Write Your Name on the Glass of my Spacesuit, I Cannot Hear You

Sergej Timofejev

Lithuanian artist Jonas Gasiūnas on painting with smoke as fiction and as cardiogram


We are sitting at the Māksla XO Gallery in Riga, among paintings, holding cups of coffee. My conversation partner tells me: ‘I try to avoid being too straightforward. Take this portrait, for instance. (Picks up his catalogue with a spacesuit-clad man on the cover.) I collected material on Yuri Gagarin. And yet it was not him that I painted. The title of the picture is “Write Your Name on the Glass of My Spacesuit, I Cannot Hear You”. So while basing the piece on that time, I’m actually making a painting about some sort of delicate feelings, about love, stuff like that.’

Jonas Gasiūnas. Write Your Name on the Glass of My Spacesuit, I Cannot Hear You. 2009. Oil and soot from candle smoke on canvas. 294 × 198 cm.  Meno Parkas Gallery

Lithuanian Jonas Gasiūnas (1954) is undoubtedly an artist with a recognisable hand. And yet the ‘handwriting’ is truly ephemeral, because the artist is ‘writing’ with smoke ‒ with smoke on a painterly layer, a surface of paint. His paintings seem to be vibrating in space ‒ barely noticeably. Shadows, shapes, memories, allusions roam on top of a specific objective reality. After applying the painterly layer, Gasiūnas takes a wax candle and sketches the silhouettes of his characters, situations involving them ‒ as if laying on the outlines of a film. Or marking the contours of bodies and objects on an accident site. What is it then that has happened there? What is this trembling, somewhat blurred and smudged, half-visible thing? It’s life, someone’s time. History.

‘Supporting the argument that history is the servant of politicians, Gasiūnas views it with suspicion: that is why he never stops rewriting it,’ writes the Lithuanian art critic Milda Žvirblytė. Born in 1954, Gasiūnas made his entrance on the art scene of his country in the 1980s; at the time, he was a follower of expressionism. Following a crisis of painting as a medium in the 1990s, he turned to installations and video performances. Working with video helped him conceptualize his approach to painting, to which he now applied certain structural principles of the ‘moving image’; it was around the time, in the early 2000s, that the first works with smoke were made.

Jonas Gasiūnas. She Has Never Existed and Will Never Exist. 2014. Acrylic and soot from candle smoke on canvas. 280 x 278cm. Meno Parkas Gallery

To me, Gasiūnas’ work is reminiscent not only of good poetic cinema but also of literature ‒ for instance, of the prose by the recent Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano, whose characters are perpetually trying to get to grips with their own past, attempting either to recall it, to bring it back or to rewrite it. Perhaps it’s not the only possible association that can be made. It can be safely said that the potential audience of this artist are not only people who are interested in contemporary post-conceptual painting, but also art-house film lovers or... poets. Among my friends on Facebook, for instance, it was the Latvian poet Jānis Elsbergs who mentioned Gasiūnas’ Riga exhibition, where he had wandered in with his three-year-old son; he wrote that it had been a long time since anything from the visual arts had made such a powerful impact on him. As for Gasiūnas himself, he is more attracted to literary figures like Allen Ginsberg or Charles Bukowski. Jonas teaches at the Academy of Art in Vilnius, and the first thing he always does is lend the new students who sign up for his workshop the whole of his Bukowski collection. ‘Read him and learn where the power of truth lies and in what way it differs from vulgar naturalism.’

This summer saw Jonas Gasiūnas’ first Latvian solo exhibition ‒ ‘Little Retrospective of Obsession’ ‒ run at the Māksla XO Gallery in Riga (28.06. - 25.07.2017); previously his works had been shown at the ‘Interstice’ group show at the 2011 Cēsis Art Festival. Ibrought the latest edition of ‘Arterritory Conversations’ to my meeting with Jonas, and, while browsing the magazine, he opened it at the interview with the Polish painter and photographer Wilhelm Sasnal. ‘He’s an interesting artist,’ Jonas said, ‘they say he has been working with video lately.’

