^ Ylva Carlgren, Definitions and examples i., 2020 [Detail], watercolour on paper, 73 x 45 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Steinsland Berliner.

OTP Short-Forms: Ylva Carlgren


An interview with the Stockholm-based abstract painter.

Spirituality, James Turrell and the potential of things we can't talk about.

More interested in absences and silence than in the clear-cut phenomena that our language systems allow us to delineate, Ylva Carlgren's watercolour abstractions emanate from their paper substrates with a muted and absorbing ambience.

David Sylvester once said that black was a sacred colour for the Abstract Expressionists. Then there can be no doubt that Ylva Carlgren's deft and reverential treatment of chiaroscuro places her amongst the most skilful to ever manipulate a seemingly austere palette to such profound internal affect.

The following interview was recorded to co-incide with the artist's participation in PHOTONS, from the sky to the sea at GALERiA e BREGDETiT (Albania).

OTP Why do you think you are motivated to approach such a difficult task as capturing something that is transient or transitory?

YC It’s a difficult question to answer, because just like trying to capture it in an image, it’s hard to capture it in words.

As soon as you try to define what it is, it dissolves, transforms or moves further away. But whatever it is, I think the only way to approach it is by being observant and sensitive; critical and intuitive.

It is a process that is quite demanding, and when it isn’t - the work just doesn't come out as good. The impossibility of the task is what makes it meaningful.


^ Ylva Carlgren, Continuous separation, 2019, watercolour on paper, 200 x 150 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Steinsland Berliner.

OTP To what extent are you interested in representing something that we don’t have any language to express/describe?

YC I have a complex relationship to language. On the one hand I am deeply interested in it, and I have studied linguistics and several foreign languages.


On the other hand I always felt like language was a poor and rather clumsy means of expression, and at times I have even considered it brutal in the way it diminishes and limits our experiences.

I think of language as a thin layer that covers everything we look at, and in my work I try to get underneath it.

It is very difficult, and no matter how hard I try to make something that isn’t figurative, most people who look at my work still have a tendency to search for something recognisable that can be put into words.

I think it is interesting how closely language is connected to visual impressions, whereas with sounds or music, we don't seem to have the same need to talk about what we are hearing.

OTP Do you think that an image can be more intimate than language?

YC I think an image becomes intimate when you engage with it intimately, meaning by being open and vulnerable as you are exposed to it.


It is very easy to dismiss something if you are uncommitted. I think it’s the same thing with words - you have to give something of yourself in order to get something out of them.


^ Ylva Carlgren, Reduced to one, 2020, watercolour on paper, 200 x 300 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Steinsland Berliner.

OTP Whereabouts did you grow up and did you like it there?

YC I grew up in Luleå, a small town by the sea in the north of Sweden. I really enjoyed the cold and darkness of the winters, as well as the long bright nights of summer. 


I miss these dramatic changes in the daylight, and it’s probably one of the reasons why my paintings look the way they do.

OTP What did your parents do?

YC My mother is an artist and my father is a doctor. I have always regarded them as representatives of opposite viewpoints, one being spiritual and artistic, and the other being rational and scientific.


Throughout my life I have been leaning more towards the rational side, and it is quite recently that I started exploring my spiritual heritage.

My mother’s parents were both artists and polyglots, and even though I never got the chance to meet them, they have served as role models ever since I was a kid.

OTP Would you describe yourself as spiritual? Do you think there is a spiritual component to your work?

YC That is a question I am trying to find an answer to, and I am realizing (and accepting) more and more that finding an answer to that question is also a part of my work, and one of the reasons for it.


^ Ylva Carlgren, Definition and examples, 2020, installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Steinsland Berliner.

OTP Much of your work seems to involve a blurring of boundaries or limitations - to what extent do you think your paintings deal with transgression?

YC It has to do with a rejection of definitions, and being able to maintain two positions at the same time. The work doesn't depict anything, but it is an image of itself.

