Step inside Kate Petley’s kaleidoscope of photo abstracts at CU Art Museum

All pieces from 'Staring into the Fire' are for sale and on display through Dec. 18

Works by Kate Petley, “Equal Measure,” “Floodgates” and “Counter-clockwise” can be seen at her “Staring into the Fire” exhibition at the CU Art Museum through Dec. 18. The on-campus museum is located at 1085 18th St. in Boulder (Wes Magyar/Courtesy photo)
Works by Kate Petley, “Equal Measure,” “Floodgates” and “Counter-clockwise” can be seen at her “Staring into the Fire” exhibition at the CU Art Museum through Dec. 18. The on-campus museum is located at 1085 18th St. in Boulder (Wes Magyar/Courtesy photo)
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The work of Longmont-based creative Kate Petley carries a certain mystery and palpable intrigue.

“Equal Measure” (2020, archival print and acrylic on canvas, 72 x 76″) by Kate Petley. (Kate Petley/Courtesy photo)

At first glance, the pieces in her solo show “Staring Into the Fire” — on display at the CU Art Museum through Dec. 18 — appear to be geometric-like paintings.

Upon further inspection, it becomes clear that her captivating work — filled with shadow and light — are in fact photographs.

Shots of painted cardboard boxes rendered akimbo take on new depth when placed in Petley’s studio, exposed to various lighting.

Some images that have been transferred to canvas are then brushed with acrylic paint, adding a textural subtleness to the fascinating and layered work that manages to meld several mediums.

Her varied abstracts possess a feel that is both futuristic and familiar. Sharp angles, rounded corners and slightly jagged arches draw us into a world where the concepts of depth and surface remain opaque.

“Anchor” (2020, archival print and acrylic on canvas, 72-by-76 inches). (Kate Petley/Courtesy photo)

Shape, line, pattern and perspective culminate into striking prisms that delight the eye.

“Anchor” is reminiscent of a geometric rose, of sorts, possessing a palette of luminous crimsons.

At times the work seems to pull from architecture, at others it can feel like the viewer is within a kaleidoscope, focused on a colorful and radiant slice.

From brightly hued offerings to ones that lean toward the monochromatic side, Petley’s work transcends any one particular mood or energy.

By taking something as ordinary as cardboard and rendering it a notable subject, her work reminds viewers of the power of transformation.

All pieces are for sale and the museum is open from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday or by appointment.

“Second Thoughts,” “Agreement,” “Half Shadow,” “Over and Above,” “Private Longing” and “Cut Across” are some of the works within the exhibition “Staring into the Fire” by Kate Petley, on display at CU Art Museum through Dec. 18. (Wes Magyar/Courtesy photo)

We caught up with the New York-born creative to find out more about her latest exhibition, her process and what she wants onlookers to take notice of when gazing at her varied creations.

Kalene McCort: What would you say inspired the pieces in “Staring into the Fire?”

Kate Petley: I use light, color, form and space to create atmospheric arrangements that refer to visual perception and physical experience. Part of my focus lies with questioning what a luminous surface might mean now that the backlit screen has altered our vision with its dominating, artificial glow.

KM: How did you decide on that title for the collection?

KP: It is a descriptive phrase that calls up the primal feeling we all recognize from literally being hypnotized by a fire, drawn to its warmth and comfort.

There is also an opposing interpretation that implies staring into the flames of destruction. I wanted the title to serve as a lure — to invite curiosity. CUAM Director Sandra Firmin, who curated the exhibition, uses the word “mesmerize” in her written comments and I love this description.

Artist Kate Petley in her studio in 2020. (Kate Petley/Courtesy photo)

KM: Love that at first glance these look like abstract paintings, when they are in fact actually photographs. What’s your process like for creating these works?

KP: In general, my work combines sculpture, photography and painting in a way that integrates both handmade and digital approaches. All three are equally important and play different roles.

I started off in sculpture, so handling actual materials is necessary for me. I basically make a sculptural arrangement out of cardboard, paper or different films. It is placed into an intensely lit environment and photographed. The resulting photograph is transferred either to canvas or paper. The canvases are selectively painted, but it is not always easy to detect what is paint and what is not. My process dissolves the boundaries between these mediums and that is important, not only to me but also for the work of many other artists.

KM: Do you have a vision of what you want to achieve before setting up cardboard subjects and taking shots or does it all happen organically?

KP: It is a slow process and I use many different materials in addition to ordinary cardboard. Each step has its own pace and requirements. Sometimes it feels extremely intuitive and I move everything around until I find the right solution. If there is a preliminary idea, it often doesn’t survive the experiment because the numerous adjustments I make alter the original impulse. I am not easily satisfied and experimentation takes time. Hundreds of other photographs stand behind each piece that becomes an object.

Speaking of materials, I’d like to mention that the smaller room (at CU Art Museum) — normally used for video — contains an installation. At first it seems very different than the rest of the exhibition, but I felt it was important to include some of the actual materials I use. This installation provides a contrast to the other pieces and simultaneously connects to them in surprising ways.

A detail of “Half Shadow,” (2020, archival print and acrylic on canvas, 48-by-52 inches) by Kate Petley. (Kate Petley/Courtesy photo)

KM: What do you hope viewers take away from your work?

KP: I’d like for them to notice how they feel, what sensations occur as they stand in front of the pieces. For example, some people are attracted to strong light and color, while others will be comfortable with the more subdued works. If possible, I’d like the focus to settle on what they are experiencing instead of unraveling the process.

Noticing the sensations that might come along is the best part. It’s about the experience, always better in person.

KM: Are there any objects or materials you’d like to incorporate into your backlit photographic work in the future?

KP: Actual objects won’t be included because they usually possess too much history or narrative and that determines how we see them. I consider the light itself to be a material and I use multiple light sources, I don’t rely only on backlit arrangements.

During the isolation of the past 18 months, I was motivated to include cast shadows in the images and that continues to hold my attention. Emphasizing the shadows has required a new set of steps that I plan to pursue further. It feels relevant.

“Half Shadow,” “Over and Above,” “Private Longing” and “Cut Across” can be seen at Kate Petley’s exhibition “Staring into the Fire” at the CU Art Museum through Dec. 18. (Wes Magyar/Courtesy photo)

KM: What can we expect from you next? Are there any upcoming exhibits that should be on our radar?

KP: My work will be included in an exhibition at the Grinnell College Art Museum (in Iowa) titled “Digital Vision,” featuring six artists from across the U.S. It opens in January 2022 and there will be a catalogue with an essay by Dallas-based writer Tom Moody.