Drawing inspiration from a cross-country road trip, artist Katherine Boxall’s second solo exhibition opens this month at Jerald Melberg Gallery.
by Cathy Martin • photographs by Peter Taylor
Creating art is often a solitary activity, and 2020 forced isolation upon us like never before. “Artists in general are somewhat of a rare breed because they spend so much time alone,” says Charlotte art dealer Jerald Melberg. And so it happened, amid a trainwreck of a year, that artist Katherine Boxall managed to create a thing of beauty.
Intelligent Abstraction, Boxall’s second solo exhibition, opens Jan. 16 at Melberg’s eponymous Cotswold gallery. The show is a collection of works Boxall created over the course of nine months last year, largely inspired by a six-week cross-country road trip taken with her fiancé. Rather than sitting at home in the early days of the shutdown, the couple tossed a tent in the car and hit the open road.
On a brisk November morning, Boxall, 27, greets me outside her west Charlotte studio, a compact workspace constructed in the middle of a cavernous warehouse that she describes as a dream studio for a young artist. Pastels and all kinds of paint — gallons of house paint, tubes of oil paint, cans of spray paint — are scattered throughout. In one corner hangs a beloved painting of a grad-school friend, Zoë, the lone figurative work in the space; propped in the opposite corner is what Boxall calls her error painting, a canvas she uses to try out new techniques. (“I need to have a place to discover things.”) Lining the walls are works from the upcoming show, some complete and a few still in progress.
“This painting,” she says, pointing to a large canvas that I cannot take my eyes off, “has everything to do with Yellowstone for me — the beauty pools of water at Yellowstone Park, and the way they were so delicate but intense. The one with the two blues,” she says, gesturing to another canvas, “it’s all about twilight by the ocean in the Outer Banks,” where she camped on the beach. “All of these paintings to me were about holding onto those amazing moments that I had. Each one of these paintings in my mind represents a different place.”
Boxall’s initial journey to Charlotte also took her on a whirlwind coast-to-coast trip. After earning her MFA from San Francisco Art Institute, the Canada native landed in the Queen City in 2018, quickly drawing attention from local arts luminaries. Her first solo exhibition at the New Gallery of Modern Art opened in November 2019, followed by a February 2020 show at Mint Museum Uptown, part of the museum’s Constellation CLT series spotlighting local artists.
“I did my first studio visit with her, I believe, in fall 2018 and was completely blown away by the quality of the paintings and the methodical approach that she had toward her work,” says Jen Sudul Edwards, chief curator and curator of contemporary art at the Mint Museum. “I knew that I wanted to work with her as soon as I could, and she was an early call when I got the Mint job [in June 2019].” Unfortunately, like most cultural attractions, the Mint was forced to close to the public in March, almost two months before the show was scheduled to conclude.
Boxall had been working part-time in digital marketing at Melberg’s gallery when the Mint exhibition was announced. Though she’d been on the job for several months, Melberg had never paid much attention to her artwork. (“You have to balance the line between church and state,” he later tells me, laughing.) He learned about the exhibition through an email announcement from the Mint. Melberg asked her about it, and she invited him to the opening.
“I was absolutely gobsmacked,” Melberg says, upon seeing Boxall’s work for the first time. “The word that came to mind to me when I first viewed them was that these are really intelligent abstract paintings. I am convinced a great deal of abstraction is just so much paint on a canvas — that it does not have any balance and rhythm and color sense, all of those sorts of things.” But Boxall’s work was different.
Before the night was over, Melberg — who had not taken on a new artist since 2016 — told Boxall they needed to talk. At the time, she was represented by Irina Toshkova at the New Gallery. A few months later, when Toshkova was closing her gallery and pivoting to consulting, Boxall decided the opportunity to work with Melberg — whose esteemed roster of artists includes Romare Bearden, Wolf Kahn and Robert Motherwell — was too great to pass up.
Boxall grew up in Ottawa, the Canadian capital, and studied fine art with a minor in business — math came easy to her — at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
“I came from a very conservative situation — not … in the political sense, but conservative in the sense that my parents had no idea that you could be anything other than a teacher or a lawyer or a doctor.” Spending her final semester studying abroad in Australia led to an epiphany.
“I knew that the only way I was really going to be able to be a painter was if I got out of Ottawa, Ontario, because I saw Sydney. I saw what it meant to be in a big city where art mattered, and that was not where I was from. … No one understood what I did — there were not art galleries you could go to on a Friday night,” though she admits the city has grown in the decade since she left.
After a year in Toronto working as a fashion marketing intern by day and waiting tables at night, she applied to grad school and was awarded a fellowship at San Francisco Art Institute that covered the majority of her tuition expenses. Her boyfriend (now fiancé) had moved to Charlotte in 2017 to take a job at Red Ventures, and after she graduated, he convinced her to move to the Queen City, too.
Taking risks was nothing new for Boxall. She started out as a figurative painter, fueled by an adolescent interest in body dysmorphia issues. The anxiety disorder that often begins during the teen years can lead to obsessive thinking about minor or imagined body flaws. In her studio, she shows me a photo of a painting, a self-portrait that was displayed in the library at Queen’s. Her face is instantly recognizable, but the body looks nothing like the slender woman standing in front of me.
“That was a really vulnerable situation to put myself in,” Boxall admits. “I wanted everyone to see that.” The painting and an essay she wrote to accompany it ultimately earned her the scholarship to the San Francisco art school.
While in graduate school, she shifted to more abstract work. Her paintings — many on very large canvases — are a bold, balanced and thoughtful combination of movement, texture and color. The longer you look, the more you’ll see — a burst of energy here, a subtle motion there.
“Abstraction is such a difficult language for people to take seriously or to make the commitment,” Sudul Edwards says. “It pays off the more you sit with it, and we are not a patient culture. I felt that her work made a good claim for the importance and value of allowing the uncertainty of abstraction into our lives.”
Boxall sums up the upcoming show like this: “The work does kind of have a split for me, with these more atmospheric, airier raw canvas paintings [alongside others where] there’s a lot more paint, and there’s a lot more color, more energy, heaviness, more texture …” The separation comes from her process of working on two pieces at once: They’ll start out the same, but she’ll take more risks on one canvas and proceed more intentionally on the other.
“I kind of need both to be happening for either of them to happen. … I need to have a way to activate both sides of my brain.”
Boxall says moving to a new city where she didn’t know anyone forced her to become more disciplined in her work.
“The thing about being an artist, if you don’t have community and if you don’t go and talk to people about your work, it’s a very isolated, personal thing to do. You need a lot of resilience mentally to get yourself to do something like that,” she says. “When Covid hit, I’ve never been more grateful to have cultivated those skills already for myself. I can spend the whole day by myself in a warehouse alone and be fine. Not that many people can do that.”
The pandemic has provided both challenges and opportunity. Boxall hasn’t seen her family in Canada in months, and her wedding, which was supposed to be in November, has been postponed indefinitely until the borders reopen.
“It’s been really hard for me. But the thing about this, preparing for my solo show this year, has given me the most amazing gift of my life because it has given me purpose every day.” SP
Intelligent Abstraction will be on view Jan. 16-March 6 at Jerald Melberg Gallery. The gallery is located at 625 South Sharon Amity Road.