Mona Osman, on the way to endless painting

Stefano Pirovano

First institutional solo show of Mona Osman opens at Collezione Maramotti on 12th Oct. Here some insights that could help to better approach her painting.

Mona Osman works in her house’s garage, in Bristol. When the space is no longer enough, canvases and colours enter her house. It actually happens quite often, since the artist prefers to paint large-format canvases. Does it really matter to know the place where an artist works? It does, in this case. At this early-career stage, as we would define it, Osman’s painting seems to be part of an inner journey. The artist’s domestic space is an extension of the her identity, which do not appear in her work, but certainly plays a role in creating its narrative. A bit like the barn where Pollock was used to ‘drip’ after moving from New York to Springs, or the slum with shared toilet where Lucien Freud painted the portraits of the dukes of Devonshire (here is the link to the interview the Duke of Devonshire recently granted us). However, while Freud’s paintings’ dimensions are relatively contained, Mona Osman struggles to let her works through the doors for her house’s ones are too small. So the canvases ought to be re-stretched each time there is a considerable move, as you can see on the artist’s expressive Instagram page: “It’s actually time consuming – she candidly admits. I hope to have soon a more suitable place”.

Mona Osman

Mona Osman, Page of the artist’s book Rhizome and the Dizziness of Freedom, 2019. © the artist
Ph. Carlo Vannini.

She then continues: “When I was a child I used to be very anxious. During primary school I kept falling ill. It was likely a psychological problem. I was studying at home, to then sit for the exams. But I felt rather lonely. So I took up painting. The drawings became my imaginary friends. I think this was very helpful to me. It was indeed a way to express myself and communicate”. Since that moment, Mona Osman’s work began to develop organically, following her needs from back then, and the steps that have marked her education.

Mona Osman

Mona Osman, Sodom and Gomorrah, 2019, oil and mixed media on canvas
210 x 225 cm © the artist.Courtesy C&C Gallery, London.

From the self to the others.

Osman was born in Hungary. “I still remember my art teacher, Johanna Kovacs. From the age of 10 she has really believed in me and supported me. Without her, I am not sure I would have continued painting or have pursuit an artistic career”. When she was 12 years old she moved to Nice, in France, and lived there for three years. Then she went back to Budapest until she was 17, when she moved to London for studying at Goldsmiths University and at the Royal College of Arts. Here she met professors such as Luke Dowd and Dawn Mellor at Goldsmiths, and David Rayson at RA. It is thanks to this latter that the artist’s interest for semiotics has actually developed. “I’ve always found a bit hard to talk about my work from a personal point of view. Thus, I’ve looked for other platforms to objectively express ideas and thoughts. And I started to take an interest in philosophy and psychology. It was a way to communicate with more people”. This is a milestone in her work. “We all do cope with existential angst – Osman continues – why limiting this issue only to my experiences or personal feelings?” This is how a cultural filter can turn the past of a person into a universal message.

From a formal perspective Osman’s works have features that perfectly reflect the ‘existentialist’ premises they stem from. The image is rich of contrasting colours and formal details, while being also flat and deeply static. As far as the structure is concerned, despite appearing complex to decipher, there is practically no perspective. The figures are hieratic, similarly to the ones you find in medieval mosaics or traditional African masks. They are entities, more than personalities, that rarely interact between each other. Rather, they tend to fade away in the pictorial space. There is no background. The anthropomorphic figure and what surrounds it are equally important. It seems there is no interruption between the figure and the background. This line of continuity can also be spotted between her work. “It happens that I can’t really fit in the painting everything I would like to, so I continue on another canvas” Osman explains us. As a matter of fact she prefers to produce series of paintings. Her works shouldn’t be seen as separate entities. Rather, they are similar to those sketchbooks Mona Osman writes and draws on. Natura non facit saltum (Nature makes no leap). In this respect the work of the artist is organic. “In the past eight years my paintings have grown one on top of the other, in different stages, where the various series lie within. So the ideas circulate between the works”.

Mona Osman, Lucian Freud and Soren Kierkegaard.

Mona Osman’s interest for religious themes offers here further food for thought. The artist declares that she doesn’t practice, yet it may be useful to know that her mother is Jewish (albeit also not practising) and her father is Muslim, who instead does practice. “Of the various religions I’m especially attracted by their spiritual aspects, which I somehow try to modernise and compare”. The title of Mona Osman exhibition at Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia actually comes from this interest of the artist: “Rhizome and the Dizziness of Freedom”. The term Rhizoma is clearly used in a metaphorical sense and refers to those entities (psychological) we were talking about, while freedom is a fundamental trait of the experience the human being is constantly called to tackle. In this regard Mona Osman cites Bridget Riley when the American artist speaks about colour: “There is no such a thing as dark blue and light blue. Light blue exists only in relation to dark blue, and dark blue exists only in relation to the light one”. Right now Mona Osman is focusing on the connection spaces between matter and matter, person and person, oneself and I. Connection spaces, and definition ones. Here comes to light the reference to Kierkegaard, who indeed describes (existential) anxiety as the dizziness of freedom.

Mona Osman

Mona Osman, Self Crucifixion, 2019, oil and mixed media on canvas, 155 x 120 cm © the artist: Courtesy C&C Gallery, London.

Mona Osman

Mona Osman, Eaten by Facticity, 2019, oil and mixed media on canvas, 120 x 155 cm © the artist. Courtesy C&C Gallery, London.

November 7, 2019