Back In A Moment, now on view at C. Grimaldis Projects in Baltimore, features paintings by Ylva Ceder and Gretchen Scherer which depict a series of empty rooms. These parlors, halls and living rooms are united by the sense of presence which pervades them– as if their inhabitants had just stepped away or were soon due to return. On the occasion of this exhibition the artists speak about their practice at large.
I guess it’s sort of like a dreamlike state. And it kind of has to do a lot with time. For me, time has always been sort of nebulous, like I’ve never really understood it very well. So it’s sort of like, what is time, in a way? I guess I’m sort of questioning that in my paintings. Time is really important when you make a painting. I make a lot of layers and give it a lot of time to breathe. Somehow I believe that that time gets trapped inside the painting. Like however many hours you put in is how many hours you could draw out of it or something. This idea that you can encapsulate time within this sort of expanse of the painting.
I loved what you wrote about ghosts and like, is there something there or not there, and presences. That has always been a real interest of mine as well. Growing up, my mom told us we lived in a haunted house, so there was a long period of my adolescence through my mid-twenties where I really, 100% believed in ghosts and saw them all the time. And then there was a moment where I was like, OK, I can’t do this anymore. This is really scary. I want to be in the real world. And I basically shut it all off and stopped seeing stuff, and it kind of went away, but I think it continues in my paintings.
I love to read Dickens and old books, because I’ll see the spaces that they’re describing in my head. When I hear about a space or read about a space, I start to conjure up these images and it comes very naturally. So it’s like, where do those images come from? Is it your memories of spaces? Or that you’re creating the space? Or when you dream— the way our minds are able to compose space. I find that really fascinating and I don’t really understand it, but it seems really natural. Sometimes my paintings are about that– how we imagine spaces.
It’s tough, the older you get the more dull your senses get, so I really try to hold onto being young, and how you feel all these things and you’re so imaginative. I used to always have this feeling whenever I was in a space that I had a little bit of the space I had just been in and the space I was about to go to, in my mind. It was never just the one spot. I was always one foot back and one foot forward. So whenever I was experiencing a space, I was also where I had just been and where I was about to go. My thesis show at Hunter College was really similar to what I’m doing now, but it was way more based on my life. I was also a lot busier then because I worked at a bar, so I would work overnight and sleep a little bit and then go to school, and I had two jobs. It was just a lot. I think that’s why I felt really scattered. I would basically just link all of these rooms together that I had been in to make one long room. So it was like my world was one continuous loop type of thing. But it was all life size and all on paper and all collaged and cutout and there were like bits of one room going into another room, you know. After I did that I limited myself to one room or experience for a while. I think when I was making myself only do one room I was really limiting myself and really constrained and strict with myself. The paintings themselves, if you look at them, they’re really tight and almost uncomfortable. I think I was trying to force myself to be something i wasn’t. And then finally I felt like, I can’t do this anymore. I just want to be free. And I just let myself do whatever I wanted and this is what came out. The journey of being an artist or really maybe anything is you get to link who you are when you’re a kid to your experiences now. So you can become a full person, versus when you’re growing up you’re kind of trying to be something.
I think we had talked about the fact that I loved mysteries and that there are so few of them nowadays. It’s the same with interior paintings. Like when I saw Ylva’s work I was like “Oh my God! It’s an interior!” I got really excited. I wonder why mystery is such a limited genre. I’m sure there were periods where, like with film noir, everyone wanted to go see mysteries. Nowadays it feels like people aren’t that interested anymore. I think with a mystery you have to have some sort of innocence. You need to not know something in order to feel mystery, you have to be curious about something or not understand something. I was just thinking there’s a Carl Jung quote that’s very similar to what you’re saying, but I can’t remember the exact quote. Something about how we don’t know ourselves. We think we’ve conquered nature because we’ve done so much with science, and we’ve done so much with technology, but we’re on the precipice of possibly destroying ourselves with that. Because we don’t know ourselves. Because we’re still divided as selves. It’s really scary, but it makes a lot of sense because he’s saying, you know, we’re still a split psyche and until it’s unified we’re going to be destructive. I think it’s still a mystery why we act the way we do.
Recently I cut out all this stuff because I’m getting ready for my solo show, you know, and I think I really overwhelmed myself because I had so many different images that I could possibly collage together. And then I took a bunch out, and was able to realize that with my process it’s almost like a big puzzle. There’s only so many pieces I can keep in my mind at once in order to create it. I never really even knew I was doing that, but it’s kind of like that Memory game, you know when you flip over a card and — did you ever play that? And you try to remember where they are placed, and you get a match and you put it to the side. I have all these different pictures, but they’re all in stacks and I kind of remember where they are, but only like a certain amount, maybe like 20 I could remember. More than that, I can’t. I was like, now I know the limit of my brain.
The arranging part is really fun. In some ways it can also be stressful because — I’m like, I know I need something that’s like this angle. And I know I saw that somewhere and I need to find it. It’s like a puzzle. Sometimes I’ll have an idea like I want to make something that has a lot of portraits, or something that has a lot of stairways. Or just like a feeling based on a dream. So I’ll be looking for stuff that looks like what I saw in the dream. A lot of times it’s just looking through books and seeing something that stands out for some reason and cutting it out. Then it starts to build on its own.
