Where the beauty gets created: at Olya Avstreikh’s studio
Author: Anastasia Lobacheva
Photos : Vadim Stein
11 May, 2022
An empty cinema theater is a symbol of a frozen life and one of the images from Olya Avstreikh’s paintings. We visited her studio and talked about how Olya realized herself as an artist and changed everything, what the art education gave to her and how people react to the physicality of her paintings.
TELL US ABOUT THE BEGINNING OF YOUR PATH AS AN ARTIST. YOU USED TO SAY THAT IT ALL BEGAN WHEN YOU WERE 28, COMPLETELY CHANGING YOUR CAREER. HOW DID YOU REALIZE THE ART IS YOUR MISSION?
I only managed to realize who I am after a massive burnout. I have spent many years working for the media, the Rain TV channel (a famous Russian liberal media, – trans.), and spent some time living in England. And I used to draw in my teen age at some artist’s workshop, in a free creative stream, with no academic boundaries. It was a part of my life, but then other things got in the way. I’ve got a very diverse life experience, and that’s why I don’t regret anything, it was all giving me strength, and you know that you have to be strong mentally to be an artist. I’ve always had a very imaginative mind, and it reflected in everything I did, though I was doing not what I truly needed. I’m glad I managed to believe in myself completely. I know that not everybody believed in me, but I always did.
BY THE WAY, HAVE YOU SUFFERED FROM THE IMPOSTOR SYNDROME BACK THEN?
Yes, it was awful at the beginning, though I was aware it’s just a social construct, but it didn’t stop me from running around inside myself. I have spent lots of time discussing that with my friends, and it turned out that literally everybody had been suffering from this syndrome, and I was quite disturbed thinking about it back then. It was kind of a huge thing for me, and I even wanted to make a project dedicated to that theme, painting some female portraits, but it didn’t work out at the time.
WHAT WERE THE MAIN THEMES OF YOUR WORK BACK THEN? YOU WERE COMPARED TO HOCKNEY BY LOTS OF PEOPLE AND EVERYBODY REMEMBERED THAT OLYA AVSTREIKH IS ABOUT A BIT OF A CRAZY STYLE AND WILD COLORS.
I was often compared to Hockney, and I was traumatized by that a lot, because I felt pushed in one certain category and my paintings’ reception was narrowed to “wow, that is very sunny and awesome”. Of course, I was a fan of Hockney, I was amazed by his color work and how he transformed the reality around him. He was a strong guide for me at the beginning, and it’s true to say that I stepped into the art through his works. I might call that time my teenage period, I had myself all broken after that, of course, and I had a huge reassessment of myself and things I was touched by in the art. I have a lot of awesome Hockney catalogs, I’ve been to his retrospective in London twice in 2017, and now I can only say that it’s been a couple of years since I looked at his paintings for the last time: I had a huge overdose and said goodbye to him for now.
WHAT HAVE YOU GAINED FROM STUDYING THE HSE UNIVERSITY DESIGN SCHOOL? TELL ABOUT VOLODYA DUBOSARSKY’S INFLUENCE ON YOU. I KNOW YOU’RE STILL FRIENDS.
I think of it as a very important period, I had a reboot at that time and realized that I should do some super tasks instead of just drawing beautiful pictures. I had a very wobbling mind, and it was on a road to nowhere. The role of Dubosarsky was colossal, he is a very great teacher, and we had a focus on risk, experiment and doing intellectual work. I was quite destabilized, it was hard psychologically, but the growth was very fast.
HOW IMPORTANT IT IS FOR AN ARTIST TO FIND A TEACHER?
Even if you haven’t found your teacher literally, you, as an artist, still constantly are in dialogue with the greats. I think a good example here will be a deep connection between Tracey Emin and Munk and Louise Bourgeois, they were her teachers in a kind of way.
TELL ABOUT YOUR PROJECT WITH JENYA MILYOKOS DURING THE PANDEMIC. HOW HAS THE ATTITUