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Interview with London artist Dragica Janketic Carlin

Dragica (pronounced "Drag-ee-ta") Janketic-Carlin is a Croatian painter who lives and works in London. I was fortunate enough to visit her studio in Hackney a few weeks ago, and record a long interview about her life and her work, surrounded by her large abstract paintings. What follows, though long for a blog post, is an edited version of the transcript.

PH: How would you describe your work?

DJC: It’s about creating the texture and trying to create the space by minimal means and getting into the perspective of the colours. It’s about movement and application of paint. That relationship between mark making and colour makes the painting alive and vibrant.

PH: The first thing I notice when I look at all of your work is the gesture, of the hand, the arm, the wrist. That seems to be the basis of all the paintings.

DJC: Yes that’s right. I like to get physically involved in my work. It’s almost like a performance when I paint. The moment I get equilibrium between my mind and my hand, I know I can produce things. It takes a long time to mix the paints, to prepare the surface and work on my state of mind, but then the execution of my ideas is very quick. I don’t spend a long time making the work. Each and every one of those paintings is the product of ten or fifteen hours, so each is finished almost in one breath, but the preparation maybe took three, four, five weeks. I work on loads of little studies and I try to plan my paintings, so it’s like building your mind, searching for the painting within your own process, then you come up to something that reflects the intensity of your mind. That’s how painting works for me. It’s equally about understanding the inheritance of visual language that we have, but at the same time being brave enough to allow yourself the freedom to play and experiment and find new possibilities in work.

PH: The miniatures, as you call them on your website, are those the first drafts, the trial runs for some of these paintings?

DJC: Yes. For example these <takes out some small studies> are experiments for colours and different textures. Working on a smaller size is more intimate. You have a different state of mind when you work on a larger painting compared to a smaller painting, so this helps me work on my focus. When I work on a smaller scale, it’s not as frightening to build up the space. Not that I’m frightened by a large painting, you know, but it’s just a different vision. Like looking through a little hole and seeing what’s on the other side of the door, as opposed to if you actually opened the door.

PH: So how do you arrive at these colour combinations and balances?

DJC: I like to experiment with all different colours. I have different dynamics for different times of the year. I think it’s a very intuitive process. People tell me that green is a very awkward colour to work with because it suggests organic things, landscapes, and so on. Whereas I can show you a painting now that has lots of green in it and yet there’s nothing organic about it. Again I like to change those temperatures and metaphors that certain colours have and put them in a different context. I’m very interested in making the painting alive just by the combination of colours I use.

"Roman Wall Series" - photograph
PH: You also take lots of photos, too.

DJC: Yes, I take pictures of things that I collect from my everyday physical reality. I get to see different textures on walls, buildings, streets, in relation to the colours. On good days certain colours come out better than on other days. These will be things that I would collect and come in here and try to convert into my work.

PH: Is there a direct relation between the photos and the work or is it more ambiguous than that?

DJC: The connection would be in the colours. Then the awkwardness of this photo, it looks like a body …

PH: Yes, like ripped flesh!

DJC: Then some of them are more … look how fluid that is. This is another relationship I’m interested in: changing the properties by making the brush marks different, the movement, making something fluid in a static form, in order to challenge our perceptions.

PH: This reminds me of something I saw on your website where you spoke about developing your visual language. Explain a bit more about how you think your visual language has developed.

DJC: I think it’s always in a flux. Each painting is a statement of particular awareness that I reached, or a combination of elements that I’ve gathered, and each new painting is about something else. It’s ongoing. I don’t think I could every come to the point where I think,  Now I’ve created a particular kind of language, and I’m comfortable with that, and now I’m going to create a series of paintings in relation to that. Maybe that’s possible, but in every picture I like to introduce something new. My little studies, if you put them together they might look repetitive, but each one, each gesture and brush mark in them is different. And that’s what’s exciting about painting, getting the new combination of elements in connection to colours and the space and gesture. These paintings over here are quite dramatic, but I wouldn’t necessarily show all these paintings in the same space at once. 

PH: Are you only aware of the common patterns in your work when you’re collecting them together for a show?

DJC: Yes. I have about maybe ten paintings that I’ve been making consciously so I could have them in the same space. I think there’s a really beautiful story going on.

PH: It’s interesting that you used the word “story” I relation to abstract painting.

DJC: There’s always a story. It’s not a problem for me. Abstract painting for me has been the most natural thing in the world. The moment I made an abstract mark, that was it.

PH: At the same time you talk about making the viewer aware of “the transcendental nature of objects”, and of “creating order from the chaos of boundless possibilities.” So abstract art is a way of creating order as well as ambiguity, for you.

DJC: Absolutely. Recognizing the abstraction, bringing it to the studio, thinking about it, trying to connect to it with my concept of life, what I’ve inherited intellectually, the process of my mind: that’s what I do, that’s what my painting is about, or what I’d like my painting to be about.

