With her first solo exhibition being displayed through 68projects in Berlin, we spoke to Rusudan Khizanishvili about how her approach to painting has developed this year, as well as her transformation as an artist over time. With influences ranging from traditional Georgian architecture to myths, the self, and the female form, she explains how her art is an investigation into our innate individuality and interconnectedness as human beings. The result is a striking collection by an artist who is comfortable transcending the constructed world she inhabits to present work that is atavistic at its core.
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It’s not often we get to chat with a Georgian artist, how have cultural influences inspired your approach and your current exhibition? How important is it for you to be a representative for female Georgian artists?
As an artist, I absorb various cultural traditions. Georgian architectural tradition is one of them, along with other more contemporary influences. It is important for me as it creates a clear basis, one facet of the interaction with the outside. The first association I have with the Georgian cultural heritage is the form. It’s partly ascetic, partly embellished and ornamental due to its deep attention to colours. Probably this monumental asceticism creates a certain vantage point, causing conscious or subconscious choices for my works. It is interesting to mention in this regard King Tamar, a queen who is remembered as the king of Georgia, who is very well portrayed through striking surviving frescos of the twelfth century and a model of a strong woman sovereign in the cultural memory.
I am proud to be an artist from Georgia who happens to be a woman, but I hope in the future the art world will abandon its division into male and female artists and will focus more on the substance of the work, rather than the gender of the creator. At the same time, I feel fortunate that my artistic career developed amidst traditional limitations imposed on women in Georgia, they made me a stronger artist who has more to say. From the start, art gave me a strong identity to carry forth. I am glad to see younger generations of Georgian artists who are women and who are following this calling.
Are there any specific works you saw that you wanted to emulate early on? When did you make the decision to pursue art as a career?
Despite the fact that I studied to become a cinematographer, for me, painting still remains the most important technique. I would like to add here that I do not create paintings as they should be, rather I create by means of form and colour based on the narratives or ideas I want to investigate. So not surprisingly for me, my most influential artists have always been masters of painting as a form of representation.
Matisse, Rembrand, Rothko, Bonnard, Van Gogh, van Eyck, Holbein, Caravaggio, Giotto, Auerbach, Freud, Rego, Lupertz, Serra, Rauch, Borremans, Rosa Loy, and Alice Neel all have a place in my references. In addition to the outsider artists, I would also include three-dimensional masters as being very influential, especially Louise Bourgeois, Nick Cave, and Sarah Lucas. I was an adult when I first saw works of ‘great’ art in person, and it was a big cultural shock for me. The first work that stands out to me is the temple of the queen Hatshepsut and the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. For me, most things start with the inner, sacral aspects radiating outward.
Art was never a rational decision for me. Drawing and paintings were my obsessions since I was a small girl, and I could not imagine myself doing anything else.
Your new presentation, Rooms & Beings, is being exhibited through 68projects. Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired this project? We know it’s influenced by Georgian culture, so how does it feel to bring that to a broader audience who might be new to it?
I have started this year with working on portraits with live models. And then the pandemic transformed these works, making them more about what is inside of ourselves, our fears, desires, phobias, strengths. Rooms are stages set for spectators to observe; some of them show transformations of people, some of them look at how fears come through or how energy is exchanged between the figures. The series was of course inspired by the global standstill, by an opportunity to dig deeper into individual truth of who I am.
I would not say there is a tacit Georgian influence here as on the contrary I consciously have negated any references to the local folklore or themes. Aiming for a universal language that could be understood equally well in the West and the East was my main goal. As the curator of the exhibition, Nina Mdivani pointed out in relation to the show that overall theatrical presentation of the figures might be one element that connects these works to Georgia, as the theatre has a strong presence there.
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The majority of the fourteen paintings in Rooms & Beings were completed this year. To what extent are they explorations of the self as opposed to the experiences of the world around you, or vice versa?
As an artist I do not perceive my self as separate from the outside world and its experiences; all of these elements are interconnected for me and I explore the quality, grade, and tonality of these connections. As my method I use direct reflection, using canvas as the membrane, the main receiving end of my interaction with the World.
It’s also worth mentioning that your new project is being shown in Berlin, where you’ve exhibited a couple of times before. How does it feel bringing your work to this kind of art mecca? Obviously, audience reaction is always a concern, but do you feel a reassurance that Berliners will be open-minded and look at your work objectively?
Of course, it feels more significant this time because I did not have a solo exhibition in Berlin before and I was/am very curious about how the Berlin art scene will react to my work. As I am still working from far away, I can see and imagine an absolutely different picture from my location of what people will pay attention to and why. From what I know about the opening and the duration of the exhibition the feedback from viewers had been very receptive and positive. For me, as a foreign and less known artist, this show at 68 Projects is a more responsible undertaking as I am new for this scene and it is new to me. I am very saddened that I was not able to see the show in person, but I will be there next time.
