From childhood to sisterhood and from womanhood to motherhood Jana Brike’s paintings are an ode to life, celebrative of the lightness and darkness which trace our respective footsteps through it in equal measure. Ultimately these are all paths through which she has walked and continues to venture down. By seeking ingenuity from this, in a process she describes as being both physical and transcendental, she introduces us, the observers, to works with which we can all connect and celebrate our intrinsic relationship with the natural world.
The Beinart Gallery is quoted as saying your “whimsical, magical paintings allow use a glimpse into an intimate world” which you describe as being “a poetic visual autobiography.” I would like to especially focus here, on the word autobiography, can you tell me which stories you hope to narrate through your work?
Poetic is also an important word in this description, in a sense that I do not really narrate my life’s particular events through my painting process in a descriptive way, it is much more like a poem, expressing feelings, certain revelations and experiences through sensitively emotional metaphors and free imaginative symbolism. Of course, when I paint my relationship with motherhood for example, it may hold an image of a baby, but it may be a plant or an animal as well, drawing a parallel to nurturing mother Earth.
Which elements of your own journey, do you hope to weave into this?
All the meaningful human experiences that I know on an intimate level – love, womanhood, sisterhood, motherhood, coming to terms with pain and hurt and mortality, also certain spiritual understandings. The process itself to me is strangely metaphysical and goes both ways: deeper grounding of my heart and soul into the physicality of this life, and also transcending the dense physical aspects and suffering to something much lighter through understanding and acceptance of my experiences.
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In your work, the natural space is an omnipresent entity unto itself, from water and butterflies to birds and flowers. What does each motif symbolise for you, and to what extent do you endeavour for this symbolism to reflect the way in which your work is perceived by the observer, do you believe in strictly emphasising the meaning behind each symbol, or encouraging the individual observer to interpret it for themselves?
Yes, I do love to give my heroines, a very natural environment. I myself spent the best most memorable part of my childhood in woods and meadows in the countryside, even now I do my biggest most substantial part of work in the country surrounded by forests, it’s where I feel most in harmony with myself, it gives me space for reflection and it is always so beautiful. To me personally the nature symbolism is intuitive, free flowing, the right elements just find their proper place. I do not plan out my paintings intellectually in my head too much, and I don’t think a visual artwork should be read one strict direct one-dimensional symbol after another. I do not strive for blunt and straightforward communication through my paintings, I find it way more captivating if the meanings are open, complex and multi-layered, suggestive but not didactic. So yes, the individual symbols and implied meanings are open to interpretation.
In general, the lushness of nature, flowers, birds and overgrowth is in the very forefront of my work. We have forgotten that we are the nature, not something that interacts with it as an external and objectified thing out there. In some ways, in my painting I see nature equals to human emotions and states. I use it that way for my backgrounds and details. Violent seas and majestic clouds, warm summer sunshine and cool magical moonlight, forests to get lost in and misty swamps, and overgrown plants springing up around, in and from the human bodies – for my art I feel it’s like metaphorical, internal territories of a soul and deeply connected with the human heart, not simply places or objects.
You explore and translate themes such as exploration, growth, innocence, curiosity, transcendence and love. In your work, are each of these themes contrastive to or reflective of the other?
Each theme complements and adds on one another. I do touch upon more heavy themes like loss, pain, mortality, but even those I feel are more reflective and supplementing to the other motifs. Love is felt stronger and more intensely if the vulnerability, sense of mortality, fragility of the moment is there, too, not to contrast it as an opposite but to complement because it all together is to be alive and to be a human.
In 1980, you were born in Soviet occupied Latvia, and from the age of 10, began a strict technical education in painting and drawing, with the purpose of training you for a career as a social realist painter for the Soviet propaganda machine. To seek comfort in this environment, you went out into the natural environment with your grandmother and looked for other elements of beauty and poetry you could find. To what extent, did this period shape the subject matter of your paintings and the themes you select to explore?
I don’t think it shaped my current subject matter much, not directly. It did give certain background for my early childhood years and shaped me as a human being in some ways, like it forced me to learn to find beauty in any situation and circumstance, think with my own head and heart, always question what I’m told and especially by powers that be, as well as that it taught me the skillset and technique of painting that I still rely on. But the themes, thought process, general approach to subject matter and what truly matters to me is way broader, deeper and more complex than that.
