Images from Victoria-Miro Gallery in London.
Jennifer Higgie in Freize issue #93, 2005, repeated here in entirety, because it's so good:
Painting as a site of struggle, doubt and pleasure.
Varda Caivano’s first solo show at the Victoria Miro Gallery comprised eight small, untitled paintings, almost all of which are modest, awkward and appealing. In these times of bombast and appalling certainty Caivano’s tentative handling of paint indicates something even more refreshing than the strange, clumsy lyricism that her images proffer: an interest in doubt as an end in itself. It is very pleasant to be in the presence of paintings that refuse so stringently to be bossy.
None of which, I hasten to add, implies that Caivano is either interested in or perpetuates any idea of Bad Painting, a school (if it can be so called) that tends to leap off the springboard of irony and world-weariness into a stagnant pool of tired ideas. Her imagination is too restless and her belief in the possibilities of painting too sincere for such game-playing. The infinite choice of possible combinations of line and colour still available, though, of course can be stifling. This is, perhaps, the central, anxious paradox that lies at the heart of not only Caivano’s practice but any creative act. Where to begin? Where to stop? What is there left to do and discover?
There is something unreconstructed in Caivano’s approach, a sense that decades of theory about the life and death of painting have somehow passed her by while she was concentrating on, say, how a smudge of blue might best interact with green cross-hatching. In some ways her painting evokes the earnest middle youth of British Modernism – Paul Nash’s damp, brownish palette and rump-like hills fused with a blustery abstraction, in particular, spring to mind; in other ways her paintings look like nothing but themselves. Each one she makes tends to reflect on the world as a place of infinite textures, tones and moods that evoke feelings which are impossible to replicate (though it may be worth trying). Accidents of discovery are often more interesting than the impulse that initially encouraged the artist to stumble forth. In this Caivano’s paintings are harried with choice: under-painting is exhausted, scratched, rubbed, re-worked and finally painted over, as if in a fit of pique. Grubby blues, pinks, black and ochres are blasted over the surface in a way that makes me suspect that she would quite like to annihilate what she has made but can’t quite let go of the pleasing marks she is attempting to destroy. I do not like to think of the arguments that must occur between painter and paint about when to let it rest.
Caivano never lets you forget the physical aspects of what she is doing. Her work is both illusionistic – she plays with quite conventional ideas of perspective and depth – and viscerally anti-illusionistic: she makes no bones about the fact that all she is doing is putting pigment on a surface. Yet despite the sense of struggle that emanates from each painting (which has, I suspect, something to do with the artist’s suspicion of quick, disposable beauty), each tussle is different. Some of her paintings evoke the landscape more literally than others. One recent study in lilac and sap-green simultaneously intimates watery depths threatening to flood lush fields and a simple arrangement of lines and tonal shifts. Another looks like both a flattened insect – its body delineated in dirty cross-hatching, its wings a nearly transparent lilac, pink and dry green – and a crude aerial map of, say, some lush tropical tributary: echoes of landscape in recumbent forms. Another untitled painting in pinky browns, umber and indigo evokes both an underwater world of seashells and fishy flesh and the kind of exercises in abstraction from 30 years ago you now find hanging in second-hand shops high above shelves of dusty books.
There is a sense in Caivano’s paintings of something searched for and not quite found. This, conversely, is their great appeal. For many of the above reasons, I rather selfishly hope that she doesn’t find what she’s looking for.