October 16, 2013
“Money can’t buy you happiness.” Sadly, it wasn’t long ago that my response to that idiom was, “Well that must be something rich people say.” From the start, we’re taught that there’s value in the things that earn us money. I’ve shared my belief, in What Do You Do?, that people are much more than their professions. The ideal, however, is that an individual is able to make a living doing what they love. This Friday’s dose of inspiration comes straight from a woman who’s forged a career out of her passion for art.
When I reached out to Bay Area Artist, Maja Ruznic, I did so because I was totally inspired by her story. Born in Bosnia & Herzegovina in 1983, Maja and her mother came to the United States as refugees in 1992. Maja went on to receive two degrees from UC Berkeley and compete as a member of Cal’s Track and Field Team. All the while, she continued to explore her love for art. Maja describes her most recent drawings and paintings as that of:
“People, objects and memories of experiences that evoke a sense of failure and trigger a sense of psychological unease that echoes my childhood refugee experience. In documenting these people, objects and events with highly editorialized and projected-upon personae, I am simultaneously preserving them and destroying who they actually are.” ( her artistic statement)
Her passion and talent have garnered her much success and she was recently awarded the 2012 cover of New American Paintings. I’m drawn to telling and exploring the stories of people who have the courage to acknowledge and pursue what they love. In interviewing Maja, she impressed me even more. I was amazed and pleased to find that, beyond her overcoming the struggles of being a refugee to go on and receive a diploma from a prestigious institution, her current professional success as an artist was never fueled by the promise of financial return. She’s done what she has for the love of her work and nothing more. Perhaps that’s why she’s found such a warm welcome in the artistic community. Maja never asked what the work could do for her, she’s constantly creating and innovating to see what she can give back. As such, her paintings and drawings are as honest, nuanced and compelling as their author.
Thankfully, I got the chance to ask Maja about her work and sources of inspiration:
When did you realize that art was your passion?
I remember being obsessed with drawing ever since I was 6 years old. I used to be more worried about my art class projects in middle school than my math exams and always knew that this was a bit unusual. There was a strong urgency to draw, to record things, people and events around me. I suppose it was from a very early age—this urgency to capture what was happening around me. Aside from painting and drawing, I was always very interested in dance, music, and theater—creative languages that elevate life to some extent.
Was there ever a doubt in your mind that you’d be able to professionally pursue your artistic work? If so, how did you work beyond this?
My desire to paint was never driven by the belief that I would ever make a living as an artist. I love to paint and draw—this was always true and that love has brought me to where I am today. I studied Social Welfare (Psychology emphasis) and Art at UC Berkeley and wanted to work with children upon graduation. Art was always something I did for fun.
After graduating from Cal, however, the need to push my ideas stood in the way of becoming a Social Worker, so I started working on a portfolio. I kept myself financially afloat by taking on odd jobs and working up to 7 days a week. I had a corporate job for a brief moment, thinking that the financial stability would make my life better. I quit after just one week, knowing that it was not something I was meant to do. I went back to doing retail and teaching as much as I could. Despite the drastic decline in my monthly income, I was much happier—and this happiness allowed me to continue making art. There have definitely been moments where I felt that I was perhaps wasting my time—but this is mainly because I was comparing my life with my friends’. Many of them were getting married and started buying houses. Perhaps there was something wrong with me, I thought. Going to the California College of the Arts, however, was a transformative experience. I realized that my life would be dedicated to ideas, images and aesthetics and the traditional comforts no longer concerned me. This realization in itself brought great relief.
Where do you go/what do you do when you’re in need of inspiration?
I pay close attention to everything that is around me. I never know what will trigger a set of ideas. It could be something a friend says, or something I hear on the bus. It could be a limp I notice in a stranger’s walk or a color I see on a building. For the most part, I am interested in personifying emotions, thoughts and feelings—things that don’t have a physical form but can be intensely felt.
In what way has your work helped you confront the complexities and realities of your experience as a refugee?