Really? You sort of did the opposite: started off with video as a medium to end up painting...

That was a rational act. I saw the power of a static structure.

But surely you did borrow something from the ‘moving picture’?

Of course, everything I draw on top of the canvas with smoke does sort of ‘float’. Like in a latent film. I borrowed structure from film; it is particularly obvious in my early paintings. At this stage, I am more involved with actual painting, because I have realised that it has a certain advantage anyway in that it is more corporeal. You can feel a painting like a living organism, which is impossible in film or photography. The effect is created by the simple fact that you touch it with your hand. The materiality of a painting carries a certain energy of its own. However, painting as a medium is no sacred cow for me. It is simply a mixture of everything. I use a great variety of structural accents: there is graffiti, there is film and some sort of sad comics there. So, it’s hybrid painting in a way.

Jonas Gasiūnas. A School Dress. 2017. Oil and soot from candle smoke on canvas. 230 x 210 cm

When you are working on your pieces ‒ do you have a certain image in your mind, an idea of what you are striving to achieve? Or does it emerge during the actual process?

Generally, I do not suffer from shortage of ideas; it’s rather quite the opposite ‒ I don’t have enough time to realise all of them. That’s a constant nightmare that haunts me: my ideas. There is something brewing in my mind all the time; some things I forget, some come back again. I do not actively seek these impulses. Everything happens by itself as I watch TV or read an obituary or something in a paper, and a single phrase just sticks in my head all of a sudden. At the time, I have no idea what the actual visual solution is going to be yet; I am haunted by a narrative. From all the stories available, I must do something with this particular one.

Basically, it means that my approach to realisation of ideas is that of a director rather than a painter ‒ through the narrative instead of the form. Furthermore, approaching it via form is actually impossible now, because times have changed. Form for form’s sake as the principal means of expression ‒ that made sense for the modernists; we live in different times.

But how does it happen? You first apply some kind of painterly layer...

A painterly layer first, like a certain code. The code of the interior...

The code of the setting...

Yes. And then the story emerges quite spontaneously. However, these are not things that I have made up. It’s something of what I have experienced, of my contacts with people. The information can come to me at any time. Perhaps there is a picture to be made out of this conversation; God only knows what this interview will lead to.

But how does the actual process with the candle take place?

I hang the picture horizontally. And then I draw. I’m only making sure that this layer is not as stable as the painterly one. Everything that floats on top is sort of decentralized...

Jonas Gasiūnas. The Season for Girls Providing Room Service Is Over. 2017. Oil and soot from candle smoke on canvas, 210 x 308 cm

Is it important to you that there should be a sort of... light breeze, for instance?

There are all sorts of mystifications you can come up with. But the thing is, you are still working with your hand; the candle is an extension of your hand. And, of course, every day has its own nuances; you hold the candle differently: one way ‒ in the morning, another ‒ in the evening. Your breathing also has an impact. It is like a cardiogram, basically ‒ almost a living thing in its own way. With a candle, you cannot draw, let’s say, an absolutely perfect circle...

Is it important for you what kind of candle you are using?

The ones you can buy at a shop, the paraffin ones, are no good for this thing. They make practically no smoke. I get my candles at the little shops you find near churches ‒ wax ones. Nothing to do with church rituals, of course. It’s just that wax produces a very rich black colour.

How did you come up with this technique?

Thirty years ago, I was strongly influenced by German neo-expressionism. Essentially, I was an expressionist. And I went through the same thing that the German artists had. They conceptualized, and I conceptualized; I made films, I made installations. But everything I did somehow always had something to do with flame. And I constantly kept searching for ways to depict something quite concrete while saying that it does not actually exist. Like a candle: it is nothing but smoke, nothing but fiction. This is an expression of my sceptical view of the concreteness of reality...

Jonas Gasiūnas. Room in Jesuit hotel

Concreteness of reality or of its depiction?

