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Trasi Henen on her process-based paintings

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"By the time I decide that a painting is finished it has already been so many other paintings," Trasi Henen tells Sean O'Toole, "and even then they could still be something else."


Trasi Henen, Untitled (Le Corbusier yellow balls), 2010, oil and mixed media on canvas, 145 x 90cmUntitled (Le Corbusier yellow balls), 2010, oil and mixed media on canvas, 145 x 90cm Why did you move to Cape Town from Johannesburg in 2006?It was actually early 2007. By then I had wanted to move south for a while.Christian Nerf and Ed Young were crashing at my Braamfontein studio inlate 2006 and they convinced me to follow my words. I was tired of living innostalgia of what Joburg could be. Each time I'd visit Cape Town my lifestylein Joburg made no sense. I was seduced by the street life in Cape Town, livingclose to the sea, and also I had ideas of what the art world was like downhere.I know things in your personal life didn't exactly go according toplan, partly because of the operational logic of the art world in Cape Town andits many flighty distractions. I am curious though, how did moving to Cape Towninfluence your early attitude to painting?I moved away from the illustrative wistfulness from the earlier days.There's a lot of swanky and hip work in Cape Town, and I became more cynical ofthat kind of approach. My work in Joburg was quite cathartic for me. I couldn'tcontinue working with the same themes and in the same way because I becametired of them and also I was in an entirely different space. I began to engagewith the polemics of painting, and questioned its relevance as a practice for awhile. Untitled (Statistic), 2010, oil and mixed media on canvas, 56 x 71cm What for you, a young South African painter based in Cape Town, are thecentral polemics of painting currently?Isolated production, the reception of painting, the relationship betweenpainting and the art market (I think of your Facebook statement about the"soporific Sterns" being bought at auction). The relevance and position ofpainting as a contemporary cultural practice, and having to justify this tomyself and having shows, group shows that feel the need to continually justifyor negate the anachronistic and loaded nature of painting. Basically most ofthe group shows that I have been invited to participate on have the same themeand concerns: PAINTING. This becomes tautological and tired, and usually thereis a dedicated space for a painting show and this is usually close to December.Also there seems to be a separation made between painter/artist and contemporarycultural practitioner.Is the lack of a sustained and vigorous discourse around painting locallysomething that concerns you? I should qualify this. To what extent do you as apainter rely on discourse to invigorate your thinking and actions as a painter?It does concern me. Mostly in that, ironically, there is a shortage of anaudience who can (or do) engage with the language of painting in a criticallydiscursive and interesting way. I find this disheartening as I produce work foran audience. As an artist I look to and engage with various writings, works,literature and forums to inform my practice, which is not only painting. Untitled (Can't find the words), 2010, oil and mixed media on canvas, 102 x 76cm The work on Never Falling Together, your recent show at Blank Projects, wasanything but "illustrative" although it did have a vaguely "wistful" senseabout it - the word implies longing or nostalgia. What particularly aboutmodernist abstract painting intrigues you? My sense is that you prefer theausterity of European high modernism to the exuberance of the Americans. I do like the seriousness of "European high modernism", as you call it. I amseduced by modernism as a collective movement in the arts and architecture; Iam interested in its utopian idealism and so also its failure. With regards tomy paintings, I guess I can draw parallels between the process and thinking ofcertain abstract painters from that time in relation to my own processes and inthe making of this recent body of work. That would be process-based,self-referential production that rejects representation in favour of thefragmentation of images into asymmetrical agreement and the awareness ofsurface as a thing in and of itself. My paintings are made through a process oflayering which takes much negotiation and negation. Since the beginning of mypainting career I have had a visceral relationship to paint; I have and willcontinue to experiment with and explore the potentiality of the medium. This isnothing new, and I definitely don't claim to be a puritanical modernistabstract painter. My works are explorations of space.The geometric abstraction of the work on Never Falling Together recall, in away, some of Julie Mehretu's earlier work. Have you looked at her work with anycommitment or interest?I looked at Mehretu's work in 2003 and saw parallels with her work in terms ofher layering, movement in geometric form and her interest in the urban. Atthat point I thought that what I was doing was quite new and I remember feelingat odds with her work - quite grandiose of me. To be honest, I haven't reallylooked at her work much since. So it's interesting for me that this comparisonhas come up now. Untitled (Mondriaan and Monkey), 2010, oil and mixed media on canvas, 89 x 71cmShifting the tone slightly, how long does it take you to complete a painting? Your statement for Never Falling Together makes it sound like, um, days,months, even years: "My working process is contingent, I build and thendestroy, and build again and so on."Ha, and the title in that context makes it sound so dramatic. The way I workis fast and hard; I don't make things easy for myself, I also have the tendencyto be impulsive with my work. So by the time I decide that a painting isfinished it has already been so many other paintings, and even then they couldstill be something else. Often people remark on how I've destroyed the thingthat they liked, or they ask where a work is that they saw the day before andby then it has changed into something else. That's the thing with process-basedwork: it isn't a linear production line. So the time will vary on each paintingto answer your question, sometimes hours, days, months, even years.To return to that word exuberance, your colour palette in Never FallingTogether is rich yet somehow restrained. I've always associated you with largeswathes of singular bright colours. Where are you at in terms of your thinkingand approach to colour?I agree. That's possibly my way of intuitively making the work cohere. I'veshifted back to using colour, and experimenting with it. I really like whathappened with 'Statistic' but maybe that's because it's different to the restof the works.You could have said no to this interview. Why go through the process?I could've said no as it's a lot of pressure to commit words to print and I'dlike to give sexy and profound insight into my practice and my work, but it isonly one interview and tomorrow I might feel differently. But for these samereasons I'm glad to do it. Untitled (Window), 2010, oil and mixed media on canvas, 89 x 71cm All images courtesy artist and
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