Yes, but… Ambiguity and multiplicity in Anna Schachinger’s work

Anna Schachinger, Diplomaustellung 2018Anna Schachinger, Diplomaustellung 2018

For Austrian-Ecuadorian artist Anna Schachinger, painting is an intricately intertwined process of balancing conceptual and intuitive impulses. Her work encompasses real and fantastical subject matter, and from a formal point of view, figurative elements and abstract gestures. Her paintings represent a state of ambiguity and possibility, conversations that are left hanging. The title of her exhibition, alles at Mexico City project space Lulu in 2017, is a not-quite word that resonated with the possibility of meaning without any actual fulfilment. Her more recent exhibition Desta Maneira Não at Galeria Madragoa in Lisbon, directly translates as “this way no”, a similarly ambiguous phrase ripe with possible interpretations. In this body of work, conceptualised in India and produced while Anna was on residency at Lake Millstatt in Austria, water is the dominant feature. In the painting Mergulho, the figure of a diver conjuncts the worlds of above and below. But Anna’s translucent application of pigment confounds the sense of depth and disrupts the surfaces, making it uncertain whether the foreign body is falling through air or descending through water. According to the logic of Anna’s work that welcomes a kaleidoscopic multitude of points of view, it is a resounding “both, and”. This succeeds from Anna’s Falling body of work, which explores a similarly abstract and ambiguous notion of the verb. Themes and motifs are revisited and reworked across bodies of work, creating layered strands of narrative. Working chiefly in oil and ink pigments on linen, Anna’s paintings are intriguing in their seeming disregard for conventional spatial hierarchy. Foreground and background merge and overlap creating fascinating new potentials to read, or get lost in, the compositions.

Anna lives and works in Vienna. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. She has exhibited her work widely in Europe and the USA. Here, we speak with Anna about growing up on the move, collaborating with other artists and pineapple scented sauna oil.

‘Stone Nora’, oil on linen, 42 x 56 cm, courtesy of Sophie Tappeiner Gallery, kunst-dokumentation.com, the artist

AMM: Hi Anna, you grew up in many different parts of the world—India, Nicaragua, Ecuador. Could you tell us about your earliest creative experiences and share some of your most vivid memories that helped shape your artistic vision and desire to make art?

AS: I don’t link my desire to make art to having grown up in different places. I do need to work with it as it forms part of my reality, but I think that it can be just as inspiring to have grown up in a single place, as complexities are everywhere.

My desire to make art came a bit later. When I was 19, I started drawing a lot. It just made me feel content, something that was really hard for me to reach back then. So I started to show my very teenagy drawings to my friends—who were kind enough to look at them. I decided that I wanted to study art because making it (or what I thought back then was it, which was sketchbooks filled with very feely stuff) made me content. Not sure if that’s a good reason, but it’s not the worst one either.

AMM: How does your heritage from the Americas and Europe influence your current artistic journey?

AS: I hope I am not on an artistic journey. I am actually a bit sick of travelling. I would also feel a bit cautious about talking about my American heritage. I guess it just feels too easy to link myself to a history without having to deal with its sometimes very brutal everyday life. I chose to live in Vienna and not for instance in Quito, Ecuador, where my grandmother lives. I still feel very connected to this city. It’s just a bit easy for me or for others to use it as an explanation in the art context for my color choice or anything else.

AMM: How has your practice developed over the years; were there major milestones? What have been some of the high points and learning curves thus far?

AS: Lots of little milestones, just digging myself through the mud of my artistic practice. The last three were: 1. making a painting where the abstraction wins over the figuration in a super dizzy way instead of more concrete outlines; 2. making a drawing of all naked women without any sexiness in it. Not that sexiness is bad, but it was fun to desexualize the female body for once; 3. making my first abstract work in a larger format that doesn’t look like walking through a sad little city park listening to Enya.

AMM: You have studied at the prestigious School of the Art Institute in Chicago and the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna; how did these experiences affect your artistic trajectory?

AS: I was really lucky that back then my father could afford to pay a substantial part of the fees at the Art Institute. It is just crazy how much education can cost in the States. I don’t want to hide the fact that I was able to be there because of my father’s income, no matter those scholarships I also got. I admire every American student taking huge loans in order to study, but my observation was that the rich kids probably outnumbered every other group at SAIC. For me, SAIC was truly a great school as I was eager to learn and I could just suck it all in for two years, I had fantastic teachers there- then I went to Vienna. University education is for free or cheap in Austria and that’s great. I started in a male dominated painting class, but I finished my studies in the sculpture class of Julian Goethe, who is very dedicated to his students.

AMM: What is your process of working: do you sketch and plan your compositions or allow things to take their own course?

AS: Sometimes there is a lot of sketching beforehand. If so, it is in order to learn the composition and the motif by heart, so by the time I translate it into a painting, I can just do the drawing directly on the canvas without looking at any reference material. It is also a sort of test on the motif, if it already gets boring while drawing it; it’s probably not worth to paint it. Sometimes there is no drawing beforehand and I just figure it out along the way. I might also sketch while painting in search for a solution for a certain part of the painting.

