Eva Wagner in conversation with Angelica Bäumer
The conversation was held to accompany Eva Wagner's catalogue for the show en detail at the Lukas feichtner gallery , Vienna
People have expressed themselves creatively for as long as they have existed. They have supported the myth and lent form to the human condition. It was like that thousands of years ago, and it's not going to change. Although the form of this expression has changed and so has the discourse. The motives behind the impulse have not changed as much. Such expressions are still about observation and experience – and about the translation of human and intellectual knowledge in art as an aesthetic event. The fact that all the techniques and the media, painting with a brush and paint just as much as working with the computer, with video or photography, have just as much space in the great freedom that we have won for art as an expression of our age and our modern lifestyles. Although it also involves a new sense of social responsibility with it.
Eva Wagner's painting is defined in the tradition of occidental painting, but it is equally defined in the time in which she is living. It is about a general atmospheric image and the creation of an atmospheric space; but her world is not romanticised, it is the world of today, as contemporary as it is timeless.
Her painting technique is as refined as it is artistically convincing. Numerous layers, extremely thin layers of paint that allow more of a suggestion of the background and the tender veils of colour that she lays over her motifs create a space that is as fascinating as it is enigmatic. Her paintings do not reveal themselves at glance. They demand patience in order to appreciate the depth of the work, the magic of the story that they want to tell. They invite the viewer to observe carefully, and radiate poetry in their concentrated meditative calm.
A Are your 'hidden' paintings your way of gleaning experience from the subconscious mind, and so of gleaning knowledge too?
E Saying that I gain knowledge and experience is not enough for me. So I'll try and explain. Repetition is very important to my work: the serial, the continual appropriation of existing images, the recompilation, and so the recreation of realities. The finished painting manifests itself, so to speak, in the work process. Numerous processes are lined up, and these are later legible through the individual layers of paint. These individual thin films of paint approach the new painting, they circumscribe it and render the general direction towards the final product recognisable. The time-consuming process plays a major role in my work, although it's also something like a meditative element for me. But something new only results from the repetition and the necessary slowness or concentration. Of course I see both experience and knowledge as intrinsic to the process of painting.
A Precision and the perfection of a craft have always been a part of art, and you have perfected your own technique. Regardless of the artistic demand for content, composition, colour and light, the artist must be a master of their craft. This applies to the stretching of the canvas on its support, the priming, and the addition of all the various layers, the changes that occur, the process in itself, and everything that is created and built up during the painting process. So everything is part of the work, from preparing to start and then at the outset of the actual creative work.
You do not like throwing paint around quickly. You focus on the slow development, which you eventually build up to form your intricate surfaces. The viewer may only see the end result but they still feel the long process that led to your atmospheric spaces.
E You're absolutely right there, more than anything else I need time to put together a new ‘conglomerate’, to make a new painting. The technique I use requires the right amount of time for the paint to dry, so that the different layers can bind enough. If you're too fast the layers blend too much, if the film dries too much before the next layer then the edges of the layers can be too sharp.
Time interests me in itself, also the time factor in relation to the subject matter. Regardless of the motif, I see captured moments in my work which are less concerned with what is represented than they are with the motif of the surrounding space, which is about a particular atmosphere. I draw on my memory, placing things from my memory over the top of others. Another concern is with the 'déjà vu effect'. The overlapping and slight variation in the drawings makes the painting start to vibrate, and the movement comes, so to speak, from inside outwards like overlapping dream sequences. And the execution of real impressions loses its restrictions on the canvas, both in spatial and temporal terms.
A Why do you hide your figures, your bodies, behind these veils of paint, why do you create this kind of enigma? Are you afraid of the figurative?
E I wouldn't say that I was afraid. Not so much frightened as curious. There is a kind of wish to discover a new painting behind the one in front of me. Slight variations in the 'montage' of the films of paint layered over each other set what is happening in the image in motion, so to speak. An image is 'frozen' like in a video still, but the lack of focus permits speculation about temporal and spatial expansion – i.e. the aim in my work, if one can call it that, is to make the painting live on for me and for the viewer both in the future and in the past.
