Feathers, shells, twigs — these elements can be found on subsequent canvases, in small installations suspended under the gallery ceiling, and colourful, totem-like objects, presented as a part of The Feather Collector exhibition at Valletta Contemporary. These afterimages of experience and inspiration, brought back from various journeys, stem from the peculiar assortment of items gathered by the eponymous 'collector'. They reflect a sensibility rooted in mythology, which from the dawn of human culture has been intimately linked to artistic and aesthetic consciousness.
Wioletta Kulewska's solo exhibition at Valletta Contemporary (Malta) features her latest series of work instigated during her artist residency at the Pedvāle Museum in Latvia (2021), during which she delved into notions of the natural world and the religious, not as specific tradition, but rather as philosophical reflection on the deep need for understanding. The works created during this time result from the artist's inquiry into ancient Latvian culture and Baltic mythology, in particular their message about human life in unison with nature.
The ancient Baltic people searched for answers to fundamental questions primarily in the world of nature, which they considered sacred. The concept of a temple as an architectural construction was alien to them. Sacred groves, trees, boulders, rivers, springs and water reservoirs were places of worship, where rites were performed. They attached special importance to the cult of fire, and identified the most important deities with the forces of nature. Contrary to the beliefs held in many patriarchal societies, these gods were rarely anthropomorphised, and if so, they tended to be female. The highest deity of the Baltic pantheon was the sun goddess Saule, who gave life to people and nature, followed by a large number of female deities of fertility and harvest. According to the Lithuanian researcher Marija Gimbutas, this system of prehistoric European beliefs, in which goddesses played the primary role of queens and mothers, and not the secondary role of wives or lovers to male deities, may have reflected the matrifocal political system of Old Europe, based on social and sexual equality and freedom from male domination.
This ancient world is revisited by Kulewska in her painting, in order to explore its relations with the present day. The starting point for her is the order predating the Platonic spirit-matter dualism and Descartes' split into man and nature, followed by other dichotomies: male-female, visible-invisible, sensory-extrasensory, rational-intuitive. The artist is interested in a holistic approach, both in philosophy and in artistic practice, and it is this rejection of the aforementioned dichotomies that seems to provide the fundamental basis for Kulewska's work.
Kulewska's practice is focused on exploring threads pertaining to broadly understood spirituality. In her search for meaning and symbolic references, she taps various cultural sources—proto-Indo-European and pagan beliefs, myths and rituals, analysing their bearing on the modern world in terms of both style and content. As an artist, Kulewska is primarily interested in issues of a formal nature: the painterly properties of objects, the composition of paintings, the interaction of colour and material. It results from many years of her work at the intersection of two areas—painting and design, but also from a deep interest in the imagery of diverse cultures and the spiritual relationships between them.
The idiom of Kulewska's painting oscillates between abstraction and representation. This universum seems to be dominated by abstract forms, but there are also shapes inspired directly by nature. By subjecting individual elements of her painting to in-depth analysis, it is possible to find hidden symbolism, unapparent yet strongly present.
The artist draws an important part of her inspiration from her travels. For Kulewska, both travelling and creating are processes based on ceaseless search and discovery. The artist brings peculiar souvenirs from her travels—small artefacts or natural elements, such as feathers, shells or bones—and embeds their representations into the paintings. Her artistic practice thus combines elements at the intersection of philosophy, archaeology and cultural anthropology.
The triptych Rose, Blood and Fire was inspired by Baltic mythology and Latvian folk culture. On three large-format canvases, the artist juxtaposes sensory elements (colours, forms and materials) with an extrasensory message. Fire, with a centrally placed abstract figure painted in shades of intense yellow, refers to the aforementioned Baltic sun deity Saule. The painting's palette may also be associated with the symbolism of fertility (in many ancient cultures, including the Slavic and Baltic ones, it was evident in the symbolism of beer), thus glorifying life and the forces of nature. The title of the painting refers to the cult of fire, strongly present in Baltic mythology, believing that it could transform man into fog and lift him to heaven, thus constituting a link between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
Similarly, the motifs of blood and rose on the next two canvases of the triptych also have a spiritual dimension, related to the rite of passage in Latvian folklore. It was believed that the blood of the dead was a liquid form of fire that could turn into a rose. This flower, often depicted as the morning or evening sun, would then assist the dead as they enter another world. Kulewska's works, therefore, enter into a dialogue with art history. In particular, the composition and colours of Fire bring to mind depictions of the creation of the world by Francisco de Holanda (The First Day of Creation), William Blake (The Ancient of Days) or Hilma af Klint's canvases inspired by her spiritualist experiences (Altarpiece No. 1, Group X).
