Interview with Jana Brike
The lyrical paintings of Jana Brike are evocative mood pieces. Her paintings feature young, usually female characters in natural environments; with their strong symbolism and elements of mythology and fairy tales, these works invite the viewer into the action as the characters interact with the world around them or experience intimacy with another—or sometimes with themselves. Brike is one of four artists featured in the show Lush, which opens at the beinArt Gallery November 18.
“Even when you break the dishes in a family argument, or mend your broken heart, or struggle to leave a job that gives you security but kills you with boredom, and so on and so on, it is all a part of this dance of transcendence. Painting just is my personal way to do that transcendence. I don’t paint the darkest heaviest material directly, because it’s all been transformed through my painting process; just a few scars are there to indicate the last bits of struggle and pain. But mostly what’s left is the quiet shining joy.” —Jana Brike
Julie Winters: Your personal history is so interesting: you grew up in Latvia when it was still part of the Soviet Union and started training intensively in art at a very early age. Do you remember how it came about that you were directed down an artistic path?
Jana Brike: It was a rather harsh environment, with the aesthetics all about functionality or impressiveness and very little about beauty. Everywhere I caught some glimpse of it—a flower or a butterfly, grandmother’s lace or old church book illustrations, fairy tale movies or ballet performance—it just felt like it made my soul sing all of a sudden. Of course, I wanted to be part of it, a participant or, even better, a creator of it in one way or another. Beauty is still an important theme of my work.
JW: How much of a say did you have in the subject matter of your work as a student?
JB: Not much in the school, as the most part of the education was for developing skills. We painted still lifes, models, and different composition, technique and style exercises. The personal compositions were always assignment based, never just free. I had much greater say in subject matter and the direction I wanted to go in my university years.
JW: You had the comparatively rare experience of having solo exhibitions at a very young age; what effect, if any, did this have on your progression as an artist? I’m thinking, I suppose, of having so much work out there for audience reaction, but I’m interested in any aspect that comes to mind.
JB: I haven’t thought of that really; that’s an interesting question. Well, I changed, grew and evolved under the scrutiny of the public eye. I do realize that the path that is considered smarter from a brand-building perspective is that you first work in the privacy of your studio till your recognizable style is fully developed, and then you just stick to it. I did the opposite, as quite a lot other artists have. I don’t know what the effect is. Maybe that I am not afraid to change the direction completely, go a different path when in one I am beginning to feel stuck in or bored with, and even if the work seems to be going well, liked by the public and finding its own niche in the market, even then I can change with no fear. Although I do get a silly flash of personal irritation if someone comments that they “like my previous work better.” I don’t doubt that there are people who like ME, as I was ten years ago, better, but it doesn’t mean I could have stopped growing and changing. I do realize, though, that one person can relate to the imagery of that damaged, traumatized, alien but beautiful inner child that I created earlier. To another the themes of internal “coming of age” of the psyche are closer. Another relates to the femininity issues that I focus on now. Each theme has come with not just a distinctive style but also a development of different technique to express it better. It’s been a wonderful journey; I regret nothing (smile).
JW: You have said that you’ve needed to unlearn a lot of what you were taught during your art education. Tell us what that unlearning involved.
JB: I didn’t talk of skills but of mindset, of course. Most of all, I had to drop the idea that there is the “correct” and the “incorrect” way to do anything at all in art, especially when it comes to storytelling, and especially when you are doing it in a way you enjoy, that rings true to your nature. The pressure in an art school where you are told you have to experiment and discover new things, push your limits, but at the same time your mistakes are evaluated all the time according to some ranking system—it was like brakes on creativity. In order to expand, you make mistakes and have failures first—that’s just natural. You have to learn to allow yourself to do that to grow, and to not judge yourself by your mistakes. In the long run, the grander the mistakes, the greater the growth. But when you’re in school—you have failed in your curriculum objectives, and you never try to push in that direction again.
JW: A dominant theme of your work seems to be exploration and growth—sometimes sexual but also sometimes just relational in a nonsexual context. And in many paintings, the subject is exploring something in herself (again, sometimes sexually and sometimes not). How did this theme develop for you?
JB: Growth, expansion into something bigger is a universal principle; exploration and curiosity are the most natural things to all living things. The cultural “norms” oftentimes see the simple beauty of this aspect of nature as a shameful, dirty thing, invoking guilt and suppression and self-judgment. This is what I go against, so a lot of it is just sweetly playful, sometimes even funny.
