Painter Katya Granova Inserts Own Presence Through Images From the Past

Katya Granova is an artist and curator living in London. Being born in the Soviet Union in 1988, Granova grew up with polarizing perspectives, leaving Granova with an incoherent picture of what was actually going on in the past. Through her lifetime she has seen ideological replacements of perspectives over past events three times: Soviet, post-collapse, and contemporary Russia. Granova’s work reflects on these rapid changes in mass ideology and how it shapes the collective memory. By using old photographs and historical paintings as a base for her works, Granova uses painting to insert her own presence into historical references, such as the Soviet Union’s Cold War period family photographs or Baroque paintings, fighting the passage of time and recontextualizing beliefs from different eras.

Painter Katya Granova
Photo courtesy of the artist.

Q&A with

Women’s Thing and AucArt’s exhibition is titled “Stretching Arms,” which asks the viewer, how do we transcend solitude? In the midst of this global pandemic, many of us are immobilized by our emotions and isolation. This exhibition highlights artists that structure their work with self-compassion and reflection, which provides empathy for others and establishes a community that endures any separation. How does your art practice transcend solitude, especially during this time?

Katya Granova: My painting practice interacts with old photographs or paintings and uses many historical references. Therefore, it allows me to exist in the present, but speculatively place myself into different times, perceiving the world from a global, inter-time perspective. This practice calms me and relieves my anxieties about my family back in St. Petersburg, in particular, my father who currently works in a hospital. 

The nature and materiality of my paintings celebrates the human body and its presence in the world. It acts as a reminder for myself and viewers of essential, important aspects of all life – that we all are bodies, we all are living organisms, we are parts of the organic matter. Quite a lot of people are ignorant about the gravity of COVID-19, taking it for a “simple flu” and having some reasons and (mostly insufficient) data to prove that. But the virus does not care what we do or think. It does not pick and choose the personalities it infects. If we don’t take proper precautions, things will get worse. COVID-19 has intruded the structures of everyday society – our securities, our banks and stock markets, and our illusions of safety. This significant moment reminds us – we are not more important than nature and we are just as physical and present as everything else, so we should respect ecosystems as we respect ourselves. My practice always reminds myself and others that they are not alone, even if they have to isolate themselves, as we are all part of the same matter.

I think we humans went too far taking ourselves as something different to all the other matter and ecosystems just because we have consciousness. I think my works from these series aim to see a body as a matter, tissues, slime.

John Berger, in his Ways of Seeing series, says, “To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude.” Who are your figures? Are your figures naked or nude?

KG: I definitely see them as naked. They are not objects – they are more like a matter. Object is something separate and isolated, observable from all sides, while these bodies are sort of merged together without exact borders. In my philosophical positions I’m close to the ideas of Ben Woodard and his anti-anthropocentric way of seeing humans as something constructed from the matter or the slime (Woodard’s own term) of everything else. I think we humans went too far taking ourselves as something different to all the other matter and ecosystems just because we have consciousness. I think my works from these series aim to see a body as a matter, tissues, slime. This approach is not supposed to be dehumanizing or anything like that, it just unites us with the rest of the world and takes out our anthropocentric pathos. 

So they are not objects and therefore, even if they are based on the paintings of women, nymphs from Jordaens’s works, they are not objectified as female bodies often are. I do consider myself a feminist and I love a female body in all shapes and sizes, so there is indeed a hint of body positivism in this series too. But what I absolutely don’t want is to objectify them. Traditional romanticized nudes are always objectified, sexualized and depersonalized. Even if my work can be called depersonification – it aims to joyfully celebrate a human body as organic matter, as a part of all the other matters. My own body of a painter is also very present there, since my approach to paint is so gestural and messy.

There is one more aspect related to nakedness – since my father is (and grandfather was) a surgeon, I grew up surrounded by photographs of operations and anatomical atlases. I learned to see the human anatomy as beautiful and interesting – and I guess that’s where the viscerality of my painting is from. So my appreciation of Woodard’s ideas has its origin in my early experiences. While growing up, I was really surprised to hear many people think organs and tissues are disgusting. I was wondering – what do you think you are then? All these experiences and ideas are sewn in this series through a traditional, even ancient roman, lens. 

As mentioned before, the way I paint is very bodily. One of my tutors observed that they depict something between sex and a surgical operation. 

In your writings about your art, you mention inserting yourself into other’s histories or environments. Where are you when we look at your paintings?

KG: The paintings in this exhibition are my body in 2018. I’m in my gestures and paint, which is quite a slimy matter. Painting is a medium between myself, the viewer, and history I’m referencing. I can never fully understand the past in the same way as someone who existed in it. It’s mysterious and sad at the same time – I wish we could move through time freely, however we are bound to this very moment. 

