The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2023

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APRIL 2023 Issue
Art In Conversation

Liliane Tomasko with Phong H. Bui

Portrait of Liliane Tomasko, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Portrait of Liliane Tomasko, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
On View
Centro De Arte Caja De Burgos
Name Me Not
February 3–May 28, 2023
Burgos, Spain

Every now and then we think of the word “abstraction” as being associated with other related words, including “non-objective,” “non-figurative,” and even at times “pure painting.” Yet, every now and then we’re reminded of what John Constable once stated, “My limited and abstracted art is to be found under every hedge, and in every lane.” While it’s true that Paul Cézanne’s apples set forth the search for abstraction before cubism at the turn of the twentieth century, we should occasionally remind ourselves that figurative art has a long history, dating as far back as Ancient Egyptian art from the sixth millennium BC and the fourth century CE onwards, whereas with abstract art it is barely 108 years old—if we were to consider Kazimir Malevich’s first Black Square (1915) as the first abstract painting ever made. In all truth, to paint the invisible from what once was visible is to make abstract art. For Liliane Tomasko, the subjects of memory, dream, and reverie, which have deep roots in her slow, intimately made vignettes of domestic spaces (from pillows, bedsheets, stacks of mattresses, fabrics, all of which were painted frontally to the picture plane with close tonalities and fragments of dark interiors with subtle invitations for entry) eventually transpired to the synthesis of light and space of the mind, and of nature illuminated from within. Although there were evidences tracing from such slow movements of objects depicted in the once given and familiar domestic settings, to swift deviations of wind, air, and color of the outdoor, what Liliane has been undertaking in her new pictorial pursuit is evidenced in her recent exhibit Name Me Not at Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos (CAB) in Spain, curated by Javier Del Campo (on view through May 28). The following is an edited version of a lengthy conversation with the artist held at her studio in Tappan, New York, on Monday, March 6.

Installation view: <em>Liliane Tomasko: Name Me Not</em>, Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB, Spain, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB. Photo: Jorge Martín Muñoz.
Installation view: Liliane Tomasko: Name Me Not, Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB, Spain, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB. Photo: Jorge Martín Muñoz.

Phong H. Bui (Rail): I was taken by how you tilted your exhibit, Name Me Not, for there lies a certain spirit of resistance towards being labeled, being categorized as a digestible identification and so on, which reminds me of what Søren Kierkegaard once said “Once you label me, you negate me.” Can you share with us how the theme of the exhibit developed, and how this spirit of resistance came about?

Liliane Tomasko: I was listening to Joshua Schrei, who has a podcast, he's a writer and a teacher, and he deals with current affairs through the lens of mythologies, and it's really very, very good. At any rate, he was talking to Tyson Yunkaporta (a member of the Apalech Clan of northern Queensland, in Australia, and a professor (Senior Lecturer) at Deakin University in Melbourne) about Aboriginal communities and their way of life and how indigenous thinking might help us solve the problems we are facing globally, to avert the worst of disaster, which is the destruction of the natural world and the breaking apart of civilization. And one thing that he said, which struck a chord with me and kept me thinking was that in Aboriginal language, the way they communicate between each other, it's not defined, it's quite ambiguous. So, they often don't name things, they call them this thing or that thing. But within their community, within the context of their way of communicating, and their deep connection to the land and to each other, they quite naturally know what is being referred to when they discuss things. It is to the point of what Kierkegaard had said, that if you name something alive, or a living thing, you take away part of its vitality. In other words, it’s good to have labels in science or medical studies, and also technology, but it's a detriment to reduce complex, living things to any form of naming, labeling. 

Rail: It can certainly eliminate any potential mystery and romance for sure. In order to counter such labeling, we have to mobilize our slow and sequential spoken language against the quick telepathic communication. Which also has to do with how we deal with doubt, for doubt requires a rational thought process, without which faith, not blind faith, would have no substance. Faith and doubt are inseparable.

Tomasko: And we need to create spaces for them to coalesce for the sake of far more rewarding understanding, interpretations, and so on. So I was working on one small paper, and once I finished it,  and was looking to see what I had done, I felt as though something was looking back at me. It looked at me and said “don't even try naming me.” “Name Me Not” as a title came quickly as a visceral response to this particular work.

Rail: Which is included in this exhibit.

