by Courtney R. Thompson
Chicago, Mar. 2012 - I met Antonia during the first day of international student orientation at The School of the Art Institute in August of 2009 (I’m Canadian and she is Bulgarian). She mentioned she was a painter; I can’t remember what claims I made, but I think we went for drinks shortly after. We were reserved back then, but through the course of our graduate programs there were several studio visits, PDF exchanges, and bizarre excursions to more openings than I can count with some energizing ideological arguments in between. I remember the first time she invited me to her studio. I prefaced my acceptance with, “just so you know, I don’t know much about painting.” Our studio and museum visits taught me a lot, but our conversations have largely drifted to pedagogical critique, viewership and the odd book (we share a love of Fernando Pessoa). I can tell you I have seen massive, heavy, intense textural topographical paintings with varying abstractions of figures. I have also seen canvases that have a light intimacy of form, that are like a delicate, but significantly present trace upon the body. I have only seen one other painting that made me instantly think of her. It was Mathias Goeritz’s Message Number 7B, Ecclesiastes VII: 6.
We are now good friends and roommates, probably due to our schedules, as we see each other through drying towels, fresh crumbs by the sink, and new reading material on varying available surfaces around our habitat. As such, this interview was conducted over email as we find ourselves busily orbiting new systems beyond the old universe where we first met at SAIC.
Antonia Gurkovska, The artist's studio; Courtesy of the artist
Courtney R. Thompson: You and I have spoken about the art school flight, or the number of students that graduate and move out to New York or L.A. Why was it important to you to stay in Chicago?
Antonia Gurkovska: Less than a year is too early to define if I stayed, but yes I am here now. It is not a permanent decision, nor has it been one specifically planned. I think in my case it happened organically while juggling the rest of my life (organizing my international status). I take many factors into consideration, mostly being sensitive to the work and to where I most feel comfortable as an artist. I also don’t believe that an immediate move to New York gives you instant access to the art scene there. I think it is possible to be active outside of Chicago and live here. Many artists are teaching part time in the city while still living/exhibiting in New York, L.A. or elsewhere. Another point is that for the works there are no location restrictions. Once they get introduced by people, a gallery, or to a larger community, it is less important where the artist resides. So far I am very grateful to Chicago for giving me the space - both literally and metaphorically, starting with sufficient studio space, allowing me the time to reflect and think about changes. And most of all to be able to attend artist-run spaces, which Chicago has a wealth of, where the conversations I find to be very condensed, focused and passionate.
CRT: What was the transition like for you to shift from operating in the small studio at the school to your considerably larger studio space that you currently occupy near West Garfield Park?
AG: I was with a friend in my studio recently and I was joking that even if I had a parking lot for a studio, it would end up being filled up. True, the space I had at school was much smaller but I found ways to do the scale of paintings I wanted to. Another significant difference was the shift from “public” to “private” studio. This stirred my working habits. Now that I have the whole space to myself and more terrain, there is less hierarchy for the works. Pretty much everything I make lays around, thus more visible and accessible. Rarely anything goes into storage, which remains the case during occasions of studio visits. All studio modes are in flux and within reach or I should say they all coexist and are present at the same time -- meaning that I don’t have to transform my studio from a night storage to working place to exhibiting space as was the entertaining and annoying part at school. Now it is all laid out; it is all there and it is happening.
CRT: You also experienced a significant physical and ideological shift in your working environment by coming from what you have referred to as the traditional Academy background of the Old Continent. Expanding on your previous thoughts of the consequences of local spatial shifts, can you give some overview of how your work has evolved in the past three years?
AG: If I think of my Academy background and development as an artist, ironically it resembles the history of painting. I used to work with a lot imagery and figuration in all the manners they are encountered in painting, from representational portraiture, baroque compositions and expressionist abstractions, to putting direct tracings of my body in the paintings. I was very into it and still am, especially the role of my physical participation in relation to the work. Up to a point where the process became solely additive and I sensed a need to break down a little all the heat I was throwing into the paintings. I slowed down to dig into all the layers and extract what resonated for me in the work. Prior to this it felt as if I was on top of a tower. I was able to see far but not really understand what I was sitting on. This threw my attention directly to the foundations and I started rearranging the base. My palette got greatly reduced, the representation became the material itself, the spine of the composition turned into a grid, the images and figures became marks, interventions, and repetitions: the overall effect—monochrome--all driven by an eerie (R) Ryman - (R) Rauschenberg hybrid. The content flipped from facing outward, to pointing inward. “A high note broken off” and reduced to Index.*
Antonia Gurkovska, Index, 2011, silver oil based paint, acrylic,staples on canvas, 12" x 9" x 1 1/2"; Courtesy of the artist
CRT: Hence the title for your recent exhibition at Kavi Gupta?
