Artist Interview: Wioletta Kulewska
Interviewed by Ann Dingli
Portrait of Wioletta Kulewska.
Wioletta Kulewska is a Polish artist practicing between Malta, Poland and Great Britain. Working across painting, design and installation, her art often extends beyond the limitations of canvas and frame, often becoming an afterimage of objects, impressions and experiences gathered throughout combining her practice, including elements of research across philosophy, archaeology and anthropology. Kulewska is a graduate of Fine Arts from the Opole High School of the Arts, the Eugeniusz Geppert Academy of Art and Design in Wrocław, Poland and the London Metropolitan University. In 2018, she was selected for the Slade educational residency in Contemporary Painting in London. In 2019, she participated in the PADA artist-in-residence programme in Lisbon, Portugal. Since 2018, she has been part of the Turps CC, an artist-led painting mentoring programme in London. In August 2021, she completed the artist-in-residence programme at the Pedvāle Open Air Art Museum and sculpture park in Latvia.
Kulewska currently teaches painting and experimental visual practice at the Malta School of Art, Valletta. She speaks to Ann Dingli about her new solo show at Valletta Contemporary (VC).
Ann Dingli (AD): Your process and descriptions of your work position the natural world and the religious as emblems of what you call a “deep need for understanding”. That is quite a profound place to begin your journey with this show. Can you unpack what you mean by this?
Wioletta Kulewska (WK): As an artist, I’m primarily interested in the creative process and main principles of painting as a medium: the canvas, the paint and the brushstrokes. The painterly properties of objects, the composition of paintings, the interaction of colour and material, balance, contrast, movement, pattern and rhythm. My work, apart from its formal values, tension or form, has symbolic meaning. Painting itself is a symbolic and mythical activity.
My latest series of work was instigated during an artist residency at the Pedvāle Museum in Latvia in August 2021, during which I delved into notions of the natural world and the religious, not as specific tradition, but rather as philosophical reflection.
When I think about people from the past and ancient civilisation I think about ceremonies, songs and stories. People used to live in unity with all nature – trees, water and stones. They glorified natural forces, worshipping and chanting for them. The ancient Baltic people searched for answers to fundamental questions primarily in the world of nature, which they considered sacred. They attached special importance to the cult of fire and identified the most important deities with the forces of nature.
These old traditions are still cultivated in some parts of Latvia – there is a significant growth of ancient religion and neopaganism movement in Baltic region. Spiritual transition happens in human species as we attempt to dominate the natural world. At this critical time in history, we need to reorient ourselves with regard to how we relate to each other and to the earth’s wonders. The climate crisis, wildlife emergency and Covid-19 pandemic show that the existing relationship between people and the rest of nature is broken. There is a deep need for understanding and a need for a change in our society.
(Detail from) Five Feathers (2022), 160cm x 130cm, Oil on Canvas
AD: Your work is intrinsically connected to nature. Specifically, it looks at the relationship between humans and the natural world. Are there any other artists whose work is important to you vis-a-vis this relationship?
WK: My work combines elements at the intersection of philosophy, archaeology and cultural anthropology. There are shapes directly inspired by nature, but there are other elements found in archaeological museums, monasteries, architectural details or inspirations discovered during walks I often take.
The history of art also plays an important role in understanding cultural diversities. This history has dominantly focused on objects made by humans for any number of spiritual, narrative, philosophical, symbolic, conceptual, documentary, decorative, and even functional purposes; always with a primary emphasis on aesthetic visual form.
Hilma af Klint, Swedish artist and mystic, was influenced by the spiritual and occult movements of her time, in particular spiritualism, theosophy and later anthroposophy. Her work is based on the awareness of a spiritual dimension of our existence that was largely marginalised in an increasingly materialistic world. Her visual worlds, enriched with symbols, letters, or words, developed from what’s was originally an organic abstraction into geometric one, although figurative elements appeared.
Installation View of The Feather Collector, 2022 (Image by Michaele Zammit)
AD: Your work is described as oscillating between “abstraction and representation”. Has this always been the case? Can you talk briefly about your formal journey as an artist?
