2020 turned out to be a real challenge for all the visual artists. In response to the pandemic, the Young Painter Prize organisers decided not to suspend the international competition and carry it out in a different format – both the opening and the award ceremony were streamed online and were seen by 11,643 viewers from all around the world. The project jury was comprised of Jean-Max Colard (art theorist, curator, literary critic, chair of the Talk Program..


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The 12th winner of the Young Painter Prize will be announced on the 13th of November at the “Pakrantė” gallery in Vilnius. In the run-up to one of the most important painting events of the year in the Baltics, we asked Lithuanian art critic Viltė Visockaitė to share her thoughts on the contemporary painting, networked painting and about the union between painter and curator.

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The 12th winner of the Young Painter Prize will be announced on the 13th of November at the "Pakrante" gallery in Vilnius. In the run-up to one of the most important painting events of the year in the Baltics, we asked Latvian art critic and curator Šelda Puķīte to share her thoughts on the contemporary art scene and the situation for the young artists in it. Painting has been buried then revived many times over the last few decades, but now we can see that the medium is once more in ascent. Where Does Painting Stand Today?

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The Winner Takes It All


The 12th winner of the Young Painter Prize will be announced on the 13th of November at the "Pakrante" gallery in Vilnius. In the run-up to one of the most important painting events of the year in the Baltics, we asked Latvian art critic and curator Šelda Puķīte to share her thoughts on the contemporary art scene and the situation for the young artists in it. Painting has been buried then revived many times over the last few decades, but now we can see that the medium is once more in ascent. Where Does Painting Stand Today?


Text by curator and critic Šelda Puķīte



The Winner Takes It All *

Song by Abba (1980)




Where Does Painting Stand Today?


“Today, painting has overcome its historical “burden” to be the “archetype” of art, and has become “only” a medium, which is neither better nor worse than others.”This seemingly liberating conclusion was penned in an essay by the Latvian art historian Ieva Astahovska that was published in the catalog of the very first major art show of 21st century dedicated to the newest shape-shifters of the medium of painting in Latvia. The exhibition, “Candy Bomber: Young Latvian Painters”, which took place in Latvian National Museum of Art exhibition hall Arsenāls in 2007, signalled that following the popularity of installations and photography in 90’s and early 00’s, the medium of painting had regained the attention of the younger generation of artists. The show went on to have two more iterations. The first in 2010 (Urbanchildren: Young Latvian Painters) still pretty much echoed the first exhibition, while a second in 2016 (“Tension. Young Painters in Latvia”) already began to show signs that young artists were thinking about what painting is and how it can be used. But what did this liberation of painting really mean, and where does it really stand today in the pluralism of the art world?


I'm not sure how fruitful it is to touch upon the topic of the several “deaths” and “rebirths” of painting that has been circulating in the minds and writings of art professionals and thinkers for almost two centuries now. Following the last “renaissance” of painting at the beginning of 21st century this “death bell ring tone” seemed to have quieted down. Still, it tends to sneak in between the lines of critical texts every time an important contemporary art show presents a decent amount of paintings. It is as if it were some sort of miracle similar to the biblical awakening of Lazarus. The reason for this may not be attributable simply to the expectation of painting’s timely demise, but more to the fact that contemporary art shows more often privilege photography, video and installation. These different alternative forms of media have replaced painting's function to represent the visible world and to connect more with modern society.

The French painter Paul Delaroche was the first to proclaim painting’s death in the first half of 19th century, spurred on by the invention of photography. But instead of thinking from the loser’s perspective, we can look upon these changes as a liberation of painting – allowing it to develop its own unique language and other qualities, free from specific function or obligation to the world. Even more, painting gets to retain what the philosopher Walter Benjamin called an “aura”. It can keep its status as an analog art form status instead of becoming a technically reproduced object, as well as its grand history and unshakable pole position in the art market. So, then what’s the problem? Well, it can unfortunately easily fall into the trap of commercialism and never get past the status of a luxury product or a design object. This, of course, applies to those artists for whom such an outcome is an issue. Then there is the contemporary art scene which snubs painters as professionals belonging to the old world, meaning that artists have to catch the zeitgeist by the tail to remain relative. The ironic moment in all of this is that if the contemporary art world accepts the painter, the market quickly follows anyway as paintings sell well. So, the painter as the winner takes all. 


Everything Is Liquid, Everything Is Painting

One of the minds behind the world-famous Eames designs, Ray Eames, was herself a classically trained painter. She said that she never gave up painting, she just changed her pallet. Painting is not a strictly defined form; it can manifest itself as an artistic vision or worldview. It can be present in the way an artist uses color, artistic gestures, space, and even time. It can be a performative movement that incorporates painterly qualities - the aggressiveness or softness of the brush. There are definitely dozens of artists who work with sculpture, installations, performances, photo and video art who from my point of view are painters using different kind of canvas. 

Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein took one of painting’s most important tools –the brushstroke - and transformed it into a mechanical, cold reproduction, or in other words created a gravestone for it. Now, apart from art that is strongly influenced by the presence of the internet, there are also certain forms that are reminiscent of modernism. The brush stroke has suddenly not just broken free from Lichtenstein’s flat image in all its juicy textures and liquidity, but it has also jumped out of the canvas and become a sculptural entity itself.  

The “fluidity”we are experiencing now is not just connected with the fluid borderlines that exist between different art forms. It’s time itself that has triggered a different look at the world that hopefully won’t get jammed by political “earthquakes” and pandemics. Physical mobility and internet connections have changed the way we perceive our location, our connection with it, and travel. It has been popular for some time to revisit history, trying to decolonize and expand it by filling it with stories of different marginalized groups including woman, queer communities and different cultures and races. Archiving the ghosts of the past has also become an important part of the oeuvre of modern painters like Luc Tuyman, Marlene Dumas and Neo Rauch, all of whom blend their own personal micro histories into their works. 


A crucial source of liquidity is the influence of the internet, the streams and surfing opportunities it has provided, and the flows of images and information we have experienced. And then finally there is the post human movement which forces us to shift from our position of center and reconnect with other living things and the world as such. This idea about reconnecting and fluidity is very much present in the poetic texts of the essayist Astrida Neimanis, which are dedicated to the topic of hydrofeminism.Here she speaks of bodies being water which, connected in an imaginably tight yet fluid way, allow us to be free of dogmas and flow where we need to. 

There is also social politics, of course.  The younger generation is at this moment ready to be socially active and so is art. There are people that might disagree, but even if the artist creates abstracts or landscapes there is a certain layer that will always deliver some sort of political message. Apolitical art is an illusion. Paintings possess the potential to speak in very different layers. They can touch us almost unconsciously, and that’s where we come back again to the concept of fluidity. Unfortunately, the art world itself is both inclusive and exclusive. But there is hope. Taking into consideration the activism that is happening, the rewriting of history and the creation of a more inclusive society - it seems inevitable that this will affect art and the art market also. And indeed, we are already seeing greater numbers of females and a high proportion of multi-ethnic artists present.


From the Female Gaze To a Naked Man With White Socks

The 2019 Venice Biennale showed us that there has been a shift in the representation of different genders, with the amount of women artists participating the largest in its long history (many of whom were painters). Liquidity has happened not just in art but also in other aspects of life, giving a main stage to those who have had a harder time to be noticed before. This has also effected an important shift in the way the world is represented through art. The gaze has changed, with the female gaining more dominance than ever before. 

Identity in one or another way has always been on the menu of art but now it seems to have become an even more important dish. The historical discoveries that have been actualized and represented have become an important encouragement to many. For example, the discovery of the first abstract painter Hilma af Klint, and now the big show of baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschiall play an important role. The women’s history movement that started in 70’s has now become a true powerhouse, thanks to the undertakings of influential institutions. Hopefully this movement won’t be hushed by the conservative section of society - to which a large number of historians unfortunately belong. It seems that the stigma amongst women that painting represents the patriarchy is also not so present anymore. 

From the Baltic States I would like to highlight a few interesting artists that I would associate with painting. From Latvia we could list such internationally and commercially successful artists as Ēriks Apaļais, Jānis Avotiņš and Inga Meldere, but for me they represent the first generation of 21st century. Also, although they make use of interesting approaches like working with archives, memories and language transported into canvas, they still don't seem to be “liquid” enough. Artists from the subsequent generation like Elīna Vītola and Amanda Ziemele are already showing a different approach. They both seemed to be starting from from more modernistic and abstract roots, injecting these stylistic points of departure with different topics that are socially relevant today.

In Vītola’s case it has turned her works, which comment heavily on an art community, into an artistic factory which involves several other artists. The joint installation titled “Artist Crises Center” (2019) is a good example of her practice. I would also like to draw attention to the last artist who represented Latvia at the Venice Biennale - Daiga Grantiņa with her fleshy, liquid and baroque like sculptural installations which in my view are very painterly. 

From Estonia two names immediately come to my mind – Merike Estna and Kristi Kogi. Both create semi abstract work using bright colors, often allowing their paintings to transform by placing them in murals or spatial installations. In Estna’s case, we can also talk about the elements of mysticism, symbolism and even shamanism that are present in her work, and that leads me to another Estonian artist Kris Lemsalu.  Her rainbow colored, symbolic and expressive sculptures, installations and performances are like paintings that have exploded, and from which the characters have crawled out to then begin their own ritual dance or circus performance. 

