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Angela E. Akbari |Realities

A lightning bulb substitutes the central star in Viktors Svikis' (born 1978, Riga) large-size painting Beach (2010), a "swimming forbidden"-sign is placed in the left corner. But is this because of imminent danger? Does the picture of a shark in the painting's upper part give us a hint to that danger? One thing is clear: The young artist was not having a picturesque beach scene in mind when creating this painting: No vivid bodies are placed on the beach chairs in the foreground; instead the artist uses stick figures – even though Viktors Svikis is, as will be discussed later, extraordinarily talented when painting human skin taking full advantage of the volume of the colours. The scene is irritating as the chairs almost seem to fall out of frame; there is no sea – something the spectator may be longing for – just a reflecting silver screen. The perspective of the painting's lower part is almost tangible, contrasting the flatness of the silver screen. No bodies could exist upon this flat surface: the little boat is scratched into this screen and continues to appear and disappear, depending on the spectator's angle. The beach evoked by the painting's title cannot really be perceived; instead we see a backyard of culture and civilisation, a backyard whose despair becomes almost unbearable considering the holiday and beach memories installed into it. A similar irritation, albeit achieved by different means, becomes obvious in an untitled work from the artist's Live your Dream – wear it out series: The upper half of the painting consists of elements usually associated with a world full of beautiful illusions; the effect is even more enhanced by adding elements of the world of advertisement. This artificial universe, however, slowly dissolves into smears and soon turns into a scenario filled with aggression: Pictures of violence, fear and escape which we are all too familiar with from the news are presented in an almost old-school painting style due to the use of oil paint, charcoal and graphite. It is because of these specific forms of irritation and the quest for reality (or realities) connected thereto that Viktors Svikis' work can be assigned a special and expressionist position in contemporary art.

What is particularly striking about Svikis' work is that his style – compared to that of other contemporary artists – is not or hardly ever fractured by theoretical or conceptual approaches. He is most interested in his material: charcoal, paper, canvas, oil paints but his central thoughts are also invaded by strength, power and – at times – violence as well as the extreme peaks that influence everyday life. He does not judge but instead intends to use his work to analyze people's motivation and the world they are faced with. Svikis does not only use different materials in doing so but also applies these materials in different ways. Regarding their technical realisation, his drawings are to be placed between Goya and graffiti, his oil paintings between vivid corporeality and bold displays. All levels of the painting seem to interact in order to create a new form of multidimensionality. This effect seems to let his works flow in constant movement both on a contextual and on a formal level.

Multi-materiality and multi-reality are to be distinguished from the artistic concept of homogeneity which was predominant particularly during the Renaissance. According to this principle, both content and form of a painting are constantly subject to the illusion of perception.1 Art in this respect is – according to Alberti– represented as finistra aperta, as a fracture of the spectator's perspective. This perspective then forms another reality, congruent on all levels that shall be perceived as a completed world.2 According to Werner Hofmann, the system of collages contradicts this unity and completeness. Collages have been known ever since the beginnings of the 20th century: Early representatives can be found in German artists Kurt Schwitter (for example his famous Merz pictures and drawings) or Max Ernst. At times, also Viktors Svikis uses the technique of assemblage (i.e. adding or putting together different materials or putting them all onto canvas): The already discussed untitled work from his Live your dream – wear it out-series shows a square on a canvas thereby making it enter the room like a relief. We would however like to take this approach to the next level by showing that in Viktors Svikis' paintings, a creation of multi-materiality and various levels of reality arising thereof is possible via only one medium which is used in a polyphonic way, on just one canvas displaying some kind of inner strife.

A boy's firm, direct look, a fist directed at the spectator: A moment of anger finds a new vivid form in oil paint (Untitled, 2009). The background of the painting whose central point is the boy pictured in the middle is primarily dark. His reality is clearly cut from that of his surroundings. This painting technique results in the human's auratic presence amidst a shadowy environment. The child's body represents a vivid entity whereas the body of the canvas seems to be fractured by an interaction between drawing and white primer through which the brown, woven canvas shines through. All other figures and their materiality are only alluded to by charcoal drawings – their agility blends in with the canvas and is about to disappear. These bodies are "touched" and to be seen as fragmentary remains of a bigger story, namely of the Attempt(s) of an Anthropology of Loneliness – the title of the series. The boy's reality and that of his environment are falling apart in a concrete attempt of individual defence and before a general and overpowering social threat. The dog sign in the upper right corner then introduces a new and different level to the painting.

