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In the Studio with Orsola Zane

Italian artist Orsola Zane singles out subjects that appear aloof and uneasy by starting from pixelated low-resolution amateur videos of rave parties in the 80's. We met with Orsola to talk a little bit about her artistic practice, influences, and how she began her journey.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist? 

I think it came about quite spontaneously, I wouldn’t be able to pin down exactly a sort of moment of realisation, an epiphany or anything of the sort. I’ve loved going to museums and looking at paintings and works of art for as long as I can remember, 

and the act of trying to imitate what I saw, to sketch it down on a notebook, was a natural part of that admiration. Then at one point copying just didn’t do it for me anymore, I moved on to creating my own things, and it became increasingly clear that I wanted that to be my future life. 

It also came as a natural result of the attitude I have towards things: I am very observant, I can spend hours in a group of people just standing in silence and watching. That’s not a very cool social skill, but it does come in handy when translating something into an image. Understanding and learning to appreciate this visual approach to the perception of things led me to wonder about the possibility of transposing that sense into practice. 

I’ve always hated colouring things though, which in hindsight seems quite funny seeing that I chose to become a painter.

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?

I’m originally from Venice — well, Mestre actually, but I’ve always spent more time in Venice. I grew up in a household where culture was as essential as food or water. My parents put a lot of work into making it possible for us to travel around Europe, to go and see as many museums, churches and concerts as we could. However, there was never a sense of just going there to tick some boxes on a list. Looking at a painting or listening to a piece of music… they always came with a story, a background, a context. Me and my brother were invited to stop and consider, to think, to listen, to reflect, to try to grasp a meaning or, when there was no hidden meaning to be sought, to simply take in the aesthetic, the experience of looking at something. A philosophy that I applied all too eagerly: I remember driving a family friend crazy as a kid in Paris because I absolutely needed to inspect every single piece in an exhibition of Asiatic miniatures. 

What I gained from all of this is an approach to practice which is deeply rooted in reflection and anti-impulsiveness, probably too much so at times. Painting is a way for me to engage in a discussion, to consider a possible explanation, to try out my hypotheses. The outcome might often invalidate that first idea, so that I have to un-think and re-think, re-evaluate and eventually start again. That is what keeps my practice lively and constantly pushes me to further my research. Although obviously (and infuriatingly so) some of the best results came from works done quickly and without much planning.  

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. Have you gone through the traditional route of art school and what was your experience? 

Well, in high school I attended an experimental programme in Venice combining Classical and Language studies. I decided to apply to the Fine Arts Academy of Venice during my last year there. During the following summer I took some life drawing lessons and learned hatching, so that by the time I got in everyone could tell me what an antiquated way of drawing I had. The first year or so had me quite at a loss, because I kept on expecting someone to come up and tell me what to do, how to hold my brush, how to dilute the colour and all of that — I wasn’t a painter before that, you see. But it does not really work like that at the Academy, teachers generally do not tell you how to do things, they mostly give a critical commentary and help you to understand what might work and what not. At least, that is how it was for me in my first year and a half. 

Most of the technical advice I received came from other students, many of the aesthetic understandings I reached came from looking at their work. There were lots of dead ends, lots of times when I missed the mark completely, other times that I got to something good, but the process leading up to that had been so fortuitous that it didn’t really fit into a narrative of progress and evolution. Now I can finally see a direction, or rather, a multitude of possible directions.

What’s the message of your work? Are there themes/narratives/purpose? 

The work on show comes from a larger project called “Dissociative Association”, which I developed during my third and fourth year at the Academy. I wouldn’t necessarily talk about meaning, because meaning has a habit of overshadowing the formal aspect of a work. But I do try to convey a sense of isolation, of bewilderment and aloofness. I work on scenes of parties, of collectives and crowds, and then isolate single subjects. I wish to portray the detachment that results from the realisation that all sense of belonging is illusory and volatile. 

When I first started to deal with the theme of parties, my idea of what I wanted to show was diametrically opposed: I would create images of crowds with bright colours, generally based on pictures I took myself. Gradually, however, I felt an increasing need to move my research further away from personal experience. There is always a sense of responsibility towards the representation of reality when it belongs to our own lived experience and the feelings attached to it. Instead, I wanted to take a step back, to consider the subject from a distance, to prod it, flip it, turn it around with as much freedom as possible. However, some of myself still ended up being projected onto my subjects, informing an observation on the issues of communication and social relationships. 

