Artists: Alicja Karska, Aleksandra Went
My paintings are always about space, about spatiality,
about traces of gestures, about the illusion of space.
The exhibition Intermediate presents an ensemble of large-format abstract paintings by Austrian painter Doris Piwonka. Developed concurrently as a series of works, the paintings are exceedingly heterogeneous in formal language and employ various concepts of pictorial space. At times, this pictorial space appears atmospherically diffuse, but at others it is built up from an agglomeration of image layers articulated in even gestural ways. At first glance, Intermediate reveals an array or range of hues; Piwonka’s spectrum of pastel colors are floral-like. They appear to consistently evoke an aesthetically precarious, seductive quality. Invariably inscribed in the rapture and harmoniousness of color are instances of bewilderment and refraction. In their juxtapositions and interplay, the paintings generate an inter-pictorial space marked by tension, in which variances, rather than the formal analogies noticed at first, assume a defining role.
The spatial interplay of large-format tableaus explicitly juxtaposes different evocations of pictorial space. Four forms of pictorial space or its articulation are observed. The first, a sublime, atmospheric pictorial space, is derived from a transparent glaze of flat, immersive pictorial layers. A second form of pictorial spatial depth results from an agglomeration of various pictorial layers. Superimposition and concealment produce layers staggered from front-to-back. Lower layers of sublime or transparent, spherical pictorial space thus contrast with a foreground space of gestural markings. A further conception of pictorial space is expansive in nature: the painting exhibits a spatial effect that transcends its rectangular form, a kind of over-all impact, which is, in turn, counteracted by foreground markings, as in the second and fourth paintings installed in the main gallery space. The intrinsic value of colors—warm hues tend to come forward while cooler ones recede—represents the fourth and likely most basic form of pictorial spatial depth. The applied colors and their variances in temperature generate a gradation of depth that easily corresponds to natural modes of perception.
In her paintings, Piwonka does not directly invoke external references. She does work and think, however, in a referential and relational way, albeit not in linguistic or systemic terms, but always in relation to her own paintings and her own visual vocabulary. The artist relies on the elements and basic parameters of painting, such as surface, color, canvas, stretcher frame, but also on painterly phenomena such as transparency and impasto. Piwonka generates an interrelated system of recurrences and protentions, thus creating an idiosyncratic form of autopoiesis.
For Piwonka, painting forms an aesthetic frame for action that poses and radically tests out questions of intentionality and directionality within the painting process. The artist questions how strongly the subject intervenes in and directs the pictorial scenario. Piwonka thinks in painting terms, so to speak, in and with paintings. With the exception of precisely calculated or conceptual gestures, she avoids any form of uniform style. She does not work towards a preconceived, imagined pictorial scenario, or one encoded by a style, but rather gives the paintings and the process itself space to form, articulate, and perpetuate the action. Decisions themselves become a kind of material that is “executed,” that is, handled in transformative ways. What’s intuitive is therefore juxtaposed with what’s accidental, what’s process-related with what’s decision-based, even what’s final. Active seeing and interpretation are integral to the development of the works, i.e. the question what becomes “relevant” for the painting when, and at what point does something become an aesthetic, pictorial outcome. In this shift from the peripheral to the pictorial, Piwonka steadily moves along a border of pictorial-ontological reinterpretations.
The painting process is therefore neither purely retinal nor reflexive. Rather, Piwonka seeks a directed non-directedness, a highly attentive, yet unconstrained state of consciousness in which seeing, feeling, thinking, and doing stand in a reciprocal relationship. Akin to a search process, in some paintings the artist even seems to approximate “non-painting,” a liminal, pictorial scenario, which is then (or just barely) able to assert itself as an autonomous pictorial scenario.