AMM: What guides your colour choices? Can you tell us more about your palette and the role it plays?

AS: I mainly paint with pure pigments in different solvents, and I have about 10 colors I use and mix with each other. By now I kind of know how the colors interact with each other, which is a great advantage. My new goal is to learn how to paint with more body…It’s hard as I am very attached to the translucency of the paint. I just learned about painting butter, might change my life.

AMM: Are there overarching themes and propositions in your work?

AS: I work with whatever is right in front of my nose that makes me curious. Painting is always the departure point, but it can lead basically anywhere I—with my limited perception and experience—am able to go. I like to work with subjects, where I would have a lot of answers like ‘yes, but…’ or ‘on the other side’ in a conversation. It’s stuff that I care about, that I feel involved in.

‘Fouteuil’ (with the lights still on), oil on linen, 42 x 56 cm, courtesy of Sophie Tappeiner Gallery, kunst-dokumentation.com, the artist

AMM: Do you create to understand or do you express what you have already learned. Or is it a bit of both?

AS: I work to think and feel certain things through. I think of the process and of the finished works more as a conversation and never as a means to teach people anything.

AMM: What do you hope the viewer takes from your art?

AS: I hope to give the viewer a space where contradiction in thought and feeling is possible and no decision of what is right or wrong must be taken, but more a moment where everything can just be seen. But I do not think I have any control of what the viewer sees, and I am actually glad about that. Looking at a painting and the thoughts and feelings it provokes is a very private moment.

AMM: We loved the concept of your beautiful 2018 exhibition ‘Holderinnen’. Can you elaborate on how your use of materials helped tell the story?

AS: Holderinnen consists of three large scale paintings showing women ironing huge pieces of fabric and some small scale works with ripples and folds that are double-sided and hang from metal rods coming out of the ceiling. They repeat the action of the figuration (rippling and stretching) on a material level, and help to reinforce it. These works are about women’s unpaid labour as much as they are about painting and its history.

AMM: In your work at the Ash Street Project in 2018 you were experimenting with sculptural forms. Can you tell us more about this explorative process and its challenges?

AS: Ash Street Project is a ceramics studio in Portland, Oregon. In the context of my solo exhibition at Fourteen30 Contemporary, I was invited to work at Ash Street for a month. I learned how to use the wheel and was able to start using the generated thrown material for building up sculptural forms, namely people sitting in chairs. I had known that I wanted to do these sculptures since a while but I lacked all the technical skills to do them. So I basically specifically learned to throw to be able to chop up that material again into little figurative sculptures.

AMM: In your fascinating exhibition Pensive State you and Irina Lotarevich worked very closely together to place ceramic figures on metal frameworks positioned through the gallery. We would be very interested to hear more about the ideas and propositions you and Irina were exploring in creating such a piece. Can you tell us how you collaborated to create such a powerful work? What roles did each of you undertake?

AS: Irina and I started with the proposition that we would switch the roles people would expect us to take in a duo show. Irina, as a sculptor, made wall works. I, as a painter, made sculptures. As our approaches are quite different but weirdly compatible we thought that it would be nice to collaborate on a third element for the show. Thus, the idea for making metal structures that would hold the ceramics came about. It was great to design them together, using references that spoke to both of us. In the production, Irina took the lead, as she is very sophisticated in working with metal. I was happy to help in any way I could—which some days just meant to cook for her as she was welding and on others I learned how to grind metal properly.

Installation view, ‘Supervulcanos’, with Leena Luebbe, Irina Lotarevich and Andrea Kvas, courtesy of Tarsia Gallery, kunst-dokumentation.com, the artist

AMM: Does an exhibition close a chapter for you or does it lay the foundations for further development?

AS: It is kind of nice to think about exhibitions as chapters, as the artist R.H. Quaytman. I guess with exhibitions I’m writing a collection of essays, that speak a bit to each other. And sometimes I rewrite an older chapter—right now for instance I am back at trying the whole teenagy thing of expressing my emotions through figurative works. Not the first time I have tried this in a show, not the first time I wonder if it’s even a good idea to do so.

AMM: Are there other artists or artistic movements or traditions that you consider to be influences; if yes, who or what are they and how do they have a bearing on your practice?

AS: I guess I have been formed as much by artistic traditions I agree with as by others I disagree with. Starting my studies in Vienna in a very male dominated painting class, male German painting was the main discourse for some years. Discovering women painters by myself and with a few friends always felt like a revelation—even though the people I was discovering were already part of an established canon—just not to my surroundings. I am talking about people like Nicole Eisenman, the already mentioned R.H. Quaytman or from the generation before, Lee Lozano and Ree Morton. As I had to look by myself for this history, I am very grateful for all the amazing women painting in my generation and the one before. I think that we all don’t have to feel lonely anymore as we are building a discourse together.

