“I am attracted to the relationship between walking and painting. In the process of painting, as with walking, there is an active, busy eye. The idea that the process of looking can change with a radical shift in landscape is interesting and exciting to me.”
—Maja Marx on her recent artist-in-residence experience at Twee Jonge Gezellen.
Maja is a South African contemporary proponent of abstract art; approaching painting as an optical activation of surface. She has featured in both South African and international exhibitions. We caught up with her to find out more about her ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE experience.
“When I was offered this opportunity, it was interesting to think how making would be facilitated by a space like this: there's a strong language of things being produced here.
There's a theme of the ‘slow process’- the landscape, the growing, the fermentation, that whole transcription really, of one material, into another.”
“Think of the raw materiality of a plant, how it ends up being translated into a taste quality, with some sort of olfactory language to it. It’s a process of transcription, translation, and transformation which feels really close to art making to me.”
I filter my environment as I move through it. I see art as a kind of a viewfinder, a sympathetic actuator. It activates simple things, super ordinary things, whether it's a piece of cloth lying in a certain way, or a pattern or a book. I find that moment where I can look at an object or scenario, like a found composition of rocks, branches or grasses and acknowledge that it can be both itself and also more than that – a series of marks that hold a relational logic, an inherent sense of structure from which I can draw and on which I can build. It is a way of trying to find the most simplistic form of seeing – attempting to see just the raw appearance of things, as raw mark, line, or colour, and how they register on the eye.
With this work I allowed myself to enter the landscape of Twee Jonge Gezellen. I went for a series of walks and I very specifically decided to approach the mountain as something that I observe, but that I can also enter. The painting started off as a reaction to the walks filtered into a bodily experience. The work was made in the process of exchange – I would enter the landscape, and then return to the studio to enter the space of painting – and then I would repeat the process. I would be bringing the process of painting, the eye of that process, to the landscape, and then I would be bring the landscape to the painting.
Time is hugely important in my work. There’s a slowing down of time when I work. The idea of fermentation is relevant, it's a gradual buildup. I start off with a set of rules and objectives, and they act like a scaffolding to build towards the moment where I can let go of those intentions and follow a logic that emerges from the work itself. Then there's a kind of a freer, more independent flow of line or mark making, or colour placement. It takes time to allow each work to grow into its own visual logic and to understand how to follow that visual logic.
There’s a long tradition of female work, or craft that is closely related to a kind of a meditation, where it’s an active headspace. It fascinates me how a day can disappear. I love how I can lose myself in the surface of something that is essentially a piece of linen, pigment and oil.
Working in the environment of Twee Jonge Gezellen, there is a sense of time slowing down. It's quieter, it's peaceful, and you wake up with a different kind of intensity.
A large work is not automatically more difficult; I actually find smaller work harder. It has to do with the kind of space in your mind that it occupies – and sometimes the smaller works end up occupying larger ‘mental’ space than a physically larger work would. It relates to the intensity of detail, how densely the surface is activated.
The larger works are almost more gestural, more physical. There's this very physical process of going up close, and then leaving it again. On this large scale the work becomes a very literal process of making a mark, stepping back and then responding to it. The process of emersion and reaction is recorded on the canvas. The potential for some sort of reaction to whatever mark or colour combination preceded, becomes much more evident.
With the painting that I worked on, there's a split that happens because it consists of two panels. I really enjoy this, this kind of symmetrical manner of talking back to the body as a symmetry, as something that carries both a left- and a right-hand action. It involves an investigation of both a passive left-hand sensing of the mark and a determined, active reaction of the right hand. And I love exploring that.
There's a totality of gesture. It talks back to the totality of action when you climb or when you crawl through spaces using both hands, or in one’s movement through landscape: when you walk with that kind of left-right foot action with your hips, your shoulders; the complete structure behind it becomes more important.
How do we compare two hands with one another - phenomenologically, it involves an almost a super presence or awareness to the one side of one’s body, in conversation with a kind of a weaker, slightly less focused and intuitive condition to the other side of one’s body.
Often in my work, I will have two works that will sit in relation to one another. Of course, in reality, I look at both of them with both eyes, but I like to acknowledge that it's possible to imagine that I'm looking at the one with the left side, and the other one with the right side, they momentarily function as two resting points for my eyes. It comprises of a symmetrical and bodily experience.
The in-between matters, is essentially what the painting is all about. When I paint, I explore a reversal of the foreground-background relation; it serves as veil, as something that shields, something that obscures but also allows certain bits of information to still be revealed.
I'm very interested in that kind of filtering, as a system of both concealment and revealment. It involves a ‘middle place’, a kind of a space that irritates or ‘ensnares’ the eye, you want to acknowledge it and then look deeper into it, beyond it.
With the traditional approach to compositional painting there is the comfort of having something for your eyes to perch on, and as visual beings, we desire that perch. We take a breather. We sit on it with our eyes, as a bird that would want to sit on something. It’s a moment for rest. And with my work, I never allow that. When I paint, I'm actively looking.
When you start off with a large work it's a broad neutral kind of space that you respond to. My initial action starts with setting certain analytic limitations, some marker that activates the surface for me. I approach my references - found compositions, patterns or grids - in the way that one would look at a text. I will attempt to read it and translate it and I will start in the way that you would with text, top left.
I read the lines, and quite often it is very dense, very abstract, perchance lines of found patterns or pieces of cloth or lines on a gridded piece of paper. I allow my eyes to decipher and create some sort of map for something that is almost impossible to decipher, it involves a super focused state of repetition, constant measurement and calculation. I get huge joy from that.
There's a point where the mark is no longer just a direct transcription of a referent, it's not so much about that, I merely use it as a kind of an excuse to activate the flow of line. It involves a way of looking ‘through’ the line.
Maja: As a female artist, I think is important to find the moment where you are in a pure conversation with yourself in whatever context you can, as an artist, as a woman, as a mother. I’ve actually been more productive since having children than before, since having my daughters, an hour is not just an hour.
You can do an amazing amount of work in an hour. My mother is an artist and one of my earliest memories is sitting on my mother's back while she was painting. I cherish that memory, it is remarkable that I have this connection to my mother's creative joy through the movement of her body, not vacuum cleaning, or washing clothes, but painting. In return, I hope to have offered the same cadence to my babies.