PAINT AND MATERIALITY: INTERVIEW WITH MARIA CHEVSKA

Marina Kassianidou

MK: I’m looking at different uses of paint and materiality, like I said in the email and that’s why I’m interested in your work.

MC: There is an exhibition essay by Greg Hilty from 1992 called Reading Matter which is a neat expression… …materiality goes back a long way in different forms in my work, as does reading the words.

MK: Yeah yeah

MC: These [pointing to paintings in the studio] seem more straightforward small oil paintings compared to many of my previous series of works. The paint is still very physical and they contain several of the techniques that I’ve used before …they draw on my wider painting vocabulary.

MK: How did you develop your technique? How did you get interested in materiality?

MC: My paintings could not have been described as pictorial for a long time now although their objecthood is always important. I have been interested in the paint itself, and colour… tonality, they are often black and white…it is substance, stuff. In 1990 I decided not to work on a traditional canvas and used instead a stretched fabric. That changed things because fabric is also a social object – using found elements in painting seemed more direct than a reproduced image. My paintings became involved with the ordinary world…the world of familiar objects. It opened a lot of possibilities for me within the practice of painting. The fabric in the earliest ones was very dark purple acetate, a man-made material… fake satin. I sewed a textual phrase in white cotton - pierced into the surface, and applied marks in matte blackboard paint - fragmenting the painting surface. This complexity interested me…to be in dialogue with ordinary things and not only the world of 'painting'…I thought it had new potential for my practice.

MK: Ok. And how about the specific forms of writing…

MC: I have put the texts on in many different ways. Some have been stencils - a given typographic text which lies on the surface [of a painting]. A more direct way is pouring the words free-form. Typographic text has a direct relationship to 1960's conceptual art - which I am informed by, but in a sense one point they were making such as indifference to mark and gesture, is not something I have to keep working through so I feel free to improvise again. Pouring paint through a (watering) can also has associations - the horizontal floor is of course reminiscent of Jackson Pollock…although that is only a passing nod……

MK: There’s a performative element…to the way you write the words.

MC: Yes…especially the large scale paintings - then it’s performative. Made on the floor because of the pouring - I build a bridge across the width of the canvas so I can walk across it and pour the words. It is a process of chance and what’s there remains there.

MK: It’s very…I guess it doesn’t matter for you then if it’s hard to read.

MC: It’s been more, and less so in terms of the text. I think it’s all legible actually - it depends at what distance and in what light conditions and whether you are looking at it from a side angle. It’s often not the first thing that you see yet that doesn’t worry me. I made a series of works (late 1990s) where the writing is below but in relief – I then poured a lot of paint so that the text became partially obliterated, an excessive visceral materiality. In contrast I also made some large barer canvases, which were installed floor-standing and leant against the walls of the gallery, along with chairs and certain objects… their surface in kaolin, near white and matte, the embedded text in the same material.

MK: So you are interested in this issue of partial visibility or something being hidden…

MC: I don’t know if I’m really interested in partial visibility - more the processes of seeing… and reading. I remember talking to a critic about instantaneity, whether that is what happens when looking at a painting, taking in everything that’s there all at once. The question: can the viewer read a word, and, see an image/or surface simultaneously. I think they do, it is the point…

MK: But doesn’t it take time for the viewer to actually experience the work fully…time for the work to unfold?

MC: I think so…I’m interested too in time for looking. The work unfolds itself, paintings take time… Mine are usually made in layers and often over long periods - time is built in… some processes are slow, some fast. I am interested in them taking time to unpack on a physical and a metaphorical level.

MK: Related to that then, how do you want them to relate to the viewer?

MC: That comes back to the function of materiality. I am thinking about paintings as objects in which the encounter with the viewer is central. The viewer possesses a specific size and weight and is within the space of the work - it is initially a physically spatial experience. Even small paintings … go up close to see the surface and move around. This outlook influenced me to extend the work into the real space of the room, often with pieces of furniture - for the viewer’s necessary involvement.

