BIANCA REGL IN CONVERSATION WITH JAMES KRONE
James Krone: What initially brought you to painting?
Bianca Regl; My first attractions were to people like Schiele, Alfred Kubin, Werner Berg but there wasn’t any real dissection there. It was as if they had always been there. The first paintings I saw that revealed a possible interaction I could have with painting were those of Maria Lassnig, Eric Fischl, some others. Mostly, it was the first time that it occured to me that a painting isn’t an absolute object. It was where I began to understand a painting as a conscious series of movements.
JK: And then you were a student of both Ursula Hübner and Hubert Schmalix, who were both students of Lassnig. There’s a strong iconographic tendency in a lot of the work of the painters you mention. It makes sense to me when I think about or look at your work.
BR: The way Hubert was working when I met him (at the Vienna Arts Academy) included a certain sense of the iconic which is also evident in my work. At the same time I’m very conscious that when I’m painting that all I am handling is sticky, colored dirt.
JK: Which is kind of a modernist concept of plasticity.
BR: I am a child of my times.
JK: There seems to be a certain sense of locality or outsider mentality in your work and with the work of other painters from Austria with whom you associate your work to a greater or lesser degree. By outsider I don’t mean outsider art but Austria seems to have a more private sense of itself than the more open transmission that seems to take place between other European countries. Or I guess what I mean is that it doesn’t seem particularly concerned with zeitgeist. My experiences in LA or London have been quite different concerning the artists I know in those places.
BR: When I was in LA i realized that I was more interested in painting than I was in art, to a certain degree. I’d be more interested in thinking about how to paint a portrait of a couple, for example, and what that means and how it has been done, than figuring out how to use paint to deal with problems, culturally or as some sort of inner turmoil. I think that in Austria there is a certain fear about not having this type of content or subject, a guilt. I don’t have this guilt.
JK: What changed for you or changed your ideas about making work when you left Vienna?
BR: In Vienna I was very much immersed within a group where the basis for working was self understood. This wasn’t the case so much in Los Angeles. My position was much more isolated there and having that distance was really good. It was somewhat natural, pulling away from local experience, which allowed me to realize things about my painting that before seemed matter of fact.
JK: I’d like to talk a little about your Friday paintings, because they seem to be a kind of portal into the way you make paintings now.
BR: It started out as an excuse or a reason to get all of those different people I knew together in this kind of different social space.
JK: Like an artificial environment or a kind of theatre?
BR: Yes. Some of them were comfortable in this setting and some were not and it was just very interesting to me at the time to watch the various psychologies unfold as I photographed them under loose direction. A kind of controlled spontaneity.
JK: Do you miss the spontaneity of those meeting?
BR: I do but my life has changed a lot since those paintings and I’ve been exposed to less solid surroundings. Those paintings were very much about taking people who were major elements of my daily life an putting that into an irregular context. Besides, at the end of the day I’d be alone with the photographs from these meetings and it became increasingly difficult to have a narrative. When I saw what the Leipzig painters were doing, it seemed that they were pushing this thing, which I was just beginning, to its logical conclusion. I lost interest in narratives. Narratives work better in movies.
JK: Does it bother you when people project narratives onto your work?
BR: I think people who look at painting are losing the tendency to do that. Even text seems to be disappearing from the art books. I just don’t think that painting is a medium for transmitting entirely succinct, linear thoughts from the painter to the viewer. Unless it’s illustration, it’s really not possible.
JK: But something else gets transmitted. I guess it’s a question of how literal your goal of communication is. If nothing else, the Friday paintings seem to have developed a standard of working for you in terms of creating these scenarios to make photographs as a source of subject to paint. It’s a very different decision than gathering images from a public realm, the internet and such.
BR: The setup now is clear to me. I have a greater idea of what I want and that comes from seeing what I was consistently drawn to from the photographs, regardless of what they were of.
JK: The images do refer to an aspect of collective consciousness. Maybe it has to do with the kind of photographic cropping you use for your compositions but it is also in some of your subjects. The swimmers for instance, have a certain cinematic feel to them. Maybe they are like advertisements or fashion photographs that never made it to print, but they seem to use this reference to visual familiarity. I think of Warhol’s paintings from the mid-sixties and how they illuminated the strangeness of certain quotidian visuua generalizations by making them actual iconc emblems. It’s as if you push the clichéd image of the desired mannequin floating in space to a point that only truly resides in the mind. Because the motifs are familiar but the exact images have never been seen, they at once have this sort of contradiction of cliché and mystery to them.