WK: Representational and nonrepresentational (abstract) artists exhibit different conceptual processes in their work. Painters refer metaphorically to their art using terms such as language, vocabulary, conversation, and narrative. The fundamental difference lies in what we see: a clear and realistic representation of a subject or a specific object, or rather an indistinct mass of colours and geometric forms.
My paintings seem to be dominated by abstract forms, but there are also shapes inspired directly by nature or specific objects and forms. I’m mainly interested in creative process as one of the most intriguing aspects behind an artwork. I usually plan my paintings by making a lot of sketches and colour studies. The beginning of picture making is usually in the form of a general idea. But when I have a brush in my hand and a gesture and hand movement, everything changes.
I’m trying not to anchor myself to a particular solution, or style in painting. Neither am I particularly interested in categorising my work. My paintings are fluid, they exist in a constant state of transformation. I want them to reflect on the mystery of life and the mystery of our existence.
The most essential part of art involves the element of time, where artistic achievement can reach more than just its contemporaries. The current artistic recognition involves mostly personality and style. The greatest art moves people beyond its current time. Such art can be developed through the inner spirit when inner guidance is applied.
Installation View of The Feather Collector, 2022 (Image by Michaele Zammit)
AD: Some of the work for this show was made in Latvia during your artist's residency there, some were made before the residency in your studio in Malta, some in the studio after you returned. Can you talk about your experience situating in Latvia, and how it impacted the direction of the work, as well as the oscillation between places?
WK: I participated in few artist-in residence programmes over the past couple of years. It’s a very different experience to create a body of work during residency, usually in a shared studio space with other artists. In my latest series of work, I used stylistic sources that I came across at the Pedvāle Open Air Art Museum. The museum was founded in 1992 by the sculptor Ojārs Arvīds Feldbergs, as a setting for environmental art. It was my first time in this part of the Baltic state, but for some reason I felt very connected to this place, because of its history and rural landscape.
I’m a traveller wondering around planet earth looking at things, collecting things, responding and being creative. Artists were sometimes provoked to travel for reasons totally unrelated to art – because of political conflict, for example, or religious upheavals. As an artist, I consider travel to the best education of all. Poland, Malta, Latvia, or any other country I have lived or visited, contribute to knowledge I’ve gained and have each furthered my research.
I visited several monasteries and ancient caves in the eastern Mediterranean and Caucasus between 2018 and 2019. I was completely blown away by wall painting and frescos. Hermit monks spent long periods in isolation, devoting many years to the creation of vast pictorial paintings in natural caves – an early form of lockdown art. I created a number of sketches and paintings inspired by these trips. Ancient references to death, the sacred and nature are reimagined for a contemporary canvas, a new vocabulary for a period of inwardness, isolation, spiritual questioning and ambivalence.
(Detail from) Chimelli 1-4 (2022), 80cm x 50cm x 0.5cm, Wooden sticks, Oil paint, Feathers (Image by Michaele Zammit)
AD: Your show deals with the theme of spirituality – which is a broad one. Can you narrow down what you’re interested in specifically, and how that is represented through the work?
WK: Art is a kind of metaphysical practice. In today’s world, which has lost its sensitivity to the spiritual world, art offers some of the experiences that religion once used to provide. Władysław Strzemiński, the Polish avant-garde painter once said, "this is why you act to seek the truth!”. Painting is seeking the truth. The truth about the meaning of the world and the meaning of your own life.
The most fundamental teaching of Theosophy is that all people have the same spiritual and physical origin. Its objectives concern the forming of a universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour; encouraging the study of comparative religion, philosophy and science; and investigating unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in human beings. The members of the Theosophical Society were a great number of artists, many of whom are considered the founders of the modern abstract art movement: Wassily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Piet Mondrian and Hilma af Klint. It was inevitable that artists might turn their attention to spirituality at the dawn of the materialistic age of the twentieth century.
Wassily Kandinksy in his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art said, “the deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural… The brighter it becomes, the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white.”