MK: Make them more part of the work…

MC: Part of the equation. I may spend a long period of time working on a painting - I am then interested in it’s positioning, for example it’s distance from the floor and what is placed near to or in front of it.

MK: You mentioned that this one works with the chair in front of it. [Pointing to a pair of paintings, one smaller and the other bigger, hanging in such a way that the smaller one covers part of the bigger one. A chair wrapped in a blanket and taped-up is also placed in front of them. The chair, as Maria told me later, is actually an object she had previously shown in Berlin and this is how it was shipped back to her…the gallery technician wrapped it in a blanket and put brown tape around it. Maria hadn’t unpacked it: she decided to use it as it was. The tape wrapped around the object paralleled her gestures in the painting and that was one of the reasons why she placed this specific chair in front of the specific painting.]

MC: Yes, the work evolves in a fairly intuitive way… I didn’t pre-suppose I would montage those things as they are but it began to work out and become satisfactory as a three-dimensional relationship. In a formal way I regard all these paintings as fluid constructions, which includes the space they occupy.

MK: Have you done objects like this before? I saw some pictures online where the objects …seemed to be completely white.

MC: Yes, I think the earliest time I put an object and a painting together…they were united by the whiteness of kaolin…it was a small sculpture near a large floor-standing white painting. That’s probably the first…but ideas moved on: I remember working for an exhibition and realizing that this wall [pointing to a wall in her studio] was very important and the chairs too that were in the studio. I didn’t feel inclined to take those paintings away separately so I re-hung the studio wall within the gallery. This was a way of stating my interest in the relationships of space, context, the work, and the viewer.

MK: It almost makes it more material having this [pointing to chair in front of paintings]…especially with the blanket and the tape around it…you have different materials working together, relating to each other.

MC: Yes, it’s not full of intentional meanings as such, to be picked apart and said to mean something. It doesn’t particularly mean a bound chair…although that’s what it is. I’m interested in the very literal things - like the paint gestures [points to the painting in front of the chair] which echo the tape [around the chair - this was a chair that was included in an installation then returned to me. The person who packed the work did that [taped a blanket around the chair using brown tape]. I didn’t unpack it, I stood it in the studio and it began intuitively to belong to this (text) painting - that’s how fluid the process of working is.

MK: And have you done that before? [Putting a painting on top of another painting.]

MC: No. …It’s a bit clunky but at the same time one can speak about the kind of activity it is doing - [small painting] is like a detail of what might be in the [bigger painting] …it’s a way of trying to say - you could have made one surface, but in fact by forming a dialogue between the elements it becomes more articulate. Although this is is not a recipe – I will not now do a series of works where one canvas overhangs another, it’s not that sort of decision. It was about this specific work.

MK: Yeah it works with this. So you mentioned you are interested more in paintings as objects rather than pictorial representations. How do you choose which colours to use then?

MC: One of the aspects of focusing on material and using found things are that they are not made in the same way – they are not stylistically the same. I liberated myself from the idea that I had a style. So colour decisions are very deliberate. Colour has often confused me as a painter – when to use it and for what function? Colour needs either to be describing something or to represent an idea. I always make a strong decision about colour. For instance, in this group [her new work]…as you can see, they are images or fragments of imagery… suggesting generic modernist interiors - which have a sense of being glimpsed, urban spaces… one source [a book] were interiors shown through different sorts of colour photography…some photographed at night, some not. The colour was rather strange as though frozen in a technical device, not particularly descriptive, rather unnatural situations. So I took the book as guide in this instance. Other works are tonal such as here [pointing to a grey painting] where in a sense there was no real referent outside the text.

MK: Ok. So you make a decision and you go for it.

MC: I make the decision - the colour needs a role.

MK: The text you used for this one [one of her new paintings]…does it come from specific sources?

