How to slow down and concentrate

  • Painting, Varda Caivano, 2004

Varda Caivano (Painting 2004) was recently described by a critic as "one of the best painters, of any age, anywhere today". Mimei Thompson (Painting 2005) talks to her about the transition from the Royal College to self-directed practice

Painting, Varda Caivano, 2004

Mimei Thompson: How did you find the transition from college into practicing as a professional artist?
Varda Caivano: When you are doing an MA there is a structure, one which allows freedom, but a structure nonetheless. Outside college, as an artist, you have to make your own structure, so you have to get to know yourself and what works for you. For me, it was great because I had a gallery who represented me. What was hard at the beginning was the fact that I didn’t have my family here, so I felt quite lonely spending all day in the studio without the context of the RCA around me. Also there are so many things to learn once you’re outside: how to archive the work, the reproduction of images, how to manage the schedule for the year and all the studio admin. All of this is new.

Does London feel like home?
Yes, I’ve been here so long, developing my work. I also met my partner here and many really good friends and colleagues as well. Now it does, definitely.

Are you teaching at the moment?
Yes, as a visiting artist at the Royal College and occasionally the Slade. I enjoy it very much; it’s an interesting experience that makes me feel useful to others. Because I wasn’t born here, I understand the experience of students that come from abroad. I do sympathise with them.

As a painter, your practice is very private - how do you find that?
I would say it’s an individual practice; there’s a narrative, a kind of conversation going on with the work. The studio is sometimes like a head where things are produced, and also recycled somehow.

Do you think that painting is viewed differently from other media?
Painting has a very old tradition, so the practice of it is having a conversation with that tradition, in a way. In painting the relationship with material is quite primary, and also less literal than in other mediums, which makes it more difficult to translate into words. That provokes a gap, which happens with music as well.

Do you work towards a body of work for a show? Or is it an ongoing process?
For me the work is not each painting, it is about the process of making the work, the practice of painting. I usually work on a lot of paintings at the same time.

How do you know when your paintings are finished? Do you ever get advice from others?
In my case there is a moment when it feels like the painting is locking me out. Usually, you can get in with a brush stroke, but at this moment, it feels like it’s locked. Somehow it wins its independence and is outside in the world. What I do when I have a deadline is organise my schedule and sometimes invite a friend or my partner to the studio. I tend not to show work that isn’t finished to people.

What was your experience like of getting gallery representation?
During the degree show period I had some galleries who were interested in me, which was great, but it was also difficult to think about what was best for me. I decided to work with Victoria Miro.

How did the gallery approach you?
The gallery invited me to be in part of a group show in the second year of the MA. Then after I finished, around graduation, they started representing me.

I want to explore the idea of networks - looking at it from the outside it seems that you were quite successful as soon as you graduated, so I just wondered what advice you can pass on? 
The most basic thing is the work. It’s the most important thing. It can be fun, but also very difficult; the space with the work, being alone with the work, and what happens there. For me it was very important to make a lot of work. It was a process that happened through painting. Like someone playing an instrument, who needs to get to know the instrument and how, or what, to play by simply playing as much as possible and later hearing themselves. Apart from that, probably what is important is to find friends and colleagues who understand the work.

Did you make enough money as soon as you graduated, or did you have other ways to support yourself?
When I was at the RCA I had a grant. Afterwards, I was lucky enough to have really low rent where I was living, and I also started selling. I think the first time I sold a piece was through the show New Contemporaries. I sold work from the first group show at Victoria Miro, which I lived on for quite a while. After that, things continued to grow in an organic way.

You have a residency now in the British School at Rome - have you done other residencies before?
I did one, which was really amazing, at Steep Rock, Connecticut, in the countryside.

Are there certain people who you get advice from about your work or career?
Yes, friends and family, and my partner, who is also an artist.

How is your relationship with the gallery - do you feel like you have to present a very confident, professional face?
Not at all. It’s a collaboration I would say.

Do you feel relaxed with them?
Yes, I do.

Is there any advice you could give about those kinds of relationships?
I think is important to take it slow and concentrate on the work. Also find colleagues and friends that you feel understand your work deeply.

Varda is represented by Victoria Miro in London where she recently had her second solo show with the gallery. Her work is included in the British Art Show 7, curated by Tom Morton and Lisa Le Feuvre, currently on tour, and she has had solo shows in Germany and Japan.