My current painting practice has been very much influenced by my geopolitical origins.
I was born in 1979, in the former Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, then part of the Soviet Union, an era which has always fascinated me with its paradoxes and peculiarities.
Much of my imagery is directly taken from Soviet Estonia’s women’s magazine ‘Soviet Woman’. As Judith Butler says: ‘Masculine and feminine roles are not biologically fixed but socially constructed.’ ‘Soviet Woman’ created images of femininity according to the communist ideology of work – women as hard working comrades of Soviet society. The source material I work from dates from 1955 to the 1980s; I usually select photographs which feature women hard at work in traditionally ‘masculine’ milieus like farms, factories and construction sites. I choose my references quickly, working from a gut instinct; then I convert the selected image into what I loosely describe as a ‘painting’ (I am currently questioning this term, as the works can also be seen as ‘collages’ or even, perhaps, ‘sculptures’). I abstract the imagery from the original photograph to create simplified shapes which emphasise the workers and the act of working, not the work being produced.
My technical work method has also been influenced by my background. I ‘make’ the works in a craft-y process; some of my methods are time-consuming, laborious in a way which, I have come to realise, reflects Soviet ideas about the value of labour. Even though the regime had changed by the time I began my working life, the same ethics around work and working continued to implicitly influence society, myself included. While acknowledging this influence, there is also an element of play in my work which reflects my resistance to that ideology – my need to do things in a different way to what I ‘should’ do.
In these works, I seek to create a tension between the logic of ‘should’ and the logic of ‘play’. I try to use paint, not as it ‘should’ be used – a medium to be applied to a surface using specific tools – but as a form-able, tangible, almost sculptural medium ripe for manipulation. My paintings are collaged from dried layers of acrylic or household paint, which I manipulate at different stages of drying – by scraping, folding, cutting, drawing into and building up. My work is distinguished by a palpable use of surface textures cast as paint. I often manipulate the context of mass-produced materials and divert them into figurative artworks. The paint in this way becomes the surface as well as the medium. I often try to make the paint look like some other material, e.g., wool, wood or stone – frequently as a playful response to the materials represented in the source photographs. Some of my paintings are built up by collaborating collage techniques and traditional handcraft, such as basket weaving, knitting and crocheting. There is no conscious match between these techniques and the activities depicted in the images; I like to allow a certain randomness, ‘happy accidents’, to creep in.. I also use traditional ‘handcraft’ tools – icing nozzles, fingers and hair combs – and I shape some of the simplified elements in the images (e.g., grass) in the same way I was taught to ‘make’ them in the kindergarten. These approaches reinforce the playful qualities in my ‘working’ process – a counterpoint to ‘serious’ Soviet ideas of work.
In construction, the works often take on three-dimensional forms with varying textures and colours. I usually base the colour of my paintings on the original magazine photos, but de-saturate them – emphasising the shapes in the image and the texture of the paint. There is also a certain irony in using traditionally ‘feminine’ pastel colours to depict women at hard, traditionally ‘masculine’ work. I generally choose to hang the paintings further from the wall to emphasise their object-like format.
– Riin Kaljurand