I started painting and drawing before the war. I was about eight years old when the war started and I began drawing when I was about 6 years old. Mark making (I’ll call it that and not differentiate between painting and drawing) was something that brought me great joy and, in retrospect, I see how this creative outlet was psychologically very nurturing. I don’t remember making pictures about the events that were happening around me (in a journal-entry type of way), but the act of making marks on paper and creating pictures was extremely transformative and cathartic.
My work has become a way through which I attempt to de-tangle my childhood and its impact on my adult life. Today, painting and drawing are tools through which I speak about things that are difficult to express with words. There is magic in this process—in the discovery of new ways of communicating with others.
Do you have any advice for aspiring painters?
Stay curious, question everything and start forming your own theories! The most challenging aspect of being an artist can be to stay inspired and the best way to do this is by surrounding yourself with positive people. Listen to your intuition–if something feels important, it probably is! What new symbols can you give to the art world?
January 01, 2012
“The most dangerous that can happen to an artist is to believe that a scientifico-philosophic lingo can give grounds to his inexcusable daubs” (1)
We fully live this era of literalness. Any human activity – and art is unfortunately part of it – must present immediate efficiency, and especially set a definitive monoseny for fear that the abundance of interpretations might disturb the amateur’s judgement. But when you are told what to look at, what is left to be seen ? Reviewing this current climate of effortless art probably causes a thrill of intoxication and communion. But it also subconsciously leads to unfortunate side effects such as poorer judgment and sluggish tastes.
In the prevailing clarity, Per Kirkeby’s paintings contrast with the opacity of their intriguing enigmas. And if we don’t immediately apprehend what is unravelled, we implicitly understand that a particular drama is underlying. Colours, forms … Maybe some patterns arise but in any case they are not obvious. The many writings of the artist, far from providing precise iconographic clues are more inclined to define an atmosphere.
In these texts the foremost issues are mainly method and poetry. Kirkeby often comes back to the idea that a price needs to be paid for the piece to befall. This sacrifice is Byzantine since it is similar to the passionate and paradoxical behaviour of the iconoclaste, who according to Marie-Josée Mondzain, destroys what he likes most: the face of the son of God that he intends to save from the iconodulist. Kirkeby’s perception of the act of creation has effectively a price.
“I look outside and I see the trees and the light. That’s what I see first. Then I start looking for a kind of system. “ (2)
For Kirkeby, the act of seeing remains the founding aspect, practically a discipline in itself. He may cover his garden in Laseø or the frozen territories of Greenland, but still attempts to detect a hidden structure in the landscape. This requires a type of state of double consciousness, the use of this “decoding device called painting” (3) “One of the most important reasons – probably the main engine – that [the artist] is driven to do something as desperate and useless as a painting is “contemplation”: the experience of seeing where others merely assumed. Assumed that reality is a simple code, common and linguistic … (4) “says Kirkeby. It is basically to look “differently”; all the great painters have created their own visual tools.
Kirkeby works his paintings according to the method of all-over, whilst starting on the sides. Sometimes he rubs his brush against the canvas to obtain a type of “pulp”. From then on the game consists of becoming the master, alternating premeditated and accidental actions. Each form creates another. The more established areas thus generate less clearly defined zones, more magmatic hence provide a rhythmic counterpoint.
The compositions are subject to a long cycle of transformations. The artist is wary of “false good ideas” which are attractive in the evening but lacking in structure the following morning. “It takes courage to leave behind the safety net of intelligence (5),” he confesses. Just as it is sometimes necessary to fight against his own virtuosity: risk-taking reveals his true nature.
Hence the continual and successive re-coverings. So much so that in the process of each work there are several paintings that are virtual. The flesh can only definitively set, if the skeleton is robust. However, the entire enterprise is precisely to make emerge the structure we glimpsed at initially. But before achieving this, the painting must comply with destruction.
“Suddenly I perceived geology as a conception of life, like a vision of the world going far beyond professional and technocratic knowledge. A huge stream of energy and materials, that, from time to time, join together in crystalline structures, a mountain, a church, a brief moment, a breath, a morning mist above the river’s eternal course (6).”