I would rather say that my current work is about connection rather than sexuality—connection to your own body first of all. In the society we live in and with the fast pace of time, with all the issues on the personal level and on the world stage, people live out of their bodies and inside their minds, or absorbed by the emotions completely. My painting for me means to breathe in, breathe out and focus on being the life force flowing through the body. For women it seems even more important than for men: in the body is all the life-knowledge of this earth plane. So the sexuality doesn’t mean just physical intercourse. Sexuality—it’s a root, a grounding principle, connected to surviving and thriving in the physical world. It is no wonder that so many spiritual practices have wanted to cut that root, attempting to “jump” closer to the sky. Maybe for a short time it can be sped up, but then you wither and wilt in the physical world. In the longer run, you want to be well rooted and grow strong and tall up to the sky, not just fly uprooted. I hold both of these aspects in my work, hence the symbolism of flying things like birds, butterflies and bees, the vast sky and the solid earth with its natural beauty.
That is also why a human body is important in my work—with all its scratches and bruises from being touched by the world, with all its vulnerability in its nakedness. Is it straightforward sexual in the simplest sense of the word? I honestly don’t even know… definitely not as an object for someone else’s fun and entertainment!!
JW: Considering the big changes you’ve seen on a political scale in your country, has there been a time when you’ve addressed any of those explicitly in your work?
JB: No, not at all. I am glad of collapse of all unnatural, suppressive human-built systems, and I am beyond sure that more will collapse in my lifetime, but I don’t reflect on that through my art. My focus is a strong “self,” regardless of the temporary circumstance—“self” that doesn’t give its own power away to external systems or persons.
JW: What do you see as the most important development in your work over the course of your art career?
JB: I would say when I dared to make my work much more personal, emotional, reflective of my most intimate experiences—that was the biggest leap.
It’s a hard question, though. It’s a bit like trying to think which one is the most important minute of my day. I can’t really tell, as every minute leads to the next one.
JW: One of the things I appreciate in your work is the movement in a lot of your pieces; one can see swaths of petals in the wind, clusters of butterflies in flight, waves about to crash. Looking at your work, one often feels as if one has stepped into a scene in action or caught a person in a moment; even when the figures are still, your paintings rarely feel static. In creating a piece, how do you decide whether to place characters in action together versus staring back at the viewer?
JB: I had one exhibition titled After the End of Time dedicated completely to this very idea. The scene of, let’s say, girls dancing in the sea changes in mood completely if they have a huge wave in a close background, as if about to crush them, and they are serenely and beautifully and peacefully there, as if not noticing anything around. I definitely use that in my work consciously to give the painting the intended atmosphere, sometimes to construct a metaphor about life even.
Also, undeniably, painting is a strange medium, where countless hours, days, weeks, sometimes even years of constant energy flow and dedicated work are used to depict one single frozen moment, isn’t it? That alone can give that metaphysical feeling of a window into a world where time just flows differently and one second of their time is a million years in our reality. At least I get that kind of goosebumps feeling from some painters’ work.
As for decision making, my paintings actually change a lot in the process. Sometimes a character staring back at the viewer doesn’t work out as I had intended; then I change the face in the process. Sometimes I change huge portions of a work entirely. I have had occasions when I send finished images to a gallery, and then an hour later write them, “Wait, no, stop!” and repaint the entire background from depicting broad daylight into a starlit night. A lot of details that indicate movement are added on top of a relatively finished work.
JW: You have described your work as “poetic visual autobiography.” Do you write poetry as well?
JB: I write stories. Ambiguous poetic stories, many of them accompanied by pictures. Maybe one day I’ll do a book out of those.
JW: Tell us about the place of sketchwork in your overall artistic life. Is sketching a way to work out possibilities for paintings, or is it a discipline unto itself?
JB: Sketching is completely self-sufficient. My sketches rarely, if ever, turn into paintings directly. Paintings are born as a complete image in my mind, and sketching doesn’t help there, although it helps me sometimes to remember the image if I can’t get to painting immediately. For painting, the next step would be the reference material, work with models, landscapes, occasionally mood boards. I feel like with sketching, I process my most immediate emotional life and experiences, flaring feelings and fast thoughts. Painting, where the process is much longer, is more comprehensive, even distanced sometimes, dealing less with daily emotion and more with states of consciousness. It is hard to define in words.
JW: Have you received criticism for depicting young people in sexual contexts, and if so, how have you responded to that?