Older art is physically present, but not quite approachable, as we cannot properly read its language since we do not exist in the time that it was created. In this series I’m taking references from other eras and discoursing the subjectivity of their perception by revisiting them with my body. I find the materiality of the Baroque Period very relevant and close to Ben Woodard’s views. Humans for old master painters like Peter Paul Rubens and Jacob Jordaens keep the tangibility of paint and the volume of flesh at the same level.

Traditional romanticized nudes are always objectified, sexualized and depersonalized. Even if my work can be called depersonification – it aims to joyfully celebrate a human body as organic matter, as a part of all the other matters.

Whether your paintings are depicting intimate interactions involving several bodies, or using historical images, these paintings involve a great amount of activity with gesture, which feels like your navigation through the reference’s time and space. How has your gesture progressed through the past five years of painting?

KG: I think my gesture has progressed a lot. I’ve tried many different approaches, such as impasto to watery, and defined to messy. Right now, my gestures are becoming more free and present. I’m becoming more aware of the equilibrium between knowing what I’m saying and making a fun mess on the canvas. 

My practice always leans to painting as it is the oldest medium, so you have an endless list of histories to reference through it. I quote the language of painting that other artists have developed then develop my own visual language by reassembling and experimenting with them. Some recent combined references include Rubens, African arts, Cecily Brown or Marlene Dumas. 

Could you share more on the APXIV art collective, which you co-founded in 2016?

KG: APXIV (pronounced as archyv) is an independent artist self-organisation and initially an artist-run space in Moscow, Russia. The list of members changes frequently, however most of us met in ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) Institute while studying contemporary art theory. Our collective celebrates differences instead of similarities and its structure is horizontal, merging authorship of all participants. This is a second personality of mine, as APXIV’s does not show painting. We do collective immersive performances that erase the borders between practice and result, an artist and a viewer, collective and personal authorship. 

In APXIV, our collective vision, listening skills, and respect for each other have been key to our success. Our perseverance in this has recently brought the collective international media attention and several exhibitions abroad. 

My painting practice is sort of separate from my performance practice, and being in London and studying in RCA. Since I am physically separated from my friends, I haven’t been able to invest time into the collective as much as before. However, APXIV is extremely important for me and I look forward to having more time, projects, and discussions with these amazing people. This endeavor is different from my painting practice, but it enriches it.

Tell us more about the process and references in making “With a doll, 1940”? What are your plans for the rest of 2020?

KG: Both series included in this exhibition deals with the past. This work is from a bit of a different set than the Jordaens series, and it’s closer to what I am doing right now. The base for this painting is a very old photograph from my family archive – my grandfather and his cousin posing with a doll. It’s from 1938 or 1939 – the worst years of Stalin’s purges just before the war. This is a little jewish village in Eastern Ukraine. Imagine how scared people were – jews were never quite in favor in the Soviet Union, and these times were just terrifying. However, in the photograph we see two happy kids, playing together. They have their toy doll, they are good friends, and they’re having fun. 

During this historical moment, I’m curious as to how they were perceiving their life. How people could be laughing, playing, doing family activities – people whose parents went through a bloody civil war, whose grandparents were deported, whose friends got purged? It’s impossible to understand them now, when we do not have to face such massive cataclysms as wars or mass purges – even COVID-19 is very far from their experiences of danger and uncertainty. I wonder how they really felt that time but none of them is here to tell me, so I am left with a biased and often untrustworthy history. I would like to travel there and learn how these times really felt. Who were my grandparents when they were young or even kids? Knowing what experiences of the past created contemporary times and people and finding answers to my political questions. I want to intrude into the past, insert myself in it – and the difference between this series and the Jordaens based one is that this work deals with a photograph from a personal family archive, not with the work from the museum.  

How were you introduced to AucArt? What are your positive experiences from working with AucArt?

KG: I was invited to participate in a show in February and submitted my works. So far I’m really happy working with them, as everyone was extremely nice and polite to me. I met Kiltie in person during a studio visit and I really enjoyed showing them my work. And I’m really happy to be in this amazing project and work with Morgan and A Women’s Thing, which would not happen without AucArt!

Posing with the doll Katya Granova
Posing with the doll
Katya Granova
Oil on Canvas,
40 × 50 × 4 cm (16 × 20 in), 2019.

After Jordaens 1 Katya Granova
After Jordaens 1
Katya Granova
Oil on canvas,
200 × 150 cm (79 × 59 in), 2018.

After Jordaens 2 Katya Granova
After Jordaens 2
Katya Granova
Oil on canvas,
200 × 150 cm (79 × 59 in), 2018.

After Jordaens series by Katya Granova
After Jordaens 3
Katya Granova
Oil on canvas,
200 × 150 cm (79 × 59 in), 2018.

After Jordaens 4  Katya Granova
After Jordaens 4
Katya Granova
Oil on canvas,
200 × 150 cm (79 × 59 in), 2018.