Chris Kraus: Constance, you’ve always made mind maps – or at least as long as I’ve known you. When we met in Susanne Winterling’s class at Oslo Art Academy around ten years ago, the mind maps were pretty much the extent of your work. You gave me a sweatshirt with a mind map based on my second book, Aliens & Anorexia, which kind of blew me away – the whole novel, compressed into one cloud-like network. Maps are becoming increasingly anachronistic. You look at your phone to get from point A to B, but you don’t really know where you are, you could never repeat it. Maps give us context, and your mind maps also physicalize a process of association, the way one thing leads to another and often in subtle, unconscious ways. When did you start making them?
Constance Tenvik: I made the first one at 11 to remember a plot, but with time they’ve gotten more intricate and woven in more aspects of what I’m into. My circular notes have collapsed the boundaries between images and drawings for me. Shapes, letters and figures share equal weight. I had a dream once where I was in a room, surrounded with all the notes I’d ever taken. It felt as if they could crawl into each other because there are symbols that repeat themselves, there are all these connections. I probably remember every drawing I’vedone, and I remember the mind maps as well because they’re more visual than linear notes.
CK: When the maps became circular, is that when you realized you were an artist?
CT: [laughs]Yeah. But I tried to hold back from that for a while. I wanted to study. I was going to study philosophy and journalism in Georgia after high school on a scholarship, but when I was allowed to pick whatever classes I wanted, I chose all the art things. And discovered I couldn’t stop once I started.
CK: The work in this show was made during a residency this summer in Berlin. You were thinking about dreams and dream logic. Nightshirt Into The Day (2020) is a kind of self-portrait. In fact, most of the paintings are portraits of friends. Following your work over the years, I’ve noticed you produce things in clusters, or series… each cluster begins with an articulated set of interests, concerns and ideas.For example, you did an exhibition (Soft Armour UKS Oslo, December 9 2017 – January 28 2018) based on 19th century reinterpretations of medieval tournaments.Is that your process, always?
CT: Until now, I’ve been making worlds within worlds spanning sculpture, performance, textile work, costume, painting, drawing and video work. I’ve been attracted to stories that are larger than life, but slightly skewed. These narratives have helped me externalize my inner world. Soft Armour came out of an interest in historical longing and attempts at restaging the past. I read about the Eglinton Tournament of 1839, a big spectacle staged by a small group of aristocrats dressed up as knights who kept missing each other’s lances. The audience arrived by train and protected themselves from the rain with umbrellas. Voyage Autour de Ma Chambre (2019) was inspired by a book of the same title written in 1794 by Xavier de Meistre, about a person who uses his house arrest as an occasion to travel, where physical and mental spaces collapse into each other. Artichoke Hearts is an exploration into my voice rather than traveling out via others’ stories. I wanted to explore limits of expansiveness within the studio space in Berlin. Exploring painting through mind maps and dance. Like how we mirror each other to discover ourselves on the dance floor. Sometimes the portraits of others reveal as much about me as the person in front of me. And the objects between often serve as mirroring tools. A disco ball or a tarot card could serve the same purpose in placing ourselves and others.
CK: This show is blissfully free of explicit references to the pandemic or any of the other catastrophic events of 2020. A thing I’ve always loved about your work is that it goes its own way, according to its own logic. On the other hand, I guess you could see this exhibition as a response, the response being: Escape. Are dreams a way out or a way in? You mentioned reading a book about Theodor Adorno’s dreams. I didn’t know he was a dreamer.
CT: We need alternate realities now. When I think of dreams, or add a dream element to a painting – like the people dancing around the fire in Bendik Contemplating St Hans (2020)- I think of a space of possibilities. Bendik Giske is an iconic artist using his Saxophone to hold space which connects with club culture. In the Nikolai Astrup painting I inserted in the top right corner, there is a fiddler turning the village upside down. The connection is there.
Adorno’s dream journal left me with a bit of a heavy feeling, but I like that he wrote dry descriptions of what was happening in his dreams without analyzing, allowing for this parallel world to just exist there.
CK: When I saw your early work, I always thought you’d go more in the direction of illustration and graphic novels. But then you did an MFA at Yale and studied sculpture.
CT: Yeah. I wanted to pay more attention to object making after all the mapping and performances. Once I got there, I wanted to build things, and create objects that could have a presence of their own, without me being present to activate the ideas and things. I’ve always used it as a tool - whether it is for design purposes, connecting to others, mapping out ideas, etc. I feel so connected to drawing because of how direct it is. Now I’m also discovering more fields of play within painting. It is shifting from an extension of drawing, into something else. Now I do it more without thinking.
CK: Or else at some point, your thinking and painting become intertwined.
CT: Yes. And the objects and fields in there have a subtle way of making a story, which is more of a vibe than a narrative. I like to play around with these elements by themselves, but I’m even more interested in the relationships that form between them.
CK: Color seems like an important part of what you’re doing. Looking at these paintings feels very energizing, and I think the color’s a big part of that.
CT: Similar to how tall columns encourage higher thoughts, I think color is giving life. They excite me and there is also a challenge there. Too many which blend into each other will just become brown, and mis matches don’t excite. The combinations must come about with intent. Like with cooking and other combinations that we care about! The splashes of color give a lot of joy and they can change interactions with other people.
CK: When did portraits become so central to your practice?
CT: I started doing them three years ago as an extension of my journal / diary. I didn’t plan to show them. The first one began with a very important conversation with my friend Angelina who I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. I needed to remember the conversation, and felt that a picture would just be swallowed by the thousands of pictures on my phone.I needed something that would help me to remember. So I painted her. And then I continued painting some lovers, friends, and people I didn’t know well; before I knew it, I’d done a hundred portraits. In Stockholm, I painted some cultural personas who I didn’t know yet, while talking and eating at the restaurant Riche. It was fun enacting this bohemia of a hundred years ago.I think the portrait is a good way of getting to know someone, seeing something they maybe haven’t seen yet in themselves, but also I see something new in myself when I paint them, because you always paint a bit of yourself into it.
CK: It’s the opposite of the mind maps. The mind maps are an expansion, but the portraits all involve compression.
CK: Can you tell me more about this particular exhibition?
CT: It’s kind of a time capsule of everything I’ve done during the Berlin residency between April and September of this year. In New York I was quarantined alone for a month or so, making tiny works. In Berlin, when I got to occupy a proper studio, I decided to go all Julian Schnabel about it and make big paintings in my Batman underpants. I was done with covid style miniature paintings of mouthwash, or whatever.
I had this plan of making a huge painting out of one of my dreams, which didn’t work out. So I went to the woods to a small party and later brought the last dancing birds home. When everyone was tired on the couch, I decided to sketch them out. It became After The Satyrlike Adventures. The last one I did, The Slumber of the Visigoths emerged solely from my imagination. I can’t separate the brain and the hand anymore. They’re intertwining.