JB: Do I paint actual direct sexual contexts? I sometimes paint young couples in love, excited with each other and their mutual feelings. Maybe that intensity of that first attraction is what fascinates me. Usually I paint a single figure, though. But in either case there is never any predator present, nobody is ever being hurt or endangered, nobody is being misused, or taken advantage of for sexual pleasure of another. Never ever. And I don’t objectify the body; in fact, the characters are mostly my self-portraits in one form or another. If I paint a youngster frolicking in grass, basking in sunshine, swimming naked in a river—it’s just that, a human being having the best day of their life, exploring themselves and the world around, with no one “other” to restrain or touch them. Just as I myself did (and still do) in the country in summertime. It’s a completely subjective, deeply personal perspective on the human condition. Simple physical joy of being! Maybe someone can feel as an uncomfortable voyeur in front of my painting in a case when they can’t associate at all with this theme personally. I don’t know about that; it’s hard for me to take a voyeur position in front of a creation of my own heart, and to try to explain that position. But it’s actually not that often that I meet people like that.
When I look at people who buy my art or to whom I have a longer dialogue about my themes, 90% are actually women, with similar feelings, experiences that bond them with my work on an emotional level. It’s all been a touching and beautiful exchange mostly.
At the same time, I can’t deny I listen to the opinion of the public: in this time and age it is nearly impossible not to. Let’s take for example the intimate flower piece Gardener and the Center of the Universe that I exhibited with beinArt for the first time a few years ago. I had painted similar pieces for some years in my studio, completely rawly intimate to me, exploring the body-related themes so important to each woman. But I was honestly scared to show it publicly. It meant showing openly where I am most vulnerable, what is so sacred to a woman but is so casually abused in our society. In daily life, you just don’t invite more emotional abuse by openly and with no guard held up showing to others how this theme is important to you, by talking about a woman’s body in this subjective way. Without the social media feedback, this one would probably have sold like other paintings, and it would not even register to me how important that theme, that loving approach, is to other people, and especially women! So, for the few bullies that I get, I wouldn’t give up that instant communication.
JW: Some of your pieces shine with quiet joy; even with some characters who seem like they might be haunted or have gone through something difficult, there is imagery that conveys beauty and hope. Are these things there because they are important to you personally, or do they constitute a message you’re actively trying to get to your audience?
JB: It is so wonderful you say so! It’s not a conscious linear message, but it is so important to me. I actually like to think that a human is some kind of an energy-being with a task of perpetual transcendence. It’s as if we take heavy matter and transform it into light through a difficult internal process. Sometimes [we] break or get sick under the weight of it, sometimes [we] pass a big part of that weight to others, even generation to generation, needing help with the heaviness of it, but still go on step by step by step in this eternal dance of transcendence, doing it as well as each of us can at every given moment.
It is actually an important part of my ethnic heritage—the world view where the life is not split into “profane” and “spiritual” as every single thought, feeling and action is a part of this spiritual journey. Even when you break the dishes in a family argument, or mend your broken heart, or struggle to leave a job that gives you security but kills you with boredom, and so on and so on, it is all a part of this dance of transcendence.
Painting just is my personal way to do that transcendence. I don’t paint the darkest heaviest material directly, because it’s all been transformed through my painting process; just a few scars are there to indicate the last bits of struggle and pain. But mostly what’s left is the quiet shining joy—that is so true.
JW: I mentioned earlier some of the imagery used in your work, including flowers, water, and butterflies. These things convey beauty, joy, hope, turmoil. How do you decide what kind of imagery to use in your work?
JB: Not all is decided very consciously. A lot of my process is like a playful and free-flowing poem. A lot of the little details are added in the very last stage of my work. I don’t have everything thought out, and I don’t have a symbol dictionary where I would look up what stands for love or hope, or fear, or whatever I try to depict. It’s actually quite the opposite: when I notice something keeps reappearing in my work in a haunting way to me, I start to do some analysis or research. When I paint and make decisions in the actual process, it’s not about the looks I envisioned but the feeling, atmosphere, which is often formed by subtle unconscious associations, multiple layers of meanings that are both very personal and comprehensive. It’s all according to what feels right at the moment.
JW: What do you look for or enjoy in the work of other artists?
JB: It’s very undefinable. It’s all about the feeling it gives me. And the best of all is when the feeling is strong, very familiar, but when I can’t quite put my finger on it and describe it in words, when it’s some strange heart-to-heart communication. I as an artist can’t fake it or learn from someone to do it; it takes a lot of ruthless honesty towards oneself, commitment, love and care to produce a work like that.
JW: In addition to your November show at beinArt Gallery, do you have any shows or other activities on the horizon that you’d like to tell our readers about?
JB: I have a couple of solo exhibitions on the horizon. The closest is in April at Gallery House, Toronto, and also a very big project coming up at the end of 2018, the biggest paintings I have ever done, at San Diego Art Institute, curated by Distinction Gallery. And I am very, very excited about that!
The LUSH group exhibition opens on 18 November 2017 at 6pm at BeinArt Gallery in Brunswick in Melbourne, Australia, featuring the art of Jana Brike, Redd Walitzki, Rodrigo Luff and Ray Caesar.