MC: Yes… the text is always taken from a source – it then provides me with a conceptual framework for each group of works. For this group: Free and easy... I have taken phrases from Franz Kafka’s book “America”, and Mayakovski’s “Travels in America.” Both were written at a period of early modernity; the 1920s. Kafka’s “America” was totally imaginary…he’d never been to America. And Mayakovski…wrote a travel journal, including three poems on his trip back to the new Soviet Union from America. It interested me because both describe the speed, and fluidity, and inherent social problems of a mass consumerist world - the character of the present is also brought to mind.

MK: Even though one of them is imaginary.

MC: Yes. It’s imaginary - about a journey, arriving in a place where you are a stranger and you don’t know the customs (or the language). And yet the assumption being that in the West anything is possible. I’m interested that it [the text] resonates in reality - it was about its time and about this moment too.

MK: And how do you choose which fragments to use from the texts?

MC: That’s difficult to describe. …I focus on things…certain fragments come to the surface …I am interested in language which seems to exist in both the private and the public realm - in time a choice begins to coalesce. I don’t always recognize and decide immediately what to use - but something will start to not leave my head…then it seems right.

MK: And how do the words you use relate to the background images you use?

MC: They are completely independent. Initially when I had introduced other kinds of materials, I realized that the nature of a painting didn’t need to be a unified two-dimensional surface in terms of composition or narrative…I have no linear narrative to tell. I mean to say that the whole is a set of fragments - a limited number… three ‘fragments’ usually - one of which is the text. In the days when I used material, there was the material itself, the text, and a painted image – any more would have exceeded perception. In a way, these paintings [new paintings] are of a similar construct: there’s a limited amount of ‘fragments’ that are not related - but once you superimpose one thing on another, like text, space, or colour - they become a formal entity.

MK: It seems to me that you work with both abstraction and representation, like two more fragments that you play with…the imagery is one fragment and the text is another.

MC: Yes, in a way. These recent paintings attempt to use all the ways of painting I’ve ever used, all the techniques, if you like, and the approaches that I’ve taken to painting.

MK: Are these finished works as well or do you use them as sketches? [Looking at works on paper]. Do you use work on paper as part of your process or do you go straight for the painting?

MC: These works on paper came as an offshoot - a fast wet in wet process.
The paintings are from scratch but because I pour the raised words I usually start with those - my sketchbooks, or notebooks are full of scribbles mostly from my selected text.

MK: Ok. So, going back to the texture of the writing and the fact that I can see your gesture while you are writing…how do you see the relationship between vision, the visual element in your work, and the touch element suggested by the writing?

MC: Well, I conflate them. I think that’s been my intention, …would you separate those two? There are aspects I’ve always been interested in such as weight, real and illusory, … An earlier work Weight (1996) fills a room - it deals with the idea of weight as both linguistic metaphor, and, an actual physical value.

MK: Since you mentioned Weight,I’ve read the description you gave of it on the Visual Intelligence web site. I’ve wanted to ask you about that because I found the description to be very thorough and very well thought out…and I’m not able to talk about my work in that way. Is that something that happens over time, after you make the work do you see more things in it or do you know from the beginning how you want it to be?

MC: ‘Visual Intelligence’ was a symposium organized by Rebecca Fortnum who asked the invited artists some good questions about their working practices. When we came to address it individually at the symposium a few of the artists presented written papers, in fact, I felt inadequate because I only had the original paper of questions simply with my scribbled written notes all over them…so my presentation was off-the-cuff. One question was to describe a work you could be proud of, or you felt worked well. Although it was twelve years old or more… I thought of Weight - because it was satisfyingly rooted to its subject, and, its final form took shape within the exhibiting space - the nature of the work was clarified by the architecture. I try to work similar ideas through and have done so for a long time now but that work succeeded. At the same time it was perhaps the least seductive … no colour…it was black, white, and tonal greys… …but everything held together. All these diverse fragments and influences and references I had used seemed to hold together in a space – a suitable architectural space fortunately found for it.

MK: And all the things you said about it, were they things you had set out to do from before or did they sort of work themselves out eventually?

