A Studio Conversation with

Disa Rytt

I first saw Disa Rytt’s paintings at Anna Thulin Gallery in 2013. Fascinated by the philosophical approach in her practice, I’ve been carrying her work in my memory ever since. During our conversation, Rytt explains to me how her interest in interpretation and intersectionality led her to abstract painting and an exploration of materiality. Leaving the physical to become thought and moving from the inner space toward the external. But we also talk about the issues with using theory as the basis for visual work; what are the benefits and can things get lost in translation?

You divide your time between Visby on Gotland and Stockholm?
I moved to Gotland in 2004 when I was accepted to a photo school and decided to stay while attending preparatory art school. When I was twenty-two years old I moved to Stockholm to study art at the Royal Institute of Art. The first thing my professor, Cecilia Edefalk, asked me to do was to paint a button and a lemon, which I did. I was a very inexperienced painter. The only paintings that I had done previously were a series of portraits of Swedish feminist icons. They were based on photographs that I had taken myself. My photographic work was very much about body and creating identity. Those portraits were my first fumbling explorations in painting and that led me to a very Classical, almost Renaissance tradition of portrait painting that came out of my reaction to how women had been represented in art. I wanted to reverse that and highlight four strong women.


installation view, ”Marvatten”, Karlskrona Konsthall 2015

I saw that the portraits are still on your website, and was surprised because many artists seem to remove older works, especially works from their student years. Was this a conscious decision of yours?
They are old works but there’s a link between what I did then and what I do today even though the end result differs a lot. Ideas about norms and artistic cannon are still in many ways present in my abstract work.  So I think I will keep them on my website for now. In the beginning of my artistic practice it was very important what I had to say and not so important how I said it. The message was more important than the way I chose to express it.

When did that change?
It was partly a feminist statement. Figurative painting was a representation of something and I wanted it to be more here and now and that came parallel to an increased interest in the materials. I started working in larger formats to be able to relate the works to the scale of my own body. During the last few years, that has transformed so that the beholder or I acts as the body and the painting acts as the idea. The painting is an object consisting of its properties but is sort of lacking, or hiding, the subject.  It bears witness to the actions of the subject.


Your early abstract works are very dark. Where did that come from?
It was mainly part of my study of the materials and that was a path to where I am now. During that time there was also a metaphysical feeling present. Actually I think it was more about embodying a border state – a gap. While working with the very black paintings I already knew that I didn’t end up where I wanted to, but it led me to discover the shift where painting oscillates between being material and image.

There was a harshness to those paintings that seems to have disappeared in your later works.
In one sense that is true, because they where also about the meeting of materials – how the delicate canvas met the paint that I pushed through using an iron spatula. That was a very physical way of challenging the materials. I think that the expression would have gained a lot by being sharper since what I wanted to achieve is so precise and the moment when that’s created, the intersection, is very narrow. I really think of my work as an exploration of the materials of painting where the space is one premise as well as light and our perception. It is unavoidable and just as important as the paint itself.

Your process seems to be very experimental.
Leaving the figurative I went through a phase of chaos, I felt the need to break lose and push the materials that I was working with to see how far I could go. In relation to that, my practice has become more thought and less body. It is austere and focused on the issues at hand. At the same time it’s clearer now that the subject is both present and non-present.


Where you as focused on materials when working with photography?
It is something that I grew up with. My mother is a designer and my father works with ceramics. I grew up in a creative factory environment with color samples and materiality. It is in my backbone. To be able to examine the intersection I’m interested in, it’s crucial that both extremes are made visible. On one hand, a painting is the material and on the other hand it’s not only that, it’s also creating image ability. Someone asked me why I don’t refer to it as sculpture but I think it is important to persist on relating to my work as painting, to be able to examine what painting can be and how it relates to being image.

How does that relate to modernistic concept of the medium specific?
I’m very much a thinking painter. My practice is mainly a tactile exploration of thought and not what the thought is thinking but rather how it thinks. As a painter who explores the materiality of painting it may very well be a formal exploration in color and surface and the inner space of the work but that’s not where my interest lies. Painting absolutely has an inner space but I try to explore how that relates to the actual physical, external space.

