Nadja Gabriela Plein won the Abstract/Non-representational category award in the Jackson’s Open Painting Prize 2019. Her winning work, Wechsellied, is an orchestra of paint strokes that lead the eye in a thousand directions, freewheeling around the surface of the painting. But there is mindful intention, guided by playful intuition, in every movement of her brush. Each of her paintings ask us to look and experience the materials and the sensations that follow. We caught up with Nadja to discover her process, materials and how she develops these mysterious compositions.
Clare: Tell us a little bit about your artistic background/education.
Nadja: I’m a graduate of the Turps Art School studio programme. This is an alternative, MA-level course. Before embarking on a career as a painter I was a composer. I gained a doctorate in music composition from the Royal College of Music, London.
Clare: How would you describe your practice?
Nadja: My practice includes painting, meditation and writing. Meditation, in the tradition I practice, watches the arising and passing of things within one’s present-moment experience. In this sense, everything becomes an object to look at–the breath, the sounds, the sensations of the body, the thoughts, the memories, each an object that arises and passes within my experience. More than that, everything becomes a precious object, something to be watched with tenderness. This results in a blurring of art and life. The touch of my steps on the grass feels as much as art as the painting I am making. Within all of this is a rethinking of the person and her relationship with the world. It raises questions of subjectivity, authorship and autonomy. This is where the writing comes in. I have presented papers at several conferences and have a short paper being published in the online journal Decorating Dissidence this summer.
Clare: We were fascinated by the word, Wechsellied, here in the studio. Did the title for your category prize winning painting come from the song? Would you mind translating Wechsellied for our readers and explain how it informed your category prize-winning artwork?
Nadja: Wechsellied is a made-up word. It means change-song. It reflects a preoccupation with flux and impermanence in my practice. The titles always come after the painting for me!
Clare: As a painter and a classical music composer, does sound play a significant role in your painting process?
Nadja: I consider myself a painter now, not a composer. They are not parallel things in my practice but rather one that transmuted into the other. As such, my background in composition is contained within my painting practice. Sound is important in that it is so obviously in flux and impermanent. I am interested in that quality within painting.
Clare: Of all the colours you use, I’ve noticed a variety of greens reoccurring in many of your paintings. What informs your choice of colour for your work and how do you select your palette?
Nadja: The colours come from around me. I have my studio in my garden and I enjoy hiking. When I was a child we didn’t have many toys so we played with what we could find in nature! I think some of that interest in natural forms and all the promise they hold is still in my work. My work is always improvised, with that I mean I never pre-plan colours or shapes. It arises from the work itself and all the things around me that influence me.
Clare: In your essay, On the Brink of Futility, Schopenhauer, suffering and the value of abstract painting, you write “[The experience of viewing] the abstract painting can encourage moments of unintentional mindfulness.” Does this relate to your painting process also? If so, can you explain how?
Nadja: When I wrote this paper I was thinking a lot about what happens in the mind when we look at an abstract painting. I felt that being denied meaning, other types of cognition start to kick in, particularly sensual cognition. This echoes meditation, which tries, deliberately, to pay attention to sensual cognition. This is certainly important in my painting process which is closely related to my meditation practice. I describe it like this: I start with a surface, metal, wood, canvas, paper, or plastic. Then a thinned colour. I put it on and see what happens. How is this paint, right now, on this surface? Then I might pick up a pencil and draw it over the wet paint. I watch the groove, as I make it, I watch the wet paint fill it up or run over it. I might pick another colour, thicker oil paint this time and watch how it interacts with the thin paint and the pencil marks. I watch. I might wipe it all away, again, leaving a mere smudge and work from that. I will sit down and watch: this aluminium grey with this green and this brown line…
Clare: Many of your paintings are on aluminium. What are the properties of this surface that draw you to it?
Nadja: I like the flatness of the aluminium and dibond most of all. I like how you can see the brushstroke very clearly on the hard, flat surface. With both, the colour is also attractive: the silver reflective quality of the aluminium and the stark white of the dibond.
Clare: As an artist who paints abstraction, can you talk about the composition in your paintings? Where do these shapes and marks come from?
Nadja: My paintings are improvised. I don’t pre-plan the shapes or marks but rather let them arise through a process of doing and watching. Of course, everything comes from somewhere and everything I do is influenced by all the things I have seen and drawn before. I do not deliberately work with memory or observation, though, but rather let things arise through the process.
Clare: Do you maintain a practice of observational drawing? If so, what are your preferred sketching tools?
Nadja: Yes, I do. This is either studying old master works (I am currently working my way through a book of Caravaggio reproductions) or drawing plants, trees and other natural objects from life. I use graphite pencils or ink.
Clare: What is your most important artist’s tool?
Nadja: I like to have lots of variety, lots of different pigments, lots of different shapes and sizes of brushes, lots of different surfaces. So, rather than one tool, it is variety or choice, that’s important to me.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary artists?
Clare: What is a good day in the studio for you?
Nadja: A good day is calm, uninterrupted (I disable all notifications on my iPhone), with plenty of time. A good day is when I really get into the painting, when it works and speaks, when I dig into the material and something happens, when my hands are covered in paint and I don’t manage to get them clean at the end. A good day includes meditation and reading and writing. It includes my family at the beginning and the end.
Clare: In the studio – music, audiobook, podcast, Radio 4 or silence?
Nadja: Either silence or music. My musical taste is quite eclectic. Recently played: Neil Young, Perotin (12th-century polyphony), The Doors, Soap&Skin, John Cage.
Clare: What is coming up next for you and where can we see more of your art in the flesh or online?