In the Studio with Katarina Caserman.

Words by

James Ambrose

In the Studio with Katarina Caserman.

You grew up in Ljubljana, Slovenia before moving to London. How did this place influence you and the initial formation of you process as an artist?

I would say that in Ljubljana I was able to find the answers to what am I doing or what do I want to do within the field of painting. I was reading a lot of art theory and philosophy and tried to verbalise the meaning behind my work. It is always a useful practice because sometimes even if you know what you want to do, it is difficult to put it into words. And perhaps you will find a page or a paragraph somewhere that will describe exactly what your inner monologue was about and sometimes even broaden it. And when I came to London I soon realised that knowing what I’m doing does not really matter if I don’t know why I am doing it. I think that I sort of lost myself at some point and was so wrapped up in constant production and theorising the work that I genuinely forgot why I started painting in the first place. And it took me some time to remember that but eventually I did and it felt - in the most cliché way possible - as a new beginning for me. So rather than comparing the pre-London and post-London me I would say that the transition between the two influenced me the most. When being displaced, one has to return to the most primal questions in order to navigate through a new space.

Installation view, It is better to be cats than be loved; Tabula Rasa (London, UK) 2022, courtesy of the gallery.

What drives and motivates you as a painter?

A simple answer would be a dissatisfaction with what is already out there and what we perceive as our current “real”. A more complex answer has to do with the “unknown” which has a very specific impact on humans. The idea of the unknown as something that is tempting on its own, but at the same time is only based on speculation or assumptions. Inherently, the unknown is impossible to verify, or prove. The unknown is persistently only alluring. I would like to offer alternative structures to the current nature of things and emphasising that these alternatives are, of course, something that has to do with my inner, personalised perception of the world as it is.

There is no subject matter in your work as such, correct?

From a personal perspective I feel though each work conjures a certain dystopian flavour. Does that resonate with you and what would you like the viewer to get out of your paintings? I consider my works to depict an event, more than anything else. In Deleuzian terms, this would mean that each painting shows something that is always virtual, never an independent molecule. It is the sum total of all these molecules interacting with each other, but it emerges as the most important thing: as the event itself. Therefore it is irreducible to the causal processes that bring it about. It is, in itself, what Deleuze calls “quasi-cause”: it can make more things happen, even though it doesn’t have any real existence (because it is always virtual). The molecules or elements that construct my events are things that go beyond what we see in our day to day life. They are a part of reality seen under an x-ray machine, and they are precisely those elements that resist visualisation. Therefore, I could say that the “dystopian flavour” you mentioned is potentially part of the effects that these events create. It’s one of the many moods I aim to provoke - not as an isolated “feeling” but one of the many “feelings” you get when looking at my paintings. And I like your choice of words, because another thing that is important to me is something that again goes beyond the pure image. A painting that provokes a whisper, a sound, a reminiscence of taste, or goosebumps on the back of the neck are to me something special.

You also never work with source material?

About 9 months ago I sort of gave up on any source material whatsoever. Not because of any superficiality but solely because I figured that for me having a pre-existing visual reference is too restricting and the work doesn’t really benefit from it. By pre-existing I mean a materialised source which then creates a pre-existing mental image that will get materialised and manipulated later on. And the other reason was that because my process is rather intuitive, spontaneous and impulsive: a reference image could not possibly give me the outcome that I wanted. It is impossible to do a sketch for the work I do, so the only thing that I can work with is my memory - which is an interesting reference on its own. When you remember something from the past, you are not just concocting a mental image of something, you are actually perceiving into the past. And memory works by making a copy not of the event in the past but of your previous memory. You are constantly recreating the memory - and that for me works as my “source material”. By recreating the memories of things I’ve seen, heard or touched I get these hybrid images that merge into alternative complex forms that do not resemble the initial source anymore.

In the studio I was fascinated to see some of your “lock down drawings”. I know these are works and an aspect of your practice you do not share often. Firstly How was that whole period for you?

Lock down for me was probably the same as for everyone else. Remembering it now brings this feeling of uneasiness, desperation, isolation and no escape. And on top of that I just moved to London at the worst time possible, not knowing anyone here and just hoping for the best possible outcome basically. At the Royal College of Art we weren’t allowed to go to the studios for almost 6 months so I had to work in my room. At the beginning I was making a lot of drawings and watercolours just because I didn’t want to use turpentine in the same space where I was sleeping. But of course, after some time the temptation to paint was too strong so I just accepted the fact that I will sleep in all these toxic fumes for the sake of art. Luckily there were no consequences but still, not the greatest time. I was trying hard to convert my frustration about the situation and saw these small drawings as a “warm up” for when I would be back in the studio. That mental shift helped a lot, and after that my small experiments got less awkward and at the end they did build up the excitement of working on a large-scale formats again.

Sepraznazia, 2022, 40 x 34 cm, Oil on linen. Image courtesy of Tabula Rasa Gallery.

And on the subject of the drawing itself, is still drawing still important to you now? Where do you draw and can it be a spontaneous activity that occurs in any location?

To be honest, I haven’t made a single drawing for almost a year. It simply doesn’t create the same excitement (and frustration) for me as painting does. But it did in a way influence my way of painting, especially charcoal drawings where I started off with a big black shape and erased parts of it. So I was technically “drawing” with an eraser. This is very similar to how I start the first layer of my paintings now: I remove paint using a cotton cloth to bring out the highlights and create a basic structure for the painting. I do believe though that drawing is still very important because with painting, you can manipulate a lot and use tricks and almost cheat. And you cannot hide behind anything when drawing.

When we first spoke we talked about the laborious nature of producing a work and the layering each painting may go through, how long do you generally work on a “painting” before you can say it is finished?

It depends. When I start painting it sometimes happens that it goes really well for the first couple of days. And I think to myself: “this is gonna be a quick painting”. And then I somehow manage to complicate it so much, that it suddenly becomes everything but easy, and therefor a time-demanding painting. And then other times I think that it will take me centuries to solve a painting because things just aren’t working, and then I come to the studio the day after and I simply know what the solution is. And at the same time it is difficult to say how long does it take me because I tend to work on multiple pieces at the same time and sometimes I don’t work on a specific painting for a week or two. But to at least partially answer your question - I generally work for a really, really long time.

In the studio will you tend to work on a single piece at a time or do you have multiple works ongoing?

At the moment I am working on six or seven paintings. I find that this approach works best for me, since I can easily switch between each painting, and if I reach a point when I am not sure how to continue I don’t stare at it and observe it, but rather I set it aside. Sometimes I even turn it around because otherwise I feel as if the painting is watching me and I am there ignoring it while paying attention to another painting. And of course, there is the technical, time sensitive aspect of oil paint that sometimes just takes forever to dry. There are ways around that but I prefer not to take any risks with cobalt siccative unless it’s urgent.

Is a sense of balance and colour harmony important to you in your paintings?

The way I deal with it is that I try to find the sense of balance and harmony by keeping the notion of randomness. By that I mean a sum of different elements and colour combinations and interactions between them that on some level fundamentally work together, but it is impossible to define the reason behind it. There is some internal logic to it, but it is hidden and one cannot truly detect it. This again has to do with what I said earlier about finding alternatives to the preconceived notions - in this specific case, various colour and composition theories. But the notion of randomness is of course just a temporary illusion until one can decode the mechanism behind it.

Installation View, Made in Heaven; Des Bains (London, UK) 2022, courtesy of the gallery

Your latest work has seen somewhat of departure from your previous bold vibrant palette to a more subtle, nuanced approach to colour, what caused this shift and how do you see this progressing?

I’ve been considering muting the colours for quite some time. I am not saying that this will now become an intrinsic part of my painting, because after all every painting is different and should be treated as such. But I guess that I could say there are two main reasons why I decided to do so. The first one is more of a conceptual nature: because I deal with this perplexity of visual and non-visual reality it can often drift into the zone of this fantasy world of indescribable shapes and shapeless elements. And, of course, I am aware that this is exactly how it is, I still want to go against the idea that they don’t exist, because we simply don’t know. They may or they may not exist. In order to drift from this “strictly fictional world” and place the event into our actual world, one thing that I could do is to mute colours and get them closer to the ones that we see in our day-to-day life. And the second reason is that although I still enjoy working with bold colours, they can sometimes be quite overwhelming. Toning them down causes the viewers to pay more attention to what they are actually looking at. The painting therefore becomes much more subtle and demands more time to truly reveal what is happening.

Do you have any rituals when working?

I’m very strict on my breaks because it is so easy to just sit or stand there for many hours without even noticing that there might be an apocalypse outside. When I was still at the RCA I even had a timer set so I took a break every hour and a half. This way my work flow is much more effective because I come back to the studio with a “fresh mind”. Nowadays I tend to work more intuitively (so no timer) but I still take breaks. I used to listen to music all the time but recently I’ve been almost addicted to podcasts. I figure that music sometimes tends to influence not only the way I work but also the speed - and I’ve often felt quite rushed, it almost felt as if I am running a marathon. Not that I ever have but I imagine it might be quite intense to say the least. Podcasts allow me to fully surrender to the act of painting and be more present and in control. And of course, the most important part of my ritual is a can of Red Bull a day.

What is it about being an artist that you love?

Well that’s the thing, I don’t think it is about love - or at least, not only love. For me it is about the need to do it, it is an addiction, but perhaps sometimes love as well. There are four stages that I often think about. The first one is the thrill that I get right before I start the painting. Everything is still open, all the possibilities are there and each painting is an opportunity do something that it was technically impossible to imagine in the first place. It is the “honey moon phase”. Then there is the second, the longest and for me the most frustrating stage which is basically making a sense of the mess I have created for myself. It is a problem solving with no preconceived notions. There are no predetermined rules, and I cannot use the same exact solutions I’ve used in the past. Each work has its own internal structure and my task is to observe it, recognise the logic behind it, and react and act upon it. Third stage is finishing or concluding a painting, and this moment is filled with the cathartic sensation - but not the same one that you get once you finish reading a book. I still have to treat it as if it is not approaching the end, otherwise I might get tricked into thinking that I cannot change anything at all because I get used to the way it is appearing. And the final stage is an epilogue: accepting the painting’s final form and naming it accordingly.

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Photography by Yisi Li