In 2018, the New York alternative art space White Columns presented “Hysteric Signs,” an exhibition of monumental wall pieces by Katz Tepper. The four works in that show—Hysteric Sign (Ribbed Tomato ‘n Grapes); Gaping Candle Tripod; Hysteric Sign (Distended J Bean); and I, Infected—articulated the artist’s lived experience of chronic illness by visually conflating the body’s internal workings with its external surroundings.
With billboard-like urgency, these brightly colored, outsize works—amalgamations of such quotidian objects and materials as sealant, latex rubber, pigmented epoxy, toilet plungers, nitrile medical gloves, beeswax, thread spools, bricks, and eggshells mounted on supports of industrial felt—conjured digestive, excretory, or circulatory processes. Each of the four, more disturbingly, also suggested contamination. “With the work in ‘Hysteric Signs,’ I wanted to use materials that upset me—industrial materials that I don’t feel I have a choice in cohabitating with, but that are undoubtedly poisonous,” Tepper says.
To make the pieces, Tepper worked with modules, which they constructed on the kitchen floor or living room couch at their Athens, Georgia, home, before sewing the modules together by hand. Tepper likens this latter process to care, although, as they told ARTnews, “Even with all this romantic attachment to sewing, I was taking the thread spools themselves and plugging them into the felt to emphasize their psychosexual qualities as hard plastic penetrating this soft, hairy, absorbent material.”
In order to see the final works, two of which topped out at around 11 feet high, in their entirety, the artist needed a bigger space than their home with its 8-foot-high ceilings. Tepper rented a studio but hated it because it felt like a chore to get there. “It takes a lot of energy for me to leave the house, especially as I have to prepare appropriate food for myself ahead of time [because of] my disability,” they say. “By the time I got there I was already exhausted.”
“Because I’m inclined toward maximalism and environmental scale, my work is often in contradiction to various constraints I face,” Tepper adds. “Often I’m trying to find a way to make the next project gentler on my body.”
Three years after their White Columns show, Tepper has found just such a method of working. Begun in the summer of 2020, the 47-minute video Roasted Cockroach for Scale took shape against the backdrop of a global experience of illness and its subsequent profound disruptions, as well as a push—both within the mainstream artworld and in the culture at large—to some sort of return to “normal,” a concept that Tepper has long explicitly countered in their work.
Consequently, “the process of accumulating material for Roasted Cockroach for Scale was much more integrated into my life than anything I’ve made before. The piece pushes up against these thresholds: between life and art, between bodily output and artistic expression,” Tepper says.
In the video, Tepper develops a cinematic language from preset options in Google Docs, Google Sheets, and AI speech-to-text software, using them to transcribe, translate, script, edit, and redact conversations with their father. At one point, Tepper’s symptom journal, with scrawled notes about bodily input and output covering its pages, is displayed open.
Of their father’s involvement, Tepper says, “He embodies a bridge to my multiple, contradictory origins, onto which I map questions about how illness, and subsequently ableism, have traveled into my cells and relationships across continents and generations.” In this sense, the work is not interested in the discrete origins of the artist’s illness, but is instead concerned with how disability recurs in Tepper’s family. Here, any separation between Tepper’s art and life is fully dissolved.
The video, which is also to say Tepper’s life, contains multiple locations at once, embodying simultaneously collapsed and multiplied distance. For Tepper, “This strikes me as an inherent quality of the diasporic experience.” Roasted Cockroach for Scale insists on the poetics of that.
Katz Tepper, Hysteric Sign (Distended J Bean), 2018, an abstract multimedia wall sculpture resembling an oversized road sign in form and size. Painted on the wall around it is a large beige rectangle vaguely resembling a blocky letter “M.” The sculpture is made up of dozens of small sections demarked by borders of red fabric. The interiors of these sections contain pieces of white fabric; thread spools; burlap; and light blue, dark green, or pea-green epoxy, among other materials.
Katz Tepper, I, Infected, 2018, an abstract multimedia wall sculpture resembling the capital letter I. A large crack extends down from its top. Eggshells, toilet paper tubes, brown plastic bags, and dozens of toilet plungers cluster on the industrial felt that serves as the work’s support. The toilet plungers’ handles jut out into the room.
Katz Tepper, Gaping Candle Tripod, 2018, an abstract multimedia wall sculpture in the form of a central rib cage–like structure on three legs. The central element contains eggs, bricks, fabric, bits of latex and epoxy, foam, and thread spools held together on industrial felt. At the end of each leg is a square shape. One square is covered with red fabric, another with blue nitrile gloves, and a third with green latex.
Katz Tepper, still from Roasted Cockroach for Scale, 2021, digital video with color and sound, 47:00 minutes. This still of the video shows a photo of a diary with scribbled text showing time of day and corresponding bodily input and output. A red Google Document on the bottom right reads “I could never read that Katya. Urgent, Blah blah blah.”
Katz Tepper, still from Roasted Cockroach for Scale, 2021, digital video with color and sound, 47:00 minutes. This still of the video shows a white background of a Google Doc with black text in Arial font and a large black circle centered in the shot. A mouse cursor is highlighting the following text that hugs both sides of the circle: Iiiiiiiffffff Ttttttthhhhhhiiiiiisssssss Aaarrtttwwwwooorrrrrkkkk
Wwwwiiiiillllllllllllllll nnnnneeeedddddd ffffffoooootttttaaaagggeee Cccoolllllooonnnn oooosssccoooppppyyy Fffffffoooooootttttttaaaaaagggggeeeee (“If this artwork will need footage, colonoscopy footage”).
Katz Tepper, detail of Hysteric Sign (Distended J Bean), 2018, an abstract multimedia wall sculpture resembling an oversized road sign in form and size. Painted on the wall around it is a large beige rectangle vaguely resembling a blocky letter M. The sculpture is made up dozens of small sections demarked by borders of red fabric. The interiors of these sections contain pieces of white fabric; thread spools; burlap; and light blue, dark green, or pea green epoxy, among other materials. This detail shows a closeup view of thread spools embedded in white felt.