Tomasko: Yes, it’s the first among eleven other works on paper installed on one wall of the last room.

Liliane Tomasko,<em> NAME ME NOT</em>, 2022. Acrylic and oil stick painting on canvas paper, 16 1/8 x 12 1/8 inches. Courtesy the artist and Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB.
Liliane Tomasko, NAME ME NOT, 2022. Acrylic and oil stick painting on canvas paper, 16 1/8 x 12 1/8 inches. Courtesy the artist and Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB.

Rail: I assume it was the same visceral response to the title that became the title for this exhibit. I was taken by how the title “Name Me Not” was made with 3 by 3 clear pine, and how it filled perfectly the two walls, and the wall text right in the middle.

Tomasko: Yes, I was thinking about what to do with this large hallway for the longest time, then in the end, the decision came very shortly before the show opened. I wanted the title to be made of wood as a warm material, and the whole construction to have a handmade quality to it, not be manufactured or polished. It tied in very beautifully with the big painting Spell of the Wood. It also happens to be a material that I used a lot when I was a sculptor in art school.

Installation view: <em>Liliane Tomasko: Name Me Not</em>, Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB, Spain, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB. Photo: Jorge Martín Muñoz.
Installation view: Liliane Tomasko: Name Me Not, Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB, Spain, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB. Photo: Jorge Martín Muñoz.

Rail: And before making sculptures, your first interest was photography.

Tomasko: Yes, that's correct. This was before I started working in a contemporary art gallery in Zurich. This was in the mid-eighties. I was taking photographs of my surrounding environment as a daily practice to capture moments that were potent, most of which were interior spaces and instances of outdoor settings. They're mostly small details of some insignificant objects, say for example, a piece of fabric lying on grass, that can all the sudden spark your imagination to think of something else, completely unrelated in physical appearances but the spirit or an aura hidden from below is mysteriously related. It is this moment of complete ambiguity that I love and thrive upon every moment of making a work. This ambiguous moment persists, and it neither describes a form of fleeting beauty nor suggests something else that is dramatic. If I can channel this energy, this sensation, it would feed the work’s life force.

Rail:. What I was so struck by was the works that you made in art school as a sculptor, which relate to architectural elements of interior spaces, mostly in rectilinear, geometric configurations, and how the photographs of more diffused images of all sort of fabric, bed sheets, mattresses and whatnot, evoking dream-like spaces that are soft, lyrical, and continuous…

 Tomasko: My sculptures were made of old furniture, of objects that were discarded. I would take them apart, and then put them back together in new configurations, adding new elements and materials to transform them into small environments. So, I did a one-year foundation at Camberwell College of Arts, a three-year BA in sculpture at Chelsea College of Art and Design, and another three years of sculpture at the Royal Academy Schools. It’s seven years in total. [Laughs]

Rail: Seven years of studying geometric forms as well as lyrical forms simultaneously. That is to say both figurative art and abstract art, which is an example par excellence for any student.

Tomasko: Yes, I was also at the same time interested in minimalism and its serial forms, and so on, which appeared and reappeared again quite strongly in recent works, despite the sinuous lines populating the frontal planes of the paintings.

Rail: There’s an invisible grid in every painting I feel, as there is a consistent evocation of dream and reverie. How would you describe the speed of your execution, or however way it can be registered as, in your words, a visceral subjectivity without eliminating the vestiges and traces of the body, the various palimpsests of what had been there previously, and so on? In other words, while the subjects appear to be passive, the painted surface is highly active. Take, for example, any of the Bed paintings, I, II, or III (2000), for I see them as different geomorphology of landforms where that which is below Earth’s surfaces and the air above affect one another as a restless system of solids, liquids, and gasses—for which change is a condition of constancy. Equally important, how does this condition of constancy carry from representation to abstraction eventually?

Tomasko: For the early paintings, I’d make drawings of a skeleton-like structure, or a map in pencil fairly accurately before I painted on top of it. In fact, the deliberate slowness is more invested in the drawing whereas the painting process is fairly fast. The group of paintings of linens I started to make around 2014 are indicative of this important change from mediating between speed and slowness, as well as from representation to abstraction.

Rail: And I’d say there had been several tonal changes in terms of color palettes, moving from neutrally muted to dark interiors, and so on.

Tomasko: Almost chromatic to dark, luminous color. Yes, and that change came about, essentially, through a shift in taking Polaroids of images that were lit with very little daylight from the sides of my studio outside of Munich. They were images of stacks of colored and often highly patterned fabric, taken again with little daylight and in extreme close up, therefore producing these incredibly atmospheric distorted Polaroids of things floating across the surface. At times the fabric’s patterns are fairly identifiable. At other times, they appear almost as complete abstractions. Thinking back now, I began making those dark but luminously colored paintings when I was pregnant, and I think there is a definite connection to having life growing inside of you, that absolutely wondrous strangeness during the early stages of motherhood. You can’t keep anything that happens in your life out of your work, I think. Well, unless you’re Robert Ryman, or Agnes Martin, maybe. [Laughter]

Installation view: <em>Liliane Tomasko: Name Me Not</em>, Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB, Spain, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB. Photo: Jorge Martín Muñoz.
Installation view: Liliane Tomasko: Name Me Not, Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB, Spain, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB. Photo: Jorge Martín Muñoz.

Rail: Were aspects of dreams, memory, or reverie present in your mind, even though they were painted as blurred images leading to total abstraction by 2014?

Tomasko: Dreams have always had an active presence in my life ever since I was a teenager and plagued by nightmares. So, this notion that there is this inner life that at times can seem quite autonomous has preoccupied me for a long time, because I was forced to confront something that can be truly scary. What drives me, to be honest, is the alluring mystery that lives in the darkness of dreams, which most of the time you can’t comprehend what we’re being kept from within. I was never very interested in dream analysis, sure it can be interesting and sometimes revealing, but I think we are our own best guidebook to unraveling our dreams. I’d rather let dreams be dreams.

Rail: This is why Gaston Bachelard noted that in contrast to a dream, a reverie can’t be recounted. And in order to communicate with reverie, one must write with emotion and taste as ways to relive all the more strongly because it’s written down. How can one not dream while writing? It is the pen which dreams. And the blank space gives the right to dream. This is to say it’s the brush which dreams. And the blank canvas gives the right to dream.

Tomasko: It’s also about claiming a new space, in which dreams and reveries can co-exist. The subject matter of my recent works from the last seven years has not been as associative, in fact it is unreachable, unsharable. Yet, I bring whatever forms and colors I can impart from my dreams into the work, and make each painting come as alive as I felt in the dreams. The crazy mix of possibilities that exists in dream sequences, the fluidity of your own identity and placement within its world, which at times can seem like a construction site. They are paintings about dreaming, and its process.

Rail: Would it be fair to say that the more frontal the images become, the more the scale of the painting increases or varies from 2014, 2015, onward? In other words, what were once considered close-up scenes of domestic interiors, now had been brought outdoors.

Liliane Tomasko, <em>Summoning Grays</em>, 2022. Acrylic and acrylic spray on unstretched linen, 85 3/4 x 288 1/4 inches. Courtesy the artist and Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB.
Liliane Tomasko, Summoning Grays, 2022. Acrylic and acrylic spray on unstretched linen, 85 3/4 x 288 1/4 inches. Courtesy the artist and Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB.

Tomasko: Right, to the public arena, from I’d say private space to a public space. Whereas in the domestic interiors the viewer was looking at a setting, being drawn into an intimate space, now the paintings are standing up; they are frontal and reveal who they are and how they got here.

Rail: Can you recount this transitional period? Did it happen gradually over time or did it happen rather immediately?

Tomasko: It was a deliberate decision I made, actually. It came between 2013 and 2014, through a traumatic experience in our family, when Sean (Scully) hurt his back, and started taking OxyContin to alleviate the excruciating pain he was experiencing. At first we didn't really know what this drug was, and once we realized, Sean was already addicted to it. After three long and emotionally dark months, Sean decided to stop taking the medication. He started feeling better. As I consider how my family, with Sean’s condition, and Oisin, who was only three years old at the time, survived this crisis together, this experience prompted me to make an incisive change in my work. Which essentially was to turn my previous paintings of beds that were always horizontal upright, making them vertical and increasing their size. I realized the more frontal and vertical they became, the further they led me into abstraction. The rest of what I needed to do was trust and follow where the work would take me.

Rail: Which means everything leading up to that point—the beginning of abstraction—was a gradual evolution.

