Milky Way: Aida Tomescu interviewed by Terence Maloon
Several years ago, your work seemed to split up painting, drawing and collage into quite separate disciplines.
I’ve always seen them completely related, even though the appearance changed in different media. I tend to begin a new series by working on paper. Building up an image through successive layers of pastels and inks allows me to get involved, to find a vision for the new work. In a way you could say that collage provided the link between the painting and the drawing. I could participate more directly, experience and engage with the structure of the work by using pieces of torn paper, which kept editing the image, changing its configuration. The barrier between painting and drawing disappeared. But it wasn't premeditated, I arrived at it by necessity. It allowed for layering and spatialisation, which helped free up the way I constructed an image.
Yes, the way the image is built seems to become more transparent and the way it’s made seems more direct, more immediate.
The experience affected everything. The making and the thinking could happen simultaneously. The image continued to evolve gradually, from a succession of moments and a continuous correspondence between layers. The motivation was to work towards abolishing the distance between thinking and doing, between conceiving and discovering the structure of the work and therefore also its content.
Some of the things you’ve seen recently seem to have had an impact on your new work. There’s a volumetric fullness in works like Sabine, Sunburn, Iris and Bathers a sense of circulation and turning that seems to strike an unfamiliar note for me. Would that be attributable to, for example, Rubens or Tiepolo?
My interest has always been to arrive at a unified image with fullness and clarity, and to find a reality in the work which affirms its own existence. In the midst of the painting, when things are going well, you often feel that you are drawing on the sum of many experiences that are somehow essentially related. In other circumstances, all those experiences might seem very disparate, yet in the realm of the work they come together into complete accord.
So those influences or inspirations or allusions can creep in more or less undetected?
At times, changes can start to occur in your own work even before you are open enough or ready enough to see them elsewhere. I could only begin to look at Rubens and Tiepolo very recently, whereas Giotto and the Scrovegni Chapel, Titian, Piero della Francesca have been of enduring interest. In the 1980s when I first came face to face with Titian’s Pietà in the Accademia in Venice I became aware of another presence in the work, a subtle structure that could be built up from the paint itself. It lifted away from the protagonists in the painting and shimmered in an indeterminate space.
It seems to be a space of pure feeling.
Yes, it is a space you can enter and you become aware of how much vulnerability there is in a strong, powerful painting. You also experience this absolute total intelligence in the work, through which everything comes together. It changes what you feel about other paintings, which can seem very illustrative by comparison.
So, Tiepolo and Rubens fall into that lesser capacity?
No, that’s tough. In front of the Tiepolo in Melbourne I realised how the figurative elements in his painting keep changing identity – the drapery and the head or the torso of a figure link together to form a new entity.
So he announces the free play of modern art with the mobility and weightlessness of the elements in his compositions?
I feel the same applies to Titian, where matter and flesh take on the fluidity of water or the transparency of air and light, while the sky carries on the solidity of an entire landscape. When you raise the question of influence, I’ve always had trouble with that word as I feel the learning and level of understanding that great paintings require of you goes much deeper than the word “influence” implies.
Isn’t it remarkable that in Venice you can go from Titian in the Accademia to Jackson Pollock at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, or to the wonderful Bonnard at the Ca Pesaro, and there’s a profound connection. It’s great that one of the Pollocks is called Shimmering Substance – doesn’t that sum up the tradition perfectly?
I love taking that walk. Three years ago I saw an exhibition of Pollock’s drawings at the Guggenheim. I love all Pollock, the early ones, the rough ones, the sand-mixed-with-paint ones, the overworked ones, the “failed” ones. It is fascinating how the eye can travel all the way back into the windows of bare canvas, experiencing the initial traces, and from there to the encrusted masses of pigment, with all the richness and complexity of the transitions and the spaces in between. But I also see abstraction in Titian, especially late Titian.
What qualities do you prize in the media you use?
Mutability – the capacity of oil paint to transform itself. I understand painting as a found structure. A painting evolves from continuous building up and erasure. The paint becomes a presence, dictating the structure, bringing in a surprising other intention to the work.
Are there advantages of specialising in a medium (as opposed to making “art”), which has no media-specificity?
I don’t believe you ever get to specialise in a medium. All technical aspects are so intimately linked to the understanding of the image and its content, that somehow a new language always seems to be required every time you start again. The vocabulary you may have acquired is never adequate for the work you are dealing with; it is as if you need words you don’t yet know. It is as if you have to learn a new language with each painting. If painting is like a circle that begins small and grows ever larger, then its expansion can continue without end. Specialising would mean simply persevering. I work in several media anyway. When you learn one thing, often it is applicable to something else.
