Jānis Avotiņš’ solo exhibition Wanderers in Space-time (curator Sniedze Kāle), Mūkusala Art Salon, 3 February–11 March 2017
A rare opportunity to see artworks mostly circulated outside Latvia makes this show stand out within Riga’s exhibition scene. While Latvian art is often considered a bit too ‘local’, the generation of artists who matured after the restoration of Latvia’s independence have maintained certain ambitions of building careers on an international level. Jānis Avotiņš (1981) proved this possible, showing a real story of success. Like most Latvian painters, he graduated from the ‘Painting Department’ of the Latvian Academy of Art (2003), but then went on to study at the academy’s ‘Department of Visual Communication’ at Manchester University and Paris Cité International des Arts. He is represented by Gallerie Rüdiger Schöttle in Munich, Vera Munro in Hamburg and has collaborated with AKINCI in Amsterdam. His paintings are held in many famous art collections, including those of Charles Saatchi and François Pinault. Winner of the Jean-François Prat Prize in 2016 is also in Avotiņš list of accomplishments.
Avotiņš early output has been conceptualised as part of a new wave in local painting that was dubbed by the art critic Vilnis Vējš “the new simplicity”. This wave emerged in the beginning of the previous decade, when the medium of painting saw a kind of renaissance after the upsurge of objects, installations, land art and similar experiments of the 1990s. According to Vilnis Vējš, this trend of new simplicity was typified by certain ascetic approaches, minimising the specific arsenal of painterly means; concealed, smooth brushwork and a range of monochrome colours were just some examples in which artists like Avotiņš “greatly reduce[d] drawing and paint, modelling spaces and figural forms with a tonally nuanced layering of fields”. He is said to have restored the sensuality of old photographs by painterly means. Older works like Samoubistvo putcha (2003) still demonstrate a graspable range of objects in what could be rather safely attributed to the age-old genre of still life. Towards the middle of this decade, still retaining his greyish, subdued colour range, Avotiņš portrayed either close-up pairs or groups of people engaged in some enigmatic, possibly conspiratorial deed or conversation (Driver and Retiree, 2004; Scheme, 2005; Origination, 2006; etc.); vast, landscape-like spaces with tiny staffage in the distance (Suspense, 2004; Untitled No. 20, 2005; They Never Use the Liberties They Have, 2006; etc.); or small portrait images made in pencil. The latest works included in this exhibition (from 2008–2017) are, likewise, largely figural compositions and portraits. Their thinly painted, subtly toned, misty backgrounds lend them a strange, mysterious quality.
ARTIST AS RECYCLER
Paraphrasing the famous term “artist as producer” – most appropriate to the Russian Constructivist avant-garde – it seems that today many artists, if not most, both here and elsewhere can be called ‘recyclers’ of images – images from their own memories, family histories, anonymous or famous art-historical images, icons from a broader cultural heritage, etc. In this respect, Avotiņš is remarkable but certainly not alone in having done this in Latvian art. Instances range from Frančeska Kirke, the exemplar post-modernist who developed a rich spectrum of recycled imagery from art history and popular culture in the 1980s when she entered the local art milieu, to many younger artists: like the painter Vineta Kaulača, known for her rather photo-realist approach to urban reality, who demonstrates painted motifs taken from her childhood photographs during Soviet times in her exhibition Absorption (2012). Another example is from the photographer Alnis Stakle in his exhibition Simple Story (2013) where he used old, damaged photographs as ready-mades. The same could be said for Liena Bondare’s nostalgic exercises painting anonymous models from works by unknown photographers found in antique shops, or Neonilla Medvedeva’s mixed time periods where buildings of Riga do not correspond with the fashions of people nearby, as other examples. Whilst more examples could be added, it’s clear that a fascination with the past has grown out of artists’ general incredulity towards any future-oriented utopian pathos as well as out of looking for one’s own roots, be they genealogical, ethnic or otherwise. This stance is hardly ‘new’ or surprising given that the post-modernist quoting and compiling has long since become a part of art history. But the need to be ‘new’ is no longer felt if the spectrum of potential discoveries in the past appears almost infinite on an individual level. According to the exhibition annotation, it “not only generates associations with an escapist and romantic retreat into the past, but also with a certain ecology of the image, breathing new life into that which has already been made, and not wasting energy on imagining new compositions and finding their meaning”. “Ecology of the image” is an intriguing term, as if original creativity was somehow parallel to the drive of exhausting the earth’s resources in a rampant economic growth. In a sense this rings true; the idea of producing and consuming less looks reasonable but the question as to how much is enough still has to be decided by someone – for themselves, but presumably not for others. Of course, how much innovation an artist needs to bring to his or her output cannot be decided by anyone else.
