Russian artist Katya Granova deliberately explores imagery from the past, from family photographs to old masters. We met with Katya to talk a little bit about her upbringing and journey as an artist.
When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?
It is hard to say. As a child I wanted to be a poet, then a vet, then an actress, then a psychologist, then an artist, then a psychologist again; so I ended up getting my first degree in psychology. But I guess I have just always been painting. I started painting and exhibiting my first big “serious” works when I was around eighteen and have not stopped yet.
What was your upbringing like and how has this impacted your work?
It impacted my work a lot. I was born in the Soviet Union, which crashed when I was about 3 years old. It was a crazy difficult time when everything was rapidly changing. My work now deals a lot with the idea of historical memory, and I actually witnessed three huge rewritings of history: some books in school were still soviet pro-Marxist, some 90’s pro-American, now Putin’s Russia again gives a completely different view on the same past. I guess this made me question the very experience of the memory, even my own. It is clear that history is relative, but when you actually witness how different ideologies create new pasts and how quickly people start following that; it is quite overwhelming and sad. This sentiment is visible in my practice with old photographs, where I bring my bodily approach to paint in order to intrude on the dead stability of photographic documentation.
Also my work has a lot of influence from Baroque art. I grew up in St Petersburg, probably the most Baroque city in the world and attended Hermitage evening school. It influenced my approach to painting, which is bodily, fleshy, visceral and excessive, like the Baroque tradition. My family is a dynasty of surgeons, this too impacted me massively, both in my approach to paint and my subject. Emma Talbot, one of RCA tutors, told me that I paint like I’m dissecting the body of the painting in order to cure it and I really liked this description.
Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. Have you gone through the traditional route of art school and what was your experience?
My route was very unconventional. As mentioned, I’ve always painted but I’ve also studied social psychology up to mid-PhD level. Then I worked as a medical psychologist in a hospice, which was a tough but a transformative experience. Somehow it brought me to a higher commitment to the art practices. I studied further with the Paris College of Art (Certificate), ICA Moscow (an art philosophy evening school), Kingston University (MA Art & Space), and the Royal College of Arts (MA Painting).
People often ask me why I changed my interests so dramatically – but actually I did not. My interest in psychology was based on the human condition of being bound to the time and later, death, and how we as people deal with it. My practice problematises the experience of the past-future continuum and reflects on old photography as a practice of fixing a moment, which is now dead.
I think a lot of art-making is an act of communication between others and myself, and I think of my paintings as statements that communicate complex perceptions of time scale and human experience. I don’t work as a psychologist anymore and only concentrate on art, but the former helped develop my ideas and personality a lot.
Who and what are your greatest influences?
I am greatly influenced by Baroque – Rubens, Jordaens, Snyders; by some color schemes of Bonnard and Degas; from contemporary painting I’m influenced by Marlene Dumas, Cecil Brown, Michael Armitage, and Vladimir Semensky’s work; and I really like Mark Dion’s approach to the human position in the world. But generally I have a wide spectrum of interests as I am also influenced heavily by philosophy, biology, psychology and literature.
Are your works planned? What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?
Yes and no. Most of my works are based on found-imagery like vintage photographs, so I work with the given subject and composition, but I never know what I will end up with as my work is quite spontaneous. I mix intuitive expressive decisions and the concept of intrusion into documents of the past with careful thought about what I am doing and what I want to achieve. I see my work as a way to communicate my vision of the world to others, but I don’t want to be directive – I want to leave my audience to decide what they get from the work.
What’s the message of your work? Where do the themes and narratives come from?
My practice is centred around themes of history, time, memory and the ways in which to deal with these. I tend to work with the imagery I have some connection to, like old family photographs or the old masters’ paintings at Hermitage. I aim to intrude on the passed, dead moment, fixed by the photograph, to interrupt the oppressive time scale, where the past is practically unapproachable. History is always biased and we are bound to be present only at this very moment, which brings us to the future against our will. This desire to interfere in the body of the past, with my own body presence, has made me interested in taking surgery and medical services as my subjects. It has also brought me to larger scale, where painting better becomes a bodily act – an interaction between myself, the work, the viewer and the photograph that I’m dealing with.
As a child I had a practice of drawing over pictures in magazines, photographs and whatever material featuring pictures of people. Without necessarily mocking them, I liked to paint over it, adding something new. This practice combined with my reflections on history as an ideological tool brought me to my current practice. I normally project the photographs (or paintings) onto canvas in order to completely change and fictionalize it. I mostly take images from the distant past before my birth, of events I cannot possibly have personal experience of.
Philosophically I consider myself to be a Cartesian skeptic – I really do not have any firm belief there is something to be sure about, something to lean on in the world. This is especially true about the past. I see the world and history as a gravity-less floating mess of personal subjective experiences, like Hito Steyerl describes the contemporary experience as zero gravity, floating. Therefore, working and transforming the imagery in my painting I consciously avoid the flat areas, transforming the stable photographic picture into a floating mess of brush marks.
What events in your life have mobilized change in your practice/aesthetic?
I’ve used a variety of mediums, from performance and installation, to video and ceramics, but I consider painting to be my main medium for now. I think it is one of the most difficult languages, since it is so loaded with historical connotations, still so subjective, so many times problematised and so many times declared dead. That is what makes it interesting for me and particularly effective when talking about memory and past. I don’t feel entirely comfortable presenting myself as a painter in Russia because of the strong and old-fashioned academic state art institutions and contemporary art practices, as a conceptual opposition, so if you hang out with the contemporary art scene and do painting, you look old-fashioned and suspicious.
Until I discovered my interest in dealing with photographs and historical paintings and thinking about painting-photograph relationships, I was trying quite a lot of different painterly approaches. Perhaps RCA has been the strongest educational experience for me, especially the dissertation which enabled me to think deeply about my practice and interests. I recently had a serious car accident which changed me and my thinking a lot, including how much I should care about what the professional community thinks. My approach got more mature, perhaps. But I still experiment a lot and do not stick to anything too strongly.
What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?
I really need natural light when working and it creates problems in the shared studios in RCA – everyone switches on the electric lights! I enjoy working in residencies and even enjoy having sharp deadlines, it helps me concentrate. Generally good work requires a period of struggle. I work fast, but then I can be unsure what to change and so I sit looking at the work for months. When the struggle happens and finally I overcome it I get the best ones.
What are you hoping to achieve in the future? Any projects, collaborations, taking a break?
I’m planning to apply for the talent visa and stay in the UK for some time. And I would like to concentrate on my painting practice, ideally exhibiting internationally… But we will see.