It is likely that the destruction plays a greater part of the DNA of Kirkeby’s painting. To determine the finishing touch of the completion of the painting is not without reasoning with the fragile balance of vertical landscapes rising. These appear sliced, as if violently cut, revealing the fault lines, granitic veins and clays, but also the fallen tree trunks or proudly erect, doomsday’s meadows and skies. Faced with rocky stacks and the organic, we imagine that everything could suddenly collapse and return to primordial chaos, as a result of the same forces that once established order, now precarious.
What is shown in Per Kirkeby’s paintings is the omnipotence of geological time. They reveal a common structure, as in beings, things built by humans and so-called natural creations, all innervated by the same vitalistic energy. But this creative time is also devouring, he presides over the same destiny of mountains, be they ancient millenial architectures, through erosion, their ruin, their disappearance.
Dust you were, to dust you shall return …
It is therefore not insignificant that Kirkeby has been even more orientated towards religious painting in recent years, sometimes inspired by it’s subjects (the Descent from the Cross) and borrowing from certain icons, such as the pattern of the cracked rocks of Golgotha. With a closer look, the vertical compositions of his paintings, mixing minerals, vegetation and the skies evoke some representations of the Last Judgment, where the three registers of hell, earth / purgatory and paradise coexist. The difference with Kirkeby, is that the three orders are proven to be so interlinked to the pictorial textures and it’s coverings, that we cannot imagine the possibility of redemption, nor any heavenly escape, nor evade the inevitable ticking of the geological clock.
“Landscapes are buried pictures. As in still life, the pots, the glasses and distressed old cheeses”.
A motif taken from the Dutch painter Willem Claesz Heda’s vanities haunts Kirkeby’s work : an overturned chalice. It’s a fallen Grail, the blood of the covenant split to no avail, the decapitated promise of eternal life. Once again, a fall. There is in Kirkeby’s painting a dimension of memento mori that crystallizes the idea of painful impermanence.
What is ultimately the tribute an artist must pay? He remains relatively secretive on this point. But we can more or less imagine that to carry this role as a revealer or ferryman, has a cost. From the spectator’s point of view, and because an encounter with real art never leaves one intact, some melancholy is the obol we must acquit. However it is a joy to awaken in this way one’s conscience.
(1) Pers Metode, filmed dialogue with Poul Erik Tøjner, éd. Louisiana Museum, Humlebæk
(2) Per Kirkeby, Manuel, 1998, Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris/Paris Musées, p.162.
(3) Manuel, op. cit., p.159.
(4) Manuel, op. cit., p.136.
(5) Manuel, op. cit., p.138.
(6) Manuel, op. cit., p.167.
January 15, 2008
Archaïque ou reléguée, la figure du peintre serait à ce point inestimable qu’elle ne pourrait, ou ne saurait, prétendre revendiquer ses valeurs ? Poser la question, ainsi, on en convient, relève du paradoxe. D’abord, parce qu’à l’évidence, cette interrogation vient, un peu narquoisement, en amont d’un catalogue reproduisant les récentes peintures de l’artiste danois Per Kirkeby, ce qui démontre donc qu’il existe bien et toujours une actualité, une acuité et un amour vivants entre artiste et public – si l’on veut nommer ainsi ceux qui regardent les tableaux dans une galerie ou un musée. Ensuite, parce que cet aveu d’incapable jugement définitif sur la « chose picturale » semble embarrasser, pourquoi donc vouloir à tout prix conjuguer l’art avec une certaine empathie du monde ? A cela, Per Kirkeby a répondu à sa manière :
“L’art de peindre, écrit-il, est évidemment à la fois incroyablement naïf et cynique. Naïf parce qu’il n’y a pas de raison honnête ou évidente de barbouiller du pigment dilué sur un morceau d’étoffe ou sur un autre support. Et cynique parce qu’un tableau ne s’inquiète pas de la destruction du monde. Même une peinture représentant le jour du Jugement dernier et le départ vers l’enfer n’est pas portée par l’inquiétude mais par le réalisme. C’est ainsi. La destruction du monde est inhérente au fait de peindre un tableau…”
Constat lucide : le tableau porte, en toute invention, une part relative d’impuissance qui le fortifieraient ; et l’artiste en revendique non plus d’en être tout à fait seulement la source mais aussi le commentateur émerveillé. D’où l’idée, maintes fois exprimée par Kirkeby lui-même, que la peinture demeure, au cœur des mouvements modernes, un lieu d’hypothèses plus que de prosélytisme. Cette élégance et cette relative distance nourrissent toute l’œuvre de l’artiste dont on pressent la volonté tenace, presque furieuse, de se mêler des affaires du monde : on sait qu’il a entrecroisé bien des activités, assumant avec entrain les rôles de peintre, de sculpteur, écrivain, architecte, cinéaste ou géologue. Mais qu’il a en même temps imposé, par ses silences, et par ses tableaux, un certain détachement au nom de la rêverie ou de l’effacement de soi.
