“My body and soul are in harmony when painting”: In studio with Una Ursprung

For Taiwanese artist Una Ursprung, forests and mountains have replaced high rise buildings and neon lights as home. Living and working in a small mountain village in Switzerland, Una’s work responds to the natural world and her place in it. Using hybrid styles of traditional figurative landscape painting and contemporary abstraction, her work explores the lingering trace of the artist that remains in a painting, like a paper cup left behind after a picnic.

In Una’s work, the spray painted marks on the canvas are like graffiti, defacing the natural and idyllic scenes in the background. While this could be read as a kind of violence, an urban intrusion into the natural world, the brightly colored splashed, splotches and squiggles begin to merge with the verdant scenes and create multiplies visual and conceptual layers. The marks resemble text, the gestural traces of the artist writing the scene into being with pigment and paintbrush.

Ahead of her move to the Swiss-French border, we chatted to Una to find out more about her studio practice, looking at mountains and notions of home.

AMM: Hi Una! To start us off, can you please tell us a little about what appeals to you about the medium and materiality of painting?

UU: Hello Layla! The primary medium for my painting is oil paint. I have been using oil for more than ten years. It is not just because I am used to it, but also because I am fascinated by its natural and varied texture. I think painting is a very private matter. I feel my body and soul are in harmony when I am painting. Therefore, the process of painting is like endless self-talk, through which I can understand myself better. At times, I also discover something I have never thought about before. It is so inspiring, that is why I always enjoy painting and never get tired of it.

AMM: Your visual language is a hybrid mix of styles. How did you develop this way of painting? Where there any significant turning points or breakthroughs? Or has it been more of a gradual evolution?

UU: It’s quite complicated to explain because this is a result of long-term development as well as a combination of many ideas. I have always been trying not to paint in the same way and aiming to paint each piece with some new skills. So, you may be able to see various painting techniques in the works of different periods. Besides, sometimes I have a desire to paint a figurative scenery or draw some simple abstract lines. Hence, I combine these different creative types into a painting.

AMM: The spontaneous arabesques of the spray paint over the detailed foliage seems to hover in front of the forest beyond, but on closer inspection are integrated into the same plane. This creates a kind of optical illusion. Can you tell us about notions of surface, depth and materiality in your work?

UU: For the last few years, I have been focusing on artistic media and techniques to explore the space and visual sense of painting. First, I paint in oil with brushes. Figurative painting techniques allow me to manage the space of scenery. Afterward, I apply more direct abstract lines by spray paint to create an atmosphere generated by two spaces. Spray paint is a modern media, which is quite different from traditional medium such as oil paint. The combination of spray paint and oil paint draws a vivid contrast, creating a diverging visual effect. Spray-painted abstract lines resemble secretive texts hovering over the surface of the oil painting, just like freezing a fleeting moment of floating bugs, leaves, lights, and dust in a forest.

Out of the entire creation process, I am also interested in spray-painting the landscape paintings I have already finished. Doing so allows me to see my hand motions and my body actions directly. These motions are fast yet free, for they can immediately change the atmosphere I have originally fostered with my careful strokes. That displays a different set of personality, desires, and space. I am intrigued by this result.

AMM: In more recent works you’ve started cutting up your canvases and weaving the strands within the stretcher. How does this relate to inherent themes in your work?

UU: This series of works is an extension of the concept mentioned above. The only difference is that it focuses more on the relationship between painting and real space. The idea of cutting my paintings into pieces of long strips arose from the employment of spray-painted lines in previous works. By weaving the canvases, I want to present the hand-made-like texture and gestures of weaving. This series is not finished yet; I am still working on it.

AMM: How do you approach your work? Do you work from sketches, photographs, do you work en plein air? How do paintings evolve in your studio?

UU: I think the way I paint is very intuitive. In general, I don’t have a detailed plan before I start working, but sometimes I like to draw from a photo or do some collages. I start a painting by painting a landscape based on a picture. Afterward, I draw while thinking about the next step. The results are often unexpected. I haven’t been working outside for a long time, but I often take photographs in the forest.

In fact, my studio is quite small, so I have to take turns with paintings, and I also have to prepare my canvas with gesso at the same time. I have to wait for a painting to dry to start a new one. Nevertheless, it is a perfect time to look at my paintings deeper and reflect on myself.

AMM: Do you have any daily creative rituals?

UU: In recent years, I have been trying to establish a regular schedule for working like an office worker working only a day shift from Monday to Friday. However, I am free most of the time, so I like to stay in my studio even if I am not drawing. Daily routines help me to enter and maintain the creative process.

AMM: How are you influenced by your surroundings and environment? How has living in different countries influenced your art?

UU: The influence is not so much that of the different countries as of different natural sceneries. I grew up in a big city in Taiwan, and later I studied in a small town in Bretagne for several years. Now I live in a village 1000 meters above sea level in Switzerland. I realized that I feel more creatively inspired and more comfortable when I live in the countryside. By contrast, I feel lost and anxious when I live in a big city. I think I need to be in a tranquil place and stable state to work.

AMM: You’ve recently started painting mountains. Is this a new direction in your work? What themes or ideas are you currently exploring in your work?

UU: Yes, it is still at a very beginning stage, yet based on the same concept of painting and space. Recently I became interested in the shape of mountains. I think this idea might have come from experiencing a severely cold winter. Through this project, I study how the shapes of color blocks intervene the space of landscape instead of focusing on the lines I painted with spray paint in my previous works. I am not yet sure how this project will develop but I will follow my instincts.

AMM: How do you know when you’ve started to feel at home and rooted in a new city?

UU: This question reminds me of a sentence written by Walter Benjamin. I will use his quote as the answer: “In a love affair most seek an eternal homeland, others, but very few, eternal voyaging.” (One Way Street)

AMM: When you’re not in studio, where are we likely to find you?

UU: If the weather is good, you might find me in the forest near my house, or see me strolling the streets of the village I live in. Actually, I have a regular walking route, so it’s not difficult to find me. You may also find me sitting on the sofa in the living room with my cats sleeping on my lap.

AMM: Do you have any exciting projects or events coming up?

UU: I will continue working on the mountains project and the project of cutting and weaving canvases. Upcoming solo shows, group exhibitions or participation at the art fairs are still under discussion with galleries. Besides, I will soon move to France at the Swiss-French border, so it’s quite exciting since I am going to have a new studio!

Find out more about the artist: www.unaursprung.com

Text and interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Mag.