Solving Painting as a Medium. A conversation with the painter Kristina Ališauskaitė

March 5, 2018
Author Justina Augustytė
The Whole, oil on canvas, 90x70, 2017

The Whole, oil on canvas, 90×70, 2017

Kristina Ališauskaitė (b. 1984) is a young Lithuanian painter, based in Vilnius and known to gallery visitors, both nationally and internationally, for her dark, almost monochrome canvases that depict encounters between elements of ordinary life and all that is hiding behind it: feelings, moods, dreams and fantasies. Her images are minimalist and laconic, yet emotionally suggestive and eloquent. In her work, each object becomes a symbol, and each movement becomes a ritual gesture. The melancholy and introspection of her paintings relate to her image as a reserved and moderate artist. In recent years, she has been one of Lithuania’s busiest young painters, presenting her work at numerous international art fairs and group exhibitions. She has also had a long-awaited solo show (the first in four years) in Vilnius. On that occasion, Kristina shared some thoughts on her show, her work, and painting in general.                                                       

Justina Augustytė: In the autumn you held your fourth solo show at the Rooster Gallery in Vilnius. You participate actively in national and international group exhibitions, but seeing your works exhibited solo is quite a rare experience. Why?

Kristina Ališauskaitė: It depends on many things. To begin with, it’s a lack of time. I want to participate in almost every group exhibition and art fair. Unfortunately, it’s not physically possible to be everywhere. And I set myself quite high standards. You need to put time and effort into preparing a solo show, to develop its concept, to select the paintings. Also, I always want to show my latest paintings, because they reflect my current creative work. So, it simply takes time to paint enough paintings for the show.

Potential realities, oil on canvas, 95X130, 2017

Potential realities, oil on canvas, 95X130, 2017

JA: Over the last few years, your name has often been seen among the winners and finalists in international competitions. What do these awards do for you? Are competitions and titles important to young artists for the visibility of their work?

KA: They are very important. And not just because they make your art visible to a wider audience. One of the critical moments is when you understand that you do it mainly for yourself. We usually want to prove something to someone, but there comes this moment when you realise that the only person you really want to impress is yourself. Winning a competition or becoming a finalist is not an aim in itself. It motivates you to continue doing what you are doing, and it reassures you that you are where you have to be. Recognition brings emotional satisfaction. That’s why I always encourage young artists to participate wherever possible. It gives you more experience, and it inspires you.

JA: Speaking of young artists, are you interested in the young art scene in Lithuania as a context for your own work? Do you observe the influences and tendencies on that scene?

KA: I think young art in Lithuania is quite strong. Many young artists with different visions are presented annually at the Young Painter Prize competition. It’s always very interesting. I’m very happy with what goes on in young art in Lithuania, and I always encourage and support young artists. And I, too, still fit into this category, don’t I? But speaking about influences, I don’t think my work is influenced by the young art scene. Of course, we all influence each other. Sometimes echoes of it appear unintentionally, sometimes you notice it only after you finish the painting and let it go. I call it the spirit of the age. We all live in the here and now, and we cannot remain indifferent to the world around us. It affects us in one way or another. But I think my painting is mostly hermetic and separate.

Portrait, oil on canvas, 60x50, 2017

Portrait, oil on canvas, 60×50, 2017

JA: Lets go back to your last exhibition Realities in the Making. Besides paintings, you also used natural materials (soil and moss) as elements of installations. It wasn’t the first time your exhibition came close to being an installation. You had already done that in the dual show Church with the painter Eglė Karpavičiūtė in 2015. How important to you is the exhibition space and its atmosphere?

KA: When I saw the new premises at the Rooster Gallery, I realised it was the right place for my solo show. The arrangement of the gallery space matched my vision. The central part of the gallery is partly separated, and it can be walked around in a circle. And the circle motif is essential in my art, as it symbolises cyclicality and repetition. That helped me to arrange the works, and to reveal the concept of the exhibition.

I’ve used natural materials before. In the exhibition ‘Church’, the wall behind my painting of plants was covered with live plants. That lush green foliage was used to emphasise the difference between reality and fiction, and to expose the illusory nature of art and reality itself, which was the key idea in the exhibition.