The next work (Untitled, 2009) also shows three different painting techniques: Both bushes and grass have been exquisitely carved out from a black charcoal primer. This specific approach of subtraction is overlapped by the person painted with oil. Red stripes appear to indicate a path but then end in the centre of the painting. The man pictured stares at the all too familiar exit sign: Run Now –is it sometimes better not to face facts and to withdraw from a desperate situation? The three different painting techniques constitute the work's multi-dimensionality: First, there is the dimension of the room's natural depths, a possible allegory to a desperate situation; then there is the person itself, vividly pictured and clearly stepping out from the dark and into the room, who seems uncertain what to do. The painting's third dimension consists of the exit sign's flatness, the work's pivotal point and also a comment on the situation as it represents the possible escape. All paintings discussed here have one thing in common: They tell a story of isolation among people – Svikis shares this central aspect of his oeuvre with one of the founding fathers of modern art: Edouard Manet.3 His picture language – often considered radical by his French contemporaries – is also something to be found in the works of the Latvian artist.

Viktors Svikis' work opens doors to surreally shifted worlds: He does, however, not show something over-real but instead points out the various kinds of realities in an apparently coherent world. The small two-dimensional squares and circles on the canvas are on the one hand to be seen as some kind of commentary to the events being depicted. Then, there is another aspect – an aspect already detected in the leashed dog, the shark, the line drawings and many more: In our age of modern technology with computers and smartphones, these squares can almost be seen as elements opening the doors to an extended reality. They can be seen as apps through which we enter a new and virtual world full of new functions. We are now able to experience virtual realities; different levels of reality are now nested in our perception. Surreal principles, originally considered new and irritatingly aesthetic in our un- and subconscious mind have now become a part of a modern perception of reality due to new technologies. One painting taken from Svikis' series Street View (Untitled) illustrates this phenomenon on various levels: From a technical perspective, drawing, acrylic and oil painting interact and thus blend in with each other. The painting depicts a square in Vienna. An essential part of the painting is a chair installed into the painting which was originally to be found in the artist's kitchen: We are now able to travel to (almost) any place in the world thanks to modern computer networks without actually leaving our homes. Virtual reality and natural environment seem to overlap. Things which might have seemed surreal several decades ago, have now become part of everyday life.

A critical review of this phenomenon should also deal with the question of how our perception has changed because of that: What is considered to be real, how do we perceive the various "natural" and virtual realities? Is it still possible to draw a clear line or is our world becoming more and more like a picture, a screen which displays any kind of information at any time? Is our world turning into a place where absolute mobility and transparency are the driving forces? Svikis places a pause and play button over his drawings still-video (2010), the first showing a hand, the second a scary working environment in which people have to wear masks. We cannot however be sure whether a real situation has been overlapped by these signs or whether a computer screenshot has been drawn. The painting therefore becomes a concise symbol of our confusing realities. The painting's material becomes a part of this alluded interaction: The depicted situation – apparently disembodied and virtual – is based on the principles of binary code. The consequences of this principle become obvious in the bodies, therefore displaying the interaction between virtual and natural world. The fraction between a coherent virtual reality and a natural one becomes obvious in the first still-video in which this phenomenon is represented by a torn canvas. The second still-video (2010) shows a carefully created pencil drawing disturbed by an ironic commentary drawn onto the painting with a biro: The simple stick figure of a dead bird adds to the dramatic effect in the background.
Viktors Svikis at times takes months to finish his larger paintings but his small drawings are often created on the spur of the moment, as a reaction to emotions and experiences around him. His figures usually float freely on the paper turning into expressive emotional symbols. The spectator is, however, not given a narrative answer to their emotional quest; there is no scenic development, only strenuous moments of human existence. The series red line (2009) depicts still moments of human sorrow, the source of which does not reveal itself to the spectator. The sole motif is emotion which is underlined by a scarce use of coloured accentuation.

The unique position of Svikis is on the one hand inspired by his talent to use the drawing and painting techniques of the Old Masters. As he points outs, "Most painters try not to be in line, I however make the line my own". In Butterfly Effect, he uses thick graphite lines, closely placed next to each other, which form a dark room surrounding a subtle shade of a drawn figure with a mask. The scientific age, expecting to calculate everything until a future far from now is almost ironically undermined by the term Butterfly Effect as defined by Edward Lorenz in 1963.4 This "prank" that sensitive systems seem to play on closely-knit scientific thinking is visualized by Svikis: Precise drawing techniques and stick figures, reminiscing a child's drawing, coexist in this work. This natural language of form is what makes Svikis' oeuvre so special. The artistic approach to forget all academically acquired painting techniques as promoted by artists critical of society such as Gauguin or Picasso is adopted by Svikis but are able to coexist in his works coexist with the academically trained painting approach. Whereas the artistic movement called "Primitivism" created a new painting school with its own means and found its own visual expression of form: There are many paintings which only hint various levels of reality that are then depicted in one painting modus. Svikis combines extreme fractions between painting techniques on just one piece of paper. This aspect of fragmentation, as well as the various levels of realities and types of expressionist language, also becomes obvious regarding the paper itself. The Latvian artist hardly ever uses smooth edges: He tears the paper apart until it fits his needs regarding composition and content. The paper is the art work's basis and therefore no longer to be seen as sacred material; instead it is tailored according to the artist's wishes and needs. It represents more than just a simple basis and depicts the inner strife of painting technique and motif not just as medium but as equal working material.

