Review of Riga Gallery 2000 exhibition "A Girl"

I cannot forget / The faces of the doll couple, / As they came out of the box. Haiku by Buson Jos (1716-1783).

This article, dear reader, can be taken in no other way than the attempt by one subject to interpret another through the works of art this other subject has created. I think this idea is quite symptomatic in both this specific case and in the context of Latvian art criticism in general 

Often, when we (professionals and non-professionals) visit exhibitions, we look at the works on display and perceive them as abstract, independently existing phenomena, detached from reality. This is exactly why in certain sections of society artists have been given the status of outsider, oddball or simply alien. For a long time I have also associated Ritums Ivanovs and the direction of his artistic development with similar emotions. 

Perhaps I have some exceptionally individual character trait that makes me try to understand the driving force behind each artist’s work. Therefore I admit that in the search for this understanding, I have been puzzled by Ivanovs in terms of his creative work for quite some time. The cool and quite often decorative canvases seem to hide the author’s own emotional experience. This undoubtedly runs counter to the current mainstream tendency where one of the trump cards used to influence the viewer’s perception is personal emotional openness.

 But alongside this tendency we can also see another - an art movement rooted in the development of technology. And, however it may seem at first sight, they are both not just fighting amongst themselves, but they can be described as similar from the aspect of the methods used. By this I mean that a scientific research approach is characteristic of both tendencies.

Only in one case, it is a childish game of self-discovery that balances on the edge of the “permitted” and “forbidden”, while in the other, it is a manic search for possibilities to apply the new technology. However, in both cases art is concerned with widening and overstepping borders. Ivanovs’ art is like that too. Already today, if we examine the progression of his artistic development, we can define several lines of development - interpretation of the figural genre; experimentation with techniques; stereotypes of mass culture and lately photographing the incessant, including the use of the framing principle in the creation of a work of art. This means that Ivanovs’ works, although executed using a classical painting technique can often be regarded as multi-medial. That is why one viewer may see a similarity with movie stills and another may see the structural influence of meditational music in the fixation of vibrating reality.

The association with frozen movie frames may be explained by a possibly deliberately provoked viewer reaction that foresees immense scope for interpretations of the plot. This allows everyone to make up his or her own story about the “film’s” general plot. And who really knows what it really “is” and what it “isn’t”?

The person is central in all Ivanovs’ works. Sometimes this is used formally evoking in the viewer a cold feeling of alienation. This was especially so in the works of the previous period (1997 - 1998) where the photographic prototypes were taken from existing prints. However in most cases, the people in his works are those that figure in his life. In these works we can also read the artist’s hidden interpretation of individualities that most often reveals the author as a distanced/closet romantic.

The instantaneous visual effect of his works on the viewer may be linked to the use of the naked, mainly female, body. They are dynamically depicted yet remain in their “ideal” world. These images observe us or move freely within the limits of their spatial zones.

Ivanovs does not address social problems. Neither does he talk about different individuals, no! With the help of fragmentation, the artist deliberately leads the viewer away from a specific person to a generalisation. This connection is surprising. It too embodies the attempt to cross over the border. In losing the specific we gain the general. It is like a path that leads the viewer from one world to another. Like a gentle probing into the person, then withdrawing, trying to find one’s necessary distance. And then, when you have come as close as possible, you discover that a person’s grimace, a person’s expression is so general that it loses its individuality while keeping the anatomical and general characteristics of human physiognomy. The proportions of the mouth and eyes triangle make a lot of people appear similar. If you loose a tooth or your forehead you lose the individual, the specific personality. And so there is no point in looking for similarities to salon portraits here. What is captured here is a distinct feeling. This is also confirmed by the titles of the works on view in this exhibition: “She is happy”, “She observes”, “She is in silence”, “She is almost flying”, “She is sleeping” and “She is a dancer”. Looking at these and Ivanovs’ earlier work we are able to see the artist’s own inner world, its direction, and its transformation. And yet they are such gentle, almost indiscernible shifts in time! Time that he himself has so indefatigably tried to grasp with an obvious interest in the possible fixation of the vibration of light.

Recalling the development of techniques Ivanovs has used in his painting, we can see a definite formal sequence. There was the inclusion of a small photo-realistic portrait and detail in the works where a gilded painterly texture dominated. Then the figure grew to dominate completely and later there were the mathematically calculated linear paintings. Here the converging textures of lines gradually became geometrically precise, op art like straight lines. He finally came to creating additional boundaries - an interlinked chain of circles distancing the viewer and the depicted person even more creating a certain transition zone between realities.

This evident sequence may also be interpreted as an experimental application of the raster of traditional and digital photography. In my view this means the author is bound by a prevailing definite and exact nature, an aspiration for absolute order, clarity and unequivocal beauty. Therefore it cannot be denied that what unites all Ivanovs’ works is the fundamental postulate of painting - the harmony of drawing, composition and colour. This is important because if we look back, we see clearly that Ivanovs has gone through various stages of priorities. There was a period when the drawing dominated, and then colour came to the fore. However his analytical, technical approach has not changed. And so everything that Ivanovs creates may be treated as the science of the analytical subject. Its aim is to create a fiction - a specific space, a specific feeling. In order to achieve this, Ivanovs especially needs the ability to capture light. Without this, as we know, there cannot be contrast, there is no volume. However, “light” like “time” can be treated as a philosophical category of painting. Actually, the relationship between subject and object depicted in any painting has been captured in time. And “time” is also “light”. To achieve its depiction, Ivanovs uses colour separation characteristic of divisionism, arranging colours in defined pairs with their complementary colours - red and green, violet and yellow, blue and orange. Ivanovs consistently uses black and white photography in the painting process. However to transfer this to canvas he uses a method from the Renaissance dividing up the image and the canvas into a grid. These of course are only minor professional nuances but they do reveal additional information that has been encoded into the paintings - the possibility of an original synthesis of ancient and modern technologies. 

Neither the one nor the other method is used for the reproduction of photographic reality, but as the starting point for beginning a painting and a conversation too.

When I think about other similar examples in the figural and portrait genre current in world art today, my first associations are not only with the formally similar portrait painter of those close to him, the American artist Chuck Close. He has also used black and white photography in his work, but his expressions have remained static as in passport photographs. I am also thinking of another American artist, Andres Serrano who constantly talks about the “untraditionally” beautiful within the limits of the medium of the photograph. For example there is his series of photographs “The Morgue” where the beauty of a dead body is revealed in a monolithic whole. This association lies in the use of a similar dynamic of composition and framing principle. But on a different, psychological level, I think two painters of the young generation are also working in a similar direction: the Austrian Elke Krystufek and the British Jenny Saville. Only their artistic focus is turned towards capturing the feelings of apparent exhibitionism and voyeurism.

However, all the above examples confirm the fixations of the ego of the individual - the relevance of the attempt to visualise it in art by looking for it between the individual’s consciousness and body.

Text by art critic Ieva Kalnina

Review of 1999 exhibition "To be and to see" in Riga Gallery
Optical Energy 2001: review by art critic Alise Tifentale