Since migrating to Australia from Romania over thirty years ago, artist Aida Tomescu has emerged as a formidable presence in Australian art, collecting a host of accolades, including the Sulman, Wynne and the Dobell prizes. In conversation, Tomescu is erudite, impassioned and draws often from literature, art history and poetry in the discussion of her work. Tomescu sees little difference between figuration and abstraction and, indeed, her paintings—with their ridged deposits of oil paint, fleeting associations and tiers of colour—communicate a precise miscellany of art historical associations to intelligently defy concrete categorisation.
I visited Tomescu in the studio she has had for 20 years in Sydney’s inner west. Many of the works that surrounded us, including a striking series of red paintings that have long been in development, will feature in her upcoming showing with Sullivan and Strumpf at Art Stage Singapore, 2015.
I’d been visualizing red paintings for about ten years before they could happen. It’s like I needed to work through all the other works to get to them. I was trying but nothing emerged, until eventually it all came together.
I think the relationships between all the elements in paintings are ongoing; they don’t finish when you do. I notice it when I am in museums, looking at Titian for example. There are voices that strike up conversations in the paintings, that’s why we can look at them forever. A painter at the end knows certain things about their work intimately but they can’t possibly know everything. The image may seem simplified but the transitions within the image are complex.
What was it about that particular colour that kept drawing you back?
It could be there was a strong feeling that the work had to go in that direction. But then I thought that that might never be achievable because every time I tried there was no connection so I gave up or the work moved in a different direction. It could have also emerged slowly from my love of Titian. The first red painting, now that I think back, brought to mind the novel Broken April by Albanian author Ismail Kadare. It was a stunning book that I had read five years earlier and it came to mind in the midst of opening that tin of red paint. The book gave me the entry into that first painting.
My belief more and more is that abstraction deals with layers of subjects, and from all these layered subjects an independent identity and presence emerges in the work. Not that the painting reflected the story itself—there is so much blood in that story—but the painting itself cannot assert a definitive origin. They grow into their form and colour and they can also depart sensationally from their origins. It was that story that created the trigger and gave me the conviction to go on.
I was thinking what a boring word ‘inspiration’ is, and how the word you used – ‘conviction’- is perhaps more dynamic.
To say, for example, that Titian ‘inspires’ me is to downplay his importance. Anything can inspire you; it’s a word used too lightly. What I think I draw from Titian is the subtlety of the content of the work. I constantly find myself returning to the Renaissance and to Giotto. I think the whole history of painting is there. It promises everything that is to come. I look at Giotto and already see Matisse. And you look at the dark, late Titian’s, painted in the last decades of his life and he began painting with his hands! We think that the Abstract Expressionists understood painting as freedom- but Titian was wild. We enter the space of his paintings and see that they have a contemporary sense of doubt. So I think it is that which attracts me to Titian. And it is the struggle and anxiety in Cezanne that I responded to early on at age twelve or fourteen. It is a love that has never left me.
What is your process?
I work on paintings one at a time. I need to concentrate on each one individually. Then they rest here, sometimes facing the wall, sometimes facing me. Then I work them in rotation because they take a long time, sometimes I might need twelve months, other times I don’t want to rush it. The more minimal works have a lot of drawing in the under layers. Titian routinely took seven years to complete a commission and sometimes there were twenty years between layers of paint. From x-rays done on his work the layers of dust on the canvas tell us how many years passed between layers and also how he repainted subjects on top of other subjects so that there were multiple subjects as in an abstraction.
The reason for the quantity of paint in my work is not the texture but to locate everything in space. So eventually when they begin to form into a presence what I remove gives me the painting; it’s not paint for the sake of paint, instead I construct with it. I use scrapers to remove layers and return to the primed canvas. I do a lot of drawing with a brush or with a crayon and also I do a lot of drawing by scraping into the paint, I insist on scraping instead of scratching because scratching would refer to the surface and my intention is to go back into, I suppose, the ground or the history of the work. And then I use the palette knife as a way of keeping the painting closer and not keeping the image at the end of the brush.
The most important thing is that any technical aspect of the work is always connected to the content of the work- you don’t know them in advance. You can’t know them before you begin. That is both the struggle and the joy of painting. I think it’s vital that each work doesn’t become an accumulation of skill or the painting of another picture, but that there is learning present that is relevant and new and surprising to me.
Do you find even in that process of new discovery and learning that there is something that remains distinctly ‘you’ every time?
