English-born, Berlin-based Rebecca Partridge picks up and broadens the conversation around mysticism that began with Modernist Utopian abstraction. Buffered from the pleasant bustle of Landwehr Canal and its Kreuzberg scene, stepping into the realist yet minimal natural views that bring her studio to life draws you both away and inward – into a play of light. Rebecca’s paintings are imbued with a generosity that stems from the dynamic between looking outward and being fully present, ultimately bringing the inaccessible and the invisible back into the landscape.
Could you introduce what you do – how are you an artist, a creative person?
Primarily, I am a painter, but in the last few years, I’ve also been writing about other artists’ work, which I now see as part of my creative practice. In the studio I also sometimes make some films; I’ve used my voice, and I’ve also made ceramic sculptures… I’m really doing a lot of different things – and I’m teaching art, which is also creative.
How did that longing to create first manifest?
I think there are two strands of it for me, which are embedded in each other – there’s an intellectual curiosity, and there’s a yearning for a certain kind of physical relationship with materials. I can trace back the moment of when the intellectual curiosity was triggered in a creative sense, when I was looking at a Mondrian, during a school trip to the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. I had this incredibly strong physical resonance with one of his late paintings, and as I learnt more about the artist and all of the mystical references in the work, this brought up a lot of questions. I became very excited about painting, and visual art. There was a parallel desire to want to make certain images that I would then have that physical relationship to again.
So the two things are tied into each other.
So far, do you enjoy the physical world that you’re manifesting?
I enjoy the world that I’m manifesting in the studio. The broader world of being creative has its problems. I think as a visual artist, it’s impossible to get the work into the world without having to navigate the commercial realm and that I find problematic. But the practice that I’ve created becomes more and more rewarding as time goes by.
Does your work have an overarching theme, a main source of inspiration?
There are different ways that I can talk about the work – I can talk about synaesthesia, I can talk about landscape… But I’d say that the overarching theme of the work is expressing certain values through actions in the studio. So attentiveness, for instance. I don’t like using the world mindfulness [laughs], because it’s overused, but there’s this a sense of presence with the work, a relationship to looking outwards. There is, I hope, a generosity.
You mentioned synaesthesia… You have a very particular way of approaching your work and infusing it with something quite special. Could you tell me about that?
Synaesthesia, for those who don’t know about it, is a neurological condition, when one sense is stimulated, and that triggers a response from another sense. You might hear music, and see a colour. I have grapheme-colour , sound- colour/form synaesthesia and a heightened sense of certain geometric percepts. Most often, if I think of different letters or numbers, or days of the week, they all have their own particular colour.
This sounds like it’s a very subjective thing, but for each individual, it’s actually an entirely objective experience, in that the red that I see in my mind when I think of the letter A, is exactly the same red now as it would have been when I was three years old, or will be when I’m eighty, and this can be proved. There are different tests that you can do, where in response to different letters and numbers, shown over and over again in random sequence, you ascribe a colour using a tone/colour range graph, and it’s so fast that anyone who’s not a synaesthete would never be able to recall the same colours again and again. A synaesthete’s error rate is less than 2%. It’s innate in you.
When did you first become aware of having that quality?
It’s always been there. Even now, I’ll have conversations with people, and they’ll say, “Wow, I have that!” and they never realised they did, because it’s so normal to them. I was aware of it because I used to have these play arguments with my mother about what colour letters and numbers have – she has it, too. It’s often inherited from female line and it’s quite common with creative people.
Is that something that you use in your work?
Yes and no. I don’t use it directly. I personally don’t see any value in expressing or describing my own particular synaesthesia. But what is interesting is that everyone is synesthetic until they’re about three months old. So on a pre-linguistic level, we all have an understanding of what it means for a flavour to have a colour, or for a sound to have a shape. There’s something about these pre-linguistic relations which could tell us about our empathetic sensory responses, like listening to music, visual art… So it’s a much wider model of how our senses relate and how we physically experience art works. That’s something that really feeds what I’m doing. So it’s a much broader model. It’s all about interconnectivity.