Tomasko: Yes. I brought the line to the forefront. For the first two decades the works were formally academic and slow in their evolutions of growth, focusing on the subjects of interior spaces. Once I freed the line from under the paint, the linear quality quickly became increasingly dominant and started to develop a whole new language for me, to break things up in space. I felt it took a year or so to get more comfortable with how to work with it, through it, and around it. On the one hand, my use of color in the paintings became more adventurous, on the other, there was the line that kept growing bigger and thicker, doing all sorts of funny things. So it all together was an intensely challenging time of growth and learning. But once I felt more secure with this new visual language I was able to expand gestures and movement and so on.

Rail: That makes sense. Would using spray paint be part of that expansion of gesture?

Tomasko: Yes, it was around 2015 that I started using spray paint, and felt it was essential to the whole mix between the sprayed gestures and the painted gestures. The way that you can travel across a large surface to break it up with sprayed lines was extremely helpful to me in those early days of moving into abstraction. It allowed me to use my whole body in a way that I didn’t feel was possible when making a line with a brush loaded with paint.

Rail: Would you say 2015 was your breakthrough year?

Tomasko: It was also the same year we started working in our new studio in Tappan, New York.

Rail: Were you thinking of spray paint being associated with urban graffiti?

Tomasko: I wasn’t thinking of it in that particular reference. I had used spray paint some time before that, and I didn't like how it related to what I was painting at the time. But this time around, because of the scale, it just seemed to be in sync with the whole painting process. Because I was able to make these sweeping structures, and then I would start putting down large areas of colors as though I was hanging them on the gestures. The works I made during this period have their own senses of direction and intentionality without pointing too specifically to, as you said, urban graffiti, urban environment or nature for that matter. All I know is that I can’t get away from either references, but I know I would rather let the works dictate their own conditions and have their own autonomy to grow the ways they need to on both terms: be as independent as possible yet at the same time communicating to each other.

Rail: Which can be very fragile and most exciting at the same time. Can you share with us your thoughts on working serially, for example, on the twelve works on paper in the first room of the exhibit? Be it FOSSIL (2022), be it UNGAINLY AND PROUD (2022), or say HYSTERICAL GRAVITY (2022), or DREAMING OF PAUL KLEE (2022), for each has its own distribution of gestures, physical and emotional presence, sense of gravity, etc.!

Liliane Tomasko, <em>UNGAINLY AND PROUD</em>, 2022. Acrylic and oil stick painting on paper, 24 x 18 inches. Courtesy the artist and Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB.
Liliane Tomasko, UNGAINLY AND PROUD, 2022. Acrylic and oil stick painting on paper, 24 x 18 inches. Courtesy the artist and Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB.

Tomasko: For me it's a form of meditating on a particular thing that happens in the work, and thereby keeping it within a given set structure. It serves as a disciplinary tool. I mean they are sort of held together by the timeframe that I made them in, so I always see them as a group, almost a family of work. But they don't necessarily have to be the same size, or even the same medium, as long as they were made with similar concerns, for example, there’s a series that's called “Portrait of the Self,” referring to what the self is doing. But there are works on paper as there are paintings on linen and on aluminum that belong to that same series, so the medium is not necessarily describing or prescribing the series anymore.

Rail: And each of those works on paper, however each was painted, and given a certain title, each is an autonomous made object, which in most if not all cases need not be translated into a painting per se.

Tomasko: Right. Exactly. They're all autonomous. But they are held together by a sort of an umbrella, or of an idea or something that I'm exploring, for example, the “Portrait of the Self” series I’d just mentioned.

Rail:  What about your sense of tactility? For I noticed that in the works on paper, the sense of touch is permitted with a greater visibility, partly because oil sticks have a more concentrated body of oil pigments, I suppose. Still, how would you describe their sense of touch being different from the large oil or acrylic paintings on linen and aluminum?

Tomasko: It’s, first of all, a practical matter. When you work over a small surface in one uniform size (18 by 24 inches), and you work on them on the table as I do, your bodily engagement is completely different to a larger surface, which is usually hung on the wall, and you can always step back and see what you’ve been doing. Whereas with the oil sticks on paper, your upper body, hand, torso and hands are so close to the surface. While I’m breathing quite heavily [Laughs] I feel at times intensely confrontational, and psychologically claustrophobic.

Rail: Yeah. I have this visceral feeling every time I look at them, as if they were and are your own open flesh.