Sometimes I used to paint pictures that were entirely unclear, diffuse, where the figure was almost entirely concealed. There are sharp cuts In my most recent work. I am attempting to cut reality and to re-assemble it anew at the same time, to (inter)weave, to contextualise and so to create a new visual approach, like in film where the images flick past, where the rapid succession produces a particular atmosphere. I'm attempting to create a passing of reality.
A When you first started painting you were intensively preoccupied with movement, there is still some of this movement in your work. Is movement still an essential element in your compositions?
E Movement is still very important to me. I'm interested in the observation and experience of movements, of processes – It's still one of the themes of my work.
A And the photographic element in your work? The capturing of the moment, which then triggers an artistic impulse and finally becomes a painting?
E I don't want to use the term 'photographic' in this context. Although, like photography, it's about depth of focus and perspective, so you can draw a comparison to that extent. But I am more concerned with focussing on reality and achieving subjectivity. Photography serves as an initial medium, just as a means to an end, and does not stand for itself in my work process. The medium I use to convey the content of my images is and remains painting.
A Nevertheless, your paintings are based on photographs you take of models. How do you animate them to make them move? Do you encircle them to find the situation that is then significant to you in the painting, do you wait for the moment when you have a motif that looks right for a painting?
E Everything comes out of the conversation with the model, who moves freely around the studio. I don't just take photographs, I also make several sketches. The process of selecting and deciding comes later when I start to paint. I am not concerned with finding any particular position, but with capturing a unique situation. It's about the movement and the very special atmosphere that I've created, which I then try to recreate in my paintings. It's not about the model's personality or painting their portrait; the figures appear as the motif. In this sense, my landscapes or city views can be seen as model situations that are more about capturing different atmospheres than illustrating reality.
A That's what I call ‘the new creation of atmospheric space’. Starting from photography as the medium, but using the means at the disposal of the painter, you make the human figure anonymous, eventually making it become a surrogate. Although the figures adopt positions that originate less in the models’ own personalities, being the result of the stance you take artistically and that you need for the painting. After all, you're the person who matters for the painting and not the model, they're just a means to an end.
As a recipient, I am always asking myself, when is a painting finished? But you must do so too, as an artist.
E It's difficult to say, and not a question that can be answered once and for all. I notice that I keep paintings that look finished to me in the studio for a long time. I often leave paintings standing around for two or three months, then I start work on them again: painting over them or altering them. Sometimes I think that you simply have to let them sit, like a good dough, to see if they have really 'risen' as it were. I often let the painting disappear in the depot and don't look at it again for a long time. Then one looks at it differently, as sometimes directly after painting I don't have the objectivity to judge it. You simply need time to let the whole thing develop. After a few days or weeks I can see what's missing and see where and how to carry on.
It's also exciting to look at the work in different spaces, not in my own studio and in the light I'm used to. It's always a new experience for me when I see my paintings in other places, in exhibitions. The change of environment is very important, the paintings become somehow unfamiliar and I see them with different eyes. This form of distance provides an opportunity to be more objective, as a lot of progress is made with the experience.
A A painting is something that lives, and perhaps the more alive a painting is the less it is finished. But you once told me that you think of a painting as finished when you have the feeling you can't add anything else. Although, two weeks later that can change, as you said?
E But if the feeling lasts 4 weeks then that's good going.
Despite a great deal of curiosity concerning the art of our time, despite a great deal of the intellectual zeitgeist and a predilection for discussing art, Eva Wagner sees her path and her goal very clearly. Experience and knowledge, courage and doubt, continually questioning the sense and the purpose, the energy of the work, are intrinsic to artistic endeavour. As are the loneliness of the decision, the calm of the studio. After all, only what is done counts, everything else falls away, there's no more intellectual discourse anymore – just canvas, brush and paint, and the thoughts that course somewhere between the cognitive process and the subconscious mind in the time at one's disposal and in the concentration on the essentials.