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(Fragment) No347. Acrylic on wood. 2012. 110 x 106 cm

“People understand my paintings as their own cultural heritage” 0

An interview with Latvian born artist Henrijs Preiss

Juste Kostikovaite

According to the Saatchi gallery's online profile, Henrijs Preiss studied set design in his native Latvia before coming to London to study art. He thinks about his paintings in relation to theater: his abstract shapes look like blueprints for stage settings in which the viewer might imagine actors’ movements or different possible stories. 

Preiss’s work is influenced by a wide variety of cultural sources, from religious painting to urban architecture and computer game graphics. Preiss uses the imagery and styles of these references to make his abstract patterns. Each of his paintings is based around a central motif that suggests a mystical emblem. Preiss creates his designs to question ideas about power and belief.

We meet with Henrijs Preiss in a café called “Hackney Pearl”, near the artist studio buildings in which many East London artists work and live. The area in which the café and studios are situated bears the mark of London's historical past – traces of industrial development, then rapid gentrification, and lastly, the recent Olympic Games. The prices in the café are as high as in central London, but the interior is edgy and, of course, trendy. 

Henrijs Preiss

So, Henrijs, how have you been?

I just returned from traveling for one year through North America. I spent 11 months driving by car there.

Did you take Route 66?

No, I did not go to New York, but I traveled mainly around the West coast. I bought a car and was driving and living in the deserts. I mainly traveled alone, but there was a time when my friends joined me for a couple of months. It was precisely this sort of experience – living in the desserts – that I had been looking for. The vastness of the landscape and the constant absence of any sound, except for the humming of the sand, made a big impact on me.

Was this your way of exploring the sublime essence of this unpopulated landscape?

I can answer “yes” only partly. It was also a strong feeling that every evening you are faced with the question of survival. The sun sets very quickly, in something like 20 minutes, and the pitch-black darkness falls suddenly. You need to be very organized and intuitive in terms of how to find a place to sleep and eat. Otherwise, you are lost. Also, the landscape of the dessert gave me the feeling of the Unearthly, something of an Other World. 

Do you think this was also the inspiration for Matthew Barney, who used in his practice the sublime of the wilderness as the element of horror in our everyday life – as something that we cannot even conceive of? How does this trip relate to your practice as an artist? 

Yes, I know Matthew Barney's work very well, and I think it is very interesting. After this trip to the United States, I am very eager to start working a lot again, because now I have a lot of space in my mind and body to produce new paintings.

Do you often go back to Latvia, or do you rather like to travel to more distant places, like you did with your recent trip to the United States?

You are right, I have been traveling to other countries much more often than to Latvia. I came to London 12 years ago and there was a period when there were not so many flights back to Riga at the same price as a ticket to someplace I had never been before. Obviously, I chose to do the latter – to explore the world, and also to try to get to know myself better and gain inspiration from other cultures. And in the end, I did not need to go back to Latvia. I was studying and working in London, and my friends and my partner were here as well.

No341. Acrylic on wood. 2012. 110 x 106 cm 

Tell me more about your decision to leave Riga and come to London.

WelI, I started to work when I was still studying with director Pēteris Krilovs, first at the Daugavpils Theater, and then I continued working with him until 2002. One of our most successful shows was “The Brothers Karamazov”, in 1997. Then I decided to improve my skills as a stage designer, and I looked for new forms for self-expression in that field. New media were coming into the field of stage design, but there was no place in Latvia where I could learn to use these new technologies. In order to be called “contemporary” around that time (at the end of the nineties/beginning of 2000), contemporary European theater underwent major changes in the way that plays were staged, and also in terms of what kind of stage design strategies and visuals could be used. London seemed to offer all of these new possibilities, as well as access to the latest different kinds of knowledge and ways of working. I came to study at Central Saint Martins College of Art, and started to study stage design. I was surprised how independent students were here, and how different the methods of teaching were, since there was almost no “teaching”, as such. At first I was confused, but then, as the system allowed me to experiment, I enjoyed it more and more.

And then you started to paint? 

Yes, I started to think about other ways of expressing myself creatively, and so I started to paint. At the time, I had completely given up stage design and I was only into painting. Since I had a formal education from the Janis Rozentals Art High School (from the ages of 13 to 18), it was natural for me to draw those kinds of geometrical shapes, and also to use the color scheme that I had chosen.

I see in your paintings a big influence coming from ethnic, or even pagan, symbols from Baltic culture. These are also used by other media artists, such as Serda and, specifically, Linards Kulless, who used the symbol auseklītis – the traditional eight-pointed ‘morning star' –  in his performances of “Bless the House”. What is your relationship to this sort of new-agey folk-romanticism?

It is crucial to understand, and it always fascinates me, that people understand my paintings as their own cultural heritage. For instance, you see in my painting something related to the consciousness that has been formed by my Latvian past – not a historical past, but a mythological past – as experienced in stories, legends, folklore, objects, landscapes and images. Whereas in other circumstances, my paintings are understood as representations, or a reworking of, geometric patterning that has been used throughout history – from Islamic and Hindu temples to medieval manuscripts and Masonic heralds – to signify spiritual power. During my most recent trip to the United States, I had another experience. My works were compared with, and said to have something similar with, the works of the Navajo tribe of Native Americans. Even though I did not have a show that year, this was brought to my attention just from talking to people and showing them my work.

When can we see your works in Latvia, and when is your next scheduled show in London or elsewhere?

I have an upcoming show scheduled in February 2013, at the Latvian National Museum of Art – Arsenāls, in Riga, Latvia. It will be a solo show, titled “Artefacts”, in which I will present new works: a new set of paintings, and one sculpture.

No347. Acrylic on wood. 2012. 110 x 106 cm 

Henrijs Preiss is represented by the James Freeman Gallery (London) and The Page Gallery (South Korea).