In painting 04_5, 2023, the first of four paintings installed in the main gallery space, read from left to right, Piwonka’s use of a highly diluted yellow creates a liminal, yet striking presence. The artist allows the paint to spread as freely as possible over the horizontal painting ground, whereby a rectangular-like, white figure, in reality the primed white canvas, acts as a kind of frame for the yellow surface. She then counters this “trace of nothingness,” says the artist, with a few minor but distinctly intentional color markings. Piwonka employs an element of mimesis here. She inserts in the painting, almost as pictorial-spatial boundaries of the evanescent surface, painted strips of tape (masking tape) that exhibit small traces and remnants of paint. These artefacts of painterly activity form a kind of imaginary rectangle that both overlays and frames the yellow-glazed color surface. This picture-in-picture theme, i.e. emphasizing the painting’s rectangular form, reflects an idea central to Piwonka’s painting: that painting is an abstract, imaginary window. The “strips of tape,” which have a readymade-esque quality at first glance, counteract an initially implied authorlessness with a highly calculated, conceptual act. But Piwonka is not concerned here with deconstructing authorship, but with those very peripheral elements such as adhesive tape and paint residues that are integrated into the painting at a certain point in the process, in a moment of reinterpretation, and thus become critical compositional elements to the painting. For Piwonka, the masking tape citations, as signifiers of painterly activity, are not so much allusions to something that has been painted as they are to something that, in terms of an anticipatory process, is perhaps yet to come, that will still be painted. Contrary to the notion of a final painting, the artist suggests, the painting could potentially keep evolving or have evolved in a different way.
The third painting in the spatial ensemble titled 01_5, 2023 forms a kinship with the first painting in its sublime two-dimensionality. It is based on a very fundamental form of reinterpretation, because Piwonka presents the painting inverted, from the back side. The original painting, actually two vertical halves of red and blue color, which did not work for the artist, was simply turned around. The muted areas of color painted on unprimed canvas, now showing through, thus become the defining characteristic of this sublime painting. One is confronted with a kind of blind, simultaneously inverted painting, which, like with the first painting in the series, raises questions about what, or rather when, something becomes a painting or an instance relevant to the painting. The phenomenon of transparency also allows the stretcher frame to become part of the painting, once again a peripheral element that significantly, albeit subtly, impacts the pictorial scenario. In the center of the painting, at the point where the two vertical color areas converge, is an empty space, an omission that evolves into a flat, abstract figure, around which the artist then inserts in the painting three small strips of masking tape with paint residue. Here too, incorporated mimetically, these “artifacts” play a compositionally important role that contrasts with the otherwise unrestrained, two-dimensional painterly activity. The mimesis of the masked and color traces not only confers on them a separate ontological status within the painting, but in their conciseness as well (color density, placement, contours) the color markers seem to lie above the image, even to float, thus displaying a form of unfettered kinetics.
Paintings two and four of the series, titled 06_5, 2023 and 02_5, 2023, contrast starkly with the first and third paintings in the series. The pictorial structure is explicitly elaborate and multi-layered. Both paintings not only exhibit top layers of impasto paint (oil paint) and gestural moments that overlay and overwrite the underlayers of transparent tempera paint, their pictorial space is also constituted in a process of build-up and destruction, e.g. by scraping and wiping off paint.
In painting two, a painting of predominantly yellow hues, the artist developed the body of the painting in an almost palimpsest-like manner. The intensifying and eliminating of yellow through the application of more and more white paint produces a staggered facture of horizontal and vertical markings that fails to find any compositional peace. The painting is seemingly caught up in the density of its layers, in the conflict between build up and destruction, in an antagonistic state of suspension and in perceptual restlessness. Two Rorschach-esque, nearly symmetrical splotches of orange paint seem to fleetingly insinuate the painting’s center, only to consolidate, almost a bit clumsily, into an only slightly offset middle of the painting. The painting thus appears neither fully articulated gesturally nor resolved, neither centered nor de-composed. It is precisely in this broken mastery, in the absence of a “successful” equilibrium and a balance between tension and relaxation, that painting two forms an important disruption and disorientation in the pictorial interplay with the other paintings in the series.