In one of his recent oil paintings titled Please wait, you will be seated (2011) the artist questions the volume of colour and the vividness of humans. Svikis lists Vélazquez, who – with his unique use of paints – has inspired many artists throughout the centuries, and Lucian Freud as inspiration for his work. The artist combines an extensive and pastoique approach: The expansion of human skin can almost be felt through Svikis' use of colour. Whereas Freud focused on an uncompromising depiction of human meat, Svikis combines his approach to the motif with the following question: Do we have to be sadomasochists to find our world beautiful?! The Latvian artist hardly refers to individual stories but to general situations and emotions. His works are intended to give a broader picture and therefore the number of unmasked faces in his works is limited and he uses more masked people – for his main motifs are urban and existential anonymity. But he never lets the person go completely: He rarely uses photos or found footage as source for his work. He needs real situations and real people to depict their physicality and explosiveness on canvas.

Let's now turn back to the topic of materiality and realities: The material also conveys a message. This becomes obvious considering that it is this medium that forms the basis for illusionary and coherent realities. It was this idea that shaped Renaissance painting and that, nowadays, has become quite common in virtual worlds. Viktors Svikis, however, (deliberately?) uses the various media – be it canvas or paper, charcoal, graphite or oil paint – in order to both combine and distinguish different levels of realities and different discursive or narrative levels. It is the "Bakhtin principle" of polyphony within a novel which is confidently poured into a dramatic language of pictures, both in paintings and in drawings. Dieter Mersch – one of the leading theorists promoting this (often forgotten) highly important function of media has most aptly commented on the subject, albeit in a different context:
"The space of a picture stretches beyond the limits of the visible and readable as it similarly stretches beyond the limits of materiality regarding pictorial elements. It also addresses our tactile elements examples of this are to be found in the use of colour in Please wait, you will be seated: it is the thickness of the paper or its being torn as in Butterfly Effect, it is the figurative elements of the colours applied, the hardness of the foundation, irregularities and its structure. (...) Pictures are representative in a sense of image and portrayal (...). At the same time, however, they show something, they are a manifest of a figure's shape and expression and the way the figure renders these aspects visible."5

As we have seen, Viktors Svikis' paintings and drawings feature fractions which open doors to productive spaces consisting of many formal and technical combinations (to quote Werner Hofmann: multi-materiality) and levels of content (according to Hofmann: multi-realities).
Viktors Svikis as a drawer and painter assigns both potential and force to the materials used so that they may play their own games and may therefore break up any rigid structure of sense. His materials comprise paper, canvas, oil, acrylic, graphite, charcoal, biros, highlighters and more, all of which are used with immense precision regarding both design and variety. Motifs and materials form a combination so strong that they add a sphere to his art which fascinates the spectator in a suggestive, almost magical way. This also makes up his contemporary approach which is not based on him following modern trends (something so often to be found in the art scene) but rather draws its inspiration from a current blend between virtual and natural reality as well as a combination of various levels of realities and their mechanisms. The modernist paradigm of urban isolation has in recent decades found a peak in a new form of individual isolation that is created by technical multi-realities. The discussion about body and object has become a central motif which also becomes evident in the ever increasing number of theoretical reflections on that topic. The body is at risk as everything that is spoken about is also being questioned. Viktors Svikis has found a unique expression of form which enables him to question and – if necessary – unmask these topics and mechanisms.

1 comp.: Werner Hofmann: Bildmacht und Bilderzählung ("The Power and Stories of Pictures"); Prestel, Munich 1991, p. 17
2 comp.: Oskar Bätschmann (Ed.): Leon Battista Alberti, Das Standbild, Die Malkunst, Grundlagen der Malerei ("Leon Battista Alberti, De Statua, De Pictura, Elementa Picturae"), Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 2000, p. 63 etc.
3 comp.: Werner Spies: Nackt im Freien sitzen ("Sitting Naked Outdoors"). In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 05/05/2011
4 comp.: NZZ online: Der Schmetterlingseffekt ist bewiesen. Der Lorenz-Attraktor besitzt eine fraktale Struktur ("Evidence for Butterfly Effect. The Fractal Structure of the Lorenz Attractor"), 17/04/2002., last viewed on 06/04/2011
5 Dieter Mersch: Einleitung: Wort, Bild, Ton, Zahl – Modalitäten medialen Darstellens ("Introduction: Word, Picture, Sound, Number – Modalities of Media Representation"). In: Dieter Mersch (Ed.): Die Medien der Künste ("The Media of the Arts"), Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Munich 2003, p. 33

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