INTERVIEW from the 2017 monograph MAYA KULENOVIC : FUGUE
MK: My images address the viewer directly, and often provoke intense and contradictory feelings. This can be thrilling to some and disconcerting to others. Most people seem to project a lot of themselves into the paintings so their reactions are extremely personal, and their interpretations can be surprisingly specific despite (in fact, more likely because of) the inherent ambiguity in the work. It’s interesting that many viewers I have met or have contacted me, people of varied backgrounds, ages, religions, living in different parts of the world, seem to find something personally familiar in the images, either from their own lives, or related to their country’s present, past or mythology.
AC: Could your approach be described as refining specific techniques and subjects that explore this ambiguity?
MK: Ambiguity is present in my paintings not because I want them to be ambiguous but because, to me, this makes them more complete and true. It’s something that developed naturally, not as a goal in itself, but as a consequence.
There is a fusion of seemingly different ideas in my paintings: my source materials might include elements such as a series of photos, found images, a piece of music (or just a disembodied sound), an aspect of a historical or mythological event or character, personal experience, a time of day or quality of light and weather, but even though these things may seem unrelated, they are chosen for a certain quality that permeates them all, which become the central axes of the work. While painting, I don’t think of the image solely in the visual sense, I also ‘feel’ it as a physical space, I ‘hear’ it as a sound and I anticipate its ‘motion’, often pushing these sensations to some kind of a limit. Some of the ideas that eventually develop from this process may touch upon strong feelings such as fear or awe, but they can also be related to meditative states of mind between wakefulness and dreaming.
Other methods may relate to compositional aspects such as repetition and disturbance of pattern and symmetry; infinity (in borders as well as in depths of layers), the deep void; ‘interrupting agents’ (which often read as an almost violent presence where it’s not naturally expected), either as an object, or as a sudden movement; change in the nature of space; unpredictable appearance and disappearance of light and shadow; disruptions to the paint, etc or repeated or ‘frozen’ moments (as if one was to superimpose a sequence of stills from a film), to name a few. I came to these ideas primarily through making and observing art, but many of them are also explored from scientific points of view. I find this very inspiring, it gives me material to reflect on in my work. I’ve always been drawn to the connections between the arts and sciences – when I was 16 or 17 years old, I got Arnheim’s book on visual perception as a gift from my father, and found it riveting. I started using mathematical grids in my compositions, but unlike classical approaches to stable and dynamic grids and the golden ratio, I designed my grids to contain certain distortions: to see what kinds of psychological effects they would cause. The results were what I wanted, in the sense that these compositions were on the edge of chaos and order– recognizably derived from traditional painting, but with a different kind of balance that gave them a sense of unrest, but also that of life. I still use this method. It is more intuitive now. I don’t use a precisely calculated distortion grid any more but I still have a certain feel for it.
AC: I recall an interview in which you gave very well-considered answers to some questions you must often encounter. You were trying to undo some common misunderstandings about your works, to distinguish between the representations in your images, and the goals of compositions. Some of the subjects you addressed have come up in other writings about your work: healing, memory, war, tension, rebirth. You deal with them, and redirect with your answers.
MK: Well, my work is not strictly subject-based, so it would be incorrect to focus on questions which look into the subject isolated from the other elements in my paintings. Even if the subjects you mentioned may be present in a work, they are not necessarily central to it. Everything we experience and learn becomes a sort of a vocabulary which we use to form new ideas and ways of expressing them. Dreams function this way too: there is always ‘source material’ before processes such as condensation and displacement can take place. For example, the subject of war and violence is one people often ask me about, and usually expect an answer related to the war in former Yugoslavia. My interest in the subject is much wider, though. I had an interest in war in general as a child watching documentaries on WWI and II, then later as a way of understanding what happened in the country where I was born, and finally because I wanted to know more about extremes of human behaviour. I trained in martial arts for many years, and also explored the aesthetics of war, the architecture of fortifications, and ruins in particular. After all, war seems to be a part of the cycle of civilizations, which makes it an unavoidable subject if one considers our existence on this planet. All this is still evident in my work, however, I don’t paint about war; I touch upon it as an unavoidable part of a much wider consideration.
AC: Critics have characterized your paintings as partaking of various traditions: Realist, Symbolist, late Romanticist and Contemporary. I wonder whether leaning upon the traditional periods and movements of art history been a familiar but perhaps limited approach to contextualizing your work? Perhaps these attempts at categorization have failed to inform because they lean upon historical periods as hermetic snapshots, clean-cut paradigm shifts, but linked together?