You mentioned generosity – how does that manifest in your work?
I see my work is part of a lineage of abstract painting, even though what we’re looking at is a landscape – we’re looking at spaces. All of those landscapes, the spaces that I depict, are essentially abstract. The problem with abstract painting, which is married very much to a language of mysticism, is that it can be hermetic, closed, and inaccessible. So I would see the works being generous in that I try to take that language and put it on the outside, in a space that’s open, that you can visually enter. There is also a generosity in the sense that it’s completely honest – you see the mark-making. There’s absolutely nothing hidden in the process.
It’s completely inclusive – not that there aren’t layers to the work, but it’s very open, clear, accessible.
Can you speak about the presence you mentioned earlier, how do you factor that into what you’re doing?
There are two parts of the creative process for me. The first part is when I’m actually out in the landscape with my camera. All the places that appear in the studio, in the paintings, are places that I’ve been. I will have had a particular experience in those spaces. Usually places where there are no signs of contemporary life, where you can really empty your mind. Then I’ll bring the photographs back into the studio, and a lot of people ask me, “Why can’t we just look at the photograph, why do you need to make a painting?” To come back to this question of presence, a photograph depicts one single moment in time, whereas by sitting with an image of this place, potentially for months, and physically using the brush and the materials, I’m very present with it, completely inhabiting it…In one sense, you’re inhabiting an image, and you’re making this commitment to it – this is another word that would come up in the studio, the sense of commitment – but in another sense, the actual physical practice is very meditative. I have to be present with myself. If I’m having a bad day, I’m completely with that in the studio.
The way you describe your process of painting very much sounds like you’re approaching it like a spiritual practice, with that intention, that purposefulness…
The word “spirituality” is difficult for me, but I think there are some linguistic problems generally with it. There’s also something about things being elevated – in the past, I always thought about spirituality as related to ideas of ‘transcendence’. Whereas now, when I think about these ideas I’m more interested in something that comes from – not necessarily below – but from within, that’s grounded.
Coming back to presence, it’s not up there, with you reaching, but you bringing it together and making it present for yourself and for others.
Yes, and to link that back to the idea of abstraction and things being hermetic, one of the criticisms was always the idea that it has to come from above. It’s elsewhere, and it’s higher. And I want to flip that idea by literally bringing it back into the landscape, into the ground.
We used the word intention – does your creation match your highest intention? What is your highest intention for your work?
This is really occupying me at the moment, the idea that at the root of everything, when you’re making an art work, it is the intention that comes through. If I make a painting and it’s rushed, that’s felt through the work. The painting has a power when you can feel my intention to be present in your experience of looking at it.
In that first stage, when you go out and take your photographs, what kind of experience are you having?
I have to go to certain places to experience and photograph the kind of landscapes I think about in the studio. I went to Canada and spent time up in the Rocky Mountains and specifically went out onto a glacier to get particular images. Or I spent time in the desert in California, and specifically went to photograph dawns and dusks – those were big, epic trips. And I came back from both with resources to make work for quite a long time. It can also randomly happen, maybe on the Moors or looking at trees… but they are always places that are unlocatable in time. You often have to travel a little bit to get to those places, so it has the feeling of a real journey.
Do you rest on any personal rhythms, rituals, or environments to create?
Rhythms and rituals – they’re a very prominent theme, although I’ve very rarely achieved the rhythm or the structure that I’m constantly trying to achieve! I’d say generally that I’m not somebody that could make work in states of emotional torment, as is the cliché of the artist. I need a healthy, stable life. The work tends to get better the more that I can keep up a routine, but I’m easily distracted.
I also find in the studio that I’ll set up different works which I have a very different physical relationship to. I work on several things in parallel and often engage depending upon how I feel that I want to physically interact. Some of my works are very small and detailed, and I’ll be sat at a desk making those, a bit like I would be if I was writing. Others are huge, and involve me getting up and down ladders, putting my arm in the air and stretching, measuring things over two metres – that kind of interaction is completely different.
What is your experience of leading an artist’s life? How do the world, family, relationships, career choices… how do they all fit into that?