Tomasko: Yes. At times they even look as though they’re human skin being peeled off so the flesh below is exposed.

Rail: And other times they can be very lyrical and beautiful, and some other times super grotesque.

Tomasko: Yes, absolutely. The surfaces are so thick and crusty because they've been worked over so many times. They're not elegant, but they have a kind of pugnacious vitality, which I like. And I think that it comes back to the painting differently, especially this last body of work, where the sense of flux, velocity became more present.

Installation view: <em>Liliane Tomasko: Name Me Not</em>, Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB, Spain, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB. Photo: Jorge Martín Muñoz.
Installation view: Liliane Tomasko: Name Me Not, Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB, Spain, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB. Photo: Jorge Martín Muñoz.

Rail: So does the speed at which the gestures were painted. One thing I notice in all the paintings is how one or two kinds of brushes, whether measured by five inches or six inches in length, were painted very muscularly to remind the viewers the identical sizes of the brush strokes.

Tomasko: They’re very unromantic [laughter], partly because they are brushes that are actually used by house painters. So, they have a pragmatic utilitarian, proletarian labor symbolism about them. What I came to realize is that those masculine or muscular brush strokes insist on providing formal structures to the works differently in different instances. They seem there to discipline the large variety of colors and tonal qualities in my work, often breaking up the surfaces into different sections where changes in psychological temperatures occur.

Rail: Which is precisely why they differ from say Willem de Kooning’s urban abstractions from the mid-fifties like Gotham News (1955) or say the late paintings, starting with Pirate (Untitled II) (1981) until his death in 1997.

Tomasko: True. I should also add that those brushstrokes of mine do appear at times very unsettling, very uncomfortable in many instances. They often seem neither line nor shape, tend to be uprooted, and end  abruptly. This, in fact, is why I like them, because I think they provide a strange directness—somehow confident and innocent all at once. I was thinking about that the other day, when we were at Arthur Cohen’s opening reception on March 3 (at Scully Tomasko Foundation), you said, they're innocent paintings. And I was wondering, what is innocence? And do we ever have that, except as children? Is it something we need? Would it make the world better? Is it important, innocence? And if it’s important, how do we get to that innocence?

Rail: To get there, we have to eliminate all assumptions of ourselves, of who we are in the world, and how we look at the world with perceptions that have been pre-established. To be innocent is to preclude any form of static, fixed points of view. Which again requires the collaboration between faith and doubt, and—

Tomasko: It can be terrifying.

Rail: Indeed.

Tomasko: And it’s completely fascinating. I mean, it depends what kind of painter you are too. For me, every painting is a complete individual. Every artwork of course has something to do with the next one, but it's made at a certain time with a certain frame of mind, and it can never be repeated. And if you really have faith in this process, this created truth, then you're set free in your path. Maybe that's one way to attain innocence, because there's nothing you can do to manipulate things and control things. You're not really in control in the end. And the question you ask yourself every time you start a new painting is: can you do it? Are you able to do it? Because there are times that what you make can easily turn out to be terrible, which can be devastating, but it’s necessary for you to be fearless of failure, and that a sense of unknown also means excitement.

Rail: Which leads to my next question: in regards to the three big paintings in the exhibition, Summoning GraysSPELL, and WOOD (all 2022), there is a sense of a dance choreography moving across each of the painting’s frontal plane with relatively thinly painted gestures of between two or three inches thick, weaving in and out, up and down, and sideways so fluidly. Each is painted in a long rectangular format with acrylic and acrylic spray on unstretched linen, measured roughly about 85 by 241 or 288 inches. How did you make them, for the coordination between the head and the body was evident indeed, but without little traces of revision? Was there any rehearsal needed in the making of each painting?

Liliane Tomasko, <em>WOOD</em>, 2022. Acrylic and acrylic spray on unstretched linen, 85 1/4 x 241 inches. Courtesy the artist and Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB.
Liliane Tomasko, WOOD, 2022. Acrylic and acrylic spray on unstretched linen, 85 1/4 x 241 inches. Courtesy the artist and Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB.

