Katerina Černy in conversation with Bianca Regl

KČ: You work in both a concrete-figurative and anti-mimetic-abstract way. What meaning do the opposite notions of concreteness and abstraction have for you? For many painters, these artistic approaches are still mutually exclusive. Why not for you?

BR: These are terms that seem to be very clear to everybody except me. If I’ve got it right, the two are merely separated by the fine line of the Rorschach question: “What can I still make out?”

There has also been, somehow, a coalescence of those two things in my practice—parts of the one flowing into the other and vice versa. Probably I don’t think too much about terms and notions while working. What I do think about are ways of looking at a problem, such as how François Jullien describes Chinese painting: “In the descriptive way, it loses momentum. What will remain of the horse, of his flow of forces? At the same time, if there is no coat and no riding crop, there will be no horse left.”

I have never viewed painting as a way to get a clear message across. On the contrary, I believe that one of painting’s greatest strengths is its innate power to stay open to all kinds of interpretations—ways to be looked at, ways to be worked with. I do value this ambiguity, not only because it is hard to find elsewhere but also because it seems to me to be a disappearing quality.

KČ: Studying the Old Masters has always been a natural part of your practice. This is also reflected, for example, in a group of paintings in the Setting / Rising (Movers) series based on sculptures by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

BR: As a kid, for a big part, I grew up on a farm, quite the serene, hard-working environment, with no other kids my age. It was all dried-up Jesus figures in corners, and coarse cast iron worked with heavy tools by big hands. Laminate floors and thick ceramics, the smell of animals. A whiff of an uncomfortable past in the air. Käthe Kollwitz and Werner Berg, muted browns and all the other earthy colors.

I have never gotten over the shock of visiting the Viennese Kunsthistorisches Museum for the first time. It is a mostly baroque collection, endless Rubens, Frans Hals, Velázquez, a great Vermeer. All the Italians. Star parquets and uncountable kinds of marble clashing against each other—money and power and leisure, I suppose, no earthly toil. It has stayed with me, though; there is an erotically charged joy there somewhere (so blatantly absent in the rosary-reciting depths of the Upper Austrian hinterland) that I have tried to absorb.

Bernini, of course, is the distilled quintessence of this sort of—well, let’s call it electricity. He also has this obsession with movement (obviously even harder to capture in his medium than mine), which came in handy for the recent series.

KČ: In a group of works that are part of the Setting / Rising (Movers) series, you refer to the movement study Woman Throwing a Shawl on Her, by photographer Eadweard Muybridge. You borrow your figurative positions partly from photographs, but also from sculpture, as in the Bernini group. Interestingly, there are many parallels to Francis Bacon’s way of working here, and formally I see a certain closeness to your current work. Did you deliberately look for them?

BR: In this particular case, I didn’t. Muybridge somehow came from Bernini, all very natural and basic since movement is what made it possible for me to paint the figure again. Then I had this stupid moment in the studio when I suddenly got a weird feeling that something was related to something else, and suddenly it became clear that, of course, it was Bacon. I hadn’t looked at him in years, but somehow it seems he had been there all along, hovering. It was like that recognition of a certain brand of icecream you loved as a child. I am glad he resurfaced for me, though; I think I had quite forgotten what a spectacular colorist he is.

KČ: You work in conceptual series. Your way of working seems quite structured and planned. How do you choose your formats?

BR: It makes a difference if you work from your fingertips, your hand, your shoulder, the entirety of your body. Since all my painting is wet-in-wet, and time is limited, the pressure builds with the size. It also makes a difference if you can see the edge of your painting when standing in front of it, or if you lose your horizon, so to say. Oddly enough, though, I don’t have an actual preference. I enjoy the adrenaline rush of a big canvas just as much as the intimacy of a small frame.

KČ: A defining element in some recent series is the arch that surrounds the figures. What is the meaning of this arch?

BR: Well, I do concern myself with beauty, and haptics, and surface, in my painting. At times I find all this difficult, since that kind of language or approach is often reserved for commercials or such things—somebody trying to sell something (like it was with the Old Masters, really)—and we have learned to be wary of objectification. So in the most recent figurative work, I am trying to introduce ways to address and work around this. Using this abstract gesture, this sort of trace—or what you call the arch—is supposed to help my figures move from being (passive) objects to (active) subjects.

KČ: Ostensibly, your paintings radiate a certain harmlessness. On closer inspection, however, one is seized by a subliminal feeling of anxiety, triggered by dark associations. The still life with pomegranate (Passion Fruit, 2017) suddenly turns into a battlefield. The fruit juice turns into blood, the broken fruit into a mutilated human body. An orgy of violence full of lust and sensuality in the fruit bowl. Would you agree with that?

BR: I do prefer to find violence in harmlessness than harmlessness in violence.

KČ: What do the terms freedom and volition mean to you in relation to your painting?

BR: Ha! Freedom is a difficult, and transient, and abused term. I think language actually might be more misleading than images. Anyhow, in my relationship to painting, I don’t ask for things from my work. I just try to be there, painting. Surely if you start a canvas thinking, oh, I am now going to be all relaxed, free, unforceful, and in a wonderful mood—well, I guess that’s like wearing your Sunday best on a blind date. Not a lot of good stories start like that.

KČ: Art history from a female perspective is a young discipline. For centuries it was the privilege of men to depict women. The male gaze determined female representation. What does that mean for you as a young painter of the 21st century?

BR: Marlene Dumas once said that she had learned more from art history than from being a woman, and I feel the same way, mostly. I cannot honestly claim that I understand the male gaze, or anybody else’s gaze other than mine, for that matter. But I can let myself enjoy looking at Bonnard (for example) looking at a woman. The past cannot be changed, and this is a very complicated question with no simple answer. In any case, I don’t think I have to deal exclusively with the politics of the body just because I am a female painter.

KČ: In some of your work I feel the relentlessness of your gaze; it penetrates and fixes. The object cannot escape you; you watch it and capture it on the canvas as if it were completely at your mercy.

BR: I am a surrepetitive painter, and for me painting is about looking. I believe the painter should be a voyeur, fixing the eyes on something for longer than anybody else. I stare in subways. I stare at fruit. I do a lot of staring. Somehow my memory cling-wraps to forms and colors, rather than anything else. Hannah Arendt said that decay is a process of crystallization, and I think this is true not only in the physical world but especially as it concerns remembrance. Fragments of memories lurking in the sea becoming diamonds sitting on velvet cushions.