What are you working on at the moment?
I read a text written by Judith Butler about Hegel and self-consciousness, based on The Phenomenology of Spirit. She discusses how self-consciousness reflects itself in the other and by that acknowledges itself. I found that to be very easily translated into my work and the way painting relates to the room to be able to consolidate itself by becoming identical with it. There are material premises – and I felt the need to attach them to a form. The ideas of the mimetic led me to thinking of repetition and how that’s connected to difference in itself. It led me to an x-shape that I started working on during my last year in the masters program. My work in the degree show was even called X. I used that shape as a type of marker for a non-shape. I worked with chlorine and bleached the canvas, reducing color instead of adding it. Now, when the x reoccurs it has to do with repetition since the shape of the x transforms into two identical shapes when it’s cut in half. It can be read as a repetition of the other but depending on how I paint them they will end up not being identical but different. They create a direction in the space and for me the direction is what separates them. Two arrows appear and when they coincide with each other they create an x that marks a nothing that also eliminates them. From being nothing they become something, that in itself is a nothing. That makes me think of difference in itself as something immanent rather than being dependent of the external.

Can you relate that to what you were previously working on, connected to identity?
I think that for example you and I are identical in the way we take place in the world but what shapes our differences are how we orientate ourselves or what we’re orientating towards, that has to do with what we desire and crave, which pushes us into different directions. From that point of view my work is somewhat a survey of a phenomenology of desire in an abstracted form.


Would you say that there’s still a political aspect in your artistry?
In a way my connection to the minimalist tradition and the relationship between painting and space are politically charged. I have the ability to chose if I want to refer to a modernistic male cannon or not. When Barnett Newman did his Zips that meant one thing and when I or Liz Deschenes alters the spatiality that means something else, so the context changes. You can look for a feminist perspective but I find it more interesting to add an intersectional point of view. Has the white, male, western cannon taken control over these issues and if that’s the case I am different due to the fact that I take place in the world as a woman but at the same I’m privileged in other ways, as white and middle class. I work with spatiality in itself, but I can´t ignore that the room in question is not a neutral space, it is always charged and affected by the people inhabiting it. And so the interpretation changes.

How do you as an artist work with ideas that are traditionally theoretical and verbal?
I think that what I am doing, or what my work does, is an attempt to visualize the course of events that theory aims to pin down in words. That is one of the advantages with visual art and that’s something that I truly experience as non-verbal, for me it is rather a mute, physical sensation when a work falls into place.

Are there any obstacles, a risk of simplifying the meaning of a theoretical text?
For sure. I am aware that I don’t have a theoretical philosophical foundation, I basically pick whatever interests me and that’s how it seems to work. I often talk to my peers about our way of creating artistic knowledge. We seem to relate to this knowledge in a similar way that separates us from other academic groups. When I read philosophy I find that it very easily translates directly into my artistic practice, even if it means that it´s being cut off from the theoretical context it is relating to. The underlying layer in my work is always a philosophical discussion.

Is the dialogue important to you?
Exhibiting works often leads to conversations and that is very important to me. That is how I evolve. I see myself as a relational person and so are my works, which means that the observer plays a key role.


How would you describe your work process?
Right now I am sketching, I often sketch a lot before I start painting. In the way that I’m working now there’s no room for changes. It requires many retakes and many layers but I can’t go back if something goes wrong. I have to start from the beginning, which I’ve also done several times. Then there’s the resistance of the material. The canvas that I’m using now is extremely fragile so when it breaks I have to start again. It can feel terrible in that moment but at the same time it’s a big relief since it becomes so obvious when it doesn’t work. I also have to keep in mind that even though I try and want to spend as much time as possible in the studio, there’s a risk of overworking and because of that ruining the work.

How do you relate to planning versus intuition?
I constantly get surprised by the material, otherwise it would become boring and sometimes it does get boring. My ideas often come from reading, and when I’ve planned what to do I work until the painting takes over. In a way that’s also planned because I’m so aware of my own process and what I want to achieve. But since I can’t control everything it can take a long time to get there, sometimes months even though the end result looks quite easy.

installation view Galleri Anna Thulin 2013

installation view Galleri Anna Thulin 2013

Do you ever take a break from painting?
This summer I did a residency in Paris where I started going through a project that I’d being working on. During seven years I wrote three A4-pages every day, which resulted in thousands of pages of text containing reflections around my painting, my practice, things that I did in my studio but it also contains things that are very private. I decided to focus on two of the seven years and brought those pages with me to Paris. Right now I see it more as a literary text and it has become clear to me that it’s very much a story about attraction and desire moving parallel with an unfolding of my work. This was also when I moved on from the figurative to the abstract. It was obvious that there was a connection between that and things going on in my private life.

The conversation between Disa Rytt and Ulrika Pilo took place in Stockholm on March 9, 2015.

Text: Ulrika Pilo
Photo: Disa Rytt

Name: Disa Rytt
Born: 1984 in Lidköping, SWE
Based: Stockholm and Visby, SWE
Education: MFA 2012, Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm, SWE
Info: ”Marvatten” at Karlskrona Konsthall until May 31, 2015 and upcoming group exhibition at Thomas Wallner
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