Caroline Abscher (@carolineleanor) is a Brooklyn-based painter. Vivid colours dance together in close quarters and give her figures a sense of auric vibration. Abscher’s figures lock eyes with their viewer unabashedly; they are mesmerising and empowering in their vulnerability.
The unreliability of memory is both fascinating and terrifying. Each time we tell a story, the less true it becomes. Each time we internally recall a moment, the less true it becomes.
In the following interview I speak to Caroline about the perpetual-flux of personality, sadness as “the most potent driving power”, and how her figures are not necessarily as ‘female’ as they may appear.
Q: First thing’s first, introduce yourself! What do you make, how do you work?
A: Hi! I’m a painter living in Brooklyn. My studio is in Williamsburg. My medium has always been oil, on as large a scale as my budget/ workspace allows. The process is not unique, although I’ve been told it’s a little reckless. It begins with a rough thumbnail sketch, a vague shape of an idea. From there I go directly to canvas. Not being bound to a planned composition is best because I paint quickly.
The image honestly changes every 20 minutes. Only oil allows this. Still, most of the time the painting doesn’t work. A mentor once told me editing is the most important thing you can do, so I try to let failures die peacefully. Process changes naturally, but what’s great about this one is how easy it is to surprise yourself. For consistent “happy accidents,” skill is obviously a factor, but that skill is not conscious. So when it appears, I’m relieved — regardless of how the painting turns out. It’s difficult to self criticize when, with each attempt, there’s evidence of growth.
Q: What would you say your artistic background is? How long have you been working?
A: I moved to Brooklyn in 2012 to pursue a degree in art history. I wanted to be a professor (and paint, but I didn’t believe it possible to *only* paint). My understanding of the world is shaped by my studies in art history. That lens is a special one, as I’m sure a mathematicians must be. I find people who share it easiest to talk with. Then I realized my skill does not lie in academia! As much as I adore the way it colors everything, and giving tours at the Met, I’m no scholar. So painting, which had always been the real goal, became the real goal.
Q: What are the biggest themes in your work?
A: I think the idea that we fundamentally change with every passing moment is true. I once couldn’t recognize a family member after a few years apart, and he told me, “it’s okay, you’ve never met me before.” As long we are breathing and aware, every new experience shapes our memory, which then shapes the present.
The unreliability of memory is both fascinating and terrifying. Each time we tell a story, the less true it becomes. Each time we internally recall a moment, the less true it becomes. Reality is shaped by what we subconsciously want to believe, not logic or fact. Pretty sure I place these detailed, sure figures in some unclear, untraceable space because I view my own life that way.
Q: I’m really interested in your depictions of women, there seems to be a sort of mysticism about them, can you tell me about that?
A: Politics are a huge part of my life, and gender politics are always at the forefront of my mind. However, the figures in my paintings are stand-ins for anyone. They’re not individualistic in that sense, and they’re certainly not gendered. I end up painting what feels most true, which is my own image, because I’m the one making the thing. But they are more a feeling. Sexuality, conviction, sensitivity, insight – that’s just human.
Q: Your palette is amazing, and you use a lot of striking colour in pretty saturated combinations – do you have a conscious relationship with colour? What does it do for you?
A: Thank you! My relationship to color is unconscious thanks to academic training, endless color theory. I am grateful to that training because with it, mindless decisions are not baseless. I still struggle with light. Color feels (wrongly) more important than value. It’s a good day when I can successfully convey a light source.
Q: What is your favourite piece you’ve created?
A: Search Party, where two women stand in a dark forest holding flashlights, both gazing off frame. It was the first time I listened to a painter friends advice and took a huge risk. It reminds me that we are nothing without community, without conversation, without criticism.
Q: Who are your biggest inspirations?
A: Chris Ofili, Peter Doig, Henri Mattisse, Dana Shultz, Lisa Yuscavage, Titian, Francisco De Goya, Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts, William Blake, Helen Frankenthaaler, James Ensor, Cecily Brown.
Q:How do you strike the balance between being an artist and being your own salesperson?
A: It’s difficult. Until I’m represented, I need another source of income. As a set designer and art director, I’ve found that. Needless to say it is a wonderful dream to support oneself with only painting.
Q: Social Media as a tool for artists – pro or anti?
A: Pro! The amount of lifelong artist friends I’ve made through Instagram is insane.
Q: What are you angry about right now?
A: Anger is sadness. I’m angry about essential workers keeping us all afloat who aren’t paid enough, I’m angry about families who are forced to pay rent even though they’ve lost their source of income and their landlords got a mortgage bailout, I’m angry about the thousands of minorities incarcerated for minor drug offenses, mostly marijuana, which is now hailed an essential business in California and Colorado. I’m angry about all the bills being passed in silence, wealthy criminals being pardoned in silence, billionaire businesses swallowing up family businesses in silence due to a never-ending loop of identical mainstream media.
I’m angry about abuse victims having nowhere to go during social distancing, and new single mothers having limited support available. I’m angry about clinically depressed friends spiraling due to the pandemic. I’m angry at the virus, which doesn’t make sense because it can’t help itself. I’m angry at love never being enough, unless it is, congratulations. Finally, I’m angry that I’ll probably regret everything I revealed in this interview thanks to an anxiety disorder that keeps me unnecessarily grounded in shame. Wow, love that this question has the longest response. Sadness is the most potent driving power.