BR: It has to do with the space between being, or the belief that one is, entirely familiar with an image of something and then seeing it in a different, unexpected way. Returning the gravity to the recollection.
JK: The layer of colored gesso you use to begin every painting is interesting to me. It seems to act as either an infinite space or as an elimination of deep space, sometimes both, a space or a plane, depending upon the painting, the color of the gesso.
BR: The gesso allows me to add light to the surface instead of adding what appears to be shadow.
JK: So it’s sort of an old master technique laid bare?
BR: Yes but it is also important to me thematically in my paintings that the light is painted. A sort of liquid light. Ursula Huebner used colored gesso to give her work a certain melancholic tone she thought was otherwise unachievable.
JK: De Kooning talked about trying to make his paintings have an interior light and spoke of his admiration for Soutine’s paintings for having this quality of a light inside. What you’re saying reminds me of this but at the same time there is a density of paint in those pictures where an inside can be quite a physical literal place whereas in your paintings the light or the image is always upon the gesso. There is not an inside or an immersion into or under this space.
BR: I’ve had people tell me that they really love the way I painted the water in a certain painting of a swimmer but there is no water. It is a space they can project into visually. If it was white there would be nothing there. The painting can be very dense but there will still be a moment of calm or openness. If the whole painting was made out of these very intentional brushstrokes they would cancel each other. The gesso is quieting.
JK: It works more as a suggestion than a description?
BR: It’s amazing what you can suggest with a single brush stroke. Every mark sets a direction for a form and often thats all you need, is one or two marks. It has a lot to do with the way I work. A lot of painters keep painting on top of all of the moves they have made and eventually they get what they wanted on top of a whole series of paintings and they call it a painting. The way I work within a series, the paintings are very closely connected. They become a study of a singular way of seeing one thing, one moment basically. I don’t paint over paintings. If anything the entire body of work from a single series is sort of like a single painting. When I start the next series, it’s like starting the next painting.
JK: You are like a handful of painters I know who really can’t seem to spend more than two days, at the most, on a single painting.
BR: Dry paint feels dead to me when I try to paint on it. It’s like a blank canvas but ruined. It’s painting around finished information. There’s no reaction. It’s like a cadaver. I’d rather paint the whole painting again than to try to revive it.
JK: Playing with a dead cat.
BR: Rigor mortis.
JK: So this need for flexibility creates a working economy that allows for a certain vitality or lusciousness?
BR: One needs the other. For something to be luscious it must also be focused. When (Gerhard) RIchter paints his landscapes and then negates any point of focus at the end by blurring it, it is to free the painting from being an imitation of an image. I do that at the beginning. I make my cancellations before I begin. In a way its the opposite and in a way it’s the same. He may do this to negate a point of focus while I make cancellations to illuminate a certain point of focus, but both methods are utilized to make the painting an entirety, to separate it from it’s source.
JK: I want to talk about kitsch a little bit as it’s a word I’ve heard you throw around concerning your work or peoples description of your work. What’s the difference to you between using kitsch as a resource and making kitsch?
BR: People are put off by the actual presence of kitsch but still want to enjoy it so there has been this line invented, which I don’t necessarily believe in, to accomodate this desire.
JK: Kitsch as a type of pornography consisting of otherwise non-sexual objects?
BR: Exactly. It’s better for it to be in a drawer. It’s kind of sad. These little porcelain figures for the sexless. Little girls and old ladies.
JK: I guess I think of kitsch as something that was made with the intentions of having some sort of presence of power or beauty and the effort didn’t work out so well. Or that the qualities it ended up having relegated to object to a kind of cuteness or domestic prettiness. I think I learned about kitsch, or how it’s generally defined, as an effect of Catholic idols and decor.
BR: Growing up Catholic you aren’t taught to see those things as kitsch. The idea of kitsch is subjective. Unless it’s collected ironically, most people wouldn’t name or think of their things as being kitsch. It’s inserted from an exterior point of view. It goes back to the drawer. It’s an issue of class preferences. These things are always considered too embarrassing to be embraced directly by people with educated preferences so they reclassified in a way that gets into the home. The irony acts like a mask so it can get through the door. Isn’t this all a sort of contemporary aesthetics though? The embarrassing desire? Modernism, with a few exceptions, despised kitsch but after pop these things seem to have become a prevalent source of imagery, subject. The high low debate seems ancient to me.
JK: I guess there is an element of romance or romantic desire in your pictures that could be considered kitsch.
