22.11.2019. - 21.12.2019.

Petra Grozaj, Krystal

Petra Grozaj (1974, Zagreb) graduated from the School of Applied Arts and Design and the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb. She is a winner of the Rector’s Award, University of Zagreb, the Academy of Fine Arts’ award and several scholarships and purchase prizes. She exhibited in numerous solo and group exhibitions in Croatia and abroad. She was the Croatian representative at the Biennial of Young Artists (BJCEM) in Napoli. She completed artist residencies at Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, GlogauAIR in Berlin, One sided story/Spinnerei and Image De/Construction Hafenkombinat in Leipzig, where, since 2012, she has frequented the Spinnerei painting centre’s studio. In 2017, her works were exhibited in MSU, Zagreb. She is an HDLU and HZSU member. Her works are part of private and gallery collections in Croatia and abroad.More on www.petragrozaj.com

Petra Grozaj is one of the most notable painters from the middle generation whose work intrigues art critics and the audience alike. Several awarded fellowships abroad played a significant role in formulating her painting and choosing painting as her calling in life. The human figure is her central theme and she is particularly focused on women, mostly friends whom she depicts having cryptic faces, often ambiguous and grotesque in character. Her work is marked by a strong relationship between photography and painting. Painting is no longer in a privileged position but rather it borrows, quotes, translates and transfers scenes from private life, as in the case of family photo albums, or scenes from mass media, as in the case of popular magazines, in the context of an easel painting. We talked to the artist on the occasion of her exhibition.

Klaudio Štefančić: Two interpretations of your work, amongst many, are of particular importance. One was given by Iva Korbler on the occasion of the 2013 exhibition in Bačva Gallery, when she noted that your paintings exude, in addition to featuring an introspective and intimate content, a kind of a “dark glow”, as though your paintings often show “apparitions” and “ethereal creatures”. Another interesting interpretation was offered by Leila Topić on the occasion of the 2017 exhibition in the Museum of Contemporary Art, noting that the scenes from your paintings have been borrowed from the world of media culture. What ties these two interpretations together, to my mind, is photography. Some of your paintings do indeed look like scenes from family albums, others resemble images from fashion magazines, while some of them hide their origin so well that their content is revealed only with the help of additional textual information, as in the case of Maiden painting, that is, the well-known photograph of an underaged Brooke Shields. It seems to me that your artwork points to one important phenomenon – to the relationship between photography and painting. Since its very beginning, photography has been haunted by the spectre of painting, as Barthes states in Camera Lucida. It seems that the roles have been reversed nowadays. Painting is no longer in a privileged position, while photography stifles any other form of representation, not only the visual one.  How do you perceive this relationship? How is it manifested in your work?

Petra Grozaj: I can describe how my artwork begins, tell you how I find a photograph, that is, a motif. In essence, I try to steer clear from deep analyses. In my work and art, in general, I don’t like to logically discern things. I steer clear from it because I believe my painting will lose something, a touch of indiscernibility, even mysticism. Art in any media, but especially in painting, is worth my while if it can draw me in with its indecipherability. As a young artist, I thought that everything I painted had to have a reason and an explanation. I soon realized that this was holding me back and it took some time to cast away this notion. Regarding my relationship with photography, I don’t think it’s important where the photograph came from – be it from a family album or a fashion magazine – as long as it is intertwined with my everyday life. I’m constantly documenting something with photography; either I’m taking photos myself or archiving other people’s photos that catch my eye. There are no limitations to what I might be attracted, from sports to poetry, and this is something that I cannot entirely explain, as I have already mentioned. For example, I was drawn to Rojksopp’s music video What else is there, so I took photos of that video and made a painting based on those photos. After conceiving the initial idea, I construct the painting and its elements through the process itself, that is, I don’t have a finished sketch that I just transfer onto a canvass.  If I’m painting at home, the TV is on, the music is on, the usual multitasking. The TV series Velo Misto was on last night and I was incredibly drawn to the actress Zdravka Krstulović. She had a lot of makeup on, her face was powdered white. In other words, this was one amazing portrait. I photographed her face and I believe that I’m going to paint her one day because it really inspired me. Of course, I’m not limited to female portraits although female figures dominate my paintings.  In short, what I see in life I transfer to painting, and what I learn in painting I transfer to life; it’s a matter of reciprocity.

K.Š.: What you’re saying reminds me, again, of Barthes, of his theory of the photographic punctum, that is, something that unexpectedly touches us, moreover, something that pricks us in a photograph, as Barthes says and which is something that we cannot fully explain through rational means.  “I was glancing through an illustrated magazine. A photograph made me pause”, he writes in Camera Lucida.