AMM: You were involved in a Maumaus International Study Program in Lisbon, a Portland residency with Fourteen30 Contemporary in collaboration with Ash Street Project, and an artist residency on Lake Millstatt in 2019; how significant are such creative opportunities in your artistic development?

AS: All these places and situations were quite different, but what was always special were the people I was able to meet. As for instance the great Rainen Knecht in Portland, who is featured in this issue too. I have talked a bit about Ash Street Project that was dedicated to learning how to throw on a wheel. A month to learn a new skill. Maumaus was an intense seven months study program, that I owe a lot to. I learned that the world is a complicated and in many cases a nasty, cruel place and that it is important to talk about it and to talk about it through an artistic practice. That discourse is important and can be transformed into action. I still hope for that with every work. This summer I am going to do a residency at the artist run space NoLugar in Quito, Ecuador. Very much looking forward to that, as I haven’t been there since 2014. In general, this constant traveling has been a bit much these last years. I want to become better at just staying in Vienna and I don’t want to feel like I am missing out just because I decide for the great structures to work and live that I have here.

‘Nora’s Sofa (with Stones)’, oil on linen, 42 x 56 cm, courtesy of Sophie Tappeiner Gallery, kunst-dokumentation.com, the artist

AMM: Can you elaborate on your Millstatt experience from which the delightful works ‘A Marina Esta de Ferias’ followed?

AS: At Millstatt, the studios are beautiful and located right by the lake. It felt like I was in the lake most of the time. The ideas for the series “Marina Esta de Ferias” came from a month long visit to India in the Winter before. It was the first time I was there since having lived there as a kid, and I felt utterly aware of being a tourist. Travelling—a seemingly simple thing, has become quite complex in our current society. In India I found myself feeling like I was mainly destroying the things I liked the most about the places we visited, and I felt very alienated to myself and my surroundings. This experience was kind of the kick-off for the whole show at Madragoa, Lisbon, that “A Marina Esta de Ferias” is part of. Still, I took the plane for the install and opening in Lisbon and also did some nice trips to the beach.

AMM: In an age of social media and instant connections, does the speed of communication and change affect your art practice or have you managed to stay relatively detached?

AS: In the Summer of 2018 I was so deep in an unhappy Instagram addiction that I deleted my account for good. But as my brother and my most hippiest-never-want-to-be-part-of the-art-world friend agreed that I needed one, I got back to it last winter. I discovered that I feel more comfortable only sharing work as content, not putting any private pictures up. Sometimes there’s this weird old school fear in me that looking at the flat screens is making my work more flat as well—but I have no proof of it and I am not giving my smart phone away anytime soon. Maybe it’s just the hope that my works would be better if I wouldn’t spend so much time staring at screens.

AMM: We enjoyed the article in KubaParis— Magazine for Young Art, November 2019, which included your poetic description of your apartment in Vienna. You are able to express your feelings vividly in words and also through visual language. We recently read that a typical viewer spends as little as 2 seconds looking at an art work. If paintings also need to be read, as you have maintained, what can we put in place to assist the viewer in their quest to glean even more from works of art?

AS: I am glad you liked the text! It’s in German, so I wonder how it sounds like in English? Which translation tool did you use? I never feel completely comfortable writing, but sometimes it is fun to do. Where do viewers spend 2 secs on every work of art? In a museum? On Instagram? I don’t think I have any expertise on how to help people trying to look at art. However we all know that through social media we are learning to divide things and people in what and whom we like and what and whom we don’t like. But I think that looking at art that breaks with one’s scheme of comfort can be just as gratifying. Also, I don’t think people have to look at art at all. I respect if there is simply no interest, not even for 2 seconds.

AMM: What are you reading and listening to at present? Does the content inform your work?

AS: Since 2 summers ago, I am listening a lot to the mixtapes of the deceased Danish Dj Djuna Barnes on soundcloud. A friend recommended her to me because I was euphorically talking about the writer Djuna Barnes and her book Nightwood—maybe the only book I have read twice. Back when I discovered it, I also was making paintings of women reading—and the titles refer to the protagonists of Nightwood. I read a lot different kind of novels, but I listen to the same music all the time.

AMM: When you manage to have some free time, what do enjoy doing?

AS: I have a lot of free time. This doesn’t mean that I don’t work. Work and free time don’t have to exclude each other, at least not in Vienna. What keeps me sane in the Winter time are regular visits to the public women’s sauna, that is self-organized within by the visitors and that was built by the socialist Viennese city council in the 1920s. I actually have witnessed intense fights between the regulars about adding pineapple scent to the sauna infusion, but I still truly believe in these spaces where women make their own structures, and where nakedness is not looked at but a simple fact.

AMM: What does the future hold for you?

AS: Ehm, happiness? That’s all I hope for.

Find out more about the artist: www.cargocollective.com/annaschachinger

Interview by Maria Zemtsova, text by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

Anna Schachinger, Diplomaustellung 2018