MK: It could be. However, it is also likely that some writers and critics are also drawing too much from their personal interests. They seem to notice certain things about the work or its influences and misinterpret them as its defining characteristics. But these are paintings meant to foil categorization.
At an exhibition held in 2008, Edward Lucie-Smith mentioned in his opening words that these images reflect “the terror of our times”. My impression at the time was that he was not solely referring to the subjects of the paintings, but to the sum total of the experience of looking at them. It could be that some of the suspense, some of the anxiety and terror, comes from the realization that while much of our history, law, social order and even morality are constructs that are flexible and subject to interpretation, there also is a universal sense of empathy. There is a sense of an urgent uncertainty about all of this.
AC: Perhaps when attempting to address “the terror of our times” through stories, we find ourselves dealing with inherently destabilizing subjects. Your paintings often present potentially destabilizing narrative frameworks, yet viewers are more often compelled to engage with them than be intimidated by them. Dialogues ensue. There seems to be a common language, or common ground – a larger set – that encompasses the range of interpretations of your works by others as well as how you relate to your works, and where these two might differ. A kind of meeting place.
MK: Where there is destabilization, there is also a potential for transformation and there is resilience – our ability to rediscover or reinvent stability after we’ve been thrown out of it. Perhaps this is also a part of this common language, a sense of recognition of struggle and persistence.
The images are evocative rather than descriptive, and so the viewer’s active contribution to potential narratives is a part of their scope that I take into consideration. That being said, how we relate to ambiguity itself is also relevant. It’s natural for the mind to fill in the gaps to make sense out of incomplete information and form some kind of a conclusion, but sometimes one is forced to learn to work with many different narratives at the same time – this is where we start seeing ambiguity not as something we have to overcome with certainty, but as a state in itself. It’s a simultaneously disorienting and freeing sensation which, I think, a lot of people experience at some point in their lives, when they find themselves violently torn out of their normal routine. To me this happened when I moved to Istanbul from Sarajevo as a teenager. I found myself there with my parents after escaping the war in Yugoslavia in 1992. I had no knowledge whatsoever of the Turkish language. Turkish culture, architecture, history, landscape, music, people’s body language and facial expressions, everything seemed unlike anything I had experienced before. There was some familiarity in the architecture of the traditional bazaars and mosques, and one saw the same cars and appliances, heard an occasional word with a Latin or Slavic root (or a Turkish one used in the Balkans), but so much else was mysterious and undecipherable and I couldn’t help but feel like I had been submerged in some other, slightly altered reality that had different proportions, different ideas of perfection and a different sense of time. We also found out that administration in Turkey was so immense and so Kafkaesque that, to accomplish anything within the system without going slightly insane, one had to abandon all expectations and logic. The language itself has a structure that is inverse to that of European languages, with many suffixes, and I found that I had to change the order of my thoughts to converse. For me, the most interesting thing about learning Turkish was that I could sense the meaning of the sentence before I could actually translate it. As my understanding of the language got better the internal structure of things around me – the culture – started revealing itself to me. It started making more sense, as if learning to recognize the cadence of the language helped in decoding everything else. Even when it was chaotic, there was a hint of a recognizable pattern in the chaos. When I was able to understand about a third of what I was hearing and had to use that to comprehend a situation and make decisions, I relied on this intuitive understanding, which often meant filling the question marks with best guesses and then creating a context and a meaning, because there was simply no other option for coming up with a functional reality. At times, I found that I had to leave several options open, and still make decisions that would work best in every case. I spent three years in Istanbul, in a world of incomplete information; my ability to read correctly between the gaps in knowledge gradually increasing with my familiarity of the culture and the language. At the end of the third year I could understand a great deal.
AC: You describe your adaptation in Istanbul as a cultural transposition, with an aesthetic and a logic interwoven, during which you became aware that you were acquiring, through observation and interaction, a sort of key for ‘decoding the internal structure of a culture’. Life itself was your subject. These must have been key formative experiences for your art making as well.
MK: These years were important because they forced me into a different way of thinking on a fundamental level. The experience was far deeper than what one may refer to as a culture shock. It cracked my boundaries wide open. My way of relating to the familiar and the unknown became less specific and much broader. In a way, by losing what I was familiar with, I felt more free than before. I started relying more on intuition in my art. My preparatory work was still quite planned and rational, but I allowed for much more subconscious content to enter into my work. I developed a strong sense of the ‘life’ of an image, which is still for me the most important guide in painting. An image that possesses this quality relates to the present and the past and has a distinct presence and a certain independence from both the artist and the viewer. It is slightly unpredictable, ‘changeable’ over time, it refuses to be locked down or dissected. Having this in mind, the work of painting itself becomes a minimalist act; I try to remove everything that is not of utmost importance. For me, this part of the process is very satisfying.
