Idylls With a Subtext of Menace: In Conversation with Andrej Dubravsky
Berlin! Don’t miss Andrej Dubravsky’s exhibition at Dittrich & Schlechtriem from July 5th till August 8th. Thick, lush and tendered but not overly tamed, are the green silhouettes of crops and trees that Andrej Dubravsky cultivates around his garden in rural Slovakia. The artist shares the same approach to his painterly studies, conjuring recurrent scenes of adolescent boys, larvae, birds and post-industrial landscapes, with an eye for preservation and subversion. Over the last year, Andrej has deepened his interest in factories – sites that once epitomized our modern era – retracing their diffused and ominous smoke in gestural splotches and expressive, vivid drizzles of paint. The young artist takes up the topics of the male body, sexuality, mythology, gay subculture and nature, among others. On the occasion of his show at Dittrich & Schlechtriem we discussed his love of painting’s materiality, falsehoods of village naiveté, an impulse for young and vulnerable motives and libidinal undertones of polluting chimneys.
KALTBLUT: Let’s begin with your current show here in Berlin. I am interested to find out more about the new series of paintings dealing with the ecological crisis. When did this shift happen? Do you also find that the current political fragmentation and impasse has given you a different set of urgency? Andrej Dubravsky: If you live in a big city you feel a certain kind of discomfort when the heat, droughts or storms hit your town, but you just go find a shelter in the closest air-conditioned café. There you can read about plastic pollution or starving polar bears with a nice iced coffee in your hands (usually in a plastic cup of course). Since I moved to the village I witnessed all kinds of weather situations here on my own skin and on the surface of the garden. Of course, the changes here are not as visible as in Greenland but if there is not a single rain in the month of April or you talk with neighbors about butterflies or bugs which you remember from your childhood but now you just never see them… It’s just much easier to be empathic to environment if you experience such things on your own skin. All these interconnections have impacted my work. Of course, for politicians in this region environmental issues are not such a “hot” topic, they are better at scaring people with migrants (now it’s June and Slovakia gave asylum to 2 refugees this year, so there are no migrants in this country) They also use so-called “LGBT propaganda” to take attention away from real issues. Just to answer your question shortly, it was my own experience with plants and animals, mostly insects, in my garden which gave me this set of urgency.
KALTBLUT: This also opens a question on how one represents the idea of ecological downturn. You mentioned that you wanted to counter and re-address the preconceived norms by not confining to a dark palette? Andrej Dubravsky: I definitely don’t want to paint depressive things in an expressive way in a dark palette, that would look extremely pathetic.
KALTBLUT:Throughout (art) history, the gaze has been that of a male looking at a woman. In what way does the archetype of adolescent boys in your paintings subvert and disrupt this? How is this idea of watching and observing someone else re-organized in your work? Andrej Dubravsky: Adolescent male body was in the history of art depicted just in the same way as a woman – passive and objectified. Young man was always depicted as the object of someone’s desire, artist’s or collector’s? The question is if the young man can use this desire for his own good or for the good of something even bigger. I used to paint myself a lot and also painted some other young man with a certain kind of empathy and compassion. Honestly, I like to be admired or objectified up to a certain level – on a painting or on Instagram… I don’t think it takes any artistic or any other kind of power out of me, I think it’s the opposite. If I painted a twink in front of factory chimney for example, the viewer could feel that the young person could be in a danger and is vulnerable, just as we all are in this situation. If I’d paint a muscle dude with the factory chimney It would look like social realism, like “look how fabulous and strong we are, look what we managed to build up with our strong arms” and this is obviously not a message I am interested in.
KALTBLUT: In “The History of Sexuality” Michel Foucault traced the emergence of repressive rhetoric around sexuality with the rise of the bourgeois class in the 18th century. His analysis did not center around sexuality per se but rather on how and why sexuality is made an object of discussion. Since sexuality, and homoerotic desire plays an important part in your work I wanted to ask how do you see the modern-day discourse on sexuality? How do you see your work adding to this? Andrej Dubravsky: I can talk about my own experiences again only. We live in the age of Grindr and prep so sex is incredibly available and comfortable to organize and kind of safe even in the rural areas where I am right now. People here usually want to have quick sex and go back home. Quite often back to the wife. But on the other hand, you can see the loneliness and strong need for a friend maybe not even a boyfriend. There is a serious epidemic of loneliness which just sex itself cannot solve. I am not sure how do I see my work adding to this but I am trying to bring people together and just be a friend. I often see my openings and other art or garden activities in Slovakia as a platform where people like this can hang out and meet each other. And it surprisingly works. I know people who met boyfriends or friends for life on my openings. On the other hand, I never consider my work as disruptive or radical in a modern-day discourse of sexuality. There are artists which go pretty far in this transgressive way and explore sexuality, and I appreciate them a lot. I think it’s pretty ridiculous to be a painter from Berlin or New York and paint kissing boys and call it radical in 2019.