Teaching is something that really feeds me. It’s always difficult to focus if you’ve been teaching and you want to go into the studio – that transition can be quite difficult, having been engaged in other people’s practices and refocusing into your own. But it’s really important, because otherwise pretty much everything in my life is self-generating, which is an enormous freedom, but at the same time, a huge responsibility. You can become extremely selfish – I think this is one of the dangers of the artist’s life, if you’re not careful. That’s why teaching is so important.
Could you tell us about what you teach?
Most of the time when I’m with students, we’ll be having one-to-one tutorials or group critique sessions, where we look at their work. My goal is to try and help them become critically aware of their own practice, so trying to see what they’ve created from the outside, and evaluate it – which is something I am equally trying and do with my own practice. We have lot of conversations; looking at artwork and saying, “Right, what have we got here?”
Often students start out with the idea that making art is all about self-expression, but with really interesting artworks, the creative process is about much more than that. It’s also being able to step outside of yourself and be self-reflective, really, and responsible for yourself. Learning this balance between intuition and criticality, between making something and stepping back and analysing what you have done… Becoming aware of how you, as a person, affect what you make, where you are located in the bigger picture… that’s what I’m doing with students.
How do others fit into your creative and your inner world – whether they are fellow artists, or people who are not at all in the art world, whether they are supportive or not? How does “the other” fit into your world?
As I said earlier I think one of the dangers of being an artist is that we can get completely wrapped up in ourselves. In a sense it is important that you immerse yourself in your own creative practice, but it is also really important to be in dialogue. Recently I’ve been engaging with other artists’ practices through writing, which I find extremely rewarding. Thinking deeply about other artists’ work I have also found helpful in articulating my own concerns and issues. Intuitively, I’m drawn towards writing or thinking about artists’ practices, whose values resonate with my own, though its often not immediately apparent. In many cases their practices appear completely different to my own.
In practical terms, there have been certain people throughout my career, who’ve really supported me, without whom the work wouldn’t have gotten out into the world. Artists are absolutely dependent on those people – who could be gallerists or curators, people who’ve seen the work and really believe in it, and introduce you to people, helped, or people who have wanted to write about it. It’s impossible to exist in isolation.
Have you ever been stuck? And if so, how have you gotten beyond that feeling?
God, yeah – really stuck. [Laughs] It seems to me to be cyclical… I don’t know where in this cycle to start, but let’s say with the crisis point, where everything’s on the floor. Typically, when students go to college, everything gets broken down by their tutors and they have no idea what they’re doing, and it feels horrendous – a whole load of rubbish on the floor which they have to reconstruct. That reconstruction goes on, and then things are articulated, and rearticulated, and then perhaps they get to the point where they’re so articulated, or so finely tuned, that it hits a brick wall, and this is where you get stuck. Then again, then, you have to smash it all up and start the cycle again. For me this cycle continues over years.
Do you revisit your work?
There are three pieces of work that are in the studio at the moment, which are not finished, or maybe not started – these desert dawns and dusks… I know that these sunrises and sunsets have their place in the bigger network (I don’t see any of my works generally as individual pieces, I see them as part of a larger network that describes the kind of gestalt– it’s almost a lifelong project, in that sense). The dawn and dusk panels are important, they float off the wall and kind of glow from behind – but currently don’t have the life in them that I imagine… They have been sat in the studio for nearly a year and a half, now. I’m banging my head against them a little bit. I think I’ll get there – I’m working through different practical solutions. It’s about marrying the process with my impulse to capture the original moments in the desert.
There is another series of works, where I literally return every three years to the same tree. It is a series of large scale watercolours always from the same angle cropped in the same way. This framework over time reveals the subtleties both of how the tree transforms and my relationship to it. I find the idea of revisiting, of coming back to things in general very interesting.
Does playfulness fit into your process?
I don’t think I’m a hugely playful artist, but to not be playful suggests that you’re in some way serious, or not experimental, which isn’t the case. How would you define playful…?
