Zoë Lescaze on Svenja Deininger



Svenja Deininger, Untitled
2011, Oil on Canvas, 28 x 21 cm (Martin Collection)

The oil paintings of Svenja Deininger radiate a ruthless devotion. The Austrian artist builds up layers of pigment only to strip and sand sections away, excising precise geometric patches to reveal what lies beneath. Sometimes she sloughs off paint right down to the raw canvas, tinted by the colors that once covered it. Deininger’s abstract compositions are asymmetrical yet expertly balanced mosaics of rectangles, half-moons, arcs, wedges, and columns. They exude both dedication and detachment, evincing the artist’s obsessive engagement with depth, color, and texture, as well as her willingness to remove what she has so carefully applied.

A small vertical painting from 2011 (all of her works are untitled) in the Martin Collection is at once cryptic and viscerally immediate. At the top of the painting, the artist has exposed a large hexagonal swath of burlap-colored canvas, mottled with drips and drops of pink and gray. Painted triangles and polygons cover the rest of composition. Deininger has an almost alchemical ability to induce oil paint to resemble different materials, and the surface of each of these shapes bears a distinct, evocative texture. One gray trapezoid etched with a frenzy of fine lines (traces of the artist’s sandpaper) suggests wood grain; the smooth, glossy surface of a black diamond above it resembles polished lacquer; a large white triangle at the base of the work looks like alabaster. The painting could be a portrait of a dilapidated room with scuffed plaster walls and stained, threadbare furniture.

Deininger, who was born in Vienna in 1974, has carved out a distinct niche for herself in the tradition of geometric abstract painting. While the range of textures she creates on canvas may spark comparisons with Mary Obering, who paints rectangular shapes in tempera, gold leaf, and encaustic, among other substances, Deininger conjures her arrestingly varied surfaces out of oil paint alone. Her experimental use of the medium sets her apart, as does her method of removing paint. The artist Pat Steir famously sends turpentine flowing down her canvases to carry away feathery, branching rivulets of paint, but Deininger erodes her works with an architect’s precision, leaving nothing to chance. Callum Innes, the Scottish painter is perhaps her closest ally in this regard. No one else working in an abstract mode has explored subtraction with comparable canniness, conviction, and rigor.

These paintings never feel clinical, despite their crisp geometric forms and the exactitude with which Deininger plans her canvases. Instead, they feel deeply intimate. Each painting conveys its own, highly personal history. Linger with one of the works in the Martin Collection, and its surface may start to suggest the uneven topography of a human life. There are densely built-up areas—formed layer by layer like geological strata—that bury once-raw regions with varying degrees of opacity and polish. Other sections are marked by loss, their fine patinas scratched and scarred. Deininger both obscures and exposes, granting her viewers a subtle means of meditating on what they conceal and what they lay bare.

Zoë Lescaze is an art writer and critic based in New York.