Both, because reality is also only ephemeral. But that’s a more philosophical dimension. I didn’t arrive at this thought at once, either. In this, I was also influenced by the changing German painting, by Richter’s texts. Also, the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans, who returned to painting after conceptualism, having realized the power of painting, where the layer of paint is like a stage set, behind which there is emptiness. I basically agree with his approach, it’s just that I arrived at it through a different technique, with a different feeling. But I also do see this very same ‘ephemerality of concreteness’ in medieval painting and in good films ‒ for instance, when Fellini makes no bones about the sea actually being a sheet of polythene, when he does not try and hide the make-believe character of the image. Neither do I. I openly joke about it, I make fun. And this mischief making, it is also something that keeps me from getting old too fast.

But the initial impulse actually came from a simple observation ‒ I saw a drawing, a doodle in a lift cabin that someone had made with a lighter. And I immediately remembered how we used to ‘draw’ with matches on the hallway ceiling. You wet one end of the match with your saliva and rub it on a whitewashed wall, then light it and throw upwards. And that’s where the match stays ‒ on the ceiling. Incidentally, it was matches that I used to make my first smoke pictures: they burnt out, leaving little halos...

A mischievous comic?

A sad comic.

Fine, a poetically bittersweet comic...

You could call my painting oxymoronic. Like warm snow. (Laughs.)

Jonas Gasiūnas. Willow's Lake. 2017. Oil and soot from candle smoke on canvas. 200 x 280 cm

I also see there a sort of connection with sensations from the era that is long gone now.

Yes, there is probably a déjà vu of sorts present there.

Not in the sense of playing on Soviet-related subject matters. It is more about personal impressions ‒ about a childhood spent under this strange system, about some kind of adolescent feelings. All these passages leading who knows where, boarded-up doors with padlocks...

Definitely. It belongs to the time, and it is something that will always stay in your head. I was born in Siberia; my family was deported. It is a long and sad story, although I am not focusing on that. The truth is, I was happy there, because my parents loved me, and this whole nightmarish exotic reality... I still would not want to replace it in my life with the comfort of democracy. I am happy that it happened to me. And it’s the same story with the army. The whole thing was something like being tested. Perhaps I have a penchant for that kind of thing. A case of Stockholm syndrome. (Laughs.) God only knows...

(Leafing through the catalogue of his works.) Now, here is an example of reminiscing about a specific time in the Soviet era. The title of the piece is ‘Blizzard Did Not Disrupt the Red Army Choir Rehearsal’.

Jonas Gasiūnas. Demobilisation. 2009-2011. Acrylic and soot from candle smoke on canvas. 290 x 300 cm. 

Did you only come back to Lithuania after your time in the army?

No, I came back as a child, at the age of five. Nevertheless, Siberia left a very strong impact on me.

In Latvia, we had a very powerful artist Ilmārs Blumbergs, who also went through exile in Siberia. Admittedly, he was a bit older at the time ‒ he was already attending school. And for him it was also a very significant time in his life and his personality formation.

It is impossible to describe. It was in the air I breathed. You would think that, at five, I should have forgotten everything. And yet I remember it all physically.

You would be hard pressed to find this kind of passages, this kind of panels or this grey dirt anywhere in a democratic country. And the relevant narrative emerges simultaneously. I had a studio in Vilnius in the building of a former mental hospital for monks, opened during the times of the Russian Empire, where they used to treat people who had lost their mind on religious grounds ‒ people of various faiths, at that. So there were three different churches at the hospital ‒ for Jews, for the Russian Orthodox believers and for Catholics. And the whole thing ended really sadly. When the Soviet power came, the patients were all taken away. And there is no paper trail that would show where they were taken. I’m sure they executed them, and that was that. Later they set up a centre for STD patients in the building. And that is how the painting ‘After Painting the Windows, the Russian Sailor Will Shoot Syphilitics’ came about.

