Vika Prokopavičiūtė is an emerging painter based in Vienna in Austria. I interviewed Vika via email across a timespan of a month. I sent her a question at a time, and she would do the same with her answers. As we discussed specific works, our conversation focused on different elements of her painting, such as motifs, technique and materiality, but it also shed a light on common problems associated with the medium, like artists’ control over their work, and the idea of skill.
Vika Prokopavičiūtė: I hope it is okay for me to write to you in English. I should mention that, despite having a Lithuanian surname and birthplace, I don’t speak Lithuanian. I grew up in Russia, and now I live in Austria. My connection with Lithuania is frozen in the past. Unfortunately, I am very rarely there in the role of weird guest, which doesn’t mean that I don’t want to build a bond. To be honest, the question ‘Where are you from’, an identity question based on geography, is very confusing to me. Maybe that’s why I prefer non-figuration, ha ha. I hope you understand!
Paulius Andriuškevičius: Identity seems like a good place to start our conversation. I can imagine you as a ‘weird guest’ at a show in Vilnius, and curators coming up to you and trying to speak to you relentlessly in Lithuanian, because of your name and birthplace. Do people often mistakenly expect you to be and speak Lithuanian? I am interested to know if you get more attention from Lithuanian or Baltic arts practitioners because of your Lithuanian roots. And, thinking towards non-figuration, are you saying that this feeling of not associating with a particular geographical place enters into your painting somehow?
V.P.: It has happened a couple of times that I have received emails and messages in Lithuanian. Even you wrote to me in Lithuanian, which is, of course, very logical. Perhaps the whole structure of a CV as a short biography is misleading. You see the birthplace, and the list of schools, but the main part is hiding between the lines. I cannot say I get more attention because of my roots, but I do feel like a fraud sometimes when what is between the lines is revealed.
At the same time, this ambivalence attracts me, like a puddle of petrol, reflecting all the colours and mirroring whatever is around, depending on the angle of view. There is a structure, a method, I try to stick to in painting. I paint one painting after another, so each painting ‘comes’ from the previous one, and builds on it. This method creates a painting space in which it is necessary and safe to be open, ask questions, and have opinions. Besides, during the painting process, you are painter and audience at the same time, you have to sit on two chairs at once.
P.A.: Your paintings often seem to refer to painting itself. I was going through the titles of your works, and noticed that the vast majority of them mention and present the painting medium and the process of painting. To quote just a few examples: ‘Brushes Painting Themselves’, ‘Painting with the Light Off’, ‘Painting Drapery’, ‘Painting is Drawing Itself’. Which also reminds me of that joke you made about how ‘Brush Bouquet’ came into being, when you wanted to paint narcissi but you didn’t have any, so you decided ‘to paint brushes with paint brushes’. I am familiar with the idea of a text writing itself, as if independent of its writer; but I wonder how this works in painting. I suppose it also has something to do with sitting on two chairs at the same time, or occupying two different perspectives simultaneously, being a performer and a spectator at the same time. How much control do you feel you have, or try to have, over your painting, and how much of it feels free of your ‘free will’?
V.P.: There is always the question: What to paint next? Once I had this déjà vu feeling as if I’d already painted the painting. It was not about a recurring motif, nor about similar colours, but more about a way of thinking, of dealing with a lack of skills, of building my own tools out of them, of using tricks (although this word is rather reductive). If a question already has an answer inside it, then a painting, like a vessel, preserves the information that is necessary to paint another one: how it might look from the other side, how it might be inside, what it might be. One painting leads to another. And it goes on and on, paintings are painted, and paintings paint themselves. A branch just wants to go on branching, a painting only wants to go on painting. The process turns on a weird ‘painting machine’, which spins round in front of you and me, generating more paintings.
But this system is created by a painter to avoid the fearful question, and to justify herself in front of the audience. I paint, observe, reflect, create a method, paint, observe, struggle with my expectations, break my own rules, adjust the method, paint again, observe again, etc. Keeping to the loose analogy of writing, I think about George Perec experimenting with a dictionary. The process is about control, and I plan my encounter with chance, where things can and should be loose. Perhaps it doesn’t sound like fun, but it is!
P.A.: To plan your encounters with chance does sound fun; it also lands nicely between these two opposites of complete control versus absolute coincidence in painting. It actually reminds me of what Jackson Pollock used to say about his painting process, when asked how much control he held over his dripping paint. Which brings me to your choice of materials. You paint exclusively in oils, but your surfaces differ. You use canvas, cotton and linen. Tell me a bit about how you decide which material to use; how your decision is informed, if at all, by your choice of subject matter, and vice versa; and what the actual painting process is like when painting on these separate surfaces.
