"Am I Painting Myself or Something I Want To Be?: A Conversation with Ivana Štulić
We've been intrigued by the works of Ivana Štulić in the past and have included them when featuring the New York Academy of Art, or reviewing a group exhibition she took a part in, but we could never pinpoint the right moment to put a focus on her work. That was until we saw the most recent paintings she's been working on and we've figured now it's time to have a conversation with the Croatian-born artist.
Engrossed in the depiction of human figure, Štulić has been creating highly atmospheric works which put emphasis on the moments before or after the depicted image. With a suspended ambiance and cinematic formatting, there is an evident tension permeating the scene and suggesting an upcoming turn of events. Minimal and timeless, the setting of her visuals reminiscences of a theatre stage on which the protagonists are waiting for their cue to start the performance. At the same time, her ability to render a variety of surfaces, create a sense of space, depth, and perspective, and accentuate anatomy features, makes these images that much more believable, engrossing, and actual.
We were curious to learn more about these moody scenes and the thought process behind them so we recently had a chat with the NYC-based artist about her practice, her interest, and what led to these types of visuals and works.
Saša Bogojev: When did you start focusing on the human figure and what informed such interest?
Ivana Štulić: I started focusing on the human figure from a young age, it happened kind of instinctively. At nine years old I had my first private drawing class and my teacher showed me how to use tools to measure proportions and make the drawing more accurate. First, I was drawing simple objects and eventually moved to more complex ones. When I finally transitioned to drawing the human figure, I became obsessed. I was a shy kid, sometimes I had difficulties communicating and understanding people. As a result, that obsession went side by side with my character at the time, it was more of an observational tool to figure out something deeper in people.
There are frequent depictions of human anatomy in the work. Why is such exactness important for you?
I believe I can best embody my ideas through figurative representation. When I think about the composition of the image it’ll start off with an initial vision, almost like how I imagine a cinematographer composing films, and paint until these visions are realized. It sounds sort of chaotic, but I see this process as quite simple. Although my paintings are figurative, I don’t want my images to be defined by a “rewriting of reality”. The image should always bring something more than narrative elements, and I believe it is important that it opens up a space of thought large enough for the observer.
Besides that, the compositions are usually very minimal and simple. How focused are you on that and why?
I think composition is a broad term in art and I do find it very essential in my paintings although compositions in my paintings are seemingly simple. While composing the painting, either in my mind or while sketching, first I’ll focus on elements like line, tone, shape, and color. Then I arrange and overlap those elements depending on what I want to prioritize in the painting and (almost always) where I want the viewer to look first or how I want to guide their observation. - What about the time and space ambiguity? It feels like it's important to you to remove the scene from any context. My goal is not only to capture a scene, event, or space, but also the breathing, reflection, and psychological momentum. In most of my paintings, I want to capture a fleeting moment of precarious transition, often depicting people before something in them or in their surrounding changes. I think we all have different experiences with moments that reflect something that is invisible yet present. Our opinion and decision-making are often affected by the “ambiguity effect”. I believe It is human nature and I feel that it would be wrong for me to neglect these experiences. Therefore, I am trying to translate that into my medium of painting.
How are you choosing your subjects, what are you looking for in your sitters? Are they being portrayed as themselves or do they become a representation of someone else?
Sometimes, I try to find someone who fits within an analogy of the idea that I am working on. They are usually representing someone or something else. It doesn’t have to be a perfect fit because I always end up changing the anatomy and the figures almost never look like they do in real life. As a result, I choose my models based on their basic physical and visual features, looking at them somewhat as emblems and thinking about how I am going to arrange the elements in the painting. When I want to paint someone’s portrait, then I approach the model differently, trying to emphasize something within them.
You've painted yourself a few times too. How different is it to do that compared to painting others?
Having models is different, they are part of the event, I’m emphasizing something in them or completely neglecting something in them by putting them into different contexts. By looking at myself in the mirror or in the photo it is sometimes hard to decide how I want to paint myself. How do I want to present myself? Am I painting myself or something I want to be? Am I in the painting as a part of the composition or is the painting composed to emphasize me? I guess it is always a combination of all those things and many more; but then I have to decide how I am going to create a balance between them. I find it very challenging and that is why I go back to self-portraits every once in a while.
What type of challenges do you enjoy about your setups/compositions and are there certain things that you're avoiding when working on one?
With every painting, I paint I’m trying to learn something new. Every little improvement that I make leads me to something else that I can improve. It is a never-ending circle and it can be challenging but I think that is the beauty of what I do. When I was younger, I sometimes avoided issues that I found hard to translate into drawing or painting. I see every challenge as a part of the process and those challenges are pushing me to work even more.
What about the painting itself? What type of elements do you enjoy working on and what can you nerd out on in your paintings?
Nerding out over the technical aspects of painting would be the easier answer here. What I’ve learned over the years regarding the parts of my practice that excite me the most have become more instinctual than anything, like when you know you kind of just know, you know? So it becomes a bit hard at times to rationalize or verbalize. If I had to nerd about something like that, something that became part of me, I could explain the way that I’m thinking and how I got to that point.
Are there some exhibitions or projects you have planned for the coming period?
Yes, I’ll be part of a couple of shows in New York in the Fall, as well as next year. I’m currently working on getting my O - 1 visa and hopefully, after that process, I will be able to pursue even more of my projects.
Photos in the gallery above by Alexander Laurent