Thursday, December 29, 2011

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

In the Studio: Day 79

I was really hoping that I would get 100 full days in the studio this year, but evidently could only make 79. I did lots of art-related activity outside the studio, of course: the Lucerne Project; the Urbana public art project; writing for Hyperallergic; writing this blog.

Anyway, on my last studio of 2011, I started adding some of those acrylic collage shapes (dots, in this case) to a drawing/painting on paper that was a mixture of watercolour, acrylic paint, and airbrush pigment:

Nice, n'est ce pas? Let's see if I can make my mind up about all this in 2012.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Praeterita Interviewees Interactive Map

View Praeterita Interviewees in a larger map

Here is a Google Map that I've created, showing the locations of all the artists and writers I've interviewed on this blog in the last two years. Each push-pin locator also has a link to that person's interview.

I intend to add other things to this map, starting with photos of the artists' work.

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Monday, December 26, 2011

A Place, a Person, a Name

I was going through a folder of photos that I took during a summer that I spent in Prague in 2007, when this one caught my eye. Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, with its medieval castles, old monasteries, maze-like central streets with no logical pattern to them, churches with eastern-looking onion domes, red-tiled roofs that spread out like a sea of terracotta when seen from above. Maybe I took this picture because it didn’t fit with that mental image I have of Prague, because it’s so ordinary, untidy, even dirty. On its own, it could stand as a suitable alternative to the picture-postcard view of the ancient city. If you look closely, you can see laundry hanging from windows, and weeds growing up between the cobblestones in the yard. It was the middle of the day, but the young woman lounging on the chair has the look of someone who has been sitting there for a while, with nothing to do. Maybe she had many days like this, to go by the look in her eyes. The chair she is sitting on looks like it’s seen better days, and her clothes look cheap, perhaps bought from one of the bargain stalls run by the many Vietnamese immigrants in the Czech Republic. There’s nothing really remarkable about the photo at all, except perhaps as a study in the average, the banal.

Now let me tell you where it was taken, and see whether it changes the meaning of the picture.

I took it when I was in Theresien.

Theresien is the prison camp north of Prague that the Nazis used as a staging post for prisoners, mostly Jews, who were being shipped east to the death camps in Poland. What we now call ‘Theresien' comprises an old stone fortress, in 50,000 people were penned together in tiny barracks and cells that were only designed to house 7,000; and the ‘new’ fortress, a mile north, which the Nazis used for an exercise in monstrous, cynical theatre. Within its walls was a small town, with plain but pleasant stucco-covered buildings from the early nineteenth century, a central square with a town hall, and cobbled streets. Richer, more educated Jews were kept here, and families with lots of children. The Gestapo invited the Red Cross to visit this small town to demonstrate how humanely they were treating their Jewish guests. See how well they live! There is a school for the children, an orchestra for the adults, reading circles, kitchens. They are so healthy that they will even play a soccer game for you (you can see all this on the propaganda film in the museum). And then, once the Red Cross left, almost every man, woman, and child who lived there was eventually transported to Auschwitz to be murdered.

Look again at the photo I took. 

The camera was dangling at my side. I had just left the museum, where I had learned all those facts I described above. I had watched the films, read the letters, pondered the heart-breaking drawings of the children. As I walked along the street, I passed the archway, glanced to my right, and noticed the young woman in the courtyard. Until I saw her, it simply did not occur to me that anyone still lived in Theresien. That whole generations of families had passed their lives in those rooms and buildings which had once housed the victims of the Nazi genocide. That people had been born, grown up, gone to school, played in the street, fallen in love, got married, made love, died a natural death, done all the things that happen in the course of an ordinary life – and that they had lived out their lives where thousands of people had been held captive, before being shot, beaten or gassed to death.

I can’t blame the people who were put into this place after 1945. Can you? But I look at this picture again, and I try to imagine what I would do once I found out the history of the place. I might be too poor to move anywhere else, but I can’t imagine being unaffected by this horrific past. I pity that girl in the photo, and anyone else who still lives in Theresienstadt. In a small way, they are still living under the pale shadow of suffering cast by a much greater darkness.

