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Jonas Gasiunas

Painting is not a Sacred Cow 0

Interview by Vilnis Vējš

An interview with Lithuanian painter Jonas Gasiunas (1954), whose series of paintings Northwestern Wind will be on display at the Cēsis Art Festival’s exhibit Interstice in the Old Cēsis Brewery through August 14.

In Latvia, the general public first saw your works only in 2009, during an exhibit of artists nominated for the Swedbank Award, at the Riga Art Gallery. You won the award that year. But what did you do before that?

I’ve been working since the 1980s. Even before perestroika. I was born in 1954, so a pretty long time.

How did you arrive at your painting technique, which every viewer marvels at? [Gasiunas uses candle smoke and soot to draw dwindling, quivering lines on canvas.]

There isn’t anything miraculous there. Thought is important, not the technique. I didn’t chose the technique for aesthetic reasons. It grew on its own. As a form that reflects thinking. Painting isn’t my craft. Style, beauty, and narrative intrigues are only the surface; the main thing is what hides behind it. Behind it is my personal story and my trust in reality.

I’ve read in interviews that your story is about memories. How can a candle flame, smoke, and ash express your memories?

Memories always romanticize the past. Even to the extent that they turn into some sort of fairytale. It seems that a story is the truth, but with every year it changes and acquires a nostalgic form. In the end, memories are hidden in part of that truth which I want to express in painting. My doubts hide there too. Though I don’t want to have doubts, what was once real, now is no longer.

Are these memories from the Soviet era?

I’ve never thought that the signifier “Soviet” could in some way relate to reality. That was a fictitious country, a fictitious politics—everything was fictitious. The entire Soviet period is more like a Kusturica film than reality. Nevertheless, that [life] is a real fact which I don’t want to forget.

Do you turn your attention to the present day, too?

I do both one and the other. Let’s say that it’s like me flirting with the viewer. But if we analyze the theme in its entire formal size, then we must understand that the solutions are the present day. The composition, all the formal techniques are taken not from classic painting, but by my becoming interesting in the things done by designers, for instance. Or by contemplating certain stages of art history which have created new forms. I think that painting… I agree with Luc Tuymans that painting has always spoken about one and the same thing: about the time in which the person lives. You can also say this about art as a whole. Painting is an artist’s specific, individual activity, which will never be repeated.

You mentioned historical periods when new forms have been created. Do you have a historical style that you tend to turn to?

I am very skeptical about historicism as a style; I don’t like it. For example, I have painted a work called The Great Duchy, which is dedicated to a historical event. But on the other hand, it is absolutely comical. I don’t paint any romantic scenes.

What is your relationship like with expressionism, which has been more influential in Lithuanian art than in Latvian art?

It is simply a historical legacy. Fifteen years ago I was in a group of expressionists who have already become classics. When I was young, and had recently graduated from the academy (back then it was the institute), German painting left a strong impression on me—Baselitz and others. After three years, my generation and I got over our expressionism, because we understood that we had missed the train. I saw how the former grand names in expressionism, like Kiefer, conceptualized. I put aside painting for a while too, and began to do installations, objects, and video. Until I returned again to painting, when I had gotten to know a little bit about other cultures. I first saw Tuymans in Helsinki in 1995. And purely ideologically, he seemed much fresher than other artists who worked with installations. But I no longer wanted to paint like an expressionist, though individual elements have been preserved—large formats, strokes—because I can’t take a stand against myself. Yet I began to look for narratives in photographs.

An interesting combination: painterly expression and photographic impressions…

Not quite photographs. I simply collected printed images, all of the visual filth that’s in, say, the provincial press, because they have strong narratives. When they publish news, regular publications don’t tell everything through to the end. So I can process it in my own way. An image tells one thing, but I can attach my own version to it and, paradoxically, it turns out that precisely these images have give me impulses.

Right now almost all painters work with a stream of recycled images.

This is determined by life itself. It is no longer possible to be like an impressionist and find yourself in a world in which you study nature.

Is there still a place for nature studies in art?

Yes, of course. That which your eye sees is still an important factor. In the backdrop of my works, I often use direct observation. I have three-meter canvases, and I often paint backdrops in the place where I happen to be. I don’t have a stationary studio. For me, traditional artists’ studios are too small; they don’t suit me. That’s why I become like a parasite somewhere in old factories. My studio is everywhere. Right now, for instance, it’s in a former hospital, an architectural monument that they’re getting ready to restore. But for three hundred years it has been a healing place for mentally ill monks. Old rooms and five-meter-high ceilings. The arches wonderfully reflect the light, scatter it in all directions. If you stand in the middle of the room, there are no shadows. Light is the most important thing for a painter. And a buried, but still living, historical material.