AC: You’ve noted that your images have to relate to the present and to the past, and yet aren’t to be pinned down to places and times, but rather to ideas and categories. In dystopian narratives, history itself is usually at issue. Alternate histories present speculative projections, ultimately informing us about the present. They look at history “askance”: forwards, backwards, and sideways at once. Is there a rejection of the status quo in your works, a critical distancing from the present, in terms of the subjects you’ve chosen and how you bring those to the canvas? Some have said your works are recapitulations of historical or mythological themes and worlds – that they have a timeless sense. This view might be too narrow. It disregards how you modify elements commonly associated with the past: pre-Modern architectural forms, unregulated landscapes, the sheer richness of oil paint (always in lighting that is not man-made), with regularity of form, but also with marked incongruities. These distinguish your images from depictions of the past, or of myths. Instead, we seem to be faced with symbolic worlds alluding to potential narratives. They relate to our own times, and not by way of familiar, pictorial surrealism. Something akin to a dystopian impulse would seem to be at work. A quality of “linear history unhinged” seems to apply. Discordance. De Chirico, Kafka and Fritz Lang come to mind.
MK: There is no explicit surrealism here, but comparisons to De Chirico, Kafka and ‘history unhinged’ seem very true to me. Also, it could be said that there is a dystopian undertone in most of my paintings, which, I think, comes from alluding to the ideal and its demise at once, in the form of a permanent state.
History is just an ingredient in my work, as much as reality, the present or imagination. I wonder if my paintings appear more ‘historical’ than they are simply because of an absence of the modern. As you said, the paintings certainly do not refer to any particular point in the past or any particular mythologies, so even where they are evocative of history, it’s not exactly the established history we are talking about. The particular sources for the ‘historical’ elements in the works are often not easy to identify because these elements are not selected based on any familiar context. Besides, they are present only in traces and echoes. It is indeed as if history was projected in a non-linear way, from a great distance and an odd angle of observation from which the usual narratives and interpretations stop being factors – perhaps one could imagine this to be the point of view of an empathetic outsider who is not bound by time and space. There is a constant shifting between the intimate and familiar, on one hand, and the infinitely distant on the other. Even the perception of what is historical and what is contemporary or futuristic here is flexible.
AC: ‘History unhinged’ suggests that history is in play. Painting’s history covers an extensive period of time and contemporary concerns carry far beyond merely playing with or against this tradition.
MK: Painting’s history has a strong presence in my paintings, and it probably comes down to the fact that Classical art permeated my childhood like a familiar scent or flavour. There is an acknowledgement of that in my works, of expectations about what a landscape or a portrait or a cityscape is supposed to be – these are countered by a denial of these expectations. Paintings such as Learned and Solitaire might appear to be Classical portraits from another period, damaged by some unknown process. But their cropping and positioning, slightly off the Classical norm, makes them visually similar to incidental photographs of paintings, or stills from a damaged film. While these are the properties of the images and can be open to interpretation, the physical properties of paint, medium, and solvents, as well as marks made by various tools provide a sort of an anchor to the present. Painting documents a direct connection of the artist’s mind and body with the material, it’s a sort of an evidence-making process. There is a lot of information in a painting if you look at it that way – forensically.
AC: Your works involve a give-and-take with the viewer. In the worlds of your figures, buildings and landscapes, the familiar is both benign (orderly, highly rendered) and unsettling. This depictive suspense brings to mind Gothic literature and film noir, in which architecture was often distorted and, as in your works, setting becomes, if not an actor at par with the roles of the protagonists, fundamental to the experience of the reader or viewer…
MK: Yes. All of my ‘subjects’ – which I refer to as build, places, faces and stills – are protagonists, and they are also settings marked by traces of past events or filled with anticipation of impending ones. This can also read as ‘suspense’ or ‘haunting’. It’s just that my work is less subject-based, less specific than the examples you mentioned. For me subjects are not more or less important than the composition, light or technique or historical references, it is the relationship between all these elements that matters. But if I’d have to point out one of the elements that has the most significance for me, it would be space. I think of the nature of the space I’m creating. Light, shadows, movement, walls and voids, become ways of twisting, stretching and shaping this space. Space is the element that is most beautiful to my eye, and the most mysterious…
Complete interview can be found on pages 120 – 131 of Maya Kulenovic: Fugue, published in Toronto, 2017