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Friday, December 23, 2011

In the Studio: Day 78

Playing with more dried acrylic collage shapes:

Some time after Christmas, I will probably have a new phone with a camera that's better than 1.5 megapixels.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Student Wrote to Me ...

... and told me something very gratifying to me personally. He said that he took one of the stories that he started writing in the Story in Fiction and Film class that I taught this semester, and turned it into the following fake movie trailer. He shot it last weekend with the help of friends and peers (he's a Film and Video major). His name is Noah Kloor - remember his name when the 2015 Oscars (or thereabouts) come along.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

In the Studio: Day 77

I'm arranging all the acrylic collage shapes into one giant mega-collage, and thinking next about gluing them onto a panel or canvas (click the image to see larger version):

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Interview with artist-writer-artist Lynn Shapiro

Lynn Shapiro with one of her hand-made books
Lynn Shapiro has a fascinating resumé: Juilliard-trained professional dancer, drama coach, writer of fiction, writer of a column for "Dance" magazine, and lately a maker of artist's books. She is also one of my colleagues at Columbia College Chicago, and she is just one of the loveliest people you could ever hope to meet. I started the interview by going back to the beginning of her career.

PH: How did you first become involved with dance?

LS: My father was an avid dancer. In fact the whole family, led by my grandmother, would often play popular records and dance together in the living room after dinner. Their favorites were Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, and various calypso tunes.

I loved dancing with my dad. Every night, when he’d come home from work, before dinner or anything else, we’d play my favorite song, what I called “Fernando’s Hideaway,”  and dance together, my little feet riding on top of his shoes.

He and my mom loved classical music—opera and symphonies mostly, but they had records of all the great ballet music, too, like Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” and “Swan Lake,” Delibes’ “Copelia,” Chopin’s “Les Sylphides,”  Offenbach’s “Gaitee Parisienne,” and Prokofiev’s “Sleeping Beauty.”

Music drove me wild. If music was playing on the phonograph, I couldn’t sit still. The music made pictures for me in my mind, gave me a world of stories I made up and had to act out in movement.  I would dance by myself for hours, living out the drama that music stirred in my body.

Heaven only knows what my parents were thinking when they took me to the ballet for the first time when I was three years old. I know I was completely hooked on dance by then, but so are a lot of little kids. We had to drive for an hour to get to the the Civic Opera House in downtown Chicago. The New York City Ballet used to tour there every year, and that year, my first exposure to ballet on stage, I saw Maria Tallchief dance “The Firebird.” It was a heartbreaking story of a prince who falls in love with an enchanted bird he is hunting. In the middle of it, I cried out, in full voice, “She loves him!” My parents shushed me, but the audience laughed at my passionate outburst. After that, I knew I wanted to be a ballerina when I grew up, and would stop at nothing to reach my goal.

I begged for ballet lessons. Fortunately for me, my mother had read somewhere that children shouldn’t start formal dance training before the age of six, and for good measure, she made me wait until I was eight, when she finally located a competent teacher in the suburbs. From then on, I trained to be a dancer. When I was old enough to take the train to Chicago by myself, I began studying at a professional studio, going every day after school, and Saturdays. That led eventually to New York, Juilliard, The Martha Graham School, and my first professional job dancing in New York, then later in Chicago. I danced professionally for twenty years.

PH: As a writer on dance, what range of dance forms interests you?

LS: I’m most interested in concert dance choreography, whether ballet, modern, jazz, or tap. By concert dance, I’m referring to choreography as an art form and virtuosic dance. Today, there’s so much cross-over of idioms, you see all those forms merging.

PH: What was the process that led you to Columbia College’s Fiction Writing Department?

LS: It was really through theater that I got to Columbia. From the time I could hold a crayon, I had always written—stories, poems, plays. I began journal writing when I was ten, after reading “The Diary of Anne Frank.” By the time I was in high school, I had begun experimenting with text in my dance compositions. Right out of college, early in my dancing career, I had a marvelous opportunity to develop a dance curriculum and teach at The Latin School of Chicago. There I was lucky enough to collaborate on theater productions with the drama teacher, a graduate of Goodman. I choreographed his productions, and then, under his guidance, began writing dance dramas—plays that integrated music, dialogue and dance—for the high school students to perform for the Lower School. They were so well-received, we even toured one of them to several magnet schools in the city.