The reason that playfulness wouldn’t immediately jump to mind is because I’m so concerned with objectivity. Everything that I paint is very tied to reality. It is exactly as I saw it. I don’t invent places, colours; I don’t have a certain mood and then express it in a certain way. It’s really an objective thing. The dialogue that happens through the process is a dialogue about the objective world outside, and my subjective responses to it. In that sense, of it being more like a meditation, playfulness isn’t a word… I mean, maybe meditation can be playful, I don’t know?
How about sharing your work – would you say it’s intrinsic to the creative process?
Absolutely – for me, a work isn’t complete until it’s in the world and it’s seen. It’s really important. When you make something, it feels like it has a life, and it has to go out – it sounds very romantic, but…
There’s a quote I like to always bring up, it’s the Joseph Campbell quote: “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.” Do you agree, and how do you follow your bliss?
I do agree. There are moments when I doubt it, and then I hope that it’s true. It’s a really difficult question, isn’t it?
I guess another way of putting it is, do you feel that your work is a way of following your bliss?
Yes, though on a more personal level, for whatever reason, there are all sorts of things that I will put in the way of getting on with works… I’m sure we all struggle with these things. I think we are complicated beings, and it’s a really complicated question, actually. There are times when I am working and it feels like ‘everything is okay in the world’, then other times where you completely lose track of it. Sometimes, you might intellectually know, “my bliss is in the studio” [laughter] but then you’re sat there, doing it, and you’re not feeling it at all!
What is the place of longing in your work?
Longing is a very romantic term and this idea of romanticism is central to my painting practice. For several years I’ve been working on a curatorial project, working with other artists who embrace some kind of romanticism in their own practice. So longing is definitely something I think about.
When I was a teenager, I used to get the train to London, and anybody else who used to come into King’s Cross might remember this graffiti. It said, “Far away, is close at hand in images of elsewhere,” which is really nice. That sentence has always played on my mind in that it’s what I do. I make these paintings of “elsewhere” – it is a longing for that. It’s a longing for being away from modern life, probably, this kind of empty, undisturbed, peaceful place… even if that doesn’t really exist anymore. So longing is really important.
What is your relationship to a sense of completeness or completion, or a lack of it? How does that affect your work?
Nothing is ever really complete. Individual works can be, but I think of my work in general in much wider terms. I would tend to think about things in an opposite way, embracing a sense of incompletion, of flux and fluidity and things always moving, continuing beyond the studio and beyond me, hopefully.
What is your gift and how do you most enjoy being remembered?
I’m not concerned with being personally remembered, but I want the paintings to have a life beyond me. What is the gift of my work? On one level, there’s the art historical conversation about painting that I feel like I have something to contribute to. I would like the work to be remembered or to be a part of that dialogue. On another hand, I’m not ashamed to say that I want to put something into the world which provides some moments of pause or calm. Just little moments of someone else having this kind of resonance with a picture, a sense of expansion…
When you say part of a conversation of the history of art, is there a specific lineage or movement…?
There’s quite a specific lineage in abstract painting, a conversation that began at the turn of the 20th century with Modernist utopian abstraction; Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian all of these people were having conversations about mysticism… So it’s bound up in that. Throughout the 20th century, there have been various disavowals and contradictions of that language – important things that happened through post-modernism – but now I feel like there are different shifts that are happening. When I was at college my professors and peers would recoil in horror at terms such as ‘sublime’ or ‘longing’… but I find this very limiting and regressive, these are timeless themes we cannot simply dismiss. So I want to return to this conversation that started in the beginning of the 20th century between abstraction and mysticism, but I want to return to it with the full knowledge of everything that’s happened since.
How does that tie into the individual and social element? Do you see your work being social in any way?
There are multiple ways of being an artist and I have an absolute respect for artists who are directly socially engaged, but I probably occupy a position at the opposite end of the spectrum, of quiet, contemplation – it’s almost apolitical, in a way, though the values I aim to embody of course have their political place.
Is there a question you wish someone would ask you? Something you would like to add?
I think when anybody asks any question, it’s always exciting, because it shows genuine curiosity. Being asked questions is generally something I’m really grateful for!
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