INTERVIEW WITH MAYA KULENOVIC: A CONVERSATION ON NEW WORKS (2012)
A.S. Hamilton: Compared to previous works your new series shows figures with less defined edges and peripheries’ dissolving into their surroundings. The more recent works possess a more ethereal, airy and atmospheric quality. The figure is constrained by atmosphere, but it also inherits the properties of that atmosphere.
Maya Kulenovic: These figures exist in the atmosphere, and they are made of it.
Tension is still there in the figures, but their struggle is more existential, eternal, introspective, quieter, as they emerge from light into mist and then sink into shadows. They exist and yet they have no boundaries that define them, and they have no time that restrains them – they may be paintings of people, but they may as well be phantoms, dreams, ancient estate portraits, ghosts, old photographs. There is a sort of a destruction of form by light and mist, so that the new figures are more ethereal, less present, more ghostly, and their expression is quieter. When looked at from the point of illustrative, recognizable facial expression, they have less on their faces, but the attention is more on the atmosphere of the image, and the light. Atmosphere – time of day, weather, temperature of air, and nature of light, is crucial.
A.S.H.: You juxtapose and integrate figures with shadow and light play so that the composition doesn’t end with the posture and position of the figures or the arrangement of positive image and negative space, but it carries on into the work itself with each level of illumination and every shadow.
M.K.: My paintings have always been about light. The relationship between light and shadow defines the figure and its relationship with its surrounding. It makes the subject visible; therefore it brings it into existence within this two dimensional, illusory world. The psychology of the subject depends heavily on the interaction of light and darkness – as both of them bring the object into existence, but they also struggle over it – sometimes darkness is protective and secretive, and sometimes it is invasive and stifling as it engulfs the figure. Light is sometimes defining, but sometimes overexposing and threatening. Likewise, the borders of the canvas create a constraint to the image, but also they are dissolved by the image.
A.S.H.: You mentioned subversion as one of important elements of your work. Modern art often carries with it some influence of subversion, some obvious and some subtle. Artists subvert expectation, materials, and technique more broadly than simply the choice of subject. This is apparent in your work – a quiet subversion is present in every element, from its place in art as in ‘realist’ tradition, to colours and use of oil paint.
M.K.: Subversion gives life to a work of art, I think, and the more subliminal it is, the better it works. There is always a play between what is expected of an art work (or a particular type of artwork), and what it really is. I do not particularly like the ‘shock effect’ type of subversion in art, since, once it is accepted by the audience, the effect wears out and the artwork doesn’t have a lasting power. An artwork can be surprising and shocking, but it also has to be more than that, and the shocking effect has to lead the audience to a psychological journey, not only to distress them. Some people thought some of my art was and is disturbing, but I have never seen it as such. To me the subject is important, but its importance is not in its descriptive properties, as much as in its relationship to other elements of the painting. This is why two paintings of the exact same subject can express very different moods and thoughts, and have a lasting value – or not.
A.S.H.: Speaking of distressing art, some of your earlier images had a more direct reference to war and violence than the more recent ones?
M.K.: It is still there, but again, quieter, as a subliminal element, rather than an obvious or literal one. It is a big part of what I explore, and it manifests itself in different ways, either through the subject or through the way I handle paint and canvas. There is a lot of quiet destruction, struggle for existence, chaos and loss in my paintings, but the subject matter itself is less obviously violence related… and I say this from the point of view of the audience, since, to me, none of them were just about violence, but about transformation.
A.S.H.: And this is because the descriptive properties of the subject are not your main focus?
M.K.: I am a realist, in the sense that in my work there is always a relationship between a recognizable entity – human or otherwise – in its recognizable form within its environment, and my interest is in the various psychological states that this being exists in. But the degree of realistic detail varies – sometimes i am more interested in particularities of the subjects, and sometimes I like removing and erasing those particularities, only leaving the traces of them; a more timeless view. Nevertheless, to me, art is always an exploration of the relationship of abstract and realistic, particular and universal, perception and feeling. All of these elements are always present, only, to different degrees.
A painting is always a synthesis of subject, material and the space of the canvas. These any viewer can see without too much effort. But to an artist, the artwork also includes the 4th dimension: the time I spent with it, and my process. This is something that a careful viewer can see if they also spend time looking at the work, and decoding the traces of the artists actions and decisions. As I work, I am not interested in one of these elements more than in the other, and I cannot separate them, but in the end, all of these elements have to work together to create a unique atmosphere which is the quintessence of the piece. This quintessence is much more than literal properties of the subject (particular expression, recognizable facial features which a photograph can record). It is formed from a relationship of the reality of the subject, and the way it is being created and subverted by pictorial elements such as light and shadow, colour, and destruction layers. This process is intensely emotionally charged. In that sense, there is no difference between my earlier paintings and the most recent ones, but the more recent paintings are slightly less illustrative, quieter, subtler, and they unravel slowly over time.
A.S.H.: The latest series have a more disrupted surface treatment that in some instances obscures the figure as if some process affected the image after it was painted. (On closer examination it’s clear this technique exists in each layer and is in fact incorporated into the work throughout). This obliterating effect plays a role in the overall image. This is also a form of subversion of realism in your art- an introduction of uncontrollable, less controllable or even completely random elements?