I developed this idea further in my exhibition ‘Realities in the Making’. I used soil and moss to convey the atmosphere of my paintings, to emphasise their sensuousness. It was very interesting to find that viewers attached different meanings to these additional details. Some of them saw soil and plants as a reference to the dichotomy between nature and the city, while others related the natural materials to femininity. The painter Adomas Danusevičius noted that park plants, which I often paint, symbolise intellect, and forest plants are symbols of intuition, which is also very important in my work. You don’t need any special preparation or theoretical background to view my paintings, you just have to immerse yourself in the works, just feel them. So the atmosphere of the exhibition and various additional elements can help you do that.

JA: Contemporary artists often search for novel approaches to painting. They seek to reform it, to find unconventional new forms, and try to escape from its two-dimensionality. Do you think traditional figurative painting is still relevant?

KA: I think it is, and it always will be some kind of starting point. The relation to the history of painting has been very important for me since my student years. I often leaf through the pages of books of paintings by Paul Cézanne, Theo van Doesburg, Georges Braque, Joan Miró, El Greco, Ferdinand Hodler, René Magritte, and others. I recently spent many hours analysing the work of Henri Matisse, Giorgio Morandi and Henri Rousseau. When studying historical paintings, I observe the flow of time and the prevailing mood, and try to understand what was important then. I do not use the material deliberately, but it shapes the art I create. I don’t really care about external, formal things. I try to capture their essence. If you try to replicate it, it will be false and unconvincing. You can only reinterpret it, make it your own. I have to experience the phenomenon myself before transmitting it to others.

To collect, oil on canvas, 90x70, 2014

To collect, oil on canvas, 90×70, 2014

JA: You mentioned some painters whose work you find inspiring. Who are your main teachers and authorities?

KA: To be honest, my authorities change constantly. I like different aspects of people. But recently I noticed that I am attracted by the personality, when I can relate to a person in some way. When I was still at the Art Academy, I was impressed by Cézanne. His art became the basis for my work. It was the lesson I had to learn in order to create my own rules, to experiment, to search for my path. Later, I was fascinated (and still am) by Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Marlene Dumas and Gerhard Richter. During my travels, I take the opportunity to visit local museums and galleries, where I discover many never-seen-before artists. I have recently been into paintings by Ahmed Morsi, Henry Taylor, Chris Vasell, Victor Man and Michael Raedecker, and photographs by Dirk Braeckman. I also find new and exciting artists by reading the cultural press. I don’t keep up with their work systematically, it’s part of a natural process of looking, reading, browsing and visiting exhibitions.

JA: There have been many changes in your work since the beginning of your career as an artist. Do you reflect on your own work? Do you notice distinct turning points? Or is it a natural and continuous process?

KA: Yes, I notice the changes in my work. Wide, empty spaces are gone. I paint more portraits now. A colour palette has become more important. I pay more attention to detail. The brushwork has changed. I feel that my painting has become freer. I constantly reflect the environment, and when it changes I also inevitably change, and so does my art. Everything that surrounds me shapes me. And it is so engaging that I don’t resist it. Every experience is a priceless and important part of my creative work. In the spring, I will be spending a month on a residency in Abu Dhabi in the UAE, and then five months on a residency in Bamberg in Germany. Travelling, living in different places, and getting to know them broadens my mind, and affects my way of seeing things. The creative process would not be interesting without these changes. I don’t know what direction my work will take, but I am already waiting for that shift. And I hope that my art will continue changing, because stagnation scares me.

JA: Are you interested in using other media and experimenting not only on canvas?

KA: I find all art forms interesting, but I still cannot work out painting as a medium. Sometimes I see it as endless possibilities to create images that are more real than reality itself, to capture moments that could otherwise get lost in the daily routine and become invisible. To discover the smallest details and make them significant. On the other hand, there are ways to experiment on canvas as well, such as collective painting, which my fellow painter Andrius Zakarauskas and I tried about a year ago. It was an impromptu idea, which resulted in joint work, and it was an unexpectedly exciting experience. So, painting still interests and intrigues me.

Imagination, oil on canvas, 90x70, 2017

Imagination, oil on canvas, 90×70, 2017

Hands, 40x30, 2017

Hands, 40×30, 2017

JA: What is relevant to you in painting now? What are you searching for in your work?

KA: I still explore the key theme of my work, the multi-layered aspect of reality. This topic really interests me, and still poses many questions. I still detect some aspects of it that I want to analyse and convey on canvas. I explore the less tangible experiences, feelings, moods, dreams and subconscious images that exist beyond the material reality. I really like the idea that you can experience anything through the painted image. So, painting helps me to grasp the subtle subjects that we tend to miss in our daily routine, because they become too small to notice or to pay attention to. We are used to seeing the whole, so we often overlook certain elements of our lives. So, I want to expose them and highlight them. I also attach great importance to revealing features of the figures depicted, through clothes, background and details: they become meaningful symbols. And form-wise, I’m still into lightness in brushwork. I’m constantly searching for new shapes, visual structures, and colour relationships.


