Q&A with artist Maya Kulenovic, who makes American solo debut with Charleston exhibit

Complete Interview

by Kalyn Oyer

Kalyn Oyer: Istanbul, Toronto, London. How were your early studies formative to your art and how did these different cities inspire you? What can one learn from a city?

Maya Kulenovic: When one moves into a new country and an unfamiliar city, there is a period of learning the new environment in which one is neither a tourist nor yet a part of the life of the city. To me this experience always comes with a feeling of being unmoored. There is a sense of isolation but also of freedom in that experience. The city becomes a labyrinth, a puzzle, something to be decoded and resolved, in a physical sense as well as a cultural one. The lives of cities such as London and Istanbul are reflected in their architecture: layers of construction and destruction, new structures arising upon remnants of old ones, order imposed upon chaos, decay in the forgotten corners. Traces of more than a millennium of human activity can be seen in a single street. Cities are full of hints, mysteries, clues of events and lives that we may never be able to know, but only intuit or imagine.

Painting is not unlike architecture in the sense that both are shaping space. Experiencing cities such as London or Istanbul made me acutely aware of my own perception of space and how notions of presence and absence can create a feeling or a narrative. My cityscapes are not intended to depict the real existence and actual histories of these streets and buildings – these are only used as building blocks, and the paintings themselves have more to do with memories, hallucinations and dreams rather than any desire to document reality in here-and-now.

In contrast, Toronto has less of this sense of weight of history as it is a very young city in comparison to Istanbul or London, but one of the things I love the most about Toronto is it’s proximity to nature. Canadian landscapes are awe-inspiring in their every form and season. They seems so ancient and indifferent to human existence even when they bear scars of human activity, and I feel a deep connection to them. This is probably why most of my interiors and cities are European, and my landscapes are Canadian.

KO: What are you most looking forward to with your first American solo show? What can we expect?

MK: I’ve participated in group shows in the USA, but the difference is that a solo show allows for more immersion of the viewer into the artist’s world. In that sense, an exhibition can be an experience, like a performance or a film in which the gallery space, lighting and the arrangement of artwork play an important role. We selected a very strong body of work for this show and I’m excited to see how the Principle Gallery curates the exhibition.

My work is intentionally open-ended and ambiguous, which allows for personal interpretations. So far, my experience of exhibiting in various countries has been that viewers tend to react very intensely to the paintings, often in unique, deeply personal ways. I look forward to hearing about various interpretations, stories and connections the visitors of this exhibition may make with the paintings.

KO: Tell me more about your “destructive” technique with the art in this exhibit.

MK: These paintings are built of many translucent layers of glazes combined with transparent pigments. I hardly use any opaque colours, which means that no mark I make on the canvas is completely covered or painted over. As a result, traces of the entire history of the painting can be seen in the final image. Some layers are there to define the subject, and others to disrupt it with various kinds of damage – scraping, solvents, wire brushes etc. – which I refer to as ‘destructive’ layers as they disturb the realism of the image. These layers are not entirely random, but in many ways they are uncontrollable and so they introduce an element of chaos into the painting. It is in this process that the painting gains its own life. This technique sets the image outside of my ability to fully control the final result and I find this dialogue exhilarating – probably also because there is a risk of irreparably ruining the work in the process. Layers upon layers create a sense of simultaneous building and destruction. Even though the process itself may be unpredictable and even violent, I want these layers to to be fully integrated with each other, creating an atmosphere from which the subject struggles to emerge.

KO: Your compositions are “exploring the powerful psychological state of the human form, ancient history, nature, structures and architecture.” Can you speak about some particular inspirations that will be showcased in this exhibit and how these different elements inspire you?

MK: I never prepare a body of paintings specifically for a show. I have several main themes which repeat in my work cyclically, but I focus on each individual piece with considerable intensity – one could say, I put everything I have into each work separately. The process of selection of works for a show and curation of these works become a sort of an artwork in itself.

In this selection of paintings I particularly enjoy the travel from personal spaces to wide and open areas, from intimate to vast. This exhibition has a relatively large number of landscapes, cityscapes and interiors, as well as some portraits. Even though the themes in the work belong to three seemingly different subjects, in my view they are deeply related and should be experienced as such. After all, we talk about a ‘facade’ or a ‘face’ of a building, a ‘landscape of a soul’, an ‘architecture’ of a face, ‘personality’ of a place. My intent is that these paintings go beyond simple categorization based on their subjects, to exist in a mysterious space of inter- connectedness and constant transition, where things can be intuited but not known. I hope that the viewers of this show will approach this exhibition with open minds and allow themselves to be absorbed into the questions rather than searching for a definitive answer.

KO: How did you get involved with “Fugue”? Tell me more about the book!

MK: Fugue is my second monograph (the first one was published in The Netherlands, with a forward by British historian Edward Lucie- Smith). Fugue has been in preparation in its various incarnations for almost 4 years before it was finally published. The main essay in the book is written by Mark Kingwell, renowned contemporary philosopher and art critic, and art writer Anthony Collins did an extensive interview with me, which was interesting and unusual in terms of directions it took – from personal experience, to the influences of film and music. I was involved in every aspect of the preparation of the book, including final colour adjustments at the press. My paintings are very hard to reproduce due to the use of a large number of various pigments and many translucent layers, which are difficult to replicate with offset printing (which only uses 4 colours). For this book we did up to 12 proofs per each page, until we finally got the results we wanted. The group of people I worked with included one of the best art book designers in Canada, Lisa Kiss, and a specialized printing house, Flash Reproductions. Their generosity in terms of both time and effort, the attention to details, their dedication to making this difficult project as beautiful as possible made me love and appreciate books even more. 

This interview can be found in The Post and Courier, Charleston, SC, USA, Mar 2, 2020 link