Serbian painter Milena Dragicevic discusses her take on abstraction, choosing models and the influence of Willem de Kooning
“The Supplicants are not psychological studies or portraits but ‘stand-ins’ for something else. They are not masks, mutants or hybrids. They are simply unknowable”
I don’t think I ever made a decision to paint. I do know I made a decision to become an artist and painting somehow naturally followed. I would describe myself as an artist who uses a code of abstraction but tries to keep one foot in reality. The question of abstraction versus figuration in painting is something that completely perplexes me and I usually just ignore it. I began my ongoing Supplicant series in 2006 because at the time I needed a simple starting point. De Kooning once said that nothing could be simpler than a circle in the middle of a canvas and I thought that a face could be that simple device. Faces are voids or protrusions where an intervention or interception can occur: it is that which I am painting and not the figure per se.
The models I choose are usually female friends or acquaintances. I start with photographic headshots and the more I do, the more it feels performative because I am aware of the power of the face in that it is both viewer and viewed. I eventually pick one image that lends itself well to intervention and then drawing helps me understand how the intervention may play out. I mainly use tracing paper because it allows for speed when redrawing and dissecting forms. I do accept that once painting begins, U-turns may become necessary. My interventions or interceptions are moments caught in a process of unfolding and refolding both my material and intuition. It’s like trying to capture the passage of possible objects or fragments and never needing to know how you got there in the first place. The Supplicants are not psychological studies or portraits but ‘stand-ins’ for something else. They are not masks, mutants or hybrids. They are simply unknowable.
I am not really influenced by many painters. I tend to look more at sculpture, design, architecture, film and ancient art and I often borrow from marginalised artists. I love looking at cheap catalogues from shows that no one remembers. I want to work with something that already exists in the real world and I’ve come to think of my work as silent collaborations but with a ‘tag-team’ attitude. The Supplicants and my more recent series Erections for Transatlantica, 2011, and Pampero, 2014, act as an anachronistic place where something always happens. Hopefully they provide spaces or loopholes to be borrowed and reconfigured by other artists.
Excerpt from One Day, Something Happens: Painting People by Jennifer Higgie, curator and co-editor of Frieze magazine. Out now on Hayward Publishing.