Kulewska intentionally uses a formal language rooted in spirituality (the universal language of abstraction) and combines it with narrative titles, which results from the artist's deep interest in words and poetry, but which may also refer to the history of religion and ontological issues. The importance of the word in the process of creation is emphasised both in the Judeo-Christian tradition and in the beliefs of ancient Egypt, where Ptah — creator-god and maker of things, patron of craftsmen—used thought and word to create. Thus, the titles of Kulewska's paintings enhance their symbolic meaning, whereas the employed formal means contribute to their sensual appeal. Colour is both the surface of the painting and its essence. In combination with the word, it brings to mind warmth (fire), corporeality (blood) and even fragrance (rose).
A work of art can be interpreted rationally, by analysing its iconographic layer, but also sensorially, by experiencing its material properties. Kulewska appeals to the viewer's intuition above all. The literary associations triggered by the paintings are of secondary importance for her. Proto- Indo-European roots and prehistoric elements in Kulewska's works—unapparent, but perceptible—are not used to tell the story directly, but rather serve as carriers of archetypal cultural codes that allow the viewer to establish a connection with the extrasensory dimension of art and the array of references hidden in the collective subconscious.
This approach to discovering the works and looking into their depths is also reflected in the very composition of the paintings. While working on her latest series, Kulewska used stylistic sources which she had come across at Pedvāle Art Park. The materials and forms of the large-scale contemporary sculptures scattered across 200 hectares of Pedvāle Park in western Latvia, trigger associations with places and objects of pagan cult. By drawing on the spirit of environmental art, the forms become integral elements of the landscape, often constituting a frame for the natural landscape and redirecting the viewer's gaze towards the interior of the park. Kulewska borrowed and adapted this compositional device to her needs: she emphasises the multidimensionality of her works by conveying the distinct impression of looking at a painting within a painting. The canvas becomes a frame for the enigmatic, parallel reality that invites the viewer to look deeper into the painting, and further—beyond the visible sphere.
The recurring feather motif in many of Kulewska's works also suggests a reference to an otherworldly universe. Bird feathers can be found in the folklore, religion and art of many distant civilisations. In some cultures, a feather found on the road is a sign from another world; it can represent angels and the afterlife, symbolise purity and freedom, but also serve a purely decorative role as fashion accessory.
For Kulewska, the feather motif is a common denominator of her explorations of aesthetics and spirituality. The artist sometimes juxtaposes representations of a feather with cobalt blue, which may indicate references to the history of ancient art, where blue symbolises the sphere of the sacred (the vaults of gothic churches were painted with cobalt blue, representing heaven), but also to 20thand 21st century art: Yves Klein identified blue with elusiveness and intangibility, emptiness and freedom. Anish Kapoor associated it with the Buddhist concept of śūnyatā—emptiness or insubstantiality, which, unlike in Western culture, is understood in a positive way, as form and filling.
Kulewska uses feathers brought from her travels to create free-standing, totem-like objects or small installations whose form resembles the traditional himmeli—openwork objects connected with Slavic folklore, which used to be hung in cottages to bring good luck and prosperity. The delicate constructions placed by the artist in the gallery create a peculiar aura of magic, prompting reflection on the notion of ritual.
The works making up the exhibition at Valletta Contemporary are a fusion of visual ideas gathered by the artist, shared by diverse cultures and traditions, which Kulewska subjects to artistic reinterpretation, focusing primarily on formal issues. The entire presentation, however, can be viewed as a deep reflection on the notions of time, identity and spirituality; on the significance of myths and rituals in the contemporary world, in which the need to search for a new spirituality and ways of cognition other than the ones used so far is becoming increasingly evident.
For Kulewska, the practice of painting is first and foremost a tool with strong myth-making potential, which can be used to perceive the world in abstraction. She is drawn to the existence of a magical space at the intersection of culture and nature, of the real and metaphysical world. A work of art can become such a space when it is understood not only as a material object, but also as a philosophical entity, a metaphysical structure that inspires the viewer to reflect on what is invisible. The formal layer and the accompanying energy of the painting can spread in different directions — outwards and inwards, looking back on the past and simultaneously towards the future. In this sense, just like myth or nature, capable of continuous regeneration, art is situated beyond time and space, between material and spiritual culture, serving for centuries the role of 'guardian of mythological language
Press release courtesy Valletta Contemporary.