ATLAS MAGAZINE INTERVIEW WITH MAYA KULENOVIC
Atlas: What drove you to start painting and why? Was art always part of your life, or was it something you discovered much later in life?
MK: I started drawing and painting before I can remember. My mother had always said that, even before I was born, she had hoped I would be an artist, so, when, as a young child I declared to my family that I was going to become an artist, it was received as a matter of course, and neither me nor them have ever questioned it. So, I had been lucky that I had this identity of an ‘artist’ established so early on, and I never had to struggle with decisions about my future. I have been interested in many other fields, especially science and music, but never with any intention of pursuing them professionally.
Atlas: Your paintings seem to speak for themselves, with dark, soft voices. But what aspect of your life (or yourself) do you believe they reflect?
MK: I never try to connect my personal life with my paintings. I believe that the connection between personality and life of the artist with his work is inevitable, and that it should be left as a subliminal process. My paintings are inspired by what I see, and if something inspires me, this is usually because it contains a larger, universal truth as well as a connection to my own life. So all of my images bear scars of my own experiences as a participant, but also as an observer of both history and the present, who is trying to make sense of it all on rational, emotional and philosophical levels. Every one of my paintings contains different aspects of everything that I know and have experienced, expressed either as a presence in the image, or as an absence. Ultimately, whatever their particular subject may be, my paintings are existential in nature and they usually show the critical points: borderline states between being and non- being, creation and destruction, life and death, trance and wakefulness, sanity and madness.
Atlas: Was your mother an artist herself, or anyone in your family?
MK: No. Both of my parents, as well as almost everyone else in my family are in science. My father had some drawing talent when he was young and an eye of an architect – logical, precise, correct. He was interested in analyzing direction, perspective, composition, anatomy, weight, relation of objects to each other and to empty space. My mother’s approach to art is more intuitive. She has an innate ability to allow herself to be absorbed and awed by beauty as well as emotional meaning behind it without the need to judge it rationally for its subject. She told me that, when she was a child she knew a boy who would not go out and play with the other children but he would sit on his windowsill and draw for hours on end. She thought it must be a great fortune to love an activity so much that it absorbs you so completely, that time, place and people cannot touch you when you are in that world which belongs to you alone. So she wished for her child to have that. I have learned a great deal from both of my parents.
Atlas: You say you are inspired by what you see, what surrounds you, but which other artists have inspired you the most throughout your career? Do you believe any of them has played an important role in defining who you are today as an artist?
MK: Rembrandt – that’s an obvious one. I have loved his imagery since I was a child, so his art is a sort of a ‘home’ for me. Everything else I do has some relation to it, even if it is not direct. The second most important was Lucian Freud, even though you probably would not see that immediately in my paintings now. For about 4-5 years in college and after, my painting was very directly inspired by his work. At that time I did not use glazes but thick impasto, and Freud influence was very obvious. But then, for some reason I went in the opposite direction, back into glazing and eventually almost annihilating the brushstrokes. What remained from my studies of Freud is a particular use of strong colours – only I use it in transparent, damaged, overlapping layers. Also, his use of perspective, gaping, empty spaces and damaged walls, oppressive shadows, damaged surface. As I said, I don’t expect anyone else to be able to see these elements as in my paintings they are translated into a different language, but I know they are there. I have not had any direct influences from another artist in some time now, but every artist is a product of the entire art history that came before them. Amongst other influences on me in the past I’d mention Greek sculptures, Roman death masks, ancient Middle Eastern architecture, early American documentary photography and film, East Asian ink paintings, Leonardo’s drawings, Goya’s prints, Turner’s sky, Atget, Bourke-White, Bacon, Rego, Dumas.
Atlas: Do you paint every day, or only when you are feeling inspired?
MK:I work in the studio every day, but I do not paint every day. There are many other aspects to the work, such as researching ideas and reference material, taking photographs, sketching, doing many variations on a theme until I come up with the right one. Then there are also the other aspects of work such as making stretchers, stretching and treating canvasses, documenting the paintings and then preparing them for shipping to galleries. I used to hire a studio assistant from time to time, but I actually enjoy this kind of work and I am very particular about how I do it, so I usually do it myself.
When it comes to inspiration, I usually have plenty of it… however, I usually don’t paint at the times when I have to focus on the business side of my profession. The concerns of business are those of time, space, money; they are precise and often they involve short and long term plans. On the other hand, the concerns of painting are timeless, as it aims at giving a visual form to something ethereal, unnameable, that has roots in our common history as well as in the private one. This is a form of meditation, a very private act that to me doesn’t have anything to do with the administrative, public and detached nature of business.
Atlas: Do you tend to visualize in your mind how you want the painting to turn out or do you usually just improvise? I would love to know more about your creative process!
MK: I start from a realistic image and composition that is based on certain principles; however, I also search for an expression of a larger truth, which I don’t even know what it looks like until I recognize it in a mark on canvas. I wish for my paintings to end up more powerful than I can visualize them. I can achieve this only by allowing something else other than myself into it – an element of randomness – and when something surprising and wonderful happens, I can recognize and distill it, build upon it.
I begin with reviewing various source images, imagination and sketches, so I have a solid idea of what image I’m painting and what in it I find most interesting. I am a minimalist in the sense that I try to take out whatever I think is not necessary so there are no decorative or purely aesthetic elements in the image. This is an intuitive as well as a rational and emotional process. At this stage I pay most attention to the relationship between light and shadow; the way the combat and compliment each other and how that affects the subject. In most of my paintings there are certain elements of order, chaos, infinity and disturbance; these are roughly established at the earliest stage, but they change and develop later, as the original idea is intended to be transformed by the painting process.
The technique I use allows for random influences of paint as well as what I call ‘destruction’ layers, which are meant to damage an established structure of the image and provide space for surprising events. The atmosphere of the painting arises from the relationships between the defining and destroying elements. Those are the elements that I cannot predict completely, but they end up affecting the entire image sometimes at its core. This is what makes painting interesting for me. If I could know exactly how a painting would look like, there would be no reason to paint it..such an act would feel too self- congratulatory to be fully satisfying.
Atlas: What do you think has been your greatest achievement so far? Are there any dreams you have yet to fulfil?
MK: Thats a tricky question… what I consider to be my greatest achievements are all those situations where I managed to find strength to keep doing what I need to do in spite of difficulties, wherever I exhibited a dogged perseverance and disregarded risks or pain, in life or work. I can also consider the results of my work – my paintings – to be my greatest achievements, not so much individually, but as a collective spirit; however, I cannot completely take credit for that, as my paintings are a combination of my work, certain abilities that I was born with and various external influences. In a way, I owe something to everything and everyone that has ever inspired me.
I don’t dream much and I don’t plan much, I simply do the best I can in the moment. In art I strive for a certain ideal – emotional, intuitive, intellectual- that satisfies me on every level of my being, so maybe that can be considered as a dream. The same is with my life, I crave for moments of perfection, which sometimes you travel for but you may not find them, and sometimes they present themselves when you least expect it. I guess, both in art and in life I have this desire for awe, the kind that takes away all concern and opens up the sky. Perhaps that counts as a waking dream.
Atlas: And last but not least: What would you say to a young aspiring artist?
MK: Educate yourself intellectually, emotionally and intuitively. Try to understand the world on every one of those levels – develop critical thinking, emotional intelligence and feeling. Do not underestimate either one, but aim at creating something that will be felt first, then understood intellectually, not the other way around. Do not get distracted by fashions, styles and particular art scenes, all that will pass.
Interviewer: Alexis Daiana Cataldo
This interview appeared in online edition of ATLAS Magazine, Winter Issue 2012, pages 198-209