MC: Weight comprised paintings and objects developed over about two years as I worked through the different elements. The two long grey graphite panels were based on the Holbein Dead Christ painting in Basel, it was an actual reference of proportions. There were other panels with writing, which had been endlessly obliterated, literally washed out, and then repeatedly re-inscribed. When I installed it in the gallery the elements followed the space; some around corners etc. So…no, I don’t initially foresee, especially with a two-year span of working what will happen in the end. But there comes a point when ideas come to fruition … when a process gets full so you can’t do anymore, that’s it, complete in itself.

MK: Another thing I wanted to ask you about the text is with regards to the sources you use. Because for me it means that the painting belongs somewhere in a sense.
In a sense the painting relates to specific things out there in the world.

MC: Yes, it does and that is important to me. One thing that always bothered me somehow about describing myself as a painter, was that painting often seemed to inhabit a fantastical world, or sealed world of representations and I couldn’t reconcile myself to that. If I’m interested in representation at all it’s often to play between the illusion (of depicted space for example) and the real -

MK: The text often seems to bring a voice into the painting, of the person who writes.

MC: Definitely, I was most aware of that in the series Can’t Wait [Letters RL] (2004) - the letters of Rosa Luxemberg. They were translated quite recently, they read like spoken speech. Their tone can be abrupt, or effusive, imperative … exclamation marks, questions and so forth … a strident tone of voice. She was a committed activist – these letters, many from prison, sound fresh and urgent - evoking her tumultuous political and personal life.

MK: So like a fragment, as you talked earlier of the different elements in your work.

MC: Yes. I think of a writer like Walter Benjamin who often wrote in and through fragments…mostly taken from other thinkers, and other writers… described as: “crystallizations” which already contain their own life, and depth.

MK: Relating to the text, you’ve said about your titles that they are really important in your work so you start out with a title beforehand or…

MC: Not often, …I think the (series) titles evolve halfway through, and the title for individual paintings is simply their visible text. Or, for example, in Weight the project was to balance the notion and the different interpretations of that one word. On face value the titles are simple yet they act to articulate the whole idea.

MK: So how do you envision the viewer relating to the titles and the titles relating to your work?

MC: I admit that I imagine the best of viewers and therefore think that the title will act as a key. I mean it’s the only way I can do it - if they will take time to view the work then the title will be active -

MK: Another fragment?

MC: In a way, but these fragments are in process of becoming connected. I believe that the viewers will see that for themselves.

MK: Is that painting also part of the new group? [Pointing to a specific painting]

MC: The chair will be there, although not this particular chair. The chair I envisage is the zigzag chair by Gerrit Rietveldt (1920s), which has a relationship to the painting. I would like to place it like this one …the chair crammed up against the wall below the painting implying a very close view.

MK: Is the way the paintings are hanging here what you are thinking of doing at the exhibition?

MC: Actually no. I think I would like to spread out and give them more individual focus.

MK: I’m interested in the one hanging high up behind the door.

MC: It was an earlier one related to the paintings made immediately prior to this new work. They were exhibited in Helsinki (Yet, 2008) where the curator had said she liked the idea of an installation - a painting installation - I used this long studio wall to place the canvases - whatever happened to accrue on this wall went to Helsinki. This one [the painting behind the door] was related to that series of works but recently I put it in amongst others and now it seems part of these as well so in London it won’t be shown jammed up against the corner… …

MK: I was in Santa Fe during the summer…they have a biennial there and one of the painters in the show had all of his paintings hanging in the weirdest places…above a window, by the door…you would turn a corner and suddenly find a painting…it was very strange.

MC: I can appreciate it… something I have been thinking about doing in the right context; the sense of how you see, where you see - it was a more relevant thought for that previous group of paintings. In the gallery in Helsinki I had small paintings hung high on the wall, and low, also a wall-text, and black tape fixed to the wall and floor to demarcate space. It mapped the viewing experience.

