Rothko Centre: Your life as an artist. Has it changed after your move from Rīga to the Latvian province? In what ways?
Jānis Kupčs: You see, we’re a province on a Latvian scale, but Ventspils will likely look completely different from, let’s say, London (laughs). On a serious note, it has its ups and downs. On the downside, I’m somewhat forgotten here. I’ve stopped mixing with the art-folk at their bohemian parties, so I’m less often remembered. Naturally, I look more on the upside. Life’s just so rich outside the capital. It has so much to offer in terms of themes and inspiration! There’s a whole different rhythm to it, a new mode of thinking and concentration. No point regretting things. It’s best to trust in yourself and believe that you can.
RC: Why Ventspils?
JK: Ieva (spouse Ieva Rupenheite, artist and poet – ed.) has a cottage there, right at the seafront. At that point, I had no job to tie me down, and I felt I wanted a change, so we decided to move. We reckoned we couldn’t abandon the house and let it go to ruin. And then I got a job in the new place to swing the deal for good.
RC: About your exhibition at the Rothko Centre, shall we give the viewers some spoilers? Which is the right way to see it, and where should they start?
JK: Oh, I’m not even sure I’ve painted it the right way! (laughs). Maybe my way is actually the wrong way. I guess one should just come and have a look, no preparation. Some might need my opinion, I mean the texts. Some do need them, but I rather find they get in the way. If it were up to me, I’d even skip the titles. And let the viewers have a good look, have a think and try to relate what they see to their own experience.
RC: And still, what’s your take from behind the scenes?
JK: Well, if I must, then so be it. What we have here is three episodes – Cruel Romances, Lost Villages and The Bellies of Ships.
RC: An unusual concept for the ship motif…
JK: I made a photo collection of ships coming into port. Imagine you’re in the street that runs along the waterway taken by a huge moving vessel. You just stand there and can’t take your eyes off this massive moving wall, and it’s right up there. This close! That’s what I wanted to capture. A while ago, it would have been pretty easy – there were loads of ships coming and going, such a common sight. Now I took some pictures and then painted from photographs.
RC: This is not your typical ship. Seems you’ve chosen to reveal the unpleasant “truth”.
JK: Yes, to be honest, they’re not beautiful. When a boat is empty, what you see below the waterline is not a pleasant sight: seawater and the passage of time corrode the iron so that it looks really battered and worn. These are no pleasure boats, that’s for sure. But when you start seeing a ship as a future painting, that’s a whole different story. Now, you have a concept that you develop and work out. Then, everything is clear, and the work is easy. The bottom line’s you don’t need to invent anything. You just have to notice!
RC: The theme for the “Lost Villages” came the same way?
JK: Yes. The idea was to find out what happened to once-living villages and see whether they exist today as anything more than mere points on a map. I charted the route myself and went on expeditions with my camera to try and find them. Thus I soaked up the impressions. By and large, we have so many places that used to have vibrant communities, bustling with life, and now they’re just wastelands. Forests, fields, traces of land drains… And no more villages.
RC: Your concepts are based on actual research!
JK: (Laughs) The main thing’s to find the thread. Then the work becomes much more exciting. It’s such a driver! I’m not much of a plein air painter. They remind me of school when you’re given a task that needs to be done no matter what. Some find it helpful. I don’t. Sure, I can whip something up, but there’s no real spark.
RC: So you don’t like commissions?
JK: No, I don’t. That’s just how I work – I need an idea, a concept, and then buckle up! (laughs).
RC: Working only when inspiration strikes – that takes guts.
JK: Commissions just don’t spark my interest. Maybe I do it wrongly, I mean when I don’t sit down to pain every day. But I can’t help it! I need my curiosity piqued.
RC: Male artists have it easier than women – they can focus their tunnel vision on one theme or need without having to split their attention. They don’t need to put in so much effort to stay focused. Would you agree?
JK: That’s not for me to say (laughs). But I also feel I’m stealing time from my family. I can’t let it go to fully focus only on what I like. I really can’t. One might say I work very little. This means shifting my attention more or less nonstop. Coming back to things. In Viļaka, at the Valdis Bušs Plein Air, I could experience absolute immersion in creativity. I didn’t come with a ready concept. I just went there, and it somehow worked out.
RC: Was it hard to assemble your show for the Rothko Centre?
JK: You know, it wasn’t. The curator (Māris Čačka – ed.) said what he wanted to see. I only worried I wouldn’t have enough paintings to give him (smiles). But the show came out so nice and compact, and it’s not jammed either, so I think we did great!
RC: Do you have any topics that just don’t intrigue you no matter what?
JK: I don’t paint from nature. I mean landscape. That’s simply not my thing. If I find something that’ll take my breath away, maybe. And I’ve been thinking – why is it that I don’t paint people? Wait, I did have a project involving the human form. You may remember, in Soviet schools, they had posters on civil defence. Well, at basic military training, we had such posters on the classroom wall, and I took them home. They were military posters about soldier life. I was intrigued by how this picture “worked” – its composition and message. So I drew something similar (laughs). That’s when I knew a picture could be an instruction, a powerful wordless message. Now here’s a concept for you!
RC: So you haven’t painted people since then. Why is that?
JK: Weeelll… You’d need to unlock their true persona, to catch the right vibe and get on the same wavelength. If you just sit down and paint, I’m afraid it’s gonna be pretty childish.
RC: What triggers your creativity?
JK: What I said, the concept and a burning wish to act on your idea as soon as can be. And angst that someone else will paint your painting before you. These things happen when you set your idea aside for later, and someone just ups and does it! And you may be complete strangers who’ve never met, never talked to each other. The other one’s just had the same idea and gone for it. Sooner than me. Pēteris Martinsons once told me something about it when we were installing an exhibition at the Design Museum. So he said: “Ideas come to one person, then to another. You’ve done yours like this. Someone else will do theirs differently. And what’s the most frustrating? When you’ve wasted yours and failed to give it life. And you’ve no one to blame but yourself.” So no beating around the bush!
RC: Name a project that turned out exactly as you planned.
JK: Now this is interesting. As soon as I finish a project, I say goodbye. I don’t like chewing the old gum while walking down the memory lane. I do my thing, and I let it go. And I move on. Once in Estonia, I half-made an intricate plaster form, and I brought it home, just in case. So it kept sitting there, taking space, and I didn’t know what to do with it. I just didn’t care enough. Finish it? But why go into the same river. Throw it out? Not really. So I can’t give you an answer. Once, someone asked me: “Hey, do you remember that painting that made everyone go ‘wow’?” But I don’t. And who is everyone?… (shrugs)
RC: What’s your relationship with fame?
JK: We all need praise. It’s important that my projects get approved. I mean by different funds. When it doesn’t happen, it’s a hard thing to take. And yet, although not all of my project applications are accepted, I still do them. Sure, it’s easy. But I make it happen.
RC: Do you know the key to turning the wheel of fortune your way?
JK: I’d say having an idea that you believe in.
RC: A philosophy, statement or action that’s your buoy – something to hold on to, to catch your breath before swimming on.
JK: That’s a pretty simple ritual – my way of tuning in before work. Cleaning my brushes, putting everything in place, preparing my easel… It helps me focus and works like medicine. Simple actions, but they clear things up. When that’s done, I’m ready to create.