Raspberry Ice Cream With Fragonard : Katerina Černy In Conversation With Bianca Regl
(Published in “The Distant Shore”, Exhibition Catalogue, Niuchang Museum, Beijing / Translation from German: Masomah Regl & Nicola Puchas)

Katerina ČernyYou are used to living and working in different places and therefore travel lightly – with the exception of your books. Whenever one comes across you, there is always a book that fascinates you at that moment – right now it is the correspondence between the postimpressionists Pierre Bonnard und Édouard Vuillard, and the diaries of Maria Lassnig. In what ways does language relate to painting, in your opinion?

Bianca Regl: Literature is a beautiful, maybe even ideal, companion to painting, I think. I absolutely adore novels. One can learn so much from them; not as much in regard to manners of presentation but from the endless diversity of stylistic possibilities. Novels by Reinhard Jirgl or Antonio Lóbo Antunes, for example, show in a wonderful way how basic colours suddenly condense into ostentatious entanglements; Halldór Laxness’ nature bursts the book cover just as much as Caspar David Friedrich’s nature its gilt frame. Principles of emptiness and mass, grandness of gestures, sophistications, volume – there is so much marvellousness. Close friends have also seen me, however, with greasy, squiggled shilling shockers, which are better wrapped in foil when travelling.

At the end of 2009, an Artist-in-Residence fellowship led you to Beijing. You have a studio there since, and from 2010 you have been running the successful Blackbridge Offspace there, together with the sculptor Anna Hofbauer. How did this come about and what approach do you follow there?

BR: Originally, Blackbridge was meant to be a one-year project to help us get to know the art scene and the methods of artists in Beijing. We also wanted to use it – as we still do today – as an opportunity for us to continue learning, after having completed our academic studies. What is more, we experienced the lack of artist-run spaces at that time as something of a void. We were not alone in that observation, as the enthusiasm, with which Blackbridge-Offspace was received, proved. Our space works with a curated-by strategy. This means that we look for a new artist-curator for each exhibition project who we then accompany in his/ her project. This way we keep a very heterogeneous programme and are still being surprised ourselves. It goes without saying that we try to run the space in the way we as artists would like the ideal setting for presenting our works or those of people we feel close to. This usually includes conversations during the project and symposiums.

You already curated projects, initiated and ran spaces during your studies in Vienna, Berlin and Los Angeles. How do your prior experiences differ from the ones you have made in Beijing?

BR: The biggest difference is probably that I have grown older (laughs)… I refuse to link the differences in experience to different cultural backgrounds, though. However, in Beijing it was beautiful to see how much artists were longing for a platform beyond the markets and for getting in contact with international artists – and then be part of it when the energy was released.

What I learned is that there are plenty of methods of doing art work and that these are more likely related to characters than to places. Moreover, I am primarily a painter who wants to position her works in a meaningful environment, rather than someone seeking different trends in different places at different times. I am interested in how works achieve a relationship to each other and, in the end, also in where my own work can create relations to. In this sense it helps me to compose my exhibitions myself, i.e. to contextualize myself, and also to accompany others in their similar efforts.

You talk about the importance of exchanging with fellow artists for your own artistic work. You attribute the same importance to the engagement with the history of painting. The series “Fold”, for example, is based on parts of paintings by Gerrit Douw, Tintoretto or DaVinci and they show draperies of elaborately patterned brocade fabrics. What do the old masters mean to you and your work?

BR: Without its history, painting would hardly function, I believe. As a painter, it is nice to imagine how one is part of a group of artists in a bar, in a circle of friends and acquaintances of which one likes some very much, some not so much. Of course one appreciates them for different reasons. Some are likeable because they are amusing – to me that is the case with Rembrandt. How he presumes to paint his own portrait again and again, until he gets swallowed up by his own color (laughs)… Some you like just because they know a certain person in the circle better who you are too shy to talk to yourself… like Cézanne Delacroix and he Veronese maybe. One accepts the grumpy old man just because he knows the smart Dandy who could introduce you to the fresh lover of day light one day. Eating raspberry ice cream with old Fragonard is yet another daydream of mine. Or going to the zoo with Jan Brueghel The Younger. The viennese aquarium with Jan van Kessel. With other painters one feels closely connected from the very first moment, as if they were relatives. This can sometimes be pleasing but quite horrible too, at other times.

One way or another, painting is always a dialogue with other painters. To cite them directly seemed quite courageous to me at first, just like touching the Holy Grail. This kind of experience is not taught in central European or American academies; quite the opposite. Suddenly I had to reflect upon what else there is to do if certain problems have already been solved.

