Varda Caivano

Even before graduating from London’s Royal College of Art master’s program in 2004, Varda Caivano had been spotted by collectors, gallerists, and critics alike for her beautiful, small-scale, intensely painterly works. Caivano (born in Buenos Aires and based in London) is a young painter plainly enamored of her medium, bringing fresh eyes and hands to test the entire act of applying paint to a canvas. The brushstroke, the choice of palette, the canvas, the thickness of the paint; flatness and relief, figuration and abstraction, decoration and image, surface and depth: It all seems of infinite interest to Caivano, so we become interested, too. Each work poses a question as to the possibilities of painting; each deliberately unfinished canvas replies that the answer is limitless. And Caivano seems delighted by this inexhaustibility, working on as many as a dozen canvases in her studio at one time.

For this solo show at the nonprofit Chisenhale Gallery, co-organized with the Kunstverein Freiburg, Germany, Caivano presented thirteen oil paintings, all Untitled. Her canvases are small, and every gesture corresponds to a scale in proximity with the body, from minute, drawinglike details to broad, arm-length gestures. We stand before them at more or less the same distance she did when making them, and we can retrace her many ideas: Brushstrokes become brickwork, or stained glass, or aerial maps of fields, or suddenly launch into a tiny checkered pattern of thick dabs of paint. The artist seems infatuated with the brushstroke itself: the buildup of paint along the edges; the potential for a single stroke to carry many colors at once or for a series of them to build up into an opaque patch of color or form a streaky wash. Then there’s the way brushwork can be reduced to a single line, or many separate lines can form a pattern or a framework, like some architectural structure, or create a horizon and the illusion of receding perspective, or—overlapped with more repeated lines of paint—form a grid that echoes the weave of the canvas itself. Caivano then warps this grid to create a kind of net, resulting in another illusion of three dimensions.

Many works include deep, dark pools of blue, black, or brown as well as illuminated patches of bright color—red, yellow, turquoise, vivid green. Color Field painting is certainly suggested, but so are landscapes, green grasses, a fractured face, billowing sails. In one particularly remarkable painting, chosen to grace the catalogue cover, a cathedral of roughly painted columns unexpectedly resolves into a nest of triangles. Along the bottom, a series of colored strokes metamorphoses into a fence or balustrade above which the rest of the painting extends like the view from a balcony. Elsewhere Caivano allows the surface to collapse into swampy chaos before finding some order or pattern somewhere along the edges, like a piece of music losing its melody for long stretches and then regaining it reassuringly toward the end.

Caivano is so adventurous in her curiosity that she seems unconcerned with the work’s success or failure, pursuing only endless discovery. These are intimate, inventive paintings, often exhilarating. Until recently, a painter like Caivano would have been unfathomable in London, dismissed as some ludicrous ’50s hangover or, at best, fodder for a provincial art show. Times have changed since the heyday of late conceptualism in the ’90s, and this “old-fashioned painter”—as Caivano calls herself—now finds an audience that is quiet and attentive enough to enjoy her unusually promising work.

Gilda Williams