Throughout the whole of European art history a lot of painters painted interiors. Maybe not empty interiors, but the painters I admire like Bonard and Vuillard, I don’t know if you’d call them Impressionist or Expressionist but they painted interiors. And also if you go back in history, for the upper class, they wanted to show how rich they were so artists worked not only on portraits but they were supposed to paint rich people’s homes.
I’ve been interested in these places that you pass by in daily life, like, no matter if you live in a big city in Sweden or if you live in the countryside, you have the local place where you buy pizza for example. And they’re not franchised, so they’re just somebody who opened a place to sell pizza. They look the same, but they are also individual and I find that fascinating, the things that you find everywhere and nobody pays them any attention. My paintings that you’re showing in the gallery now, even though they are about something else, it comes from what I did before. I wanted to give these daily interiors attention because you find them everywhere but nobody sees them. Also something very common here is places where you just buy a hot dog. You can buy them everywhere, in rich areas in central Stockholm or in the countryside. I’ve painted a lot of them. Just to give them attention and give them value. Also in some paintings I chose the perspective, the view of the person that sells the hot dog or sells the pizza, you know, just to elevate that.
First in my mind I have an image; it’s kind of clear for me. I want a room to look a bit like this or like that, and I want a floor that looks like that, and I want the place where they bake the pizza to be shown like this. Then to try and find a place that looks like the picture I have in my head, I have to do research. So once I got on the subway train in Stockholm, for example, and I got off at every station and just searched for pizza places and visited them and took pictures. And from those pictures I searched for my inner picture. And out of all the different pictures from different places I made up my own. So they don’t exist in reality. What you’re showing in the gallery right now, though, they’re places that exist in reality. But then I change them of course, not only the patterns but the furniture, etc. That’s also important compared to older paintings because i’m playing a bit with… in one of the paintings in the show, one of the rooms was originally painted by a famous Swedish artist in the beginning of the 19th century. Everybody in Sweden knows this painter; he’s seen a bit like, you know… everybody loves him, but to art historians he’s a bit [kitsch]. I think it’s fun to paint the place that he painted at his time and then make my own version of that. Especially because of the discussion going on in Europe right now, I mean, people are getting nationalistic and the political scene is changing. It’s scary— the obsession with ideas about what is Swedish, what is not. But culture has always been under influence and under change, so what is seen as so Swedish and what people love, i’m playing a bit with that. I travel a lot in the Middle East, so I’ve been invested in these dramatic changes that have happened in these countries and all the revolutions. And there is a strong influence of course on Sweden because of immigration from the Middle East. Also what I want to show is the similarities. There’s no big difference, in a way. We’re all people.
There’s also an ongoing discussion in Sweden about freedom of speech. There was this artist that painted Mohammad as a dog and now he’s living under threat. They tried to murder him a couple of times. Some people think, oh why did he do that? But I mean, it’s his right, freedom of speech to do that. I painted Muhammad in my paintings but in a different way, because I took old illustrations, like how he was illustrated in Persian culture a long time ago. So he has been in pictures back in history. So i’m just trying to show that people do different things in different ways. I had an exhibition in the Summer in a museum and that exhibition was shown to people that came here from Syria and Afghanistan and Iraq, and I had painted a pattern in a carpet on the floor, a pattern where Allah was written, and there were some people that were upset. At the same time, I’m playing with what Swedish people love the most, these traditional patterns and objects and artists. There can be people from Dalarna, this county in Sweden, that can be provoked, because I took their traditional past and changed it into something else.
I’m giving small clues. For example in some rooms, there’s a light coming from a different part of the house. Even though you don’t see anyone in the room, it gives some hint that maybe somebody just left… so in that way they’re narrative, but I don’t want to tell too much. You can see the coffeemaker is on and half full or the light is on in the other room, or the door is open, but if I had a full story it wouldn’t seem necessary to paint in a way.
I love the light that you get just before the sun goes down, in the evening you know? It’s not actually daylight but it’s not dark. If you’re inside, you get the light from the lamps as well. So I like the light from different sources, I mean the cold light and the warm light at the same time, and that atmosphere that you get. I tell myself I have to challenge myself and make paintings in the middle of the day, but it doesn’t interest me. And people usually ask why the paintings are so empty, why no one’s there, but there actually is always somebody there even if you don’t see the person. She’s around the corner or just behind the door or something. I believe that just like the way we read books, we’ve been taught how to read paintings, to look at pictures. If nobody is in the picture, we think oh, it’s about emptiness and loneliness. But that’s because we’re taught to look at pictures with a lot of people and think that means happiness. But rooms are usually not full of people. If you take a pizza place in a town in Sweden, at lunch time there are of course a lot of people but around 3-4pm maybe there’s only one person there. Usually rooms are empty most hours of the day.
You know, something I always think about is, I love painting, it’s my passion, and at the same time… the painters I love, they didn’t paint anything important. I mentioned Bonard. But when I make paintings myself there has to be something else. I can’t just paint, you know, a still life with roses or something. But what I admire the most is that kind of painting. My paintings are always something else… and in a way it’s like a war inside me. At the end of the day, I’m just a painter and I love painting. Why can’t i just be happy with painting something that doesn’t have to include all of these—? I guess that’s my personality.