Latin School led to a teaching job at Goodman School of Drama (now known as The Theatre School, DePaul University) where I taught movement for actors, choreographed productions, and continued writing plays, learning theater craft on the job.

Still dancing, I continued writing for theater, eventually collaborating with The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band to adapt Yiddish folklore to theater. Together, we created seven Klezmer musicals that toured the Chicago area and the Midwest for twelve years, our most popular being “Hershel and The Hanukkah Goblins,” which toured and played annually to sold-out audiences at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. It became sort of the Jewish Nutcracker.

Front left: Lynn Shapiro in the 'Jewish Nutcracker'.
Several of the Equity actors I worked with were involved with Piven Theatre Workshop, so I decided to check it out. At Piven, I studied Story Theater, a form of theater performance that lifts literary fiction directly off the page and gives it legs. Developed by Paul Sills and his mother, Viola Spolin, the originator of “Theater Games,” Story Theater completely captivated my imagination. It was a perfect blend of everything I loved—literature, movement, script, and a style of acting based on impulse, discovery, and visualization.  I found my writing taking off in new directions from the work I did with my teachers, Joyce and Byrne Piven, who had been part of the original Compass Players that spawned both Paul Sills Story Theater and The Second City.

By the time my knees started giving out, and it was clear my dancing days were numbered, writing had become the artistic anchor of my work, and I began looking for a way to develop myself further as a writer, primarily of plays, I thought at the time, but of stories as well.

I didn’t have a graduate degree when I began teaching at Goodman, but twenty years later, I couldn’t expect to resume college teaching without one, so I began looking around for a program that would meet my interests. The Story Workshop Method taught at Columbia’s Fiction Writing Department sounded like the Piven’s approach, and I decided to try Fiction I as a summer course. I felt an immediate artistic home in the department and applied for the graduate program for the following fall semester.  The rest is a continuous wonder and discovery.

PH: What are you working on in your writing?

LS: I’m in the middle of a second draft of a novel, playing around with several new short story starts, and developing an artist’s book version of a story I wrote last spring. In addition, I continue writing for Dance Magazine (link here).

excerpt from 2020 Broadway, a novel in progress
No music. My back is a vine pushing up through earth, penetrating light, a new life being born. My fingertips shoot silver filaments into the air pulling strands of hair, eyes, lips into the light, lifting me up until my limbs unfold into space and reach beyond, infinitely beyond. An extended leg carves a tunnel through opaque light. I enter the tunnel, pelvis first, then ribcage, then shoulders, then head in a glorious backbend, arms and hair trailing behind. My spine snakes upright, the momentum tossing an arm overhead, lingering on suspended breath, I lean into space until my weight gives way, my torso rounds forward. An elbow catches the movement, pulling me the opposite direction onto one leg, off-center, a shoulder, torso, head, wrist, hand, fingers, the other leg extending to the side, higher and higher until my body is stretched like a starfish, touching five distant points in space, and when it can reach no further, snap! Gravity zaps me into a lunge, a plunge, a dive, it would consume me but I use the energy of falling to pick up speed and I’m off! Runrunrun leap! Again! Leaping, falling, gathering breath, a spiral turn, arms whip an invisible lasso around my body, head follows, body arching through space, upside-down, inside-out, the room flies past me, into me, across my eyes, spinning, a twisting evolution of spine and legs, I’m sure, I’m steady, I’m in the center of my center, riding the energy, sweeping the audience into my world. I’m alive! And then, slowly, life begins to ebb. The circles narrow.  Energy wanes, until my body is confined in the small pool of light that began my dance.  My fingers reach up one last time. The light begins to fade, I feel their breath hovering, and for once I’m not alone.

PH: You’ve also begun exploring visual art recently, particularly the artist’s book. What connections do you see, for you personally, between these different art forms of dance, writing, and visual art?