Extrait catalogue de l’exposition MASONITES
Préface de Laurent Boudier
Whether archaic or downgraded, has the figure of the painter become so inestimable that it is unable or no longer knows how to assert its values? To put the question in this way is, the reader will agree, paradoxical. First of all, because it rather sardonically appears, of course, at the front of a catalogue reproducing the recent paintings of Danish artist Per Kirkeby, thus demonstrating that there remains something present and intense, a love between the artist and his public (if one can use that term for those who come to look at the works in a gallery or museum). Secondly, because if this confession of incapacity regarding any definitive judgement about the matter of painting seems to embarrass, why insist on linking art and a certain empathy from the world?
Per Kirkeby has supplied his own answer to this question:
“The art of painting, he writes, is obviously both incredibly naive and cynical at the same time. Naive, because there is no honest or obvious reason to smear diluted pigment over a piece of fabric or some other support. And cynical, because a painting does not concern itself with the destruction of the world. Even a painting representing the Last Judgement and the souls being transported to hell is underpinned not by worry but by realism. That is the way it is. The destruction of the world is inherent in the fact of painting a picture…”
It is a lucid remark: whatever its invention, a painting carries with it a degree of impotence that fortifies it, and the artist claims not only to be its source but also its marvelling commentator. Hence the idea so often expressed by Kirkeby himself, that, among modern movements, painting remains a place of hypotheses more than of preaching.
This elegance and relative distance informs everything done by this artist, and we can sense his tenacious, almost furious determination to be involved with the business of the world. We know that he has combined many different activities, performing with real verve the roles of painter, sculptor, writer, architect, filmmaker and geologist. But we also know that at the same time, through his silences and through his paintings, he has asserted a certain detachment in the name of dream and self-effacement.
An activist in exile, a rigorous and romantic man of the North who declines that identity, Kirkeby pursues his ambition. To be a painter in this age that calls on everyone to be efficient, in a hurry and profitable, is to take refuge in that closed, immobile and old-fashioned place represented by both the studio and the painting. It is, as they say, to insist: for example, to keep on painting on Masonite, that industrial wood used to make cheap bookshelves that the young Kirkeby began working with in the 1960s, because that was all he could afford. Or again, to have always “but not exclusively” painted on the practical but unconventional square format of 122 by 122 centimetres. By means of these seemingly limiting methods, Per Kirkeby does his sowing and reaping. He puts down his suggestions of images, charts nocturnal atmospheres, brings forth sprouting light blues and sooty ochres, lays down shadows, starts clearing his brambly lines, and so on. In his work the picture remains that secret and contemplative object whose inward liveliness is, strangely enough, always active within the images. And if his painting refers to the landscape, to the melancholy of a Northern School (a term and category that he finds deeply irritating), or if it signals more than it designates, it always seems to opt for a subtle abandon. But, the moment we consider these paintings with empathy, the impossibility of defining the real is countered by a marvellous feeling of an intimate conversation that embraces or embarrasses the gaze. Places of survival or modest resistance that the eye grasps over time: painting is only the haunted memory of the world’s recollection and, at the same time, of our very fragile lives.
Lance Letscher Interview by Daniel Perlaky
June 11, 2011
15 juin 2011
A walk past timber skeletons and heavy machinery, through the dust and haze of waning afternoon sunrays, up the narrow staircase above the carpenter shop and directly into other people’s lives – a chaotic lexicon of thousands of pieces scattered, stacked, filed, layered, lost and found, trimmed, sliced, and glued pieces of lives waiting for resurrection.