You say that being a painter means to be nostalgic.

BR: What I said before reveals it already, I guess. The game designer of today probably does not hang out in a fictional night bar with imaginary ghosts.

In the past few years you have elaborated a new area of motives. Like the series “Fold”, also the series “Fades”, “Untitled (Waterfall)“ or“Untitled (Metallic Midnight)“, in which a full size, partly floral wallpaper pattern emerges, is a new group of works of ornaments.

You work in both a concrete-figurative and anti-mimetic-abstract way. Rosalind E. Krauss says about the raster, which also underlies your “pattern paintings”, that it declares art to an autonomous and self-serving space. Is that true concerning your work? What meaning do the opposite notions of concreteness and abstraction have for you?

BR: These are terms that seem to be very clear to everybody except me. If I got it right, the two are merely separated by the fine line of the Rorschach question: “What can I still make out?” I always perceive the space between the stretcher bars as being autonomous. 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 with which e.g. 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 was astonished myself about how hard it was to push through to myself and others that various stylistic solutions may exist as parallels in my work. But that is exactly the point: they run parallel to each other, not in opposing directions.

The arabesques of Matisse are called the synthetic style period at times – I prefer that.

In “Atheist Sky”, we see skies with clouds dramatically banking up in the sunset and sunbeams breaking th- rough them. The paintings have an inner light and seem like the materi- alisation of fleeting moments of over- whelming beauty. That inner light can be found in later series like “Untitled (Sapphire Wallpaper)”, “Forest Study” or “Untitled (Cloudy Azure)”. One could say it is characteristic for your paintings. What has influenced your handling with light and colour?

BR: Every painter will realise at some point that there is a need for developing an understanding for the functions of the colour in a picture.

Bridget Riley once wrote in an essay about relational colour in Titians “L’Assunta” that it was a true epiphany. Thats something which has stayed in my mind ever since – to be able to handle a colour in a painting in a way that one can carry it to every place, to make it function in the whole painting. And to still achieve the entire chromatic span. Or, the other way round: to arrange a painting in a way that one can add the vibrant turquoise at the end and not lose the harmony.

The light is more inherent, I suppose. It was also my first spoken word as a child: Light. Besides, I like it when it glitters.

Let us talk about your methods. What are your methods of pictorial invention and colour composition? How would you describe your work in the studio?

BR: The next picture often arises from the previous one. I have always dealt with the old, big topics of painting: still life, portraits, a few landscapes. Painting for me, however, is most likely about the tension between surfaces and the solutions for those surfaces. In the past years I have tried to concentrate on that tension and blind out other contents.

Oil colour is the material I predominantly surround myself with in the studio. I have developed a schematic approach to set the palette. Thereby, I try to build up a spectrum of tonal values in which each value contains a part of each colour. This has emerged from the paintings with a monochromatic background. The background has ideally always been the sum of the parts, so to speak. Now I try to bring that into each colour of the painting. This is why mixing colours has become the decisive part of the work on a painting.

Oil colour as a material has a wonderfully sensual part, but naturally it immediately turns into vicious gutter as soon as one indulges in it. One cannot go scot-free like after having put one’s index finger into cake dough.

Its real greatness, however, lies in its variability – I am realizing only slowly the entire scale of it. I feel sorry for the painters who treat oil colour in the ever same way – I think that does not do justice to it.

My work in the studio is different every day, so I find it hard to describe it. Each moment has its own state of mood.

What is the essence of painting?

BR: I try to create something beautiful. I know that one is immediately getting a rap on the knuckles for saying that nowadays, with the reproachful comment that one would paint for the market. And to take one’s own environment in as an aesthetic phenomenon is the definition of kitsch, according to Susan Sontag. It doesn’t change anything.

For me, the greatness in Velazquez, for instance, lies not in the meaning of a monk reading a book but rather in the joy of the painter when he works the pages of that book. The fluttering of a lace collar, the brief shimmer of a pearl, the trembling of a curl of hair, all of it carried out with utmost conviction – these are the reasons why I love painting. Erotics, I suppose.

The essence, however, is most likely captured by a sentence in a letter from Seurat to Signac after he had finished La Grande Jatte and which is also cited by Riley: “Don’t understand anything anymore. All is daub – exhausting work.” One continues, nonetheless. Painting does not follow any rules that life would not follow too. Unfortunately, it is very autonomous and not much interested in obeying. Like the defecting husband, I am afraid. There is a constant feeling of having to wear make up, so he doesnt run away.