M.K.: The destruction layer, which I introduced into my painting a long time ago, is the layer of erasure – usually affecting the last layer of paint or glaze – basically, I paint with an intention to define contrasts and forms in a more or less classical way, but then i ‘destroy’ the marks I just made with random action of paint, medium, rags, solvent, dry brushes, wire brushes, sandpaper, knives. Elements of the destruction layer in the recent paintings are more pronounced. The destructive nature of erasure results in remnants of intentions and decisions of the artist, and introduces a random element into the painting. They act against the realism of the subject, and in a sense they are an element of the rebellion of the material. They destroy the outer borders of the subject, making it more permeable and open, more delicate and vulnerable. They expose the previous layers (the ‘history’), they destroy the classical realism of the subject, taking it apart, plunging it into a sort of a primal chaos of pigment and medium, only to be re-grouped into a different kind of order in the subsequent layer. This element of chaos gives the subject a life of it’s own; it breaks free and often surprises me with the result – and in this, it completely annihilates any possibility of artistic manipulation of the viewer on my part as an artist… this is a process of discovery and surprise, rather than a method of production, and so it is a struggle. From this struggle the character of the painting arises.
A.S.H.: Your work presents figures and landscapes in enigmatic moments and moods but rarely so defined as to be explicit. This works as a communication with the audience and transforms them from a simple observer into a participant. Ones own emotional reaction to you work is not dictated by the image they see but as much by what the observers experience brings to it . Is it a subversion of the artist/ viewer relationship to offer a provocative image that is also sufficiently oblique and undefined as to draw from each viewer their own unique emotional response?
M.K.: There is a cortical region in the human brain which is specialized in recognizing and reading human faces. It is natural to look at a face and instantly form a relationship to it – whether one sees it as another human, a mirror, or a memory – and understand, or attempt to understand the emotional (and through emotions, physical) reality of that face. In art, there is almost no other subject that more directly speaks to us with such enormity of information, as a face.
I call my portraits ‘faces’ because they do not represent any particular character, but a mood, or rather, mood as traces or anticipations of events. I give the viewers a starting point from which they can form their own relationship to the subject, based on their experiences. I focus on how to make the face or figure present and alive, but I also want to give them a form of independence from myself – they have to have a life on their own, and surprise me in what they become through the act of painting. To me, this is the only way to keep an artwork evocative yet open and not manipulative. Of course, as I work on a painting, I know the direction in which I want to go, but the little, unpredictable events in the process of painting, are what gives them life and the satisfaction of discovery to me as an artist. . I would like to think of myself as ‘channelling’ alongside with ‘creating’ – by that I mean enabling certain elements to come together to create an artwork, and enabling the viewer to see something of value to them within it.
A.S.H.: There is another interesting factor in some of the new works. The figures gazing at us from their environment present a very different relationship than those viewed by us objectively in passing that seem to be observed without their knowledge. In some instances the subject being observed appears more as if someone photographed in passing than a traditional figure painted as if looking out of their world toward ours. :
M.K.: The main difference is probably that the figures that make eye contact – or those that are ambivalent but may be staring at the viewer, are more direct and they demand contact with the viewer. Of course the viewer responds to those with an instant connection, since he has no escape other than to look away. The figures facing the viewer are even more aggressive in their attitude, as they are assuming the position of the reflection in the mirror; an emotional response is instantaneous. The figures that look away tend to be more engaged with their own world than with the viewer, and he may be a visitor in that world.
A.S.H.: There are new uses of unusual colors in the new works. You’ve previously employed monochromatic techniques using multiple colors to arrive at indefinable colorscapes; In some of your newer works you’re using in some cases more abrupt and present colours , less in the figures themselves and more overall as if the air around the figure now has the ‘voice ‘ of the color throughout the world you’re exploring.
M.K.: In the new paintings, the division into light and dark is a bit more complex, as there is more attention to elements of colour and temperature of light and atmosphere.
Colour is used often as a slightly subversive element, as it defies the subject more than it defines it. Colour, as light, can have an ‘erasing’ effect, it can be soft and giving, or it can be caustic, and blinding. It can point out the realistic details of the subjects such as the temperature or tension of skin, or it can be treacherous and deceive, contradict, mislead.
A.S.H.: The influence of classical Realist art, which you state is your background, is still very present in your latest work, but this series has a bit more contemporary feel. Are there new influences on your work?
M.K.: Well, a constant influence in my work has been Rembrandt, but I would describe the presence in my work as that of an artistic ‘home’ – his work has been my first major art discovery, and an ideal of art since I was a child. So this particular aesthetics is always somewhere in my subconscious, even when it is not as explicit in the work or when some other ideas and influences find their way into it. For the latest series, some of the inspiration came from 19 century daguerreotype photography and damaged motion pictures. The faces, landscapes are damaged by time, air, water; their presence is less material but this does not make them less present.
I am influenced by everything I see – I do not pick any particular aesthetics to explore or emulate… so the result is the mix of everything I have lived or seen, as a person living in our times. And this includes my life, media, books, films, photography, and music. It is hard to separate these influences as they are a part of my mental landscape, which is, essentially, what every painting originates from.
Interviewer: A S Hamilton 02/03/12