MONA ARDELEANU | IN CONVERSATION WITH JOHANN KÖNIG

Mona Ardeleanu’s paintings oscillate between figurative and abstract. Her painted fabrics, lace, tassels, or furs seem like enigmatic three-dimensional objects, which, by means of an unexpected trompe l’oeil effect, seem to have been plucked from the real world. Gallery owner Johann König in conversation with Mona Ardeleanu.

Johann König: Your paintings testify to your impressive skill. They are representational, figurative, and abstract all at the same time. One sees structures that seem realistic but which do not exist in reality. Tangles, pieces of fabric, or even something like parts of a body. How did you develop this formal language?

Mona Ardeleanu: It took a long time. I never learned any painting techniques. I think the painting technician had four children during my time at the academy. The position was always empty. I came from comics and graffiti, so I started out working with Alexander Roob in a drawing class. But I quickly realized that my thing was going to be painting. I worked a lot with type, with space, with figures, with animals. My paintings were crammed full. Later, I spent a year in Vienna in Daniel Richter’s class, and there the studio was jammed with people. Everything that happened in my paintings happened on the spot. There were forty people in one room, it was pretty chaotic. Somehow, during my time there, bit by bit, all the elements gradually disappeared from the paintings and, in the end, all that remained was fabric. The curtains, sofas, etc. I had painted ultimately ended up as a protective shell. After my return, I painted nests and caves out of fabric, and that’s how it slowly developed.

JK: Do you think that the academy properly prepares you for the art market?

MA: Not at all.

JK: Not at all?

MA: In Stuttgart, a legal seminar on art law was offered during the very last semester. That was the first time I learned anything about image rights. Before that, there was nothing at all. I didn’t know how to work with a gallery. The structures at many academies are still very uptight and they usually don’t get it quite right. This master student stuff has become obsolete. That said, I don’t know how it is now. It’s been ten years since I graduated.

JK: But you think that studying art was necessary?

MA: Yes. I would never have learned to see in that way otherwise. In fact, for me, the biggest challenge was seeing and talking about art. If I hadn’t seen so many works by colleagues, if I hadn’t dealt with them, I definitely would have had a different approach.

JK: And going to museums and looking at Old Masters, is that important for you?

MA: No. (laughs)

JK: Not at all?

MA: No.

J: That’s interesting. With your work, one assumes that you draw on older art.

MA: Not at all. I move through my world when I paint. Especially when I have an intense phase of painting, I try to leave out all external influences. I try not to watch movies or look at other art, but to keep moving within my cosmos, to stay in my visual language. For me, almost everything revolves around when I can paint. That’s one of the biggest issues in my life. I want to have time to paint and I can't stop until there is an inner harmony. I have to have the feeling that the painting is now good.
JK: How often do the visual ideas in your head match up with the results?

MA: Almost never. It always evolves. I add something, I take something away. There’s a little bell, there’s a bow. It grows on the canvas.

JK: You said you work on several paintings at the same time. But do you then somehow shift from motif to motif, that is, from paintingto painting, to keep moving forward? Or are there larger visions or larger goals?

MA: No. I work a lot in series that build on each other. In fact, there are series that I’ve been working on for a decade.

JK: But everything is completely free form. You don’t have any props. For example, there are rings or scarves in your paintings, ornamental elements or a lot of fabric. But none of that is lying around in your studio ...

MA: No ...

JK: ... everything springs from your inner eye.

MA: I have an extensive collection of images on my computer. As soon as I come across something that appeals to me aesthetically or thematically, I save it. I frequently scroll through these images before I start painting. But other than that, I paint the way the image needs to be painted and not how reality tells us to.

JK: And the hair?

MA: You can paint that, too. Hair has a similar function to clothing or fabric. On the one hand, it is adornment, jewelry, on the other, protection. It’s this layer between the body and the outside.

JK: Like a kind of reduced fur?

MA: Exactly, yes.

JK: And do you set goals for yourself? Do you have “that’s what I want and that’s what I’m working towards, that’s what I keep wishing for” in your head?