Most of the works on view are from the Mūkusala Art Salon collection with some new works and documentary sources of inspiration added by the artist. Surprisingly and unsurprisingly, these are photos of some official party meetings and Russian cityscapes from the Soviet period; understandably, the quality of these black and white images is not very good. But Avotiņš has enhanced that blurriness to a whole new level whereby the images appear quite ghost-like, almost as though Avotiņš serves as a kind of medium to bring back these long-gone personalities whom nobody recognises anymore. Most of the exhibits – oil and acrylic paintings and pencil drawings – are untitled, thus letting the viewer’s imagination roam freely. Moving images of dancers, blurred a bit like mid-19th century daguerreotypes appear, that have not been seen in earlier works. There are also some rather abstract works with seemingly casual flows of thinned paint, pulled by gravity from the upper to the lower edges of the canvases, somewhat reminiscent of post-painterly abstraction, albeit without such typically bright colours. The work titled Nothing from Nothing (2008) featuring an imagined landscape with a tiny figure, stands out among the other works displayed, due to its impressively large format and clear lack of any photographic prototype.
Statements like “with their ghostly, alienated faces and figures reminiscent of Soviet-era photography, Jānis Avotiņš’ thinly painted canvases draw us into a fragile, elliptic world haunted by collective memory” suggest that part of Avotiņš’ attractiveness to a wider audience might be that captivating ‘otherness’ ascribed by westerners to the post-Soviet world after the collapse of its regime. But there is more. Although certain elements used by Avotiņš’, such as the use of pre-existing imagery and tendency towards monochrome colour range, unmistakably allow him to be compared with other renowned contemporary art figures like Luc Tuymans or Wilhelm Sasnal, his approach is certainly much more subdued, laconic and introvert. Some have even gone as far as inscribing him in a wider lineage of art-historical development, invoking the German Romanticist, Caspar David Friedrich, and the famous 19th century innovator, James McNeill Whistler: “Like Friedrich, Avotiņš perceives landscape as a symbolically religious experience, received by his figures, usually shown with their backs to the viewer, in quietly devotional observation. Whistler often used the tone-in-tone effect typical of Friedrich’s style, while at the same time refusing his pictorial language to slip into sentimentality and – much like Avotiņš – aiming at dissolution of pictorial space through the atmosphere given to colour harmonies”. One could go further even, adding another like-minded predecessor, the turn-of-the 20th century Danish painter Wilhelm Hammershøi whose still, almost monochrome interiors with motionless figures, also largely with their backs to the viewer, are close in mood to those works by Avotiņš that feature certain regular and architectural-type motifs (Range, 2004; Less, Less, Less Words, 2008; etc.). It is important to emphasise the “mood” here precisely, as Hammershøi’s world is, of course, more solid and concrete regarding the objects depicted; in some sense, he can be seen as a precursor of photorealism.
What lies within the specific constellation of elements making Avotiņš’ art unique and fascinating is a peculiar collusion between concrete imagery, documentary and the dissolution of everything tangible, which leads us to contemplate relativity and the transience of all that currently exists or once existed. We want to know who these people are or what is going on there, yet when we cannot, we are left to reflect on that inability. What remains to be seen is whether these qualities will continue to make his work a sufficient magnet for a longer period of time, especially if his creative idiom does not change significantly.
 Vilnis Vējš, “The new simplicity. 2000-…”, Studija, 2010, No. 3, p. 42
 Latvian National Museum of Art, the bizarre title transliterated from Russian literally means Suicide of a Coup d’Etat
 Karin Pernegger, “Jānis Avotiņš – Painter Under Suspicion”, in Jānis Avotiņš, ed. Ludwig Forum and Stadtgalerie Schwaz, Bielefeld: Kerber Verlag, 2008, p. 197