MK: The other thing I am looking at in my research is the issue of the feminine in painting and I read a review…I think it was for a show you had at Anderson O’Day in 1993…that suggested that you were trying to create in painting an equivalent to ecriture feminine. On one of the works at the show you were quoting Helene Cixous. That was mentioned in the review as well.

MC: Yes…I like the writings of Helene Cixous. It was appropriate for that work – I quoted from her early novel Angst. But ‘Ecriture Feminine’ is different …I’m not sure that I fully understood that theoretical proposition – it was a concept probably more significant in the French language. Helene continues to be a prolific, and poetic writer… that was an idea in her early work…she has moved on. Her subject is Literature…and there are so many issues she writes about and is interested in. I see that as one aspect…among many.

[Tape change. Maria mentioned the text she collaborated on with Cixous. She said she brought me a copy and went to find it.]

MC: I think my feminist approach has always amounted to just doing it. One cannot reliably discern the mark of a man or a woman in painting. … …Perhaps with someone like Eva Hesse…because of her particular generation, her work was doing something quite new at the time… I can see how one might speak about the femininist motivation of her sculpture. It’s far harder to pin down in painting. My own generation, especially those who were slightly before me often escaped into other newer media. They didn’t want to paint after art school, they went into film and video - a medium without a heavy historical precedent. It’s slightly beside the point for me now - I just assume I can do it and so get on with it.

MK: There have been, quite recently, various texts by Bracha Ettinger, a painter who is also a psychoanalyst, and she’s been writing a lot about this…the feminine in psychoanalysis and in painting.

MC: I’ve known her work for a long time…psychoanalysis is a discipline that informs her work – an armature and that’s fine. For example, Susan Hiller was also an anthropologist so that legacy feeds her work. But these are unusual examples of artists.

MK: That has consequences in Bracha’s writing because whenever she writes about her paintings it seems to be more about psychoanalytic concepts than the actual paintings.

MC: I’m interested in writing and language, which is also outside visual art - I take it into my work but would not like to give a written analysis of that material outside of the existence of the work itself.

MK: So do you use any theory at all to inform the paintings or not?

MC: Not in a self-conscious way…in the way of one’s past experiences of knowing about theory and knowing people and knowing writing. The fact that I know Helene Cixous and have worked on a project with her was extraordinary because I have enjoyed her individual outlook and her influence - I am also conscious that she once taught with people like Lyotard, and Foucault. Of course she was also the close friend of Derrida until he died. By osmosis certain theories, certain outlooks, ways of thinking that were developed in the late 20th century are relevant to me, but I don’t wish to apply any one lens through which to read my work. I think that’s going against the grain of making art. I don’t mind if a critique is applied to the work afterwards but that’s another matter - it’s probably more the job of the writer and critic to take a theoretical lens through which to read work - their motivation if you like.

MK: But the collaboration you did with Cixous…how was that? I know you did the exhibition, Vera’s Room, did she talk about it …

MC: She has talked about it. It’s interesting because Helene was not widely exposed to contemporary art when I first met her. She said that she felt a non-expert and approached visual art through her own gut reaction, and of course intellect. I think her interest in Vera’s Room and the ideas in it plugged into certain interests of her own. She invited me to participate in her seminar (Ecriture/Peinture, 2004) at the Sorbonne in Paris where she talked about it, which was extraordinary for me. At that time in fact she had only seen it documented - it’s a work that has been shown about four times in different cities. We later collaborated on the project at Slought Foundation in Philadelphia (2005). Helene is such a very specific writer and that is what interested me. I didn’t want her to write an art essay about my work - I wanted her personal reflections, it was a poetic response …. I’ll give you the book Vera’s Room –the K Notebook with Helene's text is at the centre of the Black Dog book. I think that one does not compromise to collaborate with somebody else, it’s not about compromising and melding into one, it’s more to do with mutual interest, a kind of parallel lines situation.

MK: The other thing that I was interested in…. it might have been on the visual intelligence site as well…is the issue of active and passive. You talked about activity and passivity in your practice.

