Janis Avotins is part of ‘In Praise of Shadows‘, a group exhibition curated by ARTUNER at Cassina Projects in New York, which will remain open until June 17th 2017. In this interview, we discussed collective memory, the legacy of communism and the importance of the mass media archive.
Alisei Apollonio: Your paintings are inspired by Soviet era photographs. What is it that first attracted you to these images?
Janis Avotins: It was not only the Soviet era, but also an era of no-art. At the time, art was not a potentially subversive political power; it was either neutrally decorative or it served as ideological tool – as we all know. During my childhood, there were some minor underground art movements, but they could not challenge my immature imagination; it was more gestural activism.
The Soviet Union was a culturally impermeable bubble. I did not identify with or follow any formal art processes when growing up. Over the years, as I became more conscious of artistic discourses, I also became aware that I did not have access to a precedent to which I could relate my artistic practice, one whose teachings I could take as a point of departure to develop as an artist. In art school, I was taught nothing but decorative tricks and empty poetics.
So I let myself drift through local culture, from the past to the present. I found out that I could relate instead to the power of the mass media image archive (newspapers, journals, documentaries, etc), and could easily trace its power in terms of my understanding of its structure, impact, and influence on my imagination during my childhood.
Further, the role of these images in relation to the cultural conditions that I – and my imagination – grew up in was very traceable. To me, it was very logical, or it at least seemed valid, to allow myself to work with images that somehow did not (and still do not) seem borrowed.
My interest in the these images was certainly not an attraction to all or just any of those from the Soviet era, for I am not interested in art -journalism, or protest, or popular -political -criticism. Instead, I see these images as the only valid means under post-communist conditions for the continuation or even a beginning of culture – I say a ‘beginning’ because the sealed, isolated culture of the Soviet era created the conditions for perpetuity; nothing really started or ended but the great Soviet leaders’ lives.
Of course, I was and am interested in a certain notion of beauty and hope to be articulating it in each new piece of my work However, the source images are only a means to work with the new image. The new image cannot be made without the old; it is made by using parts of it, though never through the direct transfer from the documental source to the painted surface. There are certain photographical image indications that I thematise through the use of a certain paint, certain brushes, and a certain canvas to achieve a certain image, all of which should never appear contrived.
Children, ballerinas, sunbathers… it is true that the subjects of your paintings are ephemeral and ghostly, but they are also very nostalgic. Do you believe that nostalgia is a powerful force that drives creativity and imagination?
So how and why do you select that particular subject matter amongst all the images you find in the mass media archive?
The reason for my recent focus on the monochromatic figures of dancers comes from a pursuit of pathos. This particular subject matter evokes both pathos and beauty – notions that I think, respectively, correspond to and compromise my ability and freedom to see and reflect. They’ve had this effect on me since my childhood, and, on a certain scale, they still do. I see pathos as more of a general apparatus of communist ideology and semiotics in both visual and cultural forms. It is the common desire to express character through image. To express the orthodox, the unambiguousness.
I have often read that you are concerned with collective memory. However, the fading nature of your characters makes me think first and foremost about collective trauma. Do you think there is a relationship between them and that the void left by disappearing memories could become a productive site of artistic enquiry?
I like to think of disappearing memories as a products of the difficult accumulation of time, rather than as notions of fading experience becoming unclear. They are like details of a time that is still unaccounted for or mimetic references to signs, photographic elements, or visual facts. They are an invitation to spend more time with the image or at least to return to it, by looking again, instead of being a more orthodox or instantly readable image that has an almost didactic structure.
I try to redefine the themes of both the loss and accumulation of time – the chance that disturbs the possibility to perceive the image in an ideologically clear way – the desire for more free images, free from a totalitarian regime.
My own painted images do not illustrate my attitude to the source images or to their topology. They do not comment on collective memory. Instead, it is the source images that are part of a local collective memory, though they used to be an unwanted aspect of folklore, apparently.
Maybe the fading can be seen, then, in the opposite way than you previously suggested: instead of trauma, it is hope. I do not know… Maybe instead of void it is darkness or obscurity…
The absence of art or non-ideological narratives can be a productive site of artistic enquiry. As we know from the example of Kaspar Hauser, it is possible for one to become poetically productive even under a more radical isolation than what it was like under communism.
In ‘In Praise of Shadows’ there are also paintings from your new abstract body of work. What prompted the change from figuration to abstraction?
I think I start both from the same process, but I empty the source material of imagery (a form of censorship) and afterwards redefine it on canvas leaving it radically un-referential. By leaving as little as possible, I let chance act as a method of reflection on these same source materials, reflecting the visual structural logic in a less mimetic way. However, it is not really a change; it is rather a parallel.
In moving from figuration to abstraction, the most important and crucial elements to remove from the source images are the faces that correspond to certain officials and the emblematic signs that signal an event (i.e. the Congress or a portrait of the current leader of the state). I keep the small-time elements of the image, such as the atmosphere and its composition of light and background.
A very subdued palette such as yours is not very common amongst painters working with figuration (paradoxically, often your abstract paintings have more colour than your figurative ones). How did you come to the conclusion that these dark imprimatura washes were the best way for dealing with your subject matter?
Colour itself is too referential. I am not that much interested in the images as signs, carriers, media, or as infrastructure – nor in the elements of a certain narrative. For me, the subject matter is not what one is able to see, but rather, what one is able to read or perceive in the image.
Since 2003, when I started to work professionally, I used to and still do look for the images that have no historical narrative value. Free and worthless images, empty images, banal images, they are nearly abstract in the context of the common image archive. They are specific only in terms of the painterly articulation of their layers, but the source images themselves are meaningless…
It’s really interesting – how these sources are meant to say a lot because they’re figurative, but they’re so banal that they end up being silent…
And though there is a permanent desire for colour or, as you say, “more colour,” it is not in a nostalgic or sentimental sense and is not necessary for now.
Instead, it seems somehow that the political and symbolic tension within the field of colour or any colourful image is too charged in my case and would probably make my paintings look a bit euphoric as they are emotional already in a state of monochromatism.
I will say, however, that this question was inspirational and leads me to new thoughts and intentions about colour once again.