Tomasko: There wasn’t any rehearsal involved, even though I thought I would make preliminary drawings for each of them [laughs]. But I couldn’t, and didn’t. I just threw myself into each painting. There are three big walls in my studio, which I knew would be perfect to make these three large paintings, with such scales I’d not undertaken previously, but I knew they would hold the three large rooms in the exhibit beautifully. I knew I’d start with SPELL in black and white with plenty of spaces of transparency coming through from below of the unpainted areas of the white linen, and I should admit that it was exciting to see how well the black spray paint works on this large scale. Once I made up my mind, I made SPELL in black and white in one go.

Rail: How long did it take in one go?

Tomasko: It took three hours to make SPELL. And then I left it, and came back to it the next day to add a few more things for another hour. And that was it.

Rail: How did SPELL get its title?

Tomasko: I love the Irish painter named Nano Reid, who made this beautiful painting called Spell of the Wood (1976) a small painting of a figure sleeping on the forest floor. In fact, I saw the painting when I was preparing for my last exhibition with the same title, Spell of the Wood at Highlanes Gallery in Drogheda, Ireland. It’s interesting that you saw it as dance choreography; I felt the painting had a strong relationship to scripture.

Rail: I now can see it as a form of writing. Also, was WOOD being made at the same time?

Tomasko: Yes. As soon as SPELL was made in black and white, which is associated with a reductive palette as my response to COVID-19, I felt ready to make WOOD in color. With a similar structure in mind, I painted a network of vertical lines across the canvas, as I was thinking of myself walking through a forest, then began painting colors on top of the structure, and in between of course. Again, the whole process was very organic. It was terrifying but a sheer pleasure as well.

Rail: I love the sprayed green gesture in the far left of the painting that pulls the whole painted surface back to the middle, otherwise it would just be sliding off to the right edge. Did Summoning Grays get made last?

Tomasko: Yes. I also wanted to paint it in black and white but not as scriptural as SPELL. And unlike SPELL and WOOD, which I painted to the edges, as they were intended to install unstretched, flat against the wall, Summoning Grays was painted with three-inch borders all around the edges in case it gets stretched or framed later on. As I was painting, I realized it became a landscape in decay, recalling the bleakness, and the disruptive violence in Picasso’s Guernica (1937), which was also painted in black and white. I really made this painting especially for this exhibit, as well as the color back that has a long association with Spanish painting tradition.

Liliane Tomasko, <em>SPELL</em>, 2022. Acrylic and acrylic spray on unstretched linen, 85 3/4 x 288 1/4 inches. Courtesy the artist and Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB.
Liliane Tomasko, SPELL, 2022. Acrylic and acrylic spray on unstretched linen, 85 3/4 x 288 1/4 inches. Courtesy the artist and Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB.

Rail: From El Greco, Diego Velázquez, Jusepe de Ribera to Fransisco de Zurbarán, Francisco Goya…

Tomasko: And Picasso who certainly knew how to make great paintings with black as a color. I love using black also in my painting, partly because it evokes rejection and contradiction just as much as showing strength and muscularity. I also use black as an editing force, which often brings everything into a coherent structure somehow.

Rail: I should add that all three are mural-size paintings, which should require some serious planning, including a few sketches or preparatory drawings, but in your case, you made them without any form of premeditation. It’s impressive. Still, how do you determine at what scale should each painting or a series of works be before they get painted or made?

Tomasko: Well, the body just does what it does best. It adapts. It adapts to its environment, and a painter’s environment is the canvas, right? Whether it's this size or whether it’s seven meters long. So you adapt. So, it’s a question of your flexibility. Your ability to adjust yourself. Since scale is different from, say, the notion of proportion or of size, which are measurable, it has to be mitigated differently in different contexts. My body is adjusted differently when I make these works on paper, as we spoke earlier, on a table, which is a static space between me and the work. Whereas with those three large paintings, they’re on big horizontal walls, which require a larger movement that can work with on-the-spot automatic writing so to speak. At this point, I just surrender to whatever little short time as a collaboration between my mind, my eye, and the rest of my body to do the work.