KALTBLUT:Your paintings are mainly figurative and I observed a wild mix of classical references (Old Masters) and renditions of domesticated ecologies (tamed countryside animals and twisted romantic landscapes). I feel there is a large degree of dedication and trust in these subjects and I wanted to know how did your particular visual grammar emerge? Andrej Dubravsky: In my life and work I was always interested in the living things, such as humans, animals or landscapes… never cared much about machines or architecture. Was always attracted to surfaces which was kind of alive as well – brushstrokes and gestures. Never been attracted to such a things as flat paintings or airbrush kind of painting. I love materiality, the material of raw canvas juicy painting or dry charcoal, it just turns me on… my recent paintings of larvae or factories are almost abstract. Some people are so hysterical about abstract versus figurative and would like to see this linear evolution of a painter from narrative figuration to abstract as one gets older. I think it’s nonsense. The new subjects in my work like caterpillars or factories let me paint in much more expressive and free way, which I really enjoy right now. I can not reach this kind of expression with portraits yet but I am working on it. I really hate when my work looks photo realistic, if it happens, I burn it in the campfire as soon as possible, I want to go as far as possible from photo realistic kind of visuality, and I deal with this issue since I’ve started to paint.
KALTBLUT: Monet’s countryside utopia was Giverny where he lived and painted his water lilies. I wanted to talk about your own version; a wild, beautiful garden attached to your house in Rastislavice, a tiny village in Slovakia. What led you there? How does the nature of your ideas stem from the isolationism and the particular environment there? Andrej Dubravsky: My grandma used to live close by. I used to spend every summer and weekends here, but she moved to the city when I was 13. I see this moment as the end of my childhood. I lost an environment which I was growing up in and I’ve lost all my village friends which I had much stronger relationships than with kids in the city. Many years later, once I made some money I decided to buy a house here again. My ideas about the new adult village life were extremely romantic naive and totally false. Daily life costs me much more energy here than in the city. There is paradoxically less time for my art practice here, and my social life is much poorer, but it somehow attracts and keeps me here like a magnet, probably readers living in the village or house with a garden can understand this. It’s very irrational but extremely strong power which keeps me here. I am mega obsessed with perennials of course, and I’ve planted approx. 30 fruit trees as well, but perennials I really love. I buy and plant only flowers which are good for bees and butterflies and the other pollinators. That’s my only rule here. I want to create an insect paradise here, because the agricultural landscape around here has no blooming plants, the fields are like endless monoculture green deserts sprayed with chemicals. Gardens of humans are paradoxically the only places where bees and the other insects can find a refuge in agricultural country. (Of course sometimes you get some useless but pretty plant from family or neighbors as a gift. like the hemerocallis on photos…)
KALTBLUT:In relation to the growing global turn to the local, I wanted to ask you about the larvae series you’ve been developing. Animals and vegetation found in the ecosphere of your garden are depicted with a sense of intimacy and familiarity – do you use larvae to express personal sensibility or as a metaphor for the societal and the political? Andrej Dubravsky: The larvae paintings have various meanings of course. They can represent just caterpillars themselves – the animals. They can be pretty but can be venomous or look venomous, but actually can be tasty. They are also young and vulnerable things. The caterpillar which inspired me at the beginning was Hyphantria cunea. The American moth which spreads in warm areas in Europe. They make a big nest and are pretty hairy and can eat all the leaves from the tree, last year they were pretty invasive locally. On the other hand, caterpillars are also pretty phallic, they represent greediness and over-consumption and markets mostly ruled by men. We are like these caterpillars obsessed with the economic growth which destroys the planet. In Slovakia, we experienced communism which was disastrous for generations of people and for the environment tremendously, so it’s kind of tricky to complain about capitalism, like young people in the Wester nowadays… so honestly, I don’t know what should we complain or fight against? Patriarchy maybe?
KALTBLUT:What is the significance of shifting and experimenting with new motives, such as old industrial factories? Andrej Dubravsky: I felt like people didn’t always understand the environmental issues through the caterpillars so I was wondering what else I should paint for the show, and was googling environmental drawings made by children, and there I saw the factories with the big chimneys. I loved the subject because it’s so extremely simple, childish and understandable and also very paintable – as I said before, the huge smoke has this abstract paint kind of quality. We don’t see these factories so often in Europe we often see beautiful wind turbines as a symbol of a new era while we drive through Austria or Germany, but the dirty factories are still existing in India or China etc… the phallic polluting chimney also represents the masculine aspect but not in a positive way.
Interview byNina Vučelić Copyright the artist, Image courtesy DITTIRCH & SCHLECHTRIEM, Berlin
WHAT? Andrej Dúbravský – Potential Wasted WHERE? at DITTRICH & SCHLECHTRIEM Linienstraße 23, Berlin WHEN? Opening: 5 July, 6––8 pm
6 July –– 8 August 2019