An Interview with Artist Marjorie Mikasen

February, 2005

Marjorie Mikasen is an abstract painter who lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. She has exhibited her work nationally and internationally since 1987. Recently, her work was included in the Tweed Museum of Art’s travelling exhibition, Contemporary Art and the Mathematical Instinct, and the Museum of Nebraska Art’s RSVA/MONA honoring significant artists in the state.

Julie Karabenick: A reviewer once said that for you, making art is a form of inquiry.

Marjorie Mikasen: I once heard another artist describe herself this way: “I consider myself more of a thinker than a maker—I make objects in order to think.” When I heard that I felt an immediate rapport with her because that’s a lot of what I do. I was looking at some older artist statements recently and see that I’ve used the word “quest” with some frequency. I think I’ve always had this feeling of “quest” involved with making my work. Discovery, connection, making sense of things, and, most importantly, finding a place in all of it.

Reunion, acrylic on canvas, 97 x 97 cm (38 x 38 in), 1995

JK: Your inquiry seems quite broadly based.

MM: I draw on many sources for inspiration: myth, philosophy, psychology, literature and scientific theory. I’m interested in what it means to have an intellect, instincts and a spirit, and how these oppositions inherent in us come into balance. This is a problem for every individual, for human society and human culture throughout history.

JK: So even though your work is quite abstract, it’s filled with references to the natural world?

MM: My work reflects a geometric approach based on nature. So much of the critical and art historical attention has gone to the abstract artists who have denied they are putting any meaning into their work or working from any reference points. Sort of like Frank Stella’s “what you see is what you see.” My work fits into a long tradition of abstract work that references nature and proceeds from the work of Cezanne. I have always felt that so much of what Cezanne did has not even yet been fully understood by artists or viewers.

The Aleph
The Aleph: “I leave to various future times, but not to all, my garden of
forking paths,” acrylic on canvas, 122 x 147 cm (48 x 58 in), 1996

JK: Have there been important visual references for the use of geometric form in your work?

MM: I feel very certain that my geometry comes out of growing up in Chicago. I feel I internalized the grid of that city. I know I felt my boundaries to form a square in my mind, and that where we lived seemed to me to actually be a point on a line. Chicago streets are so straight, and I knew that if you followed my street to the horizon you would reach the downtown, 128 blocks north—via a straight line. It just made a huge impression on me, I guess, and more than I realized until years later. I didn’t really take to math and science subjects in school. It was more of this intuitive knowledge of geometry that resonated with me and was useful to me. And I guess it just keeps coming out.

JK: When did geometric form begin to enter your painting?

MM: About 16 years ago, I’d been doing very loose, abstract watercolor paintings on paper. But, it was getting increasingly difficult for me to make a piece that didn’t have some sort of figural orientation emerging in the design. At this same time, I had been looking at work by the Futurist painters and the Vorticists and was finding the architectonic figures in their works striking a chord with me. Soon I was actually dreaming of what I called “mechanical” people, and I knew this must hold some kind of fascination for my mind.

Night Watch
Night Watchwatercolor, ink, and gouache on paper,
97 x 66 cm (38 x 25 7/8 in), 1998

Right away, I wanted more control of the way I was painting, so I moved into painting acrylic on canvas to get more control over the paint and to make more complex designs—the things I saw in my head.

JK: And this figural orientation has persisted?

MM: The human body has a continual presence in my work as an anthropomorphic mass of geometric shapes. The figural element is not descriptive of an individual person or gender, but I use it in the sense of a repertoire of shapes and forms, motions and postures. At the time, I had the feeling that I was putting humanity back into abstraction. That sounds rather lofty, but it came from a genuinely humble place. I wanted to work with the sense that the abstract derives from the mind, but the mind is surely a part of the body. It seems to me once you invoke the body, then you can start tackling the spatial; through having bodies we know the world, the size of things, distances, for example. The geometric. Geo is earth, meter is measure. But the measurement always derives from us.

New Kourus
New Kouros, acrylic on canvas, 132 x 122 cm (52 x 48 in), 2003

JK: And the space in your work has geometric underpinnings as well?

MM: After the figural element came solidly into my designs, I felt a need to put them in some kind of geometric framework or environment that would give a dimensional quality to the work. The first piece I did with a geometric environment was a painting called Wanderlust. It came to me that I could put this figural element under and inside a geodesic dome. And this geometric device, too, comes from a personal connection. When I was young, our family attended Expo ’67, and I remember being so struck by the U.S. Pavilion, a transparent geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller. I remember vividly the thrill of being inside it. Maybe tapping into that feeling started me on a more refined geometric path in my designs and made me more aware of patterning and three-dimensional space.

Logic Gate
Logic Gate: The Thinking Fire, acrylic on canvas,
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1998

JK: You mention an interest in the Futurists and Vorticists. Are there particular artists who have influenced your ideas about the articulation of space in a painting?

MM: Wyndham Lewis and David Bomberg are Futurists I particularly admire for their architectonic figures, capturing of motion, energy, and spatial understanding. However, for me, the towering figure of 20th century art is Hans Hofmann. He understood space, color, form and expression. I studied under Peter Busa at the University of Minnesota, and he was a student of Hoffman’s, so I consider Hofmann an “academic grandfather” of mine.

JK: And you take from Hofmann?

MM: Push/pull is essential to the way I think about making a painting. It’s there all the time. Flatness is of no interest to me for what I’m trying to say. We exist within space and negotiate our world that way. I’ve always felt the urge to “go in,” to get beyond my eyeballs—what’s really out there?

