was through the belongings they left behind. It’s probably best exemplified through my Ivy House series, which documented the contents of an estate in England after the owner had passed away.

VN: Is there a fantasy shoot that you could share with us? Any place in particular that you’d love to photograph or some impossible production you’d love to realize?

KB: If this is truly a fantasy then I’d love to go to another planet! I’d settle for the moon, though.

VN: What are you working on presently?

KB: Well, I’m actually pregnant right now and am due this summer! So, aside from growing a baby, I’ve been trying to shoot and prepare as much artwork as possible before the baby arrives. I have some preliminary ideas for new pastels, and I’ve also been working with a medium-format slide projector. I have tons of landscape pictures I’ve taken in the past couple of years. I’ve never shown straight landscape work, and I’m excited to see how all my little projects and experiments end up coming together.

Vanessa NicholasVanessa Nicholas is a freelance writer based in Toronto, where she also works as Programs Coordinator for the OCAD U Student Gallery. She completed her MA History of Art at the Courtauld Institue of Art in 2009 and has since worked at the Venice Biennale, the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery and Canadian Art magazine. She blogs at blogthegood.tumblr.com.