Rail: Well, early on when you were describing how you got out of that interior darkness because you saw a glimpse of light, which is super true because light can only come out of darkness. My father once told me a story that stuck with me forever about the metaphysical poet, cabaret performer, filmmaker Karl Valentin from the Weimar Republic. In one instance, Valentin was performing in this metaphysical play, where he dressed up like a beggar and the backdrop was a public park at 2 a.m. He was walking around the edges of the stage where the lights are, like a good five minutes in silence. All of a sudden, a policeman appeared and said, “What are you doing in the park at two in the morning, sir?” And he said, “I'm looking for my keys.” And the policeman says, “Why don’t I help you to look for them then?” So, the both of them walk around and around for another five minutes. And then he suddenly stops the beggar and says, “Are you sure you lost your keys over here?” The beggar says, “No, I lost my keys over there.” And he points to the dark, in the audience. And the policeman says, “Why aren’t we looking over there then?” And he says, “There’s no light over there.” [Laughter]

Installation view: <em>Liliane Tomasko: Name Me Not</em>, Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB, Spain, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB. Photo: Jorge Martín Muñoz.
Installation view: Liliane Tomasko: Name Me Not, Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB, Spain, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos CAB. Photo: Jorge Martín Muñoz.

Tomasko: That’s so great. Yeah. That’s where the keys are. It’s really dark, though. [Laughter]

Rail: Yeah. So as much as there’s a sense of opening up the space, exploring that possibility in that space, claiming that space with the bodily intelligence or bodily receptiveness of the space. There's a certain degree of terror, uncertainty. And you seem to like such conditions.

Tomasko: I like to be challenged. I like to do things that are difficult for me. Maybe not difficult for others, but certainly that makes me sweat. Because exploring unknown terrain is the only thing that makes you grow, I believe, as a person. And as an artist. I was thinking about de Kooning the other day, how he was working and reworking his canvases over and over. It must have driven him crazy.

Rail: It did. He referred to such insanity as a glimpse of content.

Tomasko: I could only imagine, from taking away what had just been painted, putting more on, only to be taken away again. But I mean, in the end, they were such incredible paintings.

Rail: Like his legendary Woman I (1950–52).

Tomasko: Yes, and the rest of his women painting series.

Rail: What is your sense of revision when you don't particularly care for certain gestures you had just painted?

Tomasko: I paint over it. I mean, all of these paintings are done quite slowly. The works on paper require a long process of building up the surfaces. And then sometimes it works, but then very often, most of the time it doesn’t. So, I have to go in again. And, you know, often I make it so bad that I have to rescue the whole thing by overpainting everything and starting new again. It’s quite violent. Because I love light and transparency in color, I prefer the paint to be as thin as possible. I love the fact that I, as well as the viewer, can see former incarnations of the work, which become part of the work at the end. I try to keep everything as visible as I can. It’s about revealing something that was. Revealing history and time. Then even on a very pragmatic basis, revealing the process of the painting itself. I think every work of art has many layers. There’s technique, and there’s materials, which both are essential parts of the making, obviously. But then there are all the things that come into it that are in your head and come through your body and go through your fingers, then end up on the surface. In my work, it’s not always dependent on direct touch. It’s not the mark making that reveals what’s going on. Because the mark making is determined by these brushes and the spray, and it’s quite anonymous, in a way. I think it comes through the layering and the colors. There are a lot of different colors, so much going on these canvases, it’s kind of insane. But I’m always trying to get to a point where people can actually look at them without wanting to walk away too quickly. I like to get them to a point where a viewer is sort of fascinated by it. Trying to figure something out themselves, and not quite knowing what form of beauty touches them, what also made them feel repelled at the same time. It’s both of those conditions that I myself feel about my work.

Rail: Can you elaborate on what a “register of a visceral subjectivity” is?

Tomasko: Well, viscerality comes really from the preoccupation with dreams and how dreams can be something unattainable, so fleeting but also so real. You feel it. You wake up, and you still have the smell of something that you experienced. It’s a reality. And then the subjectivity is because I think that a dream can only be relevant in a certain way to yourself, so that’s why it is so close. I mean, if you try to tell somebody a really incredible dream you had, it’s impossible, partly because it makes no sense to the other person. For example, I had a dream a long time ago. And there was a huge flooding river going through the city. And I was just going down this river, and it was the most incredible feeling. Which, you know, there’s nothing I can say or describe, except this desire to relive it to some extent every time I make a new painting. That’s what I’m trying to bring, some sense of that other reality. And I think that other reality is a very powerful presence in everybody’s life, whether you dream or not, it’s there and it informs our lives.

Rail: It’s our morality too.

Tomasko: Yes, and if the subconscious is a jungle, then the only way through a jungle is with good moral equipment. Art is good moral equipment.


Phong Bui

Phong H. Bui is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2023

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