Jonas Gasiūnas. After Painting Windows, the Russian Sailor Will Shoot Syphilitics. 2012. (Click on the image for higher resolution)

I think I saw the triptych at the Vilnius Painting Triennial in 2013...

But I never paint any forthright filth. I look at this period from a purely human vantage point. In this sense, I love the work of the Russian filmmaker Alexei German. Take his film ‘Khrustalyov, My Car!’ ‒ there is also this sense of sadness, of mourning. And of something vile.

In the moving image area, however, there is a stronger element of visual entertainment, hypnotically fascinating changing of frames. In paintings, due to their static nature, there is this sense of dignity...

There is a different sort of magic in being static. It simply captivates you. And it will allow painting stay around for another 50 years, let’s put it this way. All this talk about the death of painting does not convince me at all. Painting needs to be constantly dying to survive. It needs to be given a good hammering to stay fresh all the time.

In your opinion, what is happening with Lithuanian painting at the moment?

Well, probably the same thing that is happening with me. (Both laugh.)

Jonas Gasiūnas at Māksla XO Gallery

You are teaching at the Academy of Art, after all...

Yes, I’m still teaching there. For eight years, I was Head of the Department of Painting. I have been working there for 25 years...

What are they like ‒ the young Lithuanian artists?

They are cleverer than the generation before them used to be; they have already crossed the obstacle course of conceptualism. The contemporary painter, no matter how young he or she is, must be informed about everything in art, and then arrive to his or her own conclusions. And ask themselves not ‘How to make this painting?’ but ‘Why am I making it?’ Because that’s the main question. Why are painting? Why do you need to do that?

Perhaps because they like it...

Liking ‒ that’s something that has to do with pleasure. And there are countless pleasures in this world, much more effective ones, at that. Once you seriously dive into the process of painting, you lose any sense of time. Where did the last three hours go? What’s pleasurable about that? You are simply sucked in. You work like a lunatic.

The pleasure of creating maybe?

You experience the pleasure for a short moment when the piece is completed and you see that you’ve managed to do what you set out to do. And that’s it. As for experiencing pleasure from the actual process ‒ only a dilettante is capable of that.

Do you still work at the same studio?

No, I don’t really have an actual studio anymore. I cannot work in a romantic setting. All these books, bottles and wine and similar things that accumulate in these places ‒ they distract me. I need a factory or a gym of sorts. An empty or abandoned space, free of any domestic junk. Even a gas cooker or something like that would get in the way. My gaze must not be drawn to anything.

It also involves another rational necessity: I don’t have to tidy up, to put things in order. I work in this rational mess where I intuitively know where everything is. Heaven forbid that I should try and arrange my paints, my painting materials, according to any kind of system:  that would only be a nuisance. Because I need to be able to find everything I need for painting with my eyes closed. In other words, the studio must become a tool. Just as a musician does not look at the neck of the guitar when he plays, so too do I simply paint without any kind of romantic palettes and stuff...

Jonas Gasiūnas. A Lecture. 2017. Oil and soot from candle smoke on canvas. 190 x 268 cm

The title of your exhibition in Riga this summer was ‘Little Retrospective of Obsession’. Why obsession?

That’s probably the most difficult question of all. But that is how I feel it inside me. If it were not like that, I wouldn’t paint. Why am I drawn to smoke? Why do I worry about the future of painting? It fascinates me, I am addicted to it.

Has there been a period in your life when you didn’t paint for a long time?

When I was having a crisis during my expressionist period, I did not pick up a paintbrush for two years, but then the whole eureka moment happened. And I didn’t expect it to last, this thing with the candle. I saw it as a conceptual action at first ‒ I joked around a bit, and that’s it. But then I saw that there is also a film hiding behind the line, and a capacity for storytelling. A drawn-out narrative. I found it striking.

Under different circumstances I would probably be working in film. But what I ended up doing was this hybrid painting. The thing I like about working with a candle that you cannot add anything or make it different: you cannot have a second go. You cannot do anything more ‘beautifully’. It is like...


Like a cardiogram. (Laughs.) 

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