PH: Your work is also very beautiful.

DJC: Thank you. I don’t know how you feel when you create your small drawings or your sculptures, but I think we do have a relationship with our work. It is about how you feel, what certain colours reflect for you.

PH: And it’s also the brush – you seem to have a relationship with the marks made by a brush. 

DJC: Yes. I love my brushes. They are very important.

PH: Do you have lots of brushes?

DJC: Yes, lots of different types <going to a work table>.

PH: That’s a four inch brush, a six inch. That’s a ten inch brush.

DJC: Some of these are ten years old, believe it or not.

PH: Do you have a favourite brush?

DJC: They’re all my favourites <laughs>. I just need them for different things at different times.

PH: And is it always oil paint for you, never acrylic?

DJC: I used to use acrylic but for the type of work I do, I like the flexibility of oils. You have a longer drying time, but also the tonality of paint you can reach in oil colours is incomparably different to acrylics. And always with every new painting I discover a new colour. That’s very important for me.

"Manifestation", oil on canvas, 2009
PH: So abstract art for you is not a method, a theory, a science, it’s a form of personal expression.

DJC: I’m not an art historian, so maybe there is a theory to abstract art, but to me it’s the most natural thing in the world. That’s how I see things, that’s how I’ve been making work for the last twenty years. I would find other things more theoretical than this, because I can’t be objective about abstract  painting – it’s all I know.

PH: Where did you go to art school?

DJC: Chelsea Art School.

PH: Did you move from Croatia as a child?

DJC: No, I came specifically to go to art school. I came over when I was 18 for just a couple of months, and I met this guy, a sculptor, who was talking about going to art school. I spent most of the time in his studio, making things myself, so I applied to art school, too, and I got a place. Going back home after that was a no-no, I just wanted to stay here and make art and get on with things. And after I finished my MA , I found a studio, I fell in love, I got involved in work, exhibitions. I never intended to stay in London: it’s just that one thing led to another, then fifteen years later, I realized that London is home.

PH: There’s a big debate in the US at the moment about whether art school is worthwhile. I went to art school, you went to art school, so what would you say to that?

DJC: I loved going to art school. I could spend my entire life at art school! The reason I say that is because you learn not how to make work, but how to think. That’s a priceless experience. Never in your life will you find people who will pay so much attention to you. To make you question yourself, to help you find your own process of thoughts, to encourage you in that. For example, one time I was working forever on a painting and I needed more space so I kept adding paper to the picture, making the space bigger and bigger. And my tutor came by and he said: “Dragica! Come over here!” And he literally dragged me by the arm to the storage space and gave me a ten feet by eight feet canvas, and it was absolutely a major discovery for me. I’ve never looked back since then. I just knew painting would be the thing I would spend most time thinking about. To come to the idea of making a large work as a student was quite frightening, but that tutor gave me the confidence I needed, because he thought it would be a good size to work on. I also remember trying to create this fluid mark, using lots of raw materials, and going completely spare day after day. And I had another tutor say to me: Now Dragica think about what you’re doing. You can’t make water float in the air if you have a container, can you? And she walked off. And just that basic simple comment made me switch my process. She must have observed me for days before she lost the plot and stepped in. And that’s why art school is valuable, because you get encouragement and you learn to think. And you learnt to be self critical, which is very important if you are making art.

Click image to display larger version
PH: So you’re still self critical even now?

DJC: All the time.

PH: How does that come out – in erasing, reworking?

DJC: Not everything works out and you have to be brave enough to say, I’ve really messed this painting up. The more you work, the more you reach creative maturity, and now I know how not to mess things up. But things happen, and you have to see that. If something is not working out you have to see it, be self critical, and move on to something else.

PH: Does that still happen a lot to you?

DJC: Less and less, I’m proud to say, but it does happen. I think that some paintings are more successful than others. That’s true for any artists, or writers, or whatever you’re doing.

PH: So how have you survived as an artist since leaving art school?

DJC: Well, I show my work in group and solo exhibitions. I show wherever I can, I organize my own spaces. I enter competitions, apply for residencies. I also run workshops, teach people how to paint, all sorts of things. But I always fit those things around my studio time. Most artists in London, whether they have great galleries representing them or not, they still do other things, because these days not all work is sellable. Fame and money and so on can be a consequence of the work, but should never be the prime reason for making it. It’s not sustainable. You don’t make work just to make it acceptable to people, you make work because you need to. You live, you see the world around you, then you come to your studio and try to introduce a different perspective to life. For me that’s a fundamental reason.

PH: Have you ever thought of not being an artist?

DJC: No, this is what I have to do. It’s the most natural thing in the world for me to be. If I was any good at anything else I would probably choose to do that, but I can’t, so … <laughs>

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  1. I found London artist as talented, professional, creative and passionate.


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