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
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 by Nina 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

Instagram: @Dittrich_Schlechtriem

Instagram: @andrej_dubravsky