What are the things that you value most in abstraction?
Its resistance to becoming a story. A work is allowed to stay open. However, paradoxically, the more open a painting is, the more precise it can become.
Like a lot of people, you have problems when people connect your work with Abstract Expressionism as a historical phenomenon, as an American phenomenon, as a stylistic phenomenon…
I’ve always struggled with the term Abstract Expressionism. It implies giving in to self-expression. It implies the absence of rigorous construction and can also imply an absence of content – and the assumption that painting is “mark making”. I’ve always understood painting as image-making. There is nothing arbitrary about it.
Aida Tomescu was born in Bucharest, Romania in 1955. Tomescu studied at the Institute of Fine Arts, Bucharest. After completing her studies she began exhibiting in group exhibitions at the public gallery spaces in Bucharest. Tomescu held her first solo exhibition in 1979 in Cenaclu Gallery, Bucharest before moving to Sydney, Australia in 1980. In 1983 Tomescu completed a postgraduate degree at the City Art Institute, Sydney.
Since she began exhibiting with Gallery A in 1981 she has held over 20 solo exhibitions in Melbourne and Sydney at galleries including: Coventry Gallery (1985, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1995), Deutscher Brunswick Street (1991), Christine Abrahams Gallery(1994), Martin Browne Fine Art (2000, 2002, 2004), Niagara Galleries (1999, 2003, 2006, 2008), Liverpool Street Gallery (2007, 2009, 2010) and Karen Woodbury Gallery, Melbourne (2010). In 1996 Tomescu was the inaugural winner of the prestigious LSFA Arts 21 Fellowship and in 1997 held a solo exhibition at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Victoria. Tomescu has won a number of arts prizes including The Sulman Prize in 1996, the Wynne Prize in 2001 and the Dobell Prize for Drawing at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, in 2003. She was also both a finalist in the Sulman Prize and the Dobell Prize for Drawing in 2008.
Tomescu’s work has been included in frequent exhibitions in public museums in Australia, including: Abstraction at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (1990), Articulate Surfaces at the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane (1994), Review at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1995), Look Again at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (1998), Uncommon Worlds: Aspects of Contemporary Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia (2000), Asia in Australia: Beyond Orientalism, Queensland University of Technology Art Museum, Queensland (2001), Depth of Field, Shepparton Art Gallery and Monash University Museum of Art (2003), Place Made, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (2004), Sixth Drawing Biennale, The Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Canberra (2006), Masters of Emotion, Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, Victoria (2007), Time and Place at the TarraWarra Museum of Art, Victoria (2007), New at the University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane, Aida Tomescu: Paintings and Drawings – a survey exhibition, Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Canberra (2009), Building a Collection, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (2009), Contemporary Australian Drawings 1, RMIT Gallery, Melbourne (2010), Slow Burn, S.H Ervin Gallery, The National Trust, Sydney (2010), Contemporary Encounters, Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (2010), Freehand, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Victoria (2010), Laverty 2, Newcastle Region Art Gallery (2011), Abstraction, Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Canberra (2011) and Out of Australia: Prints and Drawings, The British Museum, London (2011).
As Deborah Hart writes, “Ultimately what Tomescu’s art over more than a decade has shown us is that it can never be pinned down to one thing, that it is about open-ended associations, moving between the tangible and the intangible. It is perhaps in giving up the need for tangible certainties in favour of more subtle intimations that this fluid state of becoming is revealed.” (Deborah Hart, Paintings and Drawings, 2009)
As Terence Maloon writes, “In her hands, accumulated dabs and encrustations of paint may acquire marvelous powers of evocation and expression. Quasi-naturalistic effects are never consciously sought by her, yet they are within reach of her technique…phenomena are “there” in the possibilities of abstract art.” (2007)
Tomescu’s work is represented in important public collections, including: The National Gallery of Australia, The National Gallery of Victoria, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Queensland Art Gallery, Heide Museum of Modern Art, TarraWarra Museum of Art, The British Museum, London, The Chartwell Collection, Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand and Artbank. Tomescu’s work has been acquired by corporate collections, including: The Macquarie Group Collection, Allens Arthur Robinson and IBM Australia as well as important private collections, including: The Laverty Collection and The Holmes a Court Collection. Her paintings and drawings are also included in regional gallery and university collections throughout Australia. Aida Tomescu lives and works in Sydney.