Combustus Magazine

SOMETHING LOST, SOMETHING NEW: Interview with painter Maya Kulenovic

“Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.“
~ Michel de Montaigne

We’re all of us haunted and haunting.”
~ Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby

Typically with contemporary art, we come to expect edgy, as in sharp edges that cut away at conventional attitudes and ideas. Strong lines and color that awaken us from our lethargy, incite us to question, even attack traditional ways of seeing. But art that makes us think and feel deeply can also work a different kind of enchantment. Consider the paintings of Maya Kulenovic, which seem to float towards and around us like black mist, seeping into our pores and into all those long-forgotten crevices of our minds where memories wait, lurking, biding their time…just when we think we’ve forgotten…

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TOWN OF SHADES, 2013, oil on canvas, 55″ X 73″ (140cm x 185cm)

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Very pleased to be profiling you in Combustus, Maya. If you’re ready then, shall we begin?
You were born in Sarajevo, in 1975. How old were you when you left? What are your most precious memories about your country? 

Maya Kulenovic: I had just turned 17 when I left in ’92. The best memories I have of my childhood are of nature and its smells. Croatian seaside with its aromas of pine and lavender, salt water on my face. My aunt’s cobble stone garden in Old Sarajevo hidden behind its huge wooden gate, I always used to arrive there at sunset, when the scent of roses is in the air. My grandparents cottage, smells of smoke, green and earth, where I used to hunt for lizards, snails and stag beetles and draw them before letting them go. Smell of junipers in mist on a mountain trail, first time outside after being very ill for several weeks. 

DP: The attack on your city was said to be the longest siege in the history of modern warfare, with nearly every building being damaged. But then followed a period of great reconstruction, after which nearly no traces of even bullet holes remained. I see a similar tension in your paintings, Maya. Would you like to speak a bit about this? 

MK: I haven’t seen Sarajevo since I left, so I cannot comment on the reconstruction. This is how history unfolds, after destruction some things are forever lost, and some can be rebuilt. The result is something new, founded on the life-line of what was before.

As for my paintings, there are similarities, I agree, primarily in the sense that my process involves phases of construction and destruction. My paintings are created through many translucent layers, some of which define the subject, and others whose primary role is to destroy the previous layer and introduce an element of chaos. Here I use solvents, rags, wire brush, sandpaper.This chaos adds a certain primal energy to the image, as if the medium breaks free from both the subject and the artist. The result is a fertile ground from which I can continue working.   

I don’t think, however, that my personal history was a deciding factor in the development of my work. For one, I have never tried to illustrate anything related to that particular war. I draw inspiration from intense moments which reveal something about human nature, and these moments may be from  life, documentary films, photographs, memory, and some of these inevitably include various human tragedies. Of course, having a personal connection to a place like Sarajevo forever changes the way one looks at documentary footage of war and disaster in the sense that the people and places don’t seem so distant and foreign any more, regardless of ‘who’, ‘when’ and ‘where’. Their expressions are the same, and so are the ruins. 

DP: Can you tell me about about ‘Mirage’? In the tension of dark versus light, despair versus the press of rebirth, is hope built upon illusion?

MK: Darkness is not necessarily ‘threat’ and light ‘salvation’, it can be seen the other way around, too. I’m not telling the viewer how to feel about this image, it is open and familiar enough so that, like a mirror, it can reflect some of the viewers’ own mind. Hope may be in the resilient presence of the figure, which still persists even when it seems to be fading, pulled apart by both light and shadow. It may be in the life-force that it still has even though it may be only a memory. It may be in the moment of recognition and empathy that the viewer may feel.  

DP: You’ve described your paintings as containing “aspects of everything that I know and have experienced,” and then listed these states: “life and death, trance and wakefulness, sanity and madness.” As an artist, does this sensitivity to the precariousness of humanity assist you? Or provide struggle?

MK: It depends. Sometimes what feeds the art can hurt. For me, art usually happens much later after an event or experience which inspired it, and so it doesn’t help much in the moment. Perhaps this is because the events have to sink into memory for me to be able to create art from them. 

DP: In an era of increased cynicism, is there still room for awe? Or do we hunger for it even more than ever now?

MK: Awe is a natural capacity of humans. It’s what we feel when we find ourselves face to face with something infinitely more magnificent than ourselves, and yet with which we feel an innate affiliation, or even a sense of belonging. This feeling has been abused by various organizations throughout human history, religious and secular alike, and cynicism, I think, is a reaction to that. As a tool for stripping certain stale ideas and exposing some attempts at manipulating people’s emotions and beliefs, cynicism can expose the truth by destroying a lie… However, it has become just another fashionable mode of relating to reality, and a very limiting one at that. Cynicism is reactive by its nature, and it is corrosive. It is not proactive, it does not offer a solution, an alternative, a fundamental change. These things require energy. Awe is a fundamental expression of this energy that propels us towards creativity, curiosity, empathy, that feeds our thirst for knowledge and diminishes the fear of death. It is what pushes the limits of art as well as science, and acts as a beacon from the unknown as we take great risks.

DP: How do you open yourself up to be surprised as a painter? Is it difficult to give up control?

MK: have to be surprised at least a bit with every painting. If a painting does not surprise me, it disappoints.  So, with every painting I have to give up some control, and ultimately let it tell me what it wants to be.  I don’t necessarily always enjoy this aspect of uncertainty, but it is usually exciting and necessary to achieve the result I want. The point of painting for me is this transformation, from the original idea to its final incarnation, and I have to let the technique dictate this process. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have to paint, I could just look at the image in my mind and be happy with that. 

This doesn’t mean that I don’t have a clear plan for a painting, on the contrary. I usually analyze in detail many different versions of my preparatory images beforehand, so as I paint, I have a very good idea where I would like to take the painting. Yet, during the process, certain unpredictable things happen (and, intentionally, my technique allows for many of these surprising elements). Some of them I remove or paint over, and some I keep, and build upon. To me personally, my own paintings are more valuable if they have some elements in them that cannot be repeated even by myself. 

DP: Have you found that painting affects the way you take in life around you? For instance, does it give you greater patience for others and even yourself, knowing you will be able to express all that you’ve taken in, eventually in your art? 

MK: Not really. I suppose it does on some philosophical level, but not in the moment. We are a frustrating species. 

DP: Where would you like to take your work next? Or do you even like to think that far ahead? 

MK: I don’t. But it will be interesting.

Interviewer: Deanna Elaine Piowaty

This interview in online edition of COMBUSTUS Magazine.