It is twenty-six years since Aida Tomescu arrived in Sydney, as an escapee from Ceaucescu’s Romania. She took whatever jobs were available, and began trying to re-establish herself as an exhibiting artist. Anne Lewis showed her work at Gallery A in 1983, and when that venue closed, she moved to the Coventry Gallery – a space that has since been occupied by Gitte Weiss, and now Vasili Kaliman.
Beginning with a small exhibition in the basement gallery, Tomescu rapidly established herself as one of Chandler Coventry’s leading artists. Her abstract paintings grew larger and more confident; the surfaces became denser, covered with many layers of oil paint. As Coventry’s health declined Tomescu remained with the gallery almost to the end, finally leaving in 1999 to show with Martin Browne Fine Art in Sydney and Niagara Galleries in Melbourne. During these years she became a forceful presence in the Australian art scene, winning the inaugural Lowenstein Sharp fellowship at Heide Park in 1996, and in the same year, the Sulman Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Among other awards, she would win the Wynne Prize for landscape in 2001, and the Dobell Drawing Prize in 2003.
Mid-way through last year, Tomescu moved to James Erskine’s Liverpool Street gallery. When we met at her studio in February, she was preparing for shows with both Niagara and Liverpool Street. Petite and elegant, one would never automatically associate the artist with the uncompromising paintings that stand propped against the studio wall.
At first glance her large canvases seem almost monochromatic: three in a vivid red, one in a pale blue. Yet each shows signs of many previous lives through the holes and scars that punctuate the painted surface. That surface itself is dense and gritty, but not because Tomescu adds any substance to the paint. It is simply a result of the number of times she has laid on the oils, scraped them off, then laid them on again. She works wet into wet on several canvases at the same time, while attempting to preserve the integrity of the underlying colours.
The studio is covered with mountains of used tins and tubes of expensive oil paint. Due to her inveterate methods of working, much of it will have ended up on the floor, but Tomescu sees no other way forward. She says she has to work through a painting until it has achieved that state where she “can no longer argue with it.” The floor and furniture testify to the ferocious struggles that take place within these walls. Thousands of coloured drips, speckles and splatters have built up into metamorphic deposits, like multi-coloured lava.
Tomescu believes in keeping to a strict routine. She starts her day with two or three coffees in a local café, then catches the train across town to the studio. On the train she buries herself in a novel, or those recent biographies of Matisse and De Kooning that seem to be obligatory reading for every dedicated artist. When she arrives she will start her day slowly, just sitting and contemplating the works in progress. By lunchtime she is underway, painting and scraping, and will continue until the light fades.
Not so long ago she would start in the morning and paint until late at night, sometimes past mid-night. But she has found this was not a productive way to work. For the subtleties of colour she is seeking, daylight is an essential ingredient.
Tomescu takes her time starting a new series. “I’m not expecting much of myself for at least three or four months,” she says. “I gather material around me. I prime a number of canvases, turn them face to the wall, and begin with a group of works on paper. Sometimes I use unfinished drawings that I keep in drawers. Slowly, slowly I find my way into the work.”
When the moment arrives in which she is completely immersed in the painting process, time ceases to matter. Then she has to work every single day. “With painting, if you give it seven days a week it needs nine. If you give it 10 hours a day it needs 12. The more involved you get with a paint-ing, the longer it takes, the longer it needs.”
This is the time Tomescu doesn’t answer the phone or open her mail. She avoids social engage-ments and meetings with friends. The painting needs her, and she takes its demands very seriously. “I don’t see painting as art,” she says. “Painting is better than art. Painting is much more than art.
“To think in terms of figuration or abstraction or tradition, would mean to see it simply as art, but if anything, painting is life. It is one of the very few pure things in life. It has an existence in its own right. You don’t have the freedom to push it in this or that direction, unless you want to make a prod-uct out of it. And if there’s one thing you do not want, it is a product.”
Although her canvases are devoid of obvious imagery, Tomescu sees everything in terms of “the image”. She uses the term in an almost Byzantine sense, referring to that moment when the work takes on an ineluctable presence. To the medieval icon painters, this was when the holy spirit became manifest in the work. To Tomescu, it is more a question of reaching a stage when she can no longer find an opening into the painting, a point when the work has attained its own life and identity.
“I don’t believe in figuration and abstraction,” she says. “There is no great figurative painting that doesn’t work on an abstract level. When a painting is great, the logic in it is indestructible, although it’s a different logic than that we apply to everyday life. The paintings I love, the works that can keep me spellbound for hours, such as Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna in San Zaccaria in Venice, do not belong to the past. I need to see it because of the life in it, not the art in it.”
Each of Tomescu’s paintings takes an unpredictable, often tortuous course. In the beginning the work is “a sum of approximations”, that gradually assumes a more and more precise form. It may take months to achieve a breakthrough, or the canvas may be turned to the wall to wait another day. Tomescu says she has experienced periods when she has worked day and night for a year, and finished with only four paintings. She dreads these “dark alleys”, but knows that in the end, no matter how painful the gestation, all the effort seems necessary and justified.
She believes that a painting can only happen because of the risk of failure. Take away that risk, and the challenge is gone. “The only reason to do a painting,” she asserts, “is to experience something you’ve not experienced before. If you go through this lengthy process you want to come up with something new. Otherwise what would be the point? Nobody needs another painting.”
Tomescu believes that everything she experiences, everything she reads or looks at, contributes to the final form of a painting. But if there is a meaning to the work, it is more than the sum of these parts. “You come to the studio every day to find something that’s outside of yourself, that’s better than yourself. Something that travels the distance from whatever you are to that thing that eventually becomes a painting. A painting can be measured by the distance a canvas travels away from figuration, away from abstraction, in order to become itself – in order to become life. That also means the distance it travels away from your ego, away from the eye of the artist, and some-times away from the subject in order to develop its own subject. That’s also true of any great Pieta or altar piece, they are always more than their subject.”
She seeks to be surprised by a painting, and loves it when some new influence emerges that push-es the work in an unexpected direction. One of these moments came when she first took up print-making with John Loane of the Viridian Press, in 1986. “It opened up a range of possibilities that changed the entire course of painting for me … Now I can’t see works on paper and oil paint-ings as separate things. I find that drawing on paper and etching plates generates imagery at a different rate, and that feeds back into the canvases that need so much more of my time.”
With a canvas or a work on paper, Tomescu instinctively knows when an image has reached com-pletion, although she still continues to fret about the result. She finds that the process of painting is a constant challenge to the human need for stability and order, the desire to control outcomes. She has learned to respect the moment when works develop an undeniable presence, when they don’t feel arbitrary any more. “They’ve arrived at a place where they have to stay, but I still strug-gle to accept them. Too much of a love affair with your own work would be a tragedy. You respect the paintings, you respond to things, and sometimes you learn to love them. Often you see them a year later and wonder why you ever found them so difficult.”
New works by Aida Tomescu will be exhibited at Niagara Galleries, Melbourne from 4 to 29 April 2006. Liverpool Street Gallery in Sydney will be showing new works by Tomescu in 2007.