JA: Where do you get your imagery from? For example, the masked faces, set tables, etc. They often reappear in your paintings, almost as if you have to paint them repeatedly until you can let them go.

KA: There is a lot of personal symbolism in my work. For example, the table is an object that unites. It is a symbol of family relationships and friendship, and even reflects a person’s relationship with themselves. It is also a symbol for a conversation, agreement, or, on the contrary, dispute and disagreement. The mask motif in my paintings is usually a symbol of the flexibility, fluidity and duality of the human identity and personality. It often reflects the tension between the inner and outer self, and indicates a wish to hide, or rather to create and establish a different identity. In my recent paintings, I replace the mask with a veil. The meaning of the symbols I use changes, depending on where I put the emphasis. The repetition of motifs is neither an obsession nor paranoia. When I feel or see something that is interesting and important to me, I paint different variations of it. I think there may be more tables and masks in the future.

JA: One of the key motifs in your work is the woman. Since your first show, female figures, parts of a female body, and portraits of women have dominated in your imagery. How and why do they appear in your art? Is the issue of gender important to you?

KA: I paint many images of women, but femininity is not the foundation or source of my work. Or, at least, it’s not intentional. This aspect is not important to me personally. But of course, you can interpret my work in many ways, including from a feminist perspective. My paintings are open to different ways of viewing.

JA: Most of your portraits of women bear a clear likeness to yourself. Is that a conscious strategy?

KA: Yes, most of my paintings can be seen as self-portraits. But I only use my own image so that I can reveal the emotion or the mood better. It is not particularly important for the viewer to recognise me. I use my own body as an easily accessible and convenient means to express the ideas in the painting. I think this also explains my focus on images of women in general. I also paint other people I know. But I portray them how I see them, and not how they present themselves.

JA: Because of this external likeness, your art may seem very personal. Or is that the wrong impression? Are your stories autobiographical?

KA: My paintings are diary-like. But it’s not as important to tell something about me as it is to affect the viewer. We’re all related, our experiences are similar, they just manifest themselves in different ways. My aim is to evoke memories of forgotten experiences. I want my openness to encourage the viewer to look deep into himself. I am happiest when my paintings move viewers, both aesthetically and emotionally.

Fountain, oil on canvas 170x125, 2017

Fountain, oil on canvas 170×125, 2017

Kristina Ališauskaitė, ‘Realities in the Making’, exhibition view, The Rooster Gallery, 2017

Kristina Ališauskaitė, ‘Realities in the Making’, exhibition view, The Rooster Gallery, 2017

Kristina Ališauskaitė, ‘Realities in the Making’, exhibition view, The Rooster Gallery, 2017

Kristina Ališauskaitė, ‘Realities in the Making’, exhibition view, The Rooster Gallery, 2017

Kristina Ališauskaitė, ‘Realities in the Making’, exhibition view, The Rooster Gallery, 2017

Kristina Ališauskaitė, ‘Realities in the Making’, exhibition view, The Rooster Gallery, 2017

Kristina Ališauskaitė, ‘Realities in the Making’, exhibition view, The Rooster Gallery, 2017

Kristina Ališauskaitė, ‘Realities in the Making’, exhibition view, The Rooster Gallery, 2017

Kristina Ališauskaitė, ‘Realities in the Making’, exhibition view, The Rooster Gallery, 2017

Kristina Ališauskaitė, ‘Realities in the Making’, exhibition view, The Rooster Gallery, 2017

Kristina Ališauskaitė, ‘Realities in the Making’, exhibition view, The Rooster Gallery, 2017

Kristina Ališauskaitė, ‘Realities in the Making’, exhibition view, The Rooster Gallery, 2017

Kristina Ališauskaitė, ‘Realities in the Making’, exhibition view, The Rooster Gallery, 2017

Kristina Ališauskaitė, ‘Realities in the Making’, exhibition view, The Rooster Gallery, 2017

Kristina Ališauskaitė, ‘Realities in the Making’, exhibition view, The Rooster Gallery, 2017

Kristina Ališauskaitė, ‘Realities in the Making’, exhibition view, The Rooster Gallery, 2017

Photography: Mariius Žičius, Kęstutis Stoškas
Exposition photography: Darius Petrulaitis