V.P.: At first, it was just cotton, as a default option, which has a pleasant crème colour, is cheap, and easy to stretch. Just now, I paint on linen. I like its old-fashioned look and rough structure, which is very forgiving. I try to paint smoothly, more or less layer by layer. The texture of linen, with all its imperfections and knots, contrasts with these layers, and accepts my sloppiness. This makes it all more sober; you come closer and see that it is a painting, trickery, a body of colour which is filling up the frame of a painting.
I use transparent gesso mostly. Glowing white primer hides the colour of the canvas; but I want to play openly, and keep it in the palette, and accept it, perhaps. But now I gave myself the task to make a painting only with yellow and white, so I had to start with opaque white, to make transparent yellow bright and crunchy.
Recently I was painting just with ruby and mauve, accompanied by both zinc and titanium white. I understood these reds anew, as if through a magnifying glass or a microscope. A thin layer of zinc white over mauve next to ruby suddenly made mauve look like blue.
Another example of giving yourself a task is ‘Chewing Gum Painting Stretching’. The idea is to stretch the motif, to turn a previously horizontal painting into a vertical format, and fill it from top to bottom, leaving the linen bare on the right and the left. The solution was to support its verticality, and to paint only with vertical brushstrokes (Hello, Degas!). And then, suddenly, it worked: stretching, gravity, painting force, everything was in the right place. So the ‘technical’ turned into a motif.
P.A.: Interestingly ‘Chewing Gum Painting Stretching’ is a vertical mirror image of ‘Chewing Gum Painting’, the blue and red rectangles end up on opposite sides, if turned upside-down and compared to the ‘original’. These works are great examples of your ability to suggest, represent and deconstruct materials with the brush. I notice this also in ‘Multiplying Pale Brush Fire’ and ‘Pale Gray Brush Fire’, which are almost like pendants (I don’t mean necklaces). They look flamboyant in style and psychological in concept, as if carrying subliminal messages. Can you tell me how they came into being, and what is the relationship between them? Do you ever exhibit them separately?
V.P.: These two are friends, branches of one tree. In ‘chewing gums’, paint is a body; here brushes are tools which bring (produce) and move the paint around. I made a small-format painting, where brushes rest in a painting container, like matches in a matchbox. They don’t stay still though; they are working instruments, and paint themselves so intensely that they start to burn.
It is not really about the brush, not about the presentation, but more about the function, the essence, maybe. I want to paint not a brush, but what a brush is doing, to crystallise the method for painting out of it.
By translating it all into a large format, I did not want to make a blown-up copy; so at first, I eliminated the part with bare linen handles, and painted the ‘opposite’ of it. That’s how ‘Multiplying Pale Brush Fire’ turned into a painting in a painting in a painting. ‘Pale Gray Brush Fire’ is closer to the original, but it loses its colour while getting bigger and drier; it resembles a machine or an organ. In real life, perhaps because of their size, they both look very intimidating and reserved. Although they are a pair, they can exist separately too.
Going back to reflecting blinking puddles: the titles of the paintings come from the ‘Pale Fire’ of Nabokov’s metafiction, which in turn comes from Shakespeare: ‘The moon’s an arrant thief, and her pale fire she snatches from the sun.’
P.A.: What other reflections can be seen in puddles? I am curious about the motifs, themes and narratives that you gravitate towards in your practice.
V.P.: In ‘XX’ there was a background I didn’t want to make a decision about, so I crossed it out. It didn’t matter: it was silent and empty. This X-mark became the main character, and to indicate its significance (or the fact that it exists), I painted the shadow. At that time, I was reading ‘A Short History of the Shadow’ by Victor I. Stoichita, and it influenced me. Everything started to double and mirror: two fixed corners to ground the painting, two Xs (one blurred and one sharp), two pairs of curved surfaces on top. I think this painting is the latest where non-space is so present. After that, my focus shifted to surfaces.
In ‘Painting Drapery’, I fantasise about the previous painting growing so huge it has to drape itself. Flesh, rivers, vessels, muscles, curtains, wavy lines: everything is there. I tried to keep a bit of perspective (a space left from ‘XX’), and at the same time retain the flatness: that’s why there are some blurry circles which may look like dust on the lens, some imperfections of the surface.
Also, it might be out of the range of your question, but here is a quote from The Psychedelic Experience by Timothy Leary. I can totally relate to what he is saying; that is what I try to do in painting, perhaps: ‘Subjects and objects whirl, transform, change into each other, merge, fuse, disperse again. External objects dance and sing. The mind plays upon a musical instrument. They assume any form, significance or quality upon command. They are admired, adored, analysed, examined, changed, made beautiful or ugly, large or small, important or trivial, useful, dangerous, magical or incomprehensible. They may be reacted to with wonder, amazement, humour, veneration, love, disgust, fascination, horror, delight, fear, ecstasy.’
