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In Studio with Karen Cronje

Karen Cronje made the huge leap to becoming a full-time artist just three years ago. We catch up with her ahead of her solo exhibition, Surface Tension, at Loop 99, which explores her interest in the ‘stuff’ of landscape – patterns, textures – and how we each individually remember and experience the same place. 

Karen Cronje in studio taking a quick break from working on her forthcoming exhibition, Surface Tension.

Why do you think you’re drawn to painting abstracted landscapes?

I think partly because of significant landscapes that resonated when I grew up. My aunt lived in Prince Albert for many years, long before it was fashionable, and we’d visit her often and spend time in nearby Gamkaskloof Valley or Meiringspoort. My mother loved the Swiss-roll formations of the rocks there. I too have always loved mountains, and I orientate myself around them – I’m lost if there’s no mountain in sight! I do lots of hiking, and my partner also loves mountains, so we’re always exploring new territory.

Memory and nostalgia play significant roles in my work, especially since I’ve always struggled with taking photographs – I try, but I’m always disappointed with the results. When I travel, I always draw places in my journal as I experience them. I’m always astonished that the drawings take me ‘back’ to that landscape immediately, whereas my photographs tend to disappoint me. How I capture a setting through an abstracted interpretation is all about how I remember it and have internalised it. In this vein, I’m fascinated by where fact and fiction start blurring. Years ago when I was a child, we went to the waterfall in Stanford, and I remembered it as huge with a deep valley. A few years ago I returned and was shocked to find it was only a metre high (!), when in my memory it was sublime. I’m always interested in how we experience a place because it’s all about our memories, associations, the viewpoint we select and what we attach to it. I sometimes wish I could experience landscapes from others’ points of view, as it’s different for everybody.

Close up of work in progress for Surface Tension.

You’re in the thick of preparing for a solo exhibition. Tell us about that.

The exhibition is called Surface Tensions and opens on 1 March at 99 Loop. In some ways, it’s a continuation of last year’s ‘No One’s Land’ where I co-exhibited with Andrew Sutherland. The difference is that last year we were each playing off the others’ work, and, for this show, I am pushing in a different direction that explores my interest in the ‘stuff’ of landscape – patterns, textures – and how we each individually remember and experience the same place. 

‘Surface Tension’ has several layers of meaning. It’s about this country – the land, and our interactions with it –  where I try to examine issues around land redistribution, land value and a personal appreciation of the landscape in a considered, gentle way. For me as an artist Surface Tension also harks back to the stuff of painting: there is a surface, I paint on it and work with images and references so that the surface begins to generate its own tension.

Some of the ideas for Surface Tension have been sitting with me for three years. I work with imagery I’ve created and found and put these together. The process has various permutations and needs time to come together. It’s unpredictable, and I don’t try and preempt a result, but rather seek to discover a tension through taking away and adding.

Close up of work in progress for Surface Tension.

Is it accurate to say that your approach to art making is intuitive?

Intuitive summarises my approach to everything. I’ve gone through stages where I try to plan, and I get too tight. I pretty much know that if I feel nervous and unsure when working then that’s good territory to be in because it means there’s no settling for easy solutions, and I’m extending beyond what’s comfortable.

I work on more than one painting at a time. I quite like switching between works. I’ll paint myself into a corner, then move on to another canvas and let go of what I’m obsessing about, and then solutions appear. It comes back to the intuitive process. The painting will reveal itself. When I try and control the process, I end up scrubbing it off. It’s dead. Lifeless. For me, that’s part of the mark making process as well. I know I’m not 100% aware of the types of marks that I may make, and that I need to be sensitive to the possibility that the direction of a painting can change at any time. It means I need to be present and vigilantly re-evaluate what I’m doing.

Close up of work in progress for Surface Tension.

Layering is such an important aspect of your work. Tell us more.

It comes back to Surface Tension. Layering is a funny process. Every mark has to be alive. I don’t know quite know how to explain that, but a mark either feels alive or it doesn’t. I start with larger paintbrushes coating in and blocking out colour, and then I start drawing in and working on composition. It’s a constant process of layering and erasing, considering what works and what doesn’t within the entire painting and elements of it. I try not to repeat much of the same mark. Mark making is like handwriting. It’s intrinsically linked to who I am as a person.  As soon as those marks get repetitive, it’s time to change. The whole process of painting is about when that aliveness is there and when it’s not there. It’s about becoming and not becoming. Certain areas grow, certain areas get pushed back. As a particular feeling, I just know when it isn’t working, but when I try and explain that in words it’s impossible.

Close up of work in progress for Surface Tension.

The colours you’re working with for this exhibition are intriguing. 

These have ended up as a colour set, but I just enjoy colour. I think it’s the most difficult element with which one can work. It will constantly try to trick you and surprise you and bamboozle you. I need the colours I use to be a bit off, and this comes back to tension – the paintings would be too glib and easy if I only used tasteful hues, however, if they’re slightly off then the associations become a little bit darker and less banal. Utilising unusual colour choices shifts my work away from being purely representational. It brings mood.

Close up of work in progress for Surface Tension.

How does being a member of Nando’s Artists Society (NAS) impact your life as an artist?

It’s wonderfully enabling. I can become very isolated in my studio practice, and Nando’s Artists Society creates an opportunity for its members to meet as a community on a regular basis and get some feedback. I love the days when we submit artworks because we all get to see what each other are doing and get to talk art. From a financial point of view, NAS enables me to focus on experimental works, process works or on pieces that don’t necessarily fit into a body of work – and I’m able to make a living from it while feeding and enriching my process.

Close up of work in progress for Surface Tension.

You’ve said coming into your own as an artist was a slow journey for you.

Yes. I taught art at high school level for 16 years. I kind of walked into it by accident as a temporary thing when I was asked to help out, and suddenly it was 14 or 15 years later! It put me in a constant bind where to be a good teacher demanded that I attend to the all-consuming admin and though I yearned to be an artist I had no time to spend in a studio.

It was a case of finally getting to the point when I realised that if I wasn’t going to make the leap to being a full-time artist, I was going to be an unhappy person for the rest of my life. My partner supported me, saying I owed it to myself to do it, and that if it would make me happy, the choice was simple. That made a big difference. Another factor was Elize Vossgatter. Before going off to Berlin for a stint, she phoned me up and said, ‘Hey do you want a studio? I’m going overseas…do you want to rent mine while I’m away?’. When I paused, she said, ‘Oh come on man, just come!’. It was a 20-minute thing. I got to East Side Studio, and she laid down the gauntlet in a big way by saying, ‘Oh my god I didn’t think you’d do anything this impulsive!’. I sub-let her studio while she was away and that was part of the process of working out that being an artist feels right and is what I need to be doing.  

It’s been three years, and the sky still hasn’t fallen in (although I want to touch wood at the same time when I say that). It’s been such a wonderfully positive experience and so lovely to let go of what frustrated me, and that’s where Yellowoods Art and Nando’s Art Initiative have come in as such an enabling measure. Being involved in their programmes makes it that much easier to work towards buying materials and taking off the pressure to reach that salary tag.

I often catch myself coming into the studio thinking ‘Is this real? When is somebody going to stop me?’ It makes me happy. It’s good to be doing this because it’s what I must do. 

Karen Cronje, Untitled, Oil on board, 300x300mm Nando’s UK.

Follow Karen on Instagram.

Surface Tension 1 – 25 March at 99 Loop.

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