Where do they come from? How would you describe your aesthetic? 

My sources are generally low-resolution screen grabs from amateur videos of rave parties from the late 80s, 90s and 00s. When you freeze and isolate a frame from a video where people are moving fast, the shapes become confused, blurred, sometimes they might look like undefined blotches of colour more than anything. Yet, because the pictures come from actual footage, it is still possible to identify that small violet patch as the shadow of a nose, a blurry spiked pixelated shape as a hand and so on. I like to play with this in my paintings, to investigate into how far you can go with the simplification of the figure while still maintaining some sort of resemblance to reality. 

Working on images of no artistic or sentimental value leaves me at great freedom to experiment formally, to desaturate colours and omit details that I would feel compelled to include were I using source material that is already good by itself. I also enhance the bi-dimensionality of the image: the idea is to still employ the superposition of planes that is central to traditional perspective, while defying its purpose by invalidating the illusion of depth that should be its natural effect.

Who and what are your greatest influences? 

The work of Luc Tuymans was very important for my current research, mainly because of his portrayal of the light effects and shiftings of colour in back-lit monitors, and because of the apparent simplicity and efficacy of many of his works. 

I’m also in love with the work of Michael Andrews, Marlene Dumas, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Wilhelm Sasnal and Daniele Galliano. 

Just recently, while working on my dissertation, I chanced upon Degas’ monotypes for the first time: they are incredible, I didn’t even know that you could do such thing in print! It’s a technique I would definitely like to try in the future, though I suspect it’s just as complicated as it looks.

Luc Tuymans, Singing in the Rain, 1996

Are your works planned? What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating? 

If by planning you mean sitting for hours on end in front of an empty canvas considering how best to begin, then yes, there is a lot of that. I usually sketch different angles or possible resolutions of the subject on a piece of paper; sometimes, if it’s a relatively big canvas or if I need to think thoroughly of a possible colour palette, I will make a preliminary draft with oil colours. However, I’ve come to realise that you can only control the painting to a certain extent. Probably the most important thing that I have learned in these years at the Academy is not to cling too much on to the original idea: the painting might be finished much sooner than you expected, or you might do everything you had in mind and then realise that it still lacks something. You have to be receptive of the painting and of its effect at every step of the process, so you cannot really afford to dig your heels in about your original plan. 

That is the primary thing that I have in mind while creating a new piece. Whereas the question of how the audience might react to it is a bit too intricate for me: I have reacted in radically different ways to the same work of art at different times in my life, 

or even when seeing it under a different lighting. But the point, for me, is that some sort of reaction can only be provoked if the painting works, if it can stand its ground and fend for itself, figuratively speaking. Unfortunately, there are no fixed rules as to how to achieve this.

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? Do you stick to one medium? Do you experiment? Do you see any parameters to your work? 

Well, this last four years have been ones of constant changes, evolutions, pauses, restarts and sometimes even involutions. It’s a bit like when boys reach puberty and their voice starts changing, so that it keeps on jumping to different octaves before settling on one. The difference being, of course, that there is no real completion to artistic growth. I have worked a bit with etching and made some attempts at sculpture, but I definitely want to experiment more in the future, when I might have more space to explore three-dimensionality and installations. However, there is still an infinity of possibilities to delve into in painting, and I am nowhere near being done with this medium. 

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work? 

I’ve created two of the works on show while basically sitting under a table in a shed (it was during a summer workshop and that was the only space that was left), so I would argue that the perfect location per se does not exist. What I have come to realise during this quarantine, however, is just how essential it is for me and for my practice to work near other students or artists: being able to discuss, to ask for advice, look at other people’s work or even just to take a break from painting and talk about nothing plays a great part in making me maintain my focus as well as a clear perspective on what I’m working on. 

What are your goals for the future? (Projects, collaborations) 

Right now, having graduated a couple of days ago, my main goal is to finally get back to painting. I had to take a long break from it in order to write my dissertation, but now I’m definitely ready to start working again. Then, in October, I am going to take part in a group show at Palazzo Monti in Brescia, curated by Edoardo Monti, which is something I am really looking forward to. If everything goes as planned, next year I might be attending an MFA programme in England, but I really don’t want to jinx it, so I’m going to stop right here.

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