You’ve mentioned before how issues ranging from the self, myths, and the female form are central to your art. What do you hope to gain from exploring these issues as an artist in 2020? How vital are they in the modern world?
Notions of myth, self and the female form are vital for the contemporary world as much as they have always been. They might have changed some characteristics or names, but still are here to guide us in a subtle and archetypal way. I would say that my figures are part real and part mythological, lacking in ethnicity and rather trying to show the nature of the individual, what space is occupied by spiritual, carnal, emotional strivings. All these questions are as important today as they’ll ever be for a society that wants to understand itself.
“Online exhibitions are like a foreword in a book; they can give you a vague idea, but you can’t judge the whole book by this introduction.”
On your website, you note how you paint with your emotions and that colours are brainwaves for you. How did this approach manifest in the pandemic year?
I continued to experiment with my palette, creating works that sometimes have harmony and sometimes have dissonance, as both are parts of the human experience. Works on view also range by their tonalities, but some degree of static presence is also there. Also, this year I had a chance to switch back to oil paints and this added different plasticity to the brushstrokes.
Speaking of this year, we’re also keen to know how you anticipate your work fitting into the art world in future. Do you have any concerns about the future of art, whether this is your own work or the wider discipline? How do you think such art will adapt to a changing world?
There is a lot of discussion about these fresh shifts and I have read somewhere that art has already died, but I do not accept this point of view. I truly believe the artistic way of expression became part of us due to some inherent needs and we all depend on it. Art will be with us for as long as a civilisation will exist – its shape might change and evolve, but it will be here. We might not fully comprehend how much we depend on the creative processes, but historically we have seen this. Whole sagas were written in people’s minds when they were imprisoned, for example, just as imaginary creatures of Boschs or others were created under very dire circumstances. Nonetheless, we are here to comprehend these works of culture. Same will be with us.
Online exhibitions are increasingly ubiquitous and a great chance to bring art to the masses. What are your thoughts on presenting your work online? How much nuance do you think is lost between the gallery and the screen?
I am against this option even it seems like a great opportunity. On the one hand, it can be definitely good for increasing presence of my art globally, but also, we miss the soul, part of the paintings or sculptures, the part which needs the direct eye contact, and we can miss the depth of the presented idea. Online exhibitions are like a foreword in a book; they can give you a vague idea, but you can’t judge the whole book by this introduction.
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How important is it for you to explore the female experience in your work? Do you take pride in labelling yourself as a female artist, or would you prefer just to exist as an artist without the added label?
I would prefer to be labelled just an artist. Not to disregard female experience as a very important part of my body of work. Women are complex individuals and engaging with transformations of their bodies and souls as they go through life, become mothers, mature, fully embody their identities. Coming from a traditional society where the role of women is changing, the associated increase in presence of women inside the society, her strengthening and relish of her own physical being is something that I systematically explore on canvas. However, I do not see that division into male and female artists is warranted. There are storytellers and activists, abstract and representational, good and bad, but not necessarily male and female.
In The Yellow Room, you’ve painted a portrait of your daughter, how is this compared with painting other people. Is there an added intimacy to the process, or did you feel freer to explore other avenues? What does she think of your work?
Yellow Room has certain intimacy for me because of my daughter and also because it was the first portrait of a family member I started with when the pandemic made the visits of live sitters impossible.
Another important factor was that I used real clothes; until then I was using more imaginary than real attire. I feel that using real clothes that touch human skin make portraits more intimate, reveal more of a person to the outside. My daughter liked the work, although I do not think the portrait looks entirely like her.
You’ve spoken as well about how the process of transformation and of becoming appeals to you. How do you feel you’ve progressed, or at least transformed, as an artist since you began professionally?
If you take a look at my earlier works you can easily see the difference between each period. I change the idea, the overarching concept or composition, the language of painting. As mentioned, I used to work with acrylic, now switching to oil for longer than I thought. But yes, to answer the question about progression I see my paintings as being more resolved, compositionally more tight and also freer from the academic influences of my schooling. I think that my exposure to outsider artists, as well as a more expressionist way of painting through the art history, are definitely helping me to be artistically where I want to be.
Finally, as well as your latest exhibition, you’ve had solo and group work exhibited globally. What’s next for you?
In 2021 a dual exhibition is planned at Annarumma Gallery in Napoli, Italy and a group show at Thisted Museum of Contemporary Art in Thisted, Denmark.
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