LS: I’ve always enjoyed drawing, especially dance and movement, and I illustrated most of the stories I wrote as a kid, but I never took my drawing seriously. Then, as a faculty member in the Fiction Writing Department, I learned that I could take any course tuition-free, so I took “Journal & Sketchbook” last spring, thinking that would be a fun thing to explore. Little did I expect the creative explosion that has set new work in motion. Keeping a sketch/journal, I discovered that drawing actually requires me to activate physically in the same way that dance does. 
Lynn Shapiro, artist's book
More importantly, my response to stimuli of any kind is first and foremost an impulse to move.  You have to move in order to draw, and I recognized the connection between seeing and internalizing what I saw as a kinesthetic impulse that transferred to the page. That happens when I write as well. Drawing became the glue between writing and dancing, so that whether I was drawing or writing, I was dancing on the page. It was a joy to be able to integrate my impulse to dance with writing and drawing.  Now, I am exploring the seamless flow of visual imagery and text, not “illustration” but a true integration of storytelling through both mediums. The artist’s book is almost like a miniature theatrical set upon which I envision dance and spoken text. That has yet to happen, but it’s certainly a brew I’m stirring.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Happy Birthday, Beethoven

It's the anniversary of Beethoven's birthday today. The local classical station is having a Beethoven day, but so far I haven't heard this, one of my favourite piecse of music: The Kreutzer Sonata (Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major, No, 9). This is the beginning of the second movement, the variations, played by Martha Argerich and Gidon Kremer:

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Tyler Green interviews De Kooning's biographer

The MAN Podcast: Mark Stevens on de Kooning:

On critic Tyler Green's blog, a podcast interview with biographer and critic Mark Stevens, a renowned expert on the life and art of Willem de Kooning. He co-authored one of my favourite artist biographies, "De Kooning: An American Master." Follow the link for the article and the podcast.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Curator goes bonkers at Art Institute

I was at the Art Institute of Chicago yesterday, standing in a room with a Phillip Guston painting on each wall. I gradually became aware of a man shouting on the other side of a partition. You couldn't walk into the space, because they had placed a low barrier to allow staff to enter the space and also to signal to museum visitors that they were to keep out. But this meant that the conversation could be clearly heard right across the gallery. And when I peeped around the partition, I saw a curator (he was the one with the oversized black rimmed glasses) and two installers in blue  overcoats. They were standing in front of a series of framed photos by Christian Boltanski, which looked very like this (may even have been this):

The curator was tearing the flesh off the installers, metaphorically speaking. I heard him shouting: "Come on, Matt, I told you  and you just didn't listen. You can see that they'e not straight, man, you don't need a spirit level to see this, just use your eyes, it looks nothing like the reference photo, and then what's all this dust inside the frames? You didn't tape them off properly, did you? And now there's dust between the glass and the photos. Look, I'm blowing on it, and the dust isn't moving, man. The only way we're going to get rid of it is to take apart every single frame. And I told you if you drilled the holes that way it wouldn't work. Now we're going to have to do the whole damn thing again." Et cetera. The installers were clearly idiots - I only glimpsed around the corner, but in two seconds I could see that the spacing between the frames was wonky. But the curator was venting in a way that gave off an air of knowing that these men were his underlings, and there wasn't anything they could do but just stand there and take it.

Ah, the art world.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

In the Studio: Day 76

I'm wrestling with lots of different things from the last five years, trying to tie them all together in one common idea.

My difficulty is that there's a lot of different pieces in different media. I'm thinking of this:

And this:

And this:

And this:

Not to mention this:

I'm trusting that putting them together and taking them out of storage in the studio, just like putting them side by side on this blog, will help me see the path here.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In the Studio: Day 75

I'm sorting all the dried shapes that I created from acrylic paint and gels over the last few months, to form squiggly collages:

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Meditation on a painting by Vermeer

Meditation/vlog/web-talk/video (what exactly is the correct terminology anyway?) number 91 harkens back to my visit to Ireland, nearly two years ago.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Seeking Kali Collective