P.A.: In ‘Topics for Painting Paintings and Possible Questions’, you talk about skill like this: ‘There is something which is bothering me about the term “skill”. The main point is that by the time the painting is finished, this skill I learned in order to finish it is not necessary anymore. It is a one-way skill. Like a one-way glove. I would need to start another painting and start solving it, and answering it, and having another discussion with it. By the time it is done, this solution is not needed any more. For it is impossible to repaint the same painting. Even if I decide to do it, I would be occupied with a slightly different question and different problem. Like: why would I paint now the same painting, what does it mean? So I have to paint it differently. That is what they call in German “Unikat”. Unique and lonely skill.’
I like your metaphor of skill being a ‘one-way glove’. So you put it on once, and then you wear it for ever, or do you discard it immediately after the work is done? If it’s the former, only one-way, then since you never paint the same painting twice, after some time your painting hand should be thick and heavy from wearing multiple gloves. As time passes, and you ‘solve’ more painting problems, you develop new skills (naturally), and start painting with more hands clad in different gloves. It makes you think, however: where does it lead? Where and when does it stop? I am thinking along the lines of when painters develop their skills to the point where it defines their distinctive style, and they say: ‘Yes, that’s it, from now on I will wear these gloves.’ Perhaps that is the end of it, when repainting the same painting becomes a possibility.
Having your ‘XX’ and ‘Painting Drapery’ in ‘Topics’ juxtaposed with paintings by Ingres, Mantegna and Monet makes me think of the skill manifested in painting as highly individual, but also universal. It seems there should be a mutual painterly sentiment, despite the centuries setting you apart. Would you say that, in essence, you share more with the great painters of the past than with your contemporaries who work in other media; and if so, why?
V.P.: Before I started painting spirals in ‘Softly Frustrated Structures’, I tried to plan the process: make a wavy outline on the right, then, with another colour on the left, create a glossy volume, by moving a middle tone between them. This plan seemed to be perfect, but it didn’t work as I had expcted. So I had to adjust the colour, the outline, to paint not from outside but from inside. After overpainting back and forth many times, I understood how to paint the spiral I wanted, generating a new skill. But there was no chance of applying it, since the painting was ready. And I am not sure I can (or want to) even repeat this formula again.
I like the image of hands with too many gloves (or skills?) you created, and I am afraid of it. You cannot move stiff fingers, and you follow one recipe these gloves offer you. Maybe it is about accepting your vulnerability: painting with bare hands means being curious about an unexpected result. I feel that painting is a lot about acceptance, like falling in love. Sometimes you fight it, generating a skill, and then, boom! All these weird features you were not sure about (because they didn’t fit your perfect plan) turn out to be attractive and charming.
I would say I share a general production and context interest with painters past and present. Delacroix described how he was annoyed about not going to the studio because of some errands, and how he was struggling to transfer a crisp fresh feeling in a sketch to the big canvas. Charline von Heyl talks about ‘what-the-fuck moment’ in the painting, and the activation of the space between the viewer and the canvas. All this is relevant to me, and I guess to painters in general. Painters are very close to their medium, and I want to know all about it.
P.A.: Could you briefly describe your studio and your work routine? Where and what sort of space is it? Do you share it with anybody? How often do you go there, and so on? And last, but definitely not least, the inevitable question that was sent from above: How did that routine change or was otherwise impacted by Covid-19?
V.P.: My studio is in the lively and busy 16th district of Vienna called Ottakring. It is a studio house. There are two painters in one room, Stefan Wirnsperger and me. In times of doubt, one can always give a necessary motivational kick to the other. I try to keep to a traditional work schedule, and be in the studio every day except weekends; although sometimes silent no-rush Sundays drag me there too. I prefer to work in the morning, doing intense sessions without any distraction. I make myself a cup of coffee, and paint. I have noticed that my maximum workload is four hours. It sounds so little, but I feel that I am quite a fast painter; and again, this framework keeps me engaged and focused. I keep an A4 sketchbook on the table; it’s a bit like a logbook, where I draft before starting a new painting, or imagine different solutions when I get stuck during the process. I now have a few of them from previous years, like family albums. You leaf through and see how the paintings looked like when they were young, ha ha. Or could look.
Weirdly, Covid-19 has changed my routine in a productive direction, and filtered out unnecessary fears and worries. At first, during the lockdown in Austria, I painted at home, but digitally. It was not easy, but I was afraid of having a long break and losing my schedule and skills (leaving all those gloves unused!). I produced a series of digital paintings, and, surprisingly, learned a lot about the painting process. Although very sceptical at the beginning, I eventually became fascinated with how free and inventive digital painting can be, without simply imitating brushstrokes. Appetite comes with eating; so now I spend more time in the studio, and I feel I am more committed and more daring.