Noctis Labyrinthus
Noctis Labyrinthus (Labyrinth of the Night), acrylic on canvas,
86 x 102 cm (34 x 40 in), 1996

JK: Is your hard-edge method of painting especially conducive to developing a complex visual space?

MM: Yes. My method involves masking and unmasking areas with tape. When the tape is removed you get a very straight, crisp, precise edge. This technique seems to suit itself well to producing spatial and optical effects.

Artist working
Marjorie Mikasen preparing to mask off an area in preparation
for painting. Image ©Nina Szczerbowska

JK: And you use a computer to aid in developing your images?

MM: My images are derived through a combination of traditional sketching and computer modeling. I rely a lot on the traditional drawing skills and the training I had as a student from looking at objects or looking at the body and how it takes up space. But a computer drawing program is an excellent tool to use if you really want to come to terms with form—if you want to “dig in” to space and really manipulate it.

Passage, acrylic on canvas, 66 x 117 cm (26 x 46 in), 1992

JK: So when you begin to paint are all the critical decisions essentially behind you?

MM: When I start a painting, I already have the image firmly developed, sometimes including the color scheme. This does not mean, however, that there is no artistic work left. The dynamic power of the painting develops during the painting process. It is then that I must make the important aesthetic decisions about the design—which elements are stressed for visual impact and which elements are more subtle. I call this “making the painting pop.”

JK: You seem particularly drawn to cutting-edge work in science.

MM: My husband is a biochemist, a chemistry professor. He and I have been together a long time, so we developed in our respective subjects together and in parallel. Because of that, our interests now tightly intersect, and I have found myself very drawn to scientific imagery, concepts, and ways of looking at the world. I think science is changing who we are as human beings, and I’d like to explore that.

JK: Would you give an example from a recent painting?

MM: There is a very real world of scientific equations and visual constructs. One series of work that I’m currently engaged in poses the question: Are we disappearing into that world or do we find ourselves somehow mirrored in it? The painting Proprio visually explores the idea of liminality, or “being in the threshold” in relation to the scientific knowledge that changes our world at an ever-increasing pace. I see the threshold as the defining place of our time.

Proprio, acrylic on canvas, 107 x 107 cm (42 x 42 in), 2002

JK: And the title?

MM: Proprio is taken from the word proprioception, meaning “active self-movement.” This painting is concerned with the idea of our self-consciousness somehow being tied to our ability to feel ourselves as bodies occupying physical space.

JK: And your recent stereopairs series?

MM: This series has side-by-side images that, when you converge them through special viewing techniques, appear 3-D, alter in color, and have kinetic movement. These paintings are concerned with the dynamic interplay of 2, and can be thought of as visual metaphors to explore aspects of splitting, doubling, occlusion, opposition, creation and wholeness.

Rasa 3
Rasa 3, acrylic on canvas, 41 x 81 cm (16 x 32 in), 2000

JK: Your imagery is quite complex. You seem to ask a lot from the viewer.

MM: What I’m trying to do visually is very complex. It involves an interpenetration of space in most cases, and that will mean for the viewer a lot of looking. There’s always a question of how much complexity your eye can take in at one time. Artists are always pushing the bar, though. So if the stereopairs are leading toward a bit more visual complexity, that’s OK too.

JK: How do scientists respond to your work?

MM: Many, many scientists will say to me that they either look at art, collect art, or find commonalities between the two subjects. I’ve found that most want to identify with artists in the sense that we are on similar paths.

Ome, acrylic on canvas,
36 x 91 cm (14 x 36 in), 2005

JK: How so?

MM: Scientists want to learn about or create something that changes people. I don’t know if what an artist does is that different. The difference is one of inflection. Both fields make things visible, and each reveals what has been called “a system of relations.” Both fields utilize observation and processing.

JK: You’ve said you believe that the coming together of science and art will provide a key to our survival. Would you elaborate?

MM: I think it’s something compensatory that’s called for now at this particular point in history. We’ve had a lot of fragmentation into separate disciplines leading to finer and finer points of knowledge, but are we seeing the whole picture, the nature of reality? Science and technology are making huge inroads into areas that concern the individual and society. Big changes are undoubtedly on the way. Is all our progress making our planet inhospitable to life, for instance?

Rasa 3
Clinal Variation 3, acrylic on canvas,
36 x 30 cm(14 x 12 in), 2005

It’s important to remember that there’s a connection between the questions that get asked and the problems that get solved. What kind of input can the artist have on that connection? I think an artist’s way of seeing and way of being in the world offer insights into breaking the habits of perception. This is where science can learn from art. Reality is as much a part of our making as it is “out there” to find.

JK: And so, returning to the notion of “quest,” when you finish a painting, do you often feel you’ve made progress in this quest?

MM: I feel more like I’m circumambulating. I use this term in the way C.G. Jung used it—like circumambulating the truth. When one gets close to what is true, the best we can do is circle it rather than arrive directly at it. I guess each painting is a form of reiteration in a sense. Adding another iteration to a felt idea probably leads to a stronger resolve to make the work, gaining confidence in your own vision and in the power to execute it. Stronger and closer is perhaps all we can hope for.

More about Marjorie Mikasen at

Interview images and text copyright©2005 Julie Karabenick and Marjorie Mikasen. All Rights Reserved.

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All text and artwork reproduced by permission of the artists.

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