BR: The prettiness of the paintings is somewhat kitschy. If there is an aspect of kitsch to them it is that.
JK: And there is the underlying notion that pretty is the anemic sister of beauty. That prettiness is just a surface description. Superficial. Some people seem to enjoy talking about your work as being superficial even in defense of it.
BR: My work isn’t superficial. They’re looking for something they aren’t finding. This isn’t something they’re used to so they get disoriented and feel the need to focus on what isn’t found.
JK: To me the most striking aspect about your work, initially, is the tension between the physicality of the paint and the crystalline moment of the image. At once they have the qualities of gestural expressionism and representational figuration. A kind of Arcimboldoesque play, using expressionist tropes as a foundational tool to create an image. Maybe these appropriations for the sake of their visual qualities create a discomfort for a critic in that they don’t know what to do with their suitcase full of words and references.
BR: I guess I’m far more interested in a mark than the history referred to by a mark. Perhaps that is superficial. I can live with it.
JK: Oscar Wilde once said that people who tried to look beyong the surface of things were shallow and that everything of value is apparent upon it’s surface. Something like that. It might be a bit overstated for effect but there is a kind of healthy truism buried somewhere in that.
BR: I would think so.
JK: Do you see any point in psychologizing the artist from their work? Or analyzing art as a quest for something hidden there?
BR: When a painting goes out into the world the question of authorship ceases to matter, it’s relationship to it’s creator is over and a new relationship with the viewer has begun. Any amount of guessing about the artists motivation is pure speculation and as such, totally uninteresting to me. Is the painter male? Female? Gay? Straight? Does he/she love or hate the subject? The only real experience in art is between the viewer and the work, no back story and no guessing about what the artist meant.
JK: Perhaps this a bit utopian, though. Biography often influences viewer interpretation. Do you think an artist’s motivations should be irrelevant to how their art is received? Why give interviews?
BR: Biography has entertainment value and knowing what an artist’s ideas were can open up ways of seeing their work but to limit one’s interpretation is to limit the potential readings for the piece. There’s a very natural tendency to want to do this, but I’m suspicious of that process. I think we run the risk of oversimplifying and stereotyping the artist. As for an artist’s motivations, it is not possible to know, and that’s the beauty of the process. I can look at a painting I’ve just made and take a guess about how it came into being and what that might imply about me, but that’s no more or less interesting than what anyone else might have to say about the image. There are literally millions of little decisions that are made between the initial thought and the finished piece and I can’t make a coherent verbal argument for most of them. What I wind up with with is a thing that exists outside the realm of language, that has the possibility to communicate with anyone that might cross its path and so there’s no reading that’s more correct than any other. Having said that, a good art writer is capable of pointing out meaning that even the artist might not have been aware of.
JK: Do you have a problem with an artist advocating specific readings of their work? Do you have a hierarchy or value system for the readings or the reader?
BR: I’m happy to talk about process and the things I’m interested in, but to me the most exciting thoughts about a painting are those that I haven’t been able to articulate myself. Since omnipotence is not possible, there will always be ways to read a painting that I could never have thought of. Because a painting is likely to remain more or less the same over hundreds of years while everything around it changes we can’t expect any one meaning or reading of the piece to remain relevant.
JK: In a sense your paintings evoke a kind of vanitas or maybe a vanishing. The kind of breaking down of things as they pass through time. If the painting might last for a few hundred years longer than the subject, the entropy of the subject is memorialized. It’s and odd contrast between violence and preservation. A kind of supportive rather than a destructive violence.
BR: It’s also a reflection of of the way people see. You see the same certain faces over and over again. The mental images of them feel irrevocable but when you try to picture it in your mind, it’s somehow incomplete or distorted. When I paint somebody and the focus is entirely on the corner of their mouth you could say this is somewhat violent in that it’s exclusive. When a person is confronted with a face they see enough to recognize it and then the mind fills in the rest so that the eye believes it has seen what it hasn’t. It’s the way we see, convenient perhaps or maybe the complete knowledge of another person’s face is just too much to handle mentally. Anyhow, I believe that these same violent cuts are included in the most common daily occurences of seeing.
JK: It’s hard to believe in the idea of a whole. This seems to inform your ambivalence towards the pertinence of your subjects.