In painting four, in contrast to the second painting, Piwonka clearly expands the color spectrum. Discernable are three seemingly blurry color fields, a bluish and reddish color field at the top of the painting versus a lower area in yellow tones. The tableau reveals a multiplicity of nuances and shades, primarily resulting from the activity of building up and destroying layers. Near the end of this process, Piwonka follows up the otherwise subtle conflict of two-dimensional coloration, the soft and diffuse-looking pastel-toned pictorial space, with explicitly impasto color markings in yellow and red, applied with a spatula. The blue of the painting’s top layer, which shows through the lower layers of tempera, forms a subtle allusion to the primary colors of additive color mixing with the final gestural yellow and red markings. Together with a white color field that presents itself to the viewer as a kind of color splotch, the artist once again presents the essential basic parameters and tools of the medium of painting. In this painting, the medium of painting does not so much achieve self-reflection; rather, it thematizes, tests, and celebrates its own performance. Although the painting is an accumulation of the most contradictory decisions, dislocations, and reworkings, as a whole it forms an abstract scenario that generates a quasi-figurative presence in the space. For the most part, the tableau seemingly distances itself from the notion of a window. It doesn’t open up the space, doesn’t create an exit, but seemingly moves more towards the viewer. Here, the pictorial space curves forward, so to speak, into the room, whereas in the atmospheric, flat paintings two and four this pulls away from the viewer, out of the physical space of observation and transcends it.
The painting titled 05_5, 2023, which is installed by itself in the gallery entrance area, bears clear similarities with the first and fourth paintings installed in the main gallery space. Like the evanescent yellow in painting one, it exhibits an underlayer of heavily diluted paints (tempera), counteracted by a final vertical white marking of oil paint, applied gesturally with a spatula (and then scraped off again), as well as equally final, traces of black brittle paint. The painting significantly unites all competing painterly modes of articulation and concepts of pictorial space that otherwise often appear distributed in Piwonka’s work across individual paintings as different characters. In its dense content and diverse evocations of pictorial space, painting five forms a kind of spatial pair with painting four, which is installed on the front wall in the main gallery space, and also forms a link between both spaces and their physical boundaries.
Piwonka confers a kind of double status on the single painting. The painting works and functions on its own, but is also consistently articulated beyond the boundaries of the painting. In their interplay between and with one another, the wholly immersive paintings demand the viewer to compare and move between them. They cannot be observed from any single vantage point, but more in stretches, zones, and even spaces of overlapping perception. In this respect, the ensemble of five paintings in Intermediate forms an open, permeable, painterly-spatial dispositif. In their juxtapositions and interplay, Piwonka’s tableaus form an “intermediate” structure capable of transcending the existing space and its spatial boundaries. In this meta-pictorial space, which ultimately also reflects the process and generative space of the paintings, various concepts of pictorial space collide that conflict with one another and yet also exist on their own. This meta space is inherently heterogeneous, latently disjointed and restless, and yet also sublime and seductive.
At the conclusion of this consideration of Piwonka’s painting ensemble in Intermediate, the initial questions arise again: “How does the painting create space, how does one enter the painting,” says the artist. When considered further from phenomenological and reception aesthetics viewpoints, these questions ultimately mean what position the painting, the pictorial ensemble of paintings assigns to the viewer and what type of seeing, perceiving, and thinking it directs them toward.
Piwonka’s paintings pose the question of when they become, or became, paintings. But this not only means the process of creation in terms of an intentional artistic process, but also the point at which the perceiving viewer synthesizes the pictorial scenario as pictorial. Contrary to an essentialist notion or the concept of genius, the painting is not created solely by the painter, nor is it created purely from the material, but is created primarily through seeing, in the recognizing and creative act of artistic perception. In this respect, a temporal dimension, the progression and process of seeing, is also crucial. Because it is precisely this generative seeing that gives things aesthetic meaning. And because something supposedly insignificant, what was once “merely” peripheral, can in this way become a focus of perception with an aesthetic dimension. Painting cannot be reduced to one way of reading and interpreting, but rather represents an open situation, a mutable, perceptual dispositif that can lead to a multiplicity, a diversity of sensual impressions. A painting, a painterly “given” can thus lead to a multitude of perceptual images. This ontological paradox, that the supposedly one thing, a pictorial unity, a painting, leads to a diversity of aesthetic perceptions, is one of the most elementary and simultaneously most timeless of all the experiences contingent to art itself.
Text: David Komary
Translation: Erik Smith