MC: Yes, it is an idea of speed, time and space in a working practice - slow decisions and other fast decisions. I think all paintings evolve like that …the slow and the very quick in terms of decision making - leading to a material presence.

MK: So the slow bit is I guess the masking and the…

MC: In a physical sense, yes. I work on successive layers, which are allowed to dry, … and at a late stage I paint freer quick gestural brushstrokes.

MK: So when does the painting work for you then?

MC: I can only describe it as being full up - when I decide not to go on. It’s difficult to say finished before that really comes home to me. I prefer to be surprised by a painting and it might also be a bit clumsy but I have to absorb that …if I put more on it’s going to confuse, so at some point I decide there is simply enough. In a a good work those tentative balances: slow and fast knit together, it needs their tension. I usually recognize when I need to stop.

MK: Are there other contemporary artists that you would relate to yourself or your work to?

MC: I like a lot of art but one may not see a relationship to my work in it. I think it’s difficult in the abstract to conjure this up - I like a lot of sixties and seventies art for instance and I think that artists are still working in relation to that time, younger generations perhaps are doing a more hybrid kind of art. I’ve enjoyed a lot of Rosemary Trockel’s work for instance - there’s a lot of artists that I quite like - people whose medium is not always static – it might be sculpture, painting, books, it’s very diverse.

MK: You’ve talked about the nature of painting, and again it might have been on the visual intelligence site… about painting being both a self-contained activity but also something that relates to the real world.

MC: As I was saying, years ago I felt I had to find that balance - it [painting] needed relevance, a connection to life. I found my own way of approaching painting.

MK: You’ve said something about the boundaries of painting, is that one of them for you, that it has this sort of self-contained aspect to it?

MC: The conventional boundaries of painting are there to be questioned ... boundaries are there to be tested and things that work at boundaries are often very exciting. You set your own rules, after all nobody is telling you what to paint - you improvise, and I think that’s the exciting part. A rethinking and reframing - I do it quite a lot… I think of how the viewer is situated. For example, a horizontal kaolin text painting (Idyll, 2004) balances on two logs from the floor, in front of which is a low stool intended to be sat on – it makes that small physical intervention - different to being viewed standing at eye level.

MK: It also places the viewer within the work. The viewers having to consciously situate themselves in front of the work.

MC: Yes.

MK: Does humour play into your work at all?

MC: To do that head on would not be possible for me because I am not using…I am not committed to imagery so I couldn’t make you roll with laughter by having a funny image, but yes I think humour is incredibly important. I think it might be more of a wry smile in my work… the conjunction of certain things that happen. Maybe words give me the most opportunity, to play a little … probably a subtle thing.

MK: Another thing I was interested in is reusing something. On the visual intelligence site you were talking about recycling or destroying something and doing something else with it.

MC: I often do that … objects may be found, spotted somewhere and lifted into a new life …I also recycle a certain number of my paintings after a period of time.

MK: Would it be the same for the paintings depending on the space in which you show them? I’m talking about the idea of recycling; in one space you achieve a certain type of integration between the paintings and between the paintings and the space and in another space it’s something different…

MC: Yes, It interests me to take work from an entirely different grouping of my works and to put it into a current exhibition -where things take on another life because they are in a fresh context.
Last year I had the chance to work with a private collection and to do something I’d never done before – to install other people’s work alongside my own, displaying them however I wished - which didn’t mean I abused the integrity of individual works in any way but actually I could make a whole new sense from it. A chosen text, installed as hand-painted frieze, became the unifying factor. I wouldn’t call it curating because it wasn’t like that. I was given the opportunity to create a different and highly personal space for a collection (the Hoffman Collection in Berlin) - these were not necessarily by my favourite artists - just individual works I chose from those available. It was exciting and strange for example to place an Andy Warhol Electric Chair, because I could, - to hang next to that, with that etc... … An idea of the significance of context and …re-interpretation - the ongoing life of ‘art’.

October 24, 2008