MA: I want to be able to keep painting. That‘s my goal. Of course, I’m happy when my works are shown in a context that I myself like. That is the best thing that can happen: When works are shown in a museum space, apart from a fantastic feeling, that’s exactly what you want for your paintings as a painter. And I think healthy growth is important. I think it’s right to go stair by stair and step by step. I’ll be mega happy if it continues. I do a lot for it, too. However, I don’t feel like I have to jump five stairs at once to end up at a particular place.

JK: When you say you do a lot for it, what is there to do?

MA: Painting. Focusing on the work. Making sure the relationships with the people you work with are healthy ones. That always makes the most sense. As soon as you have a bad feeling about something – it’s not good.

JK: The most important thing is to focus on the work. Because sometimes, there are things that seem like they’re career-defining, but if they don’t feel good, they’re not.

JK: But the most important thing is to focus on your work. Are you very critical of your paintings? Yes, very. There are painting that I’ve been working on for eight or nine years. These are paintings that I can’t exhibit if I don’t feel like they’re right.

JK: That's quite a timespan... As an artist, you first have to find yourself, find out what you’re capable of, and that’s the most challenging thing about painting. Because you have the feeling that everything has already been said. How can I still articulate a contribution that satisfies me or contributes to all the painting that has already been done?

MA: With me, it’s the other way around. Because everything has been done, everything is possible. My feeling is more that painting is like a giant box of magic, and the art of it is to concentrate on one magic trick, your magic trick, and then be able to do it really well.

JK: What makes your work striking is that it is self-contained and recognizable. One recognizes many elements that exist in other genres of painting. But it is so unique that it stands out from everything else. Did that just happen?

MA: It kind of evolved, and now that it’s there, it’s important to me that I don’t pin it down anywhere. I just want to do justice to this work in the cosmos in which it is located. I feel like I have a responsibility to the painting, but I don’t see the big picture when I paint. I just want to freely face each painting and say, “Here’s what I owe you now.” I want that gut feeling to kick in. And if it takes on its own role in a larger context later, it’s all the more beautiful.

JK: I find it interesting that some of your paintings cause a very subtle discomfort. I grew up with art, and I think the best thing art can do is evoke feelings. Of course, that’s much easier in immersive spatial installations or light shows than in a painting that’s forty by thirty centimeters.
MA: These are often also characters that I create, not just pictorial bodies. And among them, of course, there are also morbid types, where you can almost catch a slight whiff of mustiness from grandma's upholstered furniture in the attic. I work with the idea that in the best case, the viewer can develop a feeling for the picture. That’s why I use, for example, traditional fabrics, patterns, or symbols that might remind you of something. But I don’t pin it down. Not concretely painting something that exists, but putting things together, can sometimes also give rise to strange feelings.

JK: I think this uncanniness is somehow like a person one finds a little
creepy or spooky.

MA: Sometimes they have eyes, or I put in patterns that are suggestive of faces or facial features. It’s possible to infer.

JK: And the hair, of course. That is also clearly human.

MA: And the hair, exactly. And the costumes. There are a few Romanian
traditional costume patterns that I occasionally use that remind me of
my childhood. As soon as you put on or dress in a traditional costume,
it does something to the individual. It immediately puts you in a group.

JK: Did you grow up in Romania?

MA: No. My parents came to Germany three years before I was born;
I grew up here. But these elements, these patterns and fabrics and
language were always around me. That was totally bizarre to me: There were relics left over from something that identifies you, that also defines you, but you don’t have the faintest idea where it exactly comes from and what it means.

JK: Does it feel like home there?

MA: No, I haven’t been there since my grandparents died. It never really felt like home. Also because my parents left there because it wasn’t good for them.

JK: I know this from Alicja Kwade. Her parents fled Poland and she always reacts super aversely when she’s identified in the newspaper as a Polish artist because she doesn’t identify as such at all. How do you feel about that?

MA: I’ve never been called a Romanian artist.

JK: No?

MA: No. The name belongs to me, I like it. It’s difficult for Germans to pronounce. But apart from that? I can spell it out for them quite well by now.