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You’ve spoken about the inherent abstract symbolism of historical Latvian poetry, and their serving as a lens into the relationship between humans, nature and the cycles of life and death which link them. Is there a piece of literature, you can pinpoint as having a significant influence on your working process?
I have a deep love and admiration to medieval Persian poetry for the way it approaches life and art: on one level it is has a wonderful simplicity in expressing beauty of human connection, love and nature in lyrical ways; on the other level it has a profound symbolical significance in every little detail, talking about spiritual revelations and blissful connection (and painful loss) to the higher consciousness. It is something I strive for in my work. I also have a substantial library of books with folk tales and mythology from around the world and mostly places I have travelled to. And I read a lot of non-fiction about psychology, philosophy, science, history etc. and I find this type of literature very inspiring to my work.
The concept of bittersweetness is a fundamental idiosyncrasy in your working process. In addition, you talk of the “dance of transcendence,” and the process of transformation of the dark and heavy parts of our lives into lightness and joy. I’ve also read that, “there is often a juxtaposition of harshness with hope” in your paintings with figures showing “bloody scratches, incisions, or redness on their skin, surrounded by butterflies or flowers.” But here, “the viewer doesn’t feel pity for the subject of the painting, and the emphasis is more on the residency of spirit that these figures show and the gentle persuasive power of nature always triumphing over adversity.” In saying so, do you believe in looking to your own experiences of triumphing over adversity for inspiration?
We don’t live in a society where pouring your heart and soul into something will always bring rewards. There is heartbreak and pain, for everyone at some point, sooner or later. And sometimes your small but immeasurably important triumph is getting out of bed that day. Yes, that is an inspiration, too. Painting is a way for me to process so many things – from sensory sensations to the strongest emotions, pain and pleasure alike. Painting is a very slow meditative process, where one artwork can take somewhere from a few days to years to complete. If someone meditates around a certain emotion, experience or feeling for that long, a certain transformation naturally happens, so it is not calculated or intentional on an intellectual level. This “dance of transcendence” is not just the [artistic] creation process, but a dance of life to me. And in this dance a certain level of playfulness and effortlessness is important, too.
The presence of the nude female figure, is also a key characteristic in your work and you describe these figures as being representative of “subjective, inherent, feminine sexuality.” Can you speak more on this?
The vast majority of professional artists in art history have been males, so the viewpoint from which the female body, soul, thoughts, feelings as well as femininity as such as has been examined and reflected upon has been a male view. A physically and emotionally exposed woman as a theme by most part has been an object – displayed for desire, judgement or examination, external, out there, but not a personal, intimate, subjective universe, where the viewer is intimately invited to identify with her. I am happy to live in a time where female artists are changing that, where they are their own subject matter, owning their narrative and telling their own story through their own art! And that is also a big part of what drives me in my art process. Yes, some part of my subject matter is the female sexuality, but I want to tell how I feel it from my own subjective intimate viewpoint, owning it, personalising it, with all the discomfort and beauty, vulnerability and strength, pain and pleasure, light and darkness, growth and death it contains within.
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Do you believe the figures portrayed in your paintings are in a continual state of growth, and therefore transcendent to time?
In many ways I can agree to that, the figure in a certain stage of life represents a certain stage of soul transformation. Each period – infanthood, childhood, adolescence, maturity, old age and all that’s in-between that – each encompasses a different archetype, each has different trials and tribulations associated to it, each requests a certain transcendence in the process of soul growth.
You are quoted as having the ambition to portray “a real pure wild woman in her girlhood body, her path, trial, catharsis, symbolic death and revival.” Has this ambition changed as your career has progressed, and would you add anything to this statement as a result?
The ambition has grown definitely. This statement is from a while back. I feel like in my art I reflect upon my life and try to make sense of it but not at the present moment, but a decade or so back in the past, as if I need a certain vantage-point to grasp the significance of it. In my twenties I painted mostly childhood, in my 30s I mostly tried to symbolically interpret my teen years and adolescence, now my characters are mostly in young adulthood. Maybe I need that to reflect back on my past path, trials, catharsis, my symbolic death and revival, in a way where art and life is one.
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