AG: Yes, exactly. It is reminiscent of and a result from my earlier work. It continues the thread, but from a different perspective and assessment criteria, based on the build up experience, language, and my redefined position to painting. In the end this greatly contributed to my personal investigations into my work, opening it up to new modes of inquiry.
CRT: This reminds me of when I was at one of your semester critiques towards the end of our program when you had pulled all your canvases off their stretchers and laid them on the floor and invited people to walk on them. This was unsettling to your panel and was clearly a transformative moment for you in thinking about your work.
AG: Sometimes it is really hard to create a distance between yourself and the work, especially during an intense studio time, which is pretty much the case when you are in grad school, or at least it was for me. It is such an exciting environment and you get eager to meet and talk to lots of different people and the work goes constantly in all directions. It keeps jumping from your head through your hands and you are looking at it all the time except that you can’t really see it. I knew the compounded feedback would go in storage for future processing and that for me was important to use my time as productively and as multi-perspectively as possible in relation to the conversations I was interested in. I think at that point I really needed to clarify for myself where I stood in relation to the works and what the works actually were. It was also important to do it somewhat publicly, rather than interviewing my advisors one by one in my studio and only speaking hypothetically. The grad critiques are a crucial platform to set up a real and at the same time mock situation for discussing questions with a valuable audience, as the panel is there for you. It is also worth thinking of how this exchange is constructed, conducted and experienced. Surrounded by faculty and students invested in your field or similar background they are assigned for a short amount of time to submit to your test.
CRT: This speaks to your current exhibition at Kavi Gupta and the installation of your work in the gallery space. One might have the immediate impression that one wall is blank but I perceive it as a specific territorial decision. Additionally the project space creates a complete environment, the seductive Container. The stakes are higher here than within the critique space of the school but it seems like a development out of this idea.
AG: Yes, now we are moving from the rehearsal to the larger stage and performance, where the audience is everyone, I am not present and I am not necessarily getting explicit responses to what I am interested in. And yes, the stakes are much higher. You know you are going out into the ocean, but it is still unknown what vessel you have. If during the grad school critiques I was able to hand in (literally) my message and at the same time hear if it is doing what I intended, then putting together a show in the active art world is like sending a message in a bottle, hoping someone somewhere would get it sometime (sooooooooooon). Container and the blank wall are very specific in relation to the works and the space, which formed the concept for the show. It is an extension and prelude for the future, rooted in what I was asking during that crit you mentioned. I was awaiting the opportunity for such a context, as it is a challenge to deal with permission particularly on this different level.
Antonia Gurkovska, Container, 2012, Site specific installation; Courtesy of the artist
CRT: What do you mean by permission?
AG: I mean, personal - in terms of what kind of show I would like to have and what conversation I am initiating and on the other hand, what would be possible in such a space? It was interesting to observe the transition of the works from the studio space to the gallery and also to transfer the studio to the white cube during the installation period when I was working on Container. I remember one day walking into the gallery, after the show opened, there was no one and I was looking at the paintings in the main space and I felt so distant and mute. They were holding all the authority to communicate on my behalf. It was uncomfortable trying to touch them, as they seemed guarded by the aura of pristine whiteness based on our understanding of how we are supposed to objectively look at contemporary art. It was my turn to submit to the test.
CRT: Speaking of audience, you are headed to the Armory show in New York shortly. I am always interested in these kinds of events where galleries are able to show artists in different places in their careers. I have reservations about the terms emerging and mid-career artist, as it belies a complexity of when and where an artist shows their work and with whom. What does it mean for you to be able to show your work in this environment?
AG: I understand and agree with your reservations, but I can only speak from my position, which is as a relatively new participant in the art scene here and I don’t mind summarizing it as an emerging. I am emerging in many ways. I am still very positive of my experience visiting art fairs and large shows, as they keep me alert. It is such an intense collision (in a good way) of where is the work meant (made for) to be, how far it can get from the studio, and how far you are willing to follow it. A fortuitous intersection occurred last year in December when I went to see Art Miami/Basel and returned the same week to graduate critiques at SAIC. The echo of the after thought was; how loud are you able to repeat/state the kind of artist you are and how much would it dissolve…
At this stage it is important for me to see my works in different contexts. It is a valuable catalyst, one that allows me to define where the paintings stand and how much they can hold.
* This quote is from a yet unpublished piece of writing entitled “Notes on Antonia Gurkovska’s grid paintings” by Dana DeGiulio.
—Courtney R. Thompson
ArtSlant would like to thank Antonia Gurkovska for her assistance in making this interview possible.