Lance Letscher assembles and reassembles this universe into a carnival of collaged art exhibited throughout galleries in the United States and Europe as well as in several books. But perhaps none of those showcases feeling quite so viscerally present and immediate than the infinite pieces of pieces surrounding us covering every surface in the studio.
Where do you find your materials?
For a long time, it was certain dumpsters; half price books etc. The stuff that gets thrown away usually is the material that has the qualities that attract me the most:wear, grime from long use and handling, marks and doodles etc. At one point, maybe fifteen or twelve years ago, I would drop my younger son into the container and point and he would do the dirty work. He’s 20 now, but a couple of years ago he gave some girl a waffle iron that he snagged on “big trash pickup day”. She wasn’t as happy about it as he was.
Do you think the materials guide your work — which is stronger: the identity of the materials you work with or your artistic will?
The work guides the work and the material choices. I am a disciple of “the unseen hand”. I am all about working in a way that takes as much of the control away from my conscious mind as possible. It (the work) has a life of it’s own, I just try to stay out of the way as much as possible. The “dreaming mind” is much more powerful than the “thinking mind”.
Do you feel that your work preserves the elements it’s made of? Is there something that attests to the past life of those materials or do they become fundamentally altered to where they’re no longer meaningful as anything other than the new whole which you’ve created?
I love the traces of other peoples lives and thoughts that become a patina on the stuff I use. Especially when I see things that little kids did in books 50 or 100 years ago. They were bored and, I think, more creative because of it. At one point, I stopped listening to the radio while I worked (I work alone) to promote a more profound sense of boredom which I hoped would improve the work.
The work did get better, but it has made me into a very dull person, especially socially. If you have ever seen the Philip Guston painting where he shows himself as a giant grotesque eye – you can grow an eye like that if you are willing to force yourself to abide in this level of absolute and excruciating boredom. It is very dangerous though. There comes a certain point when you would do anything to escape…this is partly the reason for the high levels of drug abuse and alcoholism in creatives. Plus, the big eye takes an enormous amount of energy to run.
When you finish a piece do you generally end up with what you envisioned at the start or is it something completely different?
I never pre – plan. If I accidentally do, I sabotage it when I am fully committed.
Because your work is made up of pre-existing pieces, do you feel that it’s wholly your own or is it a collaboration with some unseen partners?
I pray alot.
Describe the process or steps involved in physically making a typical piece?
Gather material into piles according to something; color or whatever. The piles = the pallet. Cut pieces to make parts. Assemble the parts or components from the cut pieces. Glue, press and re cut the parts to their finished shape. Assemble the parts into a preliminary composition without glue. Mess with that part until the composition starts to become interesting. Transfer the parts onto a board with glue and press. Allow several days drying time. About three quarters of the time, I end up cropping or cutting to re assemble after it is dry and I can really see what it looks like. This requires a table saw since the piece is backed with wood at this point. Usually, I work on several similar sized and themed pieces at the same time, so I have more raw material to work with when it’s “table saw” time.
If you look closely at some of my work, you might notice that the backing board is sometimes five or six layers thick. Each re assembly requires a new solid backing board (glued and pressed again)to hold everything together. The thicker ones were harder to resolve. I don’t really have any other trade secrets. Change your blade often. Cut away from yourself.
Do you sketch out ideas regularly and, if so, how many of those become a finished piece?
No, never, none.
In one sense you have a great degree of geometric precision in your work but on the other hand you also hand-make everything so there’s an inherent impreciseness as well. Could you comment on that dichotomy?
Within every man, a war rages between the forces of good and evil, darkness and light. At stake in this battle are the mind, personality and soul. My work is about this interior landscape and drama. Sounds corny or ironic, but really that is the crux of life that runs the gamut from the very mundane tensions and challenges to full blown emotional and psychological crisis that we all have (or will) experience. I heard a primitive Pentecostal preacher on the radio over twenty years ago say it this way (I’ll paraphrase but it stuck with me) – The universe is vast and probably teeming with life both superior and inferior to our own species. But there is one important fact that distinguishes the Earth from all of the other planets in all of the innumerable solar systems in our infinite universe. The Earth is the planet that Satan fell into after his rebellion. This is the land that he inhabits and prowls. And this is where we abide as well.