BR: I’m definitely not indifferent to the subject. It’s just that there is only so much you can know or need to know about that when you’re taken to things instinctively. I can tell you why I prefer a cherry to a pencil. But when it comes to a spoon and a pencil it becomes foggier. For me the spoon still has a point of departure from it’s function in that it can be hot or cold or you imagine the feelings of metal against your teeth versus plastic, the reflective qualities of it’s surface. A pencil, it’s hard for me to see it as anything other than something you pick up to write something and it sticks in my mind, I want to know how it works. I work it over until it becomes apparent to me and once it has, I lose interest. It’s finished. The act of painting is always more interesting to me than the thing itself but at this point I still rely on that thing as a vehicle to make the painting. I don’t need to know why I am not interested in certain things.
JK: It sounds like catching fireflies. Or putting a magnifying glass on an ant and moving on after it’s been turned to ash.
BR: I don’t think there’s that much of an imbalance of power. I was recently reading about the Chernoby disaster again and at one point three men dove into the water basin beneath the reactor which acted as a kind of radiator coolant. Anyhow, the water had already been heavily radiated and was continuing to cycle back through the system. On man had an idea where the drain valve was located, one was strong enough to open it and the other had a torch. The torch immediately went out but the other two men swam down into this basin in total darkness, holding their breath and tapping on the walls in search of this drain. With painting it’s even worse because you’re doing this even though you know that there isn’t a drain.
JK: Franz Kline said that painting was like having your hands stuck in a mattress.
BR: You should put that in there.
JK: I did. How do you look at other art? Is it all related to the way you look at objects?
BR: Well obviously I’m drawn to work that reminds me of my own. It changes, though, the longer one makes work.
JK: In the sense that the initial awe one has for an artist or a certain body of work begins to dissipate once you’re familiar enough with the context to see the seams?
BR: That and I find myself being drawn to things that help me understand my own work.
JK: At some point it just happened that most of my favorite artists became the people I am closest to. That kind of access can be myopic in a way but it also creates this kind of field intimacy, in the way I think about art. I know you have a handful of colleagues whose movements you are constantly following like Iv Toshain and Adam Bota. What does your work share with theirs that makes you feel this sort of connection?
BR: I don’t really know that there is a connection in the sense of community so much that these are just people who share the same problems I have.
JK: So it’s a bit more like Alcoholics Anonymous?
JK: The work is ultimatively the catalyst for identification?
BR: Mostly the work. I generally see the work of people I know and have a more intimate sense of how they make decisions.
JK: What is it about their work that you relate to?
BR: Sensibility. They’re young too so it’s not like dealing with an entire body of work but a developing line. You can see where it’s going.
JK: I can see your correlation to Iv (Toshain) or Ursula (Huebner). Just the way that you all seem to have a genuine fascination with the physical qualities of paint and then the somewhat irreverent decisions that counter the traditional treatment of technique from which you seem to come from.
BR: Those things are true. When I met Iv she was starting to get interested in kitsch and now she’s turned these elements into a kind of totem or avatar of kitsch that is more about monstrosity. That development has been intriguing to follow. I learned a lot about the idea of single space from Ursula, particularly when I was working on my miniatures. She has a profound understanding of this. Her paintings are so strong at suggesting a believable space, physically, even if it’s a psychological ghost or a kind of fictional architecture. It’s as real as any other kind of space. She used to paint her neighbors appartement through cracks in the floor or the walls. You could only make out this indiscernible glimpse, a mosaic of unfocussed color, but it formed a very convincing place.
JK: It’s a bit harder for me to see a link between your work and Adam’s (Bota) other than very basic things like scale and the fact that you both paint figurative paintings.
BR: With Adam, we’ve ended up going in very different directions. When we met we shared very similar ideas of what a painting was about in the sense that we both believed it to be a matter of making marks, literally. We were looking at similar things, meat and bodies, and probably treating those things the same way based on this shared belief. We were both interested in the same painters like Michael Borremans and Jenny Saville. For him though the world isn’t so covered in gelatin. We’ve moved off in very different directions now. Nowadays, I think he’s following post war Hungarian painters and I’m more intrigued with work like Marylin Minter’s.
JK: You have a sort of brief but well documented career and now that we’re talking about time it makes me curious as to how you’ll receive the notion that people will soon stop referring to you as “young” as a definitive adject as an artist.
BR: Yeah, well. In a way I can really not wait for that to happen. Very often I feel like people find it hard to look at my painting without wondering what they are the basis for, and right now it seems like this is slowly changing, just like the work.
I have only painted for four or five years now, and so far you can really not regard everything I have done as much more than building a foundation I guess. To my own surprise I Iiked growing up much more than I ever thought I would, and the same is true for painting. It makes much more sense to move around with your own set of tools than having to invent them.