From left: William Evertson, Susan Shulman,
Ria Vanden Eynde

The Seeking Kali Collective is three artists: Ria Vanden Eynde, from Belgium; Susan Shulman, from Canada; and William Evertson, from the United States. Their collaboration came about via a conversation on Facebook. After discovering their common interest in the mythology of Kali – the Indian goddess of primal female energy and destruction – they embarked on an intercontinental exploration of the imagery and meanings of Kali, sharing their work back and forth via social media. To date, their collaboration has taken the form of a blog, mail art, videos, performances, two-dimensional work in many media, a portfolio of prints, group exhibitions, and most recently a ‘zine. Imagery from the project has also been displayed on billboards across the USA, as part of a project that turns giant digital LED displays next to freeways into 24 hour art venues.
I can't really speak about the religious significance of the Kali myth, which I only know about generally. Personally, I was inoculated against any interest in religions, whether Judaeo-Christian, eastern, or New Age-y in betweenism, by a Catholic education in a school with nuns and priests prowling the corridors. So I am less interested in the Kali mythology per se, and more engaged by the high level of artistic discourse that is emerging from the collaboration.

The ‘zine (previous two photos), which arrived in my mailbox last week, is a whimsical story of an art heist in New York City, told in a garish cut-up graphic novel style, using photographs of the three artists and other guests Photoshopped in various Gotham locations. Is there a Kali reference in the story? The guy in the story comes off worst, and the women come out on top at the end, so maybe that’s the connection. I see more in common with the ‘exquisite corpse’ collaboration that the same artists were involved in through the “Mount Analogue” blog. The ‘zine has the same feeling of jumping from moment to moment in a kind of dream logic, perhaps as a result of a new person stepping in to add something to the plot. The exploration of yet another form of visual expression is entirely in keeping with the artists’ group trajectory so far, though.
The two parts of the project so far that I responded to most strongly are a performance piece, and the print portfolio. The Kali Shadow Theater (video here) was put together by William Evertson, who studied traditional Thai puppetry during a 2003 residency in Thailand. The performance used puppets, drawings, silhouettes, and live actors to create a compelling piece of visual theater. 

If I remember correctly, the goddess Kali is often associated with a deadly sort of dancing, a sword in one hand, and the video shows the shadows of live people and two-dimensional puppets dancing, gesturing, turning, building a landscape by fixing drawings on acetate to the screen in front of the audience, before finally re-enacting the classic story of Kali cutting off the head of Shiva and dangling it in her right hand. I admit I didn't really get that from looking at the video: I had to look it up on Wikipedia. But I guess the audience doesn't need to know this in order to appreciate the artistry of the performance.
The portfolio is a series of mixed media prints by Evertson, Vanden Eynde, and Shulman, collected in a hand-made box. 

The images are full of female faces, heads, and bodies, natural forms, long and short word collages, digital collage, expressive and gestural hand-made marks, setting up a continuous dialogue between artist and artist. Again, I think the references to the Kali myth remain obscure to the uninitiated. "Then go away and read more about it, Hartigan, you lazy pig!" I hear you saying. Fair point. On the other hand, I don't think a lack of familiarity with the mythology gets in the way of an aesthetic understanding of what these artists are doing.  I'm still drawn in by what I think is the more significant aspect to the project: the spectacle of a group of artists working to generate new and mysterious artistic forms in an act of collective contemplation. There’s much mystery and beauty in these prints, and this more than anything is what makes the Seeking Kali Collective something to watch.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

In the Studio: Day 74

Among other things, I drew this small picture using NeoColor water soluble pastels. I don't know why I did it, and I don't know what it is. But I thought I would post something with pretty colours, for once.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Art Channel ...

... is the You Tube channel where I store all the Meditations on Art. It's currently getting about 500 views every day, and it also has a new look thanks to Google's redesign:

hartigap's Channel - YouTube:

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In the Studio: Day 73

I spent a productive and enjoyable few hours inking and printing those a-LOO-minnum plates that I worked on during my last studio day.

The final print looked like this:

The carborundum areas and the drypoint marks printed equally well with a blue-black mixture of etching ink. As I said before, I had to divide the image across 12 plates, and print them 2 at a time. The total size is 16" x 18". When the paper dries, I'll trim the individual pages and glue them together.

Here is a little album I made of the whole process:

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Monday, December 5, 2011

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.

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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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