P.G.: Yes, that’s exactly right. It’s very difficult to find a reason why I was drawn to one photo and not the other. Generally speaking, my choice is a reflection of what I’m experiencing. These photos are, in a way, paradoxical reflections of my life at a certain moment which, then, find their way into my painting. A photographer and artist very dear to me, Man Ray, says that he paints what he cannot photograph. I couldn’t agree more: there’s no point in painting something if it is here; if it’s here, then you photograph it. 

K.Š.: I’m interested to know more about this journey into painting. In terms of Barthes’ phenomenology of photography, we could say that by translating into painting that impulse which a photo or media images in general evoke, we enter into what Bathes calls a studium, that is, we begin to confront culture, knowledge, the long and complex history of painting. I have to admit that I have often approached your newer paintings as visual texts filled with references to the history of modernist painting. For example, the way in which you build space within your paintings reminds me of Uzelac’s and Gecan’s post cubist paintings; a bit gaudy, cold and artificial colours remind me of Vladimir Varlaj, while human figures, especially the way their faces are represented, remind me of Picasso’s neoclassical phase in which the human body is archetypically depicted, especially the face which lacks characterization so it resembles a mask, with empty sockets instead of eyes. Anyhow, your work is so strongly reminiscent of modernism that the painting Light Thrower reminds me of a portrait that could have been painted by, for example, Becić. How much are these references a part of your artistic programme or method and why – considering that you depict a lot of people –do you depersonalize their faces?

P.G.: Above all, I leave it to others to interpret my paintings as they wish. I do not programmatically or consciously refer to the history of painting but I do agree that my paintings often feature some kind of a mask. That’s because people often live parallel lives and I’m not talking about extreme cases but all people live like this in society. It is not possible to live a public privacy, nor does it make sense. Each community demands that we relinquish some portion of our privacy, of character; I don’t think that a mask, in that sense, represents hypocrisy but a prerequisite of social communication. A genuine face has no place in this society. A mask is metaphorically imposed from the outside and painting, that is, art allows us – if we’re brave enough – to express our own idiosyncrasies which the audience can recognize. 

K.Š.: Could the same be said for the colours in your paintings, for the composition in which I saw traces of the heroic age of modernist painting?

P.G.: I’m not deliberately referring to the history of painting, though I am referring to some contemporary artists, largely unknown to the domestic audience. My stay in Leipzig had a profound effect on me. It’s the centre of painting in Western Europe and when I first arrived there, I thought that all those painters had a clear vision of why and what they were painting, but I was mistaken. Quite the contrary, most of them work following some inner feeling, more intuitively than programmatically.  I’m afraid I’d lose my freedom if I knew everything about my painting. I often think of Gerhard Richter who provides almost no answers to questions posed by journalists or critics. In my opinion, it is important for an artist to taste the strawberry and not to describe the chemical processes that lead to its red colour, that make it sweet. On the other hand, in this age obsessed with speed, the slow pace of painting has the power to help people discern what is important from what is unimportant in everyday life. Practice, like in martial arts, is the most important thing for a painter. Practice, time and being present. These are values in themselves. I’m now going to the studio where I’ll paint, and I’m going to do the same tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, etc. And that’s the most important thing.

K.Š.: In the end, I wanted to ask you one more thing. Female figures dominate your paintings, whether they present scenes reminiscent of family photos, the scenes of female friendships, scenes from fashion magazines and the like. Could we apply the term “the female gaze” – originally from film theory – to your work?

P.G.:  I believe so. My paintings reveal that they were painted by a woman. There's one other suitable term, also from the Anglo-Saxon culture – womanhood – to refer to the painter Rosa Loy, which also can be used to describe my paintings. Though, I don't believe I'm a feminist, not consciously at least. I might be one without realizing it; if we were to equate it with common sense, then I am one (laughs). I'm more interested in how to live with my own essential female energy in a male world, and not to fight against men using male energy that doesn't come naturally to me in order to be equal. The scenes in my paintings might originate from that feeling or attitude. Of course, I have nothing against feminism, quite the opposite, but I steer clear from declarative statements because they imply additional labels which we should do away with. Speaking of which, I'd like to draw your attention to the fact that the 5th Biennal of Painting is currently open in Zagreb. The fact that women are rarely jury members says volumes about this art field in Croatia.

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The program of Galženica Gallery is supported by the City of Velika Gorica, the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia and the Zagreb's County.