You in a few words?
I was born in Bourgas on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast and moved to Britain when I was twenty-one. Soon after, I was bullied into applying for art school in Norwich, turning up for interview with a nine month old baby and six sheets of drawings. I don’t think the tutors had seen anything like it, no-one drew at art school in those days, but my mother had given me a thorough drilling in classical drawing. I was shocked and overwhelmed as well at what I saw in British art galleries, having been surrounded in Bulgaria by state approved socialist realist paintings.
So, like a good student I rebelled, painting impasto figurative landscapes and car crashes when everyone else was doing colour field, pop art or flashy abstracts. As soon as I left my painting went abstract and has gone on accreting aspects of almost every style available until it has solidified into one purely my own.
The azure gloom of an Italian night © Zheni Maslarova Warner,60 x 60 cm, oils and illuminated wire
What is your artistic singularity ?
My home is light and colour, primarily colour, within the boundaries of expressionism. Some years ago a gallery owner caught a customer looking behind my painting trying to see where the hidden lighting came from. I thought ‘why not?’ and started introducing a range of artificial lights onto the surface. So far I’ve used illuminated wire, light boxes with plexiglass, neon and other lights; on their own or in combination with one another. They all operate as abstract elements in their own right (don’t you find those significant messages written in neon infinitely boring?). Then I can add a coloured dome over the top, which changes the tone of whatever is beneath. Switch the lights on and you have a completely different painting. Two for the price of one!
The Quality of Mercy (and detailed view) © Zheni Maslarova Warner,152 x 152 cm, oils with multiple light boxes and perspex domes
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Being on my own! Because I was ill as a child I was left with my grandmother until I was seven. She was very busy, with a sick husband to look after, so I spent most of my time sitting in her beautiful garden looking a multitude of plants and flowers. So, here I am again, alone in the studio surrounded by a range of colours and possibilities. Working on a painting is like negotiating a new love affair: ‘he loves me, he loves me not.’ We have rows, threaten to divorce. Sometimes I throw the unfaithful lover out completely, covered in a layer of white paint. With luck, in the end I deliver a bonny baby which everyone pretends to admire.
Those miraculous fruits for which your heart hungers © Zheni Maslarova Warner,150 x 150 cm, oils with twin domes and neon
How do you find the titles for your artworks?
I would love to just number my paintings as many of the American abstract expressionists did, but galleries and their clients demand a title, so my titles are something of a compromise. In effect they are the ‘starter motor’, an idea to get the viewer’s imagination moving, to set them on the road to the full experience of the painting.
Being caught between two alphabets, the Latin and the Cyrillic, I tend to read rather slowly. As a housewife I also have boring repetitive jobs to do, so when I’m doing them my husband reads poetry to me. As we go I grab striking passages or phrases, of which we make a note. When a painting is complete, out comes the list and we fit the painting to items on the list. It’s a fun job!
It may be a sound/a tone of music/a flower, the wind, the ocean/which shall wound/striking the electric chain/wherewith we are darkly bound © Zheni Maslarova Warner,” 80 x 80 cm, oils with lightbox and neon
Your favourite artists?
My mother, Violeta Maslarova, of course because of her intensity and gorgeous palette which looks so easy and so effortless. Having watched her paint for many years I know it takes a huge amount of effort and re-painting to make it look like that, a lesson I’ve carried over into my own work. And the supreme colourist Henri Matisse, who died the year I was born. I feel like the third runner in a relay race after Matisse and Howard Hodgkin. (Does that sound too egotistical?) We even have a tiny studio flat in Collioure in France where Matisse did some of his finest work in 1904-5. Years ago I would have included Wasilly Kandinsky, De Kooning and Jackson Pollock but now I’ve moved a long way from Kandinsky’s early impasto and later constructivism as well as abandoning anything which looks like ‘drip and spatter’. Vermeer, for his intimacy, Rembrandt for his love of people. Just look at his studies of old people: the hands alone tell a world of stories. And if you talk of colour and emotion you can’t ignore van Gogh.