This interview between artist Mona Ardeleanu and Magdalena Härtelova is taken from the current Numéro Berlin issue on Kreativität, which can be found in shops or ordered online here.
I know I’m not supposed to touch paintings at a gallery, but it is hard to refrain from reaching out to caress the surreal objects on Mona Ardeleanu’s paintings when I see them at König Gallery’s Chapel. Each painting in the SOFT CRUSH exhibition is like a portal into a world where fabric is alive, or maybe it is a parallel universe where we, humans, turn into hand-crafted objects… Either way, I don’t mind disappearing into them for a while.
Mona Ardeleanu (born 1984) is a German artist known for her intriguing paintings of surreal objects: characters made of fabric, hand-crafted artefacts’ shapes, and occasional allusions of a body. At first glance, being in the space with her paintings is soothing. She is a master painter, with incredible sensibility for color and light, backed by an Old Masters’ approach to her craft. When strolling through a gallery, especially a space as beautiful as St. Agnes, and being surrounded by large paintings on canvas, all is well in the world. But then the visitor begins to notice the occasional allusion of a body in one depicted object, or hair filling the shape of another one. Mona moves in a charged field between abstraction and figuration, between (hyper)real and dream-like, between histories and non-human worlds. It is unsettling: Unsettling in the way that a great love can be.
I wasn’t the only one to keep inching closer and closer to the paintings, trying to decode their secrets, imagining all kinds of stories about where they are coming from and what they are telling. When squinting at the paintings, I felt outside of time. There was a line from a Maggie Nelson poem, “The Poem I Was Working on Before September 11, 2001,” inspired by Louise Bourgeois’s spider sculpture, that kept coming to my mind: “…There could be a planet out there / whose inhabitants are watching our demise, but enough / already about the living dead! There may be / neither space nor time in the space and time / in which I love you, and thus our love / will remain iridescent forever, and have only / as much sternness as the universe has to offer…”
I had the pleasure to interview Mona about her practice, about how her objects come to be, and how they grow with her, to become the strange creatures that live within all of us, in some form or fashion, at some point.
Magada Jadwiga Härtelova: Some of the fabrics in your pieces seem to be molded around a human body. Sometimes, we see hair… Who is inside of the objects you paint that I cannot see?
Mona Ardeleanu: I am interested in the border between the inside and the outside. That is why there is skin, hair, textiles: all the things that can either define a body, or be a definition by themselves. Honestly, what is there is mostly open to the imagination. You decide!
MJH: What space are these objects floating in?
MA: It’s a non-space. Since these objects can’t exist in our reality, they are detached from time and gravity, and I try to give them their own space.
MJH: How do you arrive at the shapes of the objects, the “bodies,” as you call them, depicted in your paintings? How do they come to be?
MA: Either I see something – it could be a dress or a piece of furniture – that I’m attracted to, which is the silhouette that pulls me in. Or I get the idea for a new painting while painting another one. I often paint in parallel, one “body” growing from another.
I never paint from real life objects or play with real fabrics. Even though some of the objects feature scenes from my daily life, for their formation, I try to avoid any impacts from reality. It makes no sense for me. The fold has to fall the way my painting needs it, not the way reality tells me to. People visiting my studio are often disappointed. They expect a huge textile collection and the only thing they see is a cleaning rag for my brushes.
MJH: What changes from the time when you start working on a canvas to finishing the work?
MA: I never start with a master plan. I search for the form rather intuitively, directly onto the canvas. Sometimes, in the beginning stages, I even turn the canvas around. First comes the background. This is the only part I don’t like to paint. When that is done, I usually start with a dirty white to sketch out the object. After that, I take black, modeling the depths, searching for the heights with white again. This way, I create a black-white-gray form, similar to a sculptor teasing out his object. Next step is deciding on a color or a pattern that could fit. I keep adding attributes one by one, just like when you are dressing someone. I paint very thinly, layer over layer. It is a long process.
So, when you ask what changes between the first brush strokes and the finished work: Everything. I am always reacting to the different stages of the process. Sometimes, I add elements that were not there at the beginning. Actually, this happens most of the time. In some cases, I cover parts up. I can’t stop until I have a certain feeling of harmony. Not that the painting has to be harmonious, or sweet, but my search for the right state of the piece has to be satisfied.
MJH: I have read the words “magic” and “mystery” used in relationship to your work. Do they resonate with the way you see your practice?
MA: I would love to have a magic wand!
MJH: Many of your “bodies” are also entanglements of time. For instance, in Pliss 2020, the silhouette and the fabric seem to be coming straight from an artwork hung in the drawing room of an upper middle-class German household in the middle of the 19th century, yet the children playing on the pattern of the fabric are dressed like the ones on the playgrounds today. How do histories come together for you? How do you see time?
MA: This painting is one of those in particular that I mentioned one can find personal scenes from my personal life. It’s a self-portrait with my three kids during the Corona lockdown. I often play with the remains of passed times. But I am using references to the past more in an emotional context than as a historical annotation. By using a pattern you’ve seen hundreds of times, I want to bring up that warmth or nostalgic feeling when looking at it.
MJH: Through these entangled times, as well as through references to different cultures, you create subtly layered, complex identities for your “bodies.” Do you feel like you are covering, hiding, protecting their identities, or are your paintings processes of uncovering, showing, making clear?
MA: Both. In my practice, I try to create something that attracts the viewer at first sight and confuses them at the second. I never give my pieces titles that determine them to be something I, myself, see in them. I want the viewer to establish their own relationship to my paintings.
MJH: I saw your paintings in the impressive clerestory lighting of the Koenig Gallery’s Chapel space, on the modern white and stripped brick walls. If you had the magic wand you mentioned, what would be one, or two, or three places – institutional, real, or entirely fictional – that you would like your paintings to appear next?
MA: If I were to think about an “ideal” space for my paintings, in the end, it would be more about a good context, not a certain, specific place. I wish for my works to live in the company of cherished artists, surrounded, or in discourse with, inspiring architecture, in the context of an exciting theme.
MJH: Who is your (art) crush right now?
MA: Tauba Auerbach, Loie Hollowell, Hilma af Klint, Tomma Abts. And Fabian, of course. He is my long-term crush. My partner in crime for nearly 2 decades, father of our kids and my husband.