My knowledge of the Lithuanian scene is unfortunately much poorer than I would like to admit. I of course know the strong tradition of expressionism that I guess is still present in many artists’ works though maybe in a more subtle, dream like way. The previously mentioned Elīna Vītola very much likes to comment on the contemporary art world she her-self is part of, and the same is true of the Estonian artist Alexei Gordin, although there is a stronger narrative element in his work. I guess in the Lithuania case a solid example could be Egle Karpaviciute. A younger generation artist whose painting I really liked from previous the Young Painter Prize short list exhibition was Raminta Blazeviciute. Her works follow the above mentioned tradition, although this is mixed together with surrealism and a low brow street vibe which makes them very current. Looking from more looser perspectives I would like to include in this list the artistic duo Pakui Hardware. Their work, which synthesizes materials and forms that seem to physically manifest the hydro-feminism ideas, are a pure example of what is painterly today, not to mention the concept of the liquid modernity. 

A similar exciting change has been performed by artists who are shifting away from the tradition of the western art history canon, or who have been mixing it with their own unique heritage which is not part of western culture. There are predictions both from scholars and curators alike that the exciting works made now that are being exhibited in many major art festivals and museums might become the new benchmark and inspiration for European artists in the future. But where in all this does the white male artist stand? We can say that in the same social fluidity as the rest of the world. At the same time this confusion of identity in 21st century masculinity, mixed with the magical thinking that has blossomed in last decade, is very nicely presented by the work of the British artist Glen Pudvine. His confrontational work has been described as the potential death of art. Pudvine’s surreal paintings are self-portraits as nudes in which he is only wearing white socks. His figure is positioned in strange, fantastic yet disturbing landscapes in which he has a monster as a partner. They remind one of the aesthetics and fantasies of the old Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch mixed with the new selfie culture. As the artists explained to Elephant magazine, “The self-portrait originally felt like a way of exposing my total ‘normal-ness’. I didn’t have anything to bring to the table.”


Survival Strategies For Young Artists

If we distance ourselves from our present lock down situation arising from the worldwide pandemic, we can say that this is a marvelous time for young artists. The mobility options using different support programs for young artists, as well as residencies and schools, are almost unlimited. But there is a catch. An artist needs to be elastic, mobile, and always looking fresh and current. There is also constant instability. Nothing is stable, nothing is reassuring. Looking from this perspective, we can say that flexibility and youthfulness and also a drop of pure luck is an important part of the survivalist strategy. 

In the Baltic States, scholarships are formed of both public, as well as private sector funds. The largest support programs are for students or recent school graduates. We can all together say that artists under 35 years have the most opportunities. The only necessary criteria, besides ideas and creativity, is to be active. In most cases, taking the initiative and not waiting for curators to discover them or the schools to push them is central, although schools and curators still provide very crucial support for young and establishes artists. Institutional power is still very important, but there are also virtual platforms, which are another tool that should not be overlooked. Then there are prizes as well, which should not be taken too seriously as an obligatory standard for success. But such prizes do provide artists with an important opportunity to win much needed funding to work. They also give them the opportunity to show works to expert jury members who might want to collaborate in future, and then there is the media coverage and the chance to make exhibitions in different galleries and participate in important residencies.

An interesting separate topic is residencies. Some artists use them so extensively that they acquire the nickname of “residency junkies”. However, it would appear that nowadays, aside from the opportunity to study art at schools around the world,  or register for popular online courses, residencies are an important exchange tool. They provide artist with the possibility to experience different geographical locations, landscapes and cultures and also network, which is crucial these days if an artist is looking for future collaborations. But at some point, it can begin to feel that the art is not as important as all of its institutional accoutrements and this is something young artists should be always careful of. Doing everything by the book can get you trapped in the art system and market, and you might lose your own “voice”. 

“Success means that people are buying your works and are hanging them above their sofas on the wall”. This is how success was explained by Elīna Vītola, the winner of The Nordic & Baltic Young Artist Award’18, whose installation consisted of a 20 m long painted scroll and sofa. This statement first of all suggests that success is connected with integration into the art market. Secondly, for integration to happen, art needs to possess decorative functionality or trophy like qualities. The artist did not invent this statement, but consciously borrowed it from the conservative teachers of Art Academy of Latvia, who introduced this idea to their students. Artists are constantly put in situations where they need to strike a balance between their personal desires, survival and goals to reach authenticity. 

In his public lecture series about artistic success, the British artist Grayson Perry regaled the audience in his usual tongue in cheek manner with answers the general public gave to a questionnaire about art. The results showed that apparently most people prefer blue colored paintings and landscapes with cows. It may seem kind of ridiculous to follow this formula, but artist themselves often blindly follow the Western artistic canon. In the end this is equivalent to the blue landscape with cow situation. There are things (some of which I mentioned in this essay) that can bring you closer to some success, and there are different support systems that have been invented as well. But before doing something important, the artist must first envision what exactly the goal of an artist is. When this envisioning is complete, artist needs to keep an open, curious and flexible mind because the world is in a constant state of flux.