London

Varda Caivano, Untitled, 2010, oil and ink on canvas, 34 1/4 x 18 5/8".

Varda Caivano, Untitled, 2010, oil and ink on canvas, 34 1/4 x 18 5/8".

Varda Caivano

Victoria Miro Gallery | 16 Wharf Road

Varda Caivano, Untitled, 2010, oil and ink on canvas, 34 1/4 x 18 5/8".

You forget how hard it is to make a really good abstract painting until someone does it and keeps doing it again. Then you notice how surprised you feel. And you forget, too, how rare truly abstract paintings really are—I mean paintings that are not paintings of preconceived, preexisting images but simply of painting. Varda Caivano’s paintings are abstract, and as good as any being made these days. With this exhibition, “Voice,” the Buenos Aires–born Caivano has moved on from being one of London’s most promising younger painters and established herself as one the best painters, of any age, anywhere today.

Some might contest my description of these paintings—all Untitled, 2010—as entirely abstract. They do tend to evoke a sense of landscape. But I would argue that this is merely a fortuitous side effect of Caivano’s use of irregular (that is, non-geometric) forms in a context defined by her concern with making and exploring pictorial space. It is an association she is concerned neither to produce nor prevent. A careful look at the paintings shows no particular signifiers of landscape—no horizon lines, for instance. Instead, it is the structuring and restructuring of the painting itself as it comes into being by successive additions of colored marks—the “condensation of sensations which constitutes a picture,” as Matisse famously described it—that seems to be the primary content of the work. If that makes her a belated modernist, so be it. Modernism has rarely looked so thoughtful or so fresh. While a cognizance of the past century and a half of art history is always quietly at play—in one painting, what could almost be a dense passage from a black-and-white dripped Pollock is surrounded by an orchestration of subtly differentiated, juicy yet somber reds that could have been laid down by Bonnard—it’s used as a dictionary of pictorial possibilities, not a stylistic formulary. Caivano’s modernism is not a pose or a convention but a methodology of investigation in which every brushstroke has to earn its keep. And so does every painting: No two are put together in the same way. Choices of line, color, facture, format; of transparency or opacity, density or sparseness, flatness or depth, are made on a case-by-case basis, one decision interpreting the implications of the other work. In eight of the nine paintings in this show (the exception being one in mainly rust and sand tones that feels a bit vague and easy compared to the others), all the decisions feel surprising and right—and yet again, not so full of their rightness that they’ve entirely exorcised the ghosts of so many choices made but then unmade.

Writing six years ago about Caivano’s first one-person show following her graduation from London’s Royal College of Art, a sympathetic critic noted in the paintings “a sense . . . of something searched for and not quite found.” Now, less than six years later, the sense of finding is palpable. The unruly fluidity of perception, like that of paint as it is being worked, no longer threatens to lead to chaos and frustration—or if it does, the confidence that such outcomes can be sidestepped at the last minute only adds to the fullness of experience the painting is ready to sustain.

Barry Schwabsky