Varda Caivano

Our profile on the British-Argentine artist, whose paintings exist somewhere on the edge of nameability

By Terry R. Myers

Untitled, 2014. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London Untitled, 2004. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London

I could argue that Varda Caivano has in productive and meaningful ways been painting versions of the same painting – her painting – ever since I first met her in 2002, soon after she had started the MA in Painting course at the Royal College of Art, London, and I had begun a two-year stint there as visiting professor of painting. Writing this now, I am looking at the small takeaway card she produced for the RCA’s degree show in 2004. On the front is an image of one of her paintings from that exhibition; on the reverse her name, email address (now changed) and mobile number (still the same). Anyone who has paid attention to Caivano’s work over the past decade would immediately recognise this painting as hers. Like most of her work from that time, Untitled, 2004 (it was included in her 2006 Kunstverein Freiburg exhibition), is a smallish canvas (51 by 41 cm), in this case a vertical one. Painted in oil (she would switch to acrylic for two years while pregnant), it pieces together what can be best described as moments of muted colours (blues, greens, yellows, purples and several browns) to make a roughly ovoid shape that takes up all but the left and bottom edges of the canvas. It presents itself as a contemplative accumulation of gentle contradictions, as it is somehow as clear about its ambiguity as it is equivocal about its clarity, fully present yet perpetually in a state of becoming (she’s very, very good at putting down paint that appears material and ethereal all at once), a painting that discusses abstraction, the landscape and/or the body while being all and none of those things itself.

I remember that the paintings from the beginning had achieved a level of continuity that is not common even in the work of strong painting students (if only because too many people, including myself, provide contradictory feedback)

I’ve used ‘discusses’ above on purpose. At first because my conversations with Caivano between 2004 and 2006, while I commuted from Los Angeles, were, of course, discontinuous, each time very much not picking up from wherever we left off, but instead retracing steps from our prior conversations to enter into the new work at hand, finished or not. I do remember that the paintings from the beginning had achieved a level of continuity that is not common even in the work of strong painting students (if only because too many people, including myself, provide contradictory feedback), evidence of her early commitment to a level of focus and a type of simmering development that has served her work very well ever since. Then there is the way in which Caivano regularly describes her paintings, most recently in The Independent: ‘I think the paintings are like thoughts.’ Put another way; thinking about thoughts is, in itself, always a discussion.

On the occasion of her first solo exhibition in the United States, at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, Caivano has been given prime real estate to introduce her painterly thinking to a meaningful conversation that has been taking place in Chicago for – as of 2015 – a century. Not known these days for being particularly painting-friendly in its programming, the Renaissance Society nonetheless provides Caivano an ideal think-tank for her work: situated at the end of one of the floors of architect Henry Ives Cobb’s 1892 Gothic Revival building that was modelled after those at Oxford, it is one of the most transporting and transformative exhibition spaces in the city. Speaking with Caivano recently, she was reticent to identify precisely what she was planning to include, other than that it would be a new body of work: mixed-media paintings, works on paper, collage and – tantalisingly – a new piece of writing. I was prepared for her reticence because I recognise it as a part of her thought process, a necessary part of what it takes for her to hold the work as open as possible. It is ideal that the exhibition will open in February and close in April as Chicago – hopefully – transitions from winter to spring.

It is impossible not to consider nature as a language that Caivano uses and deliberately holds open in her work by way of the tried-and-true components of painting: shape, line and colour

It is impossible not to consider nature as a language that Caivano uses and deliberately holds open in her work by way of the tried-and-true components of painting: shape, line and colour. As Barry Schwabsky wrote in 2009, ‘Caivano’s paintings neither represent nature nor put the artist in its place, and yet they remind us of nature.’ I would add that Caivano’s paintings, in resolutely visual ways, ‘talk’ to us about nature but, most importantly, do so as nature, in keeping, I would argue, with one of my favourite lyrical questions: Morrissey’s “Nature is a language – can’t you read?” Caivano’s paintings frequently come across as having been brought right up to the point of nameability as only a thing in and of itself. For example, a recent painting (Untitled, 2014) appears as if it’s on the verge of representing a particular landscape or place: numerous discrete areas of different blues-to-purples occupy most of the bottom two-thirds of the canvas. One area of green has been placed at the work’s horizontal midpoint, echoing a larger fully exposed area in the upper right corner as well as more of it that emerges from behind layers of other colours (including bits of red and yellow) across the entire top of the canvas. At this point my inadequate description makes the painting sound as if it were abstract; however, the inclusion of one painted line that runs vertically down the entire canvas disrupts it and keeps it from becoming an image of a landscape by reasserting the entire thing as nature itself – that is, the painting as nature that is (always) a language.

In my conversation with Caivano, she did convey to me that she considers the new work for Chicago as constituting “a third moment”, describing to me her desire to attain a certain level of complexity between drawing and painting (including, it seems, writing as well) by incorporating drawing more directly into the paintings, even to the point of using, on occasion, chalk. Her plan is to have everything as different as possible: media, sizes, types, positions (at Tomio Koyama in Kyoto in 2009 she placed unstretched canvases on the floor in front of paintings on the wall), etc, all coming together by way of the consistency and variation of her pictorial thoughts to transform her third moment into many more moments for the rest of us. 

The first US solo exhibition of work by Varda Caivano is on view at the Renaissance Society of the University of Chicago through 19 April.

The article was first published in the January & February 2015 issue.