In many of your pieces there’s also an absolute chaotic overload and destruction of precision in the composition but the pieces are often things associated with precise mechanisms (gears, ladders, tools). What is the idea you’re exploring there?
Ditto. Some of the “building” pieces are more simple in regards to this dynamic. They are dysfunctional models that have a feeling of precarious equilibrium that I really identify with and see as a very prevalent state.
What attracts you to typography and letterforms and what is the meaning for you in their reassembled, somewhat abstracted, finished products? Do you intentionally strip the meaning of words by re purposing the building blocks from which they’re made?
I think that the use of letters has started to function in several different ways in the work. At first, it was about chaotic and incomplete thinking (this also applies to the question about gears and ladders). A lot of the pieces are maps or diagrams of mental or psychological disjunction and disassociation. This isn’t really a conscious choice of direction, but it is a definite theme in the more recent work. The other thing that some of the letter pieces do is set up a “teasing” dynamic with the viewer. I wanted to hint at certain words or phrases and then undermine that momentum with a lack of completion or a change in direction or expression, mid word or thought. So, yes, I think that you hit the nail on the head.
There seems to be the touch of a child in a lot of your work… be it through the scribbled drawings or the cutouts from what seem like educational books. Is there some inspiration from your childhood or the ways in which a child perceives the world that you’re translating?
No I think that it is more about the expression. Children tend to be expressionists first, but it is often dismissed as poor mechanics or skill. Same goes for the art of the psychotic.
How do you feel about the state of contemporary art? Is it a time of vibrancy where more artists are living from their work or is it more of a struggle than in the past?
Art magazines are extremely depressing. Making a living from your work in no way serves as an indicator of quality or substance or achievement. The real struggle is the same – how to be creative without being imitative, how to avoid apathy, confusion, complacency or self sabotage. How can a person with profoundly limited resources create something that is meaningful, long lasting and maybe transcendent? If you are really going to do something important..make real art, how do you do it and how can you keep doing it over time with the hope that it might get better. If there is a “struggle” involved in being an artist, I think it is more about those issues; interior issues as opposed to the exterior endorsements or criticism.
Where do you go or what do you do for inspiration when you’re jonesin?
Motorcycle magazines. I like the design/art/culture mags like “DAMn” too. I usually just start moving my hands and putting stuff together and then I’m ok.
When you think ahead to the future, what are some things you’re looking forward to accomplishing?
I used to want to win a Macarthur fellowship really bad, but I quit thinking about those things at some point …I guess I want my work to get better. The future is never what you think it’s going to be.
Critique Telerama du 4 novembre
December 01, 2009
The American artist living in Austin, Texas, is the guest of the Vidal-Saint Phalle Gallery, where he displays a set of very beautiful collages, made out of paper and books, with sketches of machines, small and almost imaginary houses or colourful corollas. We might add that there are elements of Klee in his work, although in a different approach: his materials are drawn from children’s books and Letscher invents new harmonies of colours, creating abstract images that are like fireworks and please the eye as well as they do good to the mind.
L’artiste americain vivant à Austin, au Texas, s’invite à la galerie Vidal- Saint Phalle avec une suite de fort beaux collages faits de papiers et de cartons, de dessins de machines, de petites maisons presque invisibles, de corolles colorées. Il y a presque, pourrait on ajouter, du Klee dans ce travail, mais autrement : puisant son materiau dans les livres d’enfants, Letscher invente des accords de couleurs, compose des images abstraites à la manière de feux d’artifice qui font du bien à l’oeil comme à l’esprit.
- Lance Letscher interview november 2017 for Modern Painters
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- Article de La Montagne sur Pius Fox
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- Artpress Octobre 2015
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- Critique Artension octobre 2014
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- Critique l’agora des arts septembre 2014
- Critique Télérama septembre 2014
- Katrin Bremermann Art Press 09/2014
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- Max Neumann dans la Gazette de Drouot
- Max Neumann dans Telerama
- Eleanor Moreton