Talking With Berlin-Based Painter Travis Lycar About Abstraction, Color, and Spontaneity

As a young painter, Travis Lycar left the Canadian wilderness for Berlin. So it’s fitting that several of his recent abstract works, four of which are on view at Dittrich & Schlechtriem, are evocative of a mid-winter snowstorm. As the new year began, we caught up with the artist to hear about his experimentation with pigment, his penchant for painting in shades of white, and the structure of snowflakes.

Artsy: Tell us about your work. Have you always been primarily interested in abstract painting, or have you experimented with other media?

Travis Lycar: My work can be characterized by a process of conscious detailed mark-making, use of subtle color, and simple raw materials. When I'm working, I like to allow and give in to uncertainty, whether the impressions I'm making on the canvas be vulnerable, hesitant, or confident. I'm interested in finding a certain kind of alignment in the aesthetics and form that result from my efforts.

I’ve always worked with various mediums. I can't help myself, it's an insatiable experiential need that I have. Although painting has always been of great interest to me, possibly because I exist in a time in which the persistence of the medium is so evident. Abstract painting, in terms of its historical and contemporary relevance, is definitely something that has always attracted my attention. In general, I think of painting as a medium with a lineage, structure, and system in which I make my own work.

Artsy: You live and work in Berlin, but you’re originally from Canada.What took you to Europe?

Travis Lycar: I would have to say youth, simply a need to experience a world outside my own. I am from a very quiet town in the middle of the country called Gimli, and I went to art school not far away. It's an isolated area of the country that fuels a certain kind of mythological reputation, and it’s a great incubator for artists. Though I think leaving the wilderness and going to Europe was just a natural step in developing as an artist.

Artsy: Can you talk a little about your latest works, the four paintings on view at Dittrich & Schlechtriem?

Travis Lycar: The four paintings on view are from 2016 and are representative of how I am working at the moment. I think they show an interesting spectrum of the paintings I'm making in terms of their attention to brushwork or mark-making. For me, the idea of making a mark can be a heavily loaded concept. Formally, historically, or aesthetically speaking, making any gesture in the 21st century, whether it be with language, body language or painting, has consequences. Upon viewing my paintings, I'm intrigued by my own creations as they test my memory, not knowing or always understanding why I've communicated myself in such a way. These paintings have a sense of unease and uncertainty that I find draws me back into the work and back into working more.

Artsy: Maybe it’s because we’re talking in the middle of winter, but your new paintings are evocative of a snowstorm, or perhaps the detail of a snowflake. Is there anything to that? Why work in white?

Travis Lycar: The comparison to snow or a snowflake is something I hadn't considered. But I find the parallels to my paintings quite fitting in regards to a snowflake’s unique nature. Apparently there has never been and never will be two snowflakes alike. I guess the same can be said about paintings. There is an element of nature in my work—whether it is conscious or not, I'm not sure—but I don't think I have any naturalistic motive or a transcendentalist ideology. I do work alone and mostly without any source material, usually relying on the nature of the materials I use. In the end I am just painting, like the Yoko Ono song lyrics from Ask The Dragon, “I don't know, I'm just doing it.”

Actually, “snowstorm” or “snowflake” could be possible titles for my works, but in terms of communication, I think that once a painting has come to an endpoint, its qualities should maintain some ambiguity. So titling the work would only be a very telling and unnecessary added layer. This aversion to titling is something I like from the artist Laura Owens. She refers to titling as “languaging,” and maybe I too apply to this idea, as I am more interested in the visual or conceptual level of the painting functioning as language.

Color for me is always interesting at a subversive level.  Whether it's subtle or not, it needs to be more than just color to get my attention. Maybe it even needs to be the wrong color. I guess the way to answer why I work with white is that it’s a question of materiality. The source of the white is derived from various mineral powders that I mix, allowing me to work in colored pigments in such a way that the color sits in a kind of limbo. This is somehow aesthetically satisfying for me, but it also proposes a visual dilemma. I like confusing my eye and sense of depth when creating the work, allowing for more variables to be factored into its creation.

Keep in mind, when I'm working on a painting, I'm interested in the idea of the experiential act, utilizing a state of consciousness as my source, allowing things to happen as if an act of self-management with the medium and color is taking place. Conceptually, I rationalize how I do things as a kind of management. I've been interested in thinking about ideas related to the aesthetics of the subject, and looking to sources such as David Atkinson's writing on the art of management. His ideas about business management and how exploration of internal capacities produce works of art are intriguing.

Artsy: What’s next? What will we see from you in 2017?

Travis Lycar: I think the nature of my work is ongoing, and I find that my key to maintaining focus is to allow for spontaneity. I tend to be free of making too many promises, and I believe this allows new things to happen and manifest easily.


—Bridget Gleeson


Follow Dittrich & Schlechtriem on Artsy.