When we say what it is, we exclude the potentiality of it being something that we can’t talk about. I don’t really like putting titles to my work, but when I do, they are usually contradictory or even ironic.

The actual blurriness of the paintings is also what makes for a physical experience of them; it is sometimes hard to look at them because the eye struggles to find a focus point. 

OTP Could I ask you to talk a bit about how you developed your blurring technique?

YC I have been working exclusively with watercolor ever since starting preparatory art school back in 2005.


I was working with realism for a long time, and I developed the technique to be able to control the medium. After I went over to nonfigurative work, the technique evolved and became much more centered on the material itself.

Because the work is so simple, the quality of the paper and color makes a big difference, and the differences in how the pigments work with various types of paper can often be the starting point for a new investigation.

Watercolor is a tricky medium, there isn’t room for making mistakes, and I fail all the time. That’s part of the challenge and what makes it interesting for me.


^ Ylva Carlgren, Untitled Artist Book, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

OTP What are some of the images that you like looking at? Are there artists who you feel like you are in conversation with / whose books you keep in the studio?

YC The artist that has been the most important to me is probably James Turrell. During a residency in Japan in 2018 I had the chance to see several of his works, and it affected me a lot.

I try to return to what I felt at that time, and use those memories as guiding principles for what I want to do, rather than looking at images.

I also find a lot of inspiration in reading, and I am particularly fond of the works of the Swedish writer Birgitta Trotzig. Her language can take me to the same place as Turrell’s work.

OTP Why are artist books important to you? How do you think our experience of images changes in book form instead of displayed in a frame or on a wall?

YC Considering my interest in language, and also in making something that goes beyond language, it feels interesting to place my paintings in a context that is usually reserved for words.

Since I also work in series, where light gradually appears and disappears, there is already a kind of timeline that works well in a book format.

Apart from this I really want to give the viewer an opportunity to come close to the work and really feel the materiality of it, which unfortunately is always a little bit lost when the work is framed behind glass.


^ PHOTONS, from the sky to the sea, 2020, installation view. Courtesy of the artist and GALERiA e BREGDETiT.

OTP Are there any environments you would like to exhibit your work in that you have not yet had the chance to do so in?

YC I am currently part of a group exhibition at Galeria e Bregdetit in Radhimë, Albania.


I’m showing a suite of paintings in a rather dark space with raw concrete walls. It is the first time I get to see my work outside of a white cube context, and it is a great experience.

I actually think it makes the light in the work come out even better, and I would really like to continue exploring this.

I would also like to work in a much larger scale than I have up until now, and I hope there will be possibilities for that in the future.

OTP What are you looking forward to at the moment?

YC Right now I am looking forward to start working on two projects, one being a solo show at Norrtälje Konsthall which will open in April next year, and the other being a collaboration with glass artist Yoko Yamano.


The latter is particularly interesting in terms of my practice, because it might be a bridge between my abstract and figurative work. 


In life in general I am looking forward to the peace and quiet that comes with the fall and winter season, and I just moved to a new apartment.


Long-term I hope I will have the chance to spend more time in my favourite countries Japan and Russia, and to visit James Turrell’s Roden crater! 


^ Ylva Carlgren studio view, 2020. Photo: Niklas Holmgren.

Born in Luleå, Sweden in 1984 Ylva Carlgren completed her BFA at Konsthögskolan Valand, Göteborg in 2010 before completing her MFA also at Konsthögskolan Valand, Göteborg in 2012.

Her exhibition history includes shows at: Steinsland Berliner (Stockholm), Göteborg Konsthall, Momentum Konsthall (Moss, Norway), Östergötlands Länsmuseum (Linköping, Sweden), Galleri Box (Göteborg) and Galleri Rotor (Göteborg).

Link to Full Exhibition History

Ylva Carlgren has been the recipient of awards from: the Swedish Arts Grants Committee, Arts Initiative Tokyo and the Royal Academy of Art, Sweden.

The artist is represented by Steinsland Berliner (Stockholm)


PHOTONS, from the sky to the sea remains open until October 24 2020.


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