I don’t think of myself during the process. When it ends it’s a completely different matter. I think for quite a while the paintings don’t project back, they absorb. So when they begin to project back sometimes I react too soon and I respond to the potential of the work but the work is not there yet. I can get quite excited about their potential, but unless I work them in rotation and stay with them sometimes a voice begins to enter the work but the presence isn’t yet there.
The world of painting is really, very simple. Where the distance you travel to get there is always so complicated- the paintings themselves are not. In the end a painting needs to generate light.
Is the struggle of painting making sure you don’t get lost in the canvas?
Oh you get lost, but it is good to get lost. If the painting has to be discovered that means you have to find it. If you have to find it, it implies you have to get lost. And getting lost is ok if instead of finding yourself at the end of it, you instead find the painting. The struggle is that we resist getting lost.
How do you manage doubt?
Doubt is important. One of the reasons I am drawn to Titian is because of his uncertainties. This glorious painter with all his formidable talents, who at the age of twenty-four became the official painter of the Republic of Venice and painted the Assumption, this man gave it all up for the sake of painting- for the sake of finding painting. There are stories where his assistants tell of him flinging the doors of his studio open and exclaiming, “At last I know what painting is!” He began to form presence in his paintings outside of the narrative of the work through the layering of paint. It was at the right time because the use of oil paint had begun to spread and was elevated to a new dimension with Titian. He had a very long life and so he allowed the paint to do the talking. In the Pietà, veils and films of paint begin to hover in front of the protagonist of the painting. This veil occupies a large part of the huge painting. This subtle, fragile form enriches the narrative but can also exist independently of it. I think painting is circular, it is forever connected, and it is why I don’t see a dividing line between figuration and abstraction.
Tomescu turns the lights off and we closely inspect the paintings rested against the walls of her studio. The natural, dim light of the room reveals the physical ridges and valleys formed by the layers of paint she applies to her canvases and the sculptural complexity of her work.
Everything in the end needs to be located in space. There is a sense that you can go behind the units of paint and travel behind all the forms. Actually moving spatially, moving as we do in life, to navigate through the painting. And how could I measure that without actually working on it? In Le Chef-d'œuvre inconnu Balzac writes, “There is no line in nature only oscillating transitions.” And Cézanne said that it’s not the lines that are important but what’s between the lines. We call it form, but then everything nowadays gets reduced to movement, form and colour and they are notions that are brought up and are often misunderstood I think.
Does the canvas bother you?
No, the surface of the canvas doesn’t. What begins to bother me—interestingly for someone who works with as much paint as I do—is the paint itself. It takes to the canvas but you don’t yet have the fullness of the work and there is so much work to be done and you need to follow suit and when the painting begins to project back at you can’t miss a trick. I have to come here to the studio seven days a week. It’s like at some point the paintings give you this narrow path through which you can pass and there is only one way to go, you don’t have any choices. It tells you where to go, you listen to it. But you need to stay present. The format of the canvas when I begin, if anything, seems so big, empty. And that’s also exciting and then when they begin to acquire form it’s interesting how they change in size- the very same surface can appear very small or they can expand depending on what happens within. But transforming the paint into a substance that generates light, that generates air and that is not just an object or some indifferent and dead matter that sits on canvas, that is always the hard work for any painter.
I read an interview with you in which you said, “Painting is better than art”
Yes, if I thought of my work in terms of art I wouldn’t be connected to the feeling of things, I wouldn’t be connected to the world, I’d just be there putting paint on canvas- the last thing you want to do. For one thing I don’t think I’m temperamentally suited to that, I need to know it’s leading to something more than just the picture. It needs to go beyond aesthetics and skill; it needs to go beyond what you’ve done before. I remember Barnett Newman’s words, “Aesthetics is to art as ornithology is to the birds”. It’s true; if a painter were concerned with aesthetics then you would measure and calculate in advance. In the end, even in an open painting that looks completely wild, everything needs to be precise in the relationships that are formed. The precision comes in the speed at which a line or an identity or form or presence lifts off the surface, how far back it goes, where things are located in space. All the precision comes from all the relationships- and these relationships are not for the painter to control.
Picasso said, ‘painting is stronger than I am, it can make me do whatever it wants’. If you get in the way of painting it won’t repay you. Painting inflicts such humiliations on you every time anyway, but if you get in the way you learn quickly that it will inflict harder still humiliations. It is one of the most mysterious things about painting.