For Ildiko Kovacs, painting begins with a feeling. A particular colour will beckon to her and she will follow it towards a conclusion, which may take weeks to find. Oil paint is applied directly to a ground of raw plywood with foam rollers, sinuous lines snaking their way around the field in complex interweaving strokes. Each day Kovacs begins again, wiping the surface down with turpentine to leave only a trace of the previous day’s work – sometimes she will even throw a bucket of turps across to invite a greater element of chance. She will continually rotate the board to provide herself fresh perspectives on the work (though the rotate function on her smartphone does help with what can be a strenuous physical task).
This process allows the work to become regenerative and activated, relieving the artist of an attachment to a particular composition before the work is finished. She continues in this method until ‘something in the form surprises me,’ evoking the ‘history of what has gone on before.’ Kovacs values a lack of preciousness and self-consciousness in art-making, saying, ‘at the end of the day it’s just painting. It’s getting into that space where the doing takes over.’
This approach belies Kovacs’ extraordinary skill and deftness, and her trust in the process comes with practice. A major survey titled ‘Down the Line: 1980-2010’, initiated by Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and curated by Daniel Mudie Cunningham, demonstrated the depth and history of her approach to mark-making since her graduation from the National Art School in 1980. The sense of freedom she saw in the work of Ian Fairweather and Tony Tuckson as a young art student continues to drive her exploration of abstract form.
Kovacs says a survey is ‘a chance to see how much the work has evolved,’ and an opportunity to see older works brought into dialogue with each other. A recent survey exhibition, ‘The DNA of Colour’ (2019), curated by Sioux Garside for Orange Regional Gallery and Drill Hall Gallery at ANU brought together ten years of her foam roller paintings. Over a 40-year career, Kovacs has become one of Australia’s foremost abstract painters by allowing her material to lead.
‘Two Grounds’, her forthcoming show with Martin Browne Contemporary, is the first since this survey. The title refers to the two surfaces she has worked on – the raw plywood for the roller paintings, and a textured card stock for a new suite of drawings. This body of work demonstrates the push and pull of her approach to material, the paintings and drawings generating new forms to feed one another.
Kovacs’ command of colour is on full display, with rich magentas and pinks against warm tonal ochres, or tangy yellow and jade green offset by a complex nest of black and white. The new suite of drawings also reminds the viewer of her skill in line and composition. She builds up a thick ground of oil paint onto card, then draws into the surface with lead pencil or wax crayon. Bold organic shapes bear witness to the artist’s hand, continually carving through the paint in new paths. In contrast to the paintings which are constantly appraised, rotated, wiped down and reworked, these works are made at close range on the floor, the full image not apparent until she steps away. The process, Kovacs says, is ‘very felt from beginning to end… driven by sensation of pencil in the oil surface.’
Just as she must continually rotate and reassess her paintings to see them anew, pushing further into a drawing practice has granted freshness to the forms she makes in paint. Both are active processes that live by their spontaneity, and a trust that what is seen on the surface is supported by the work and care that has been taken with each previous layer. Kovacs explains that she knows a work is finished when ‘the surface takes on a life that resonates an energy’ – an energy which has the capacity to surprise both the artist and the viewer.
Eleanor Zeichner is a writer from Sydney and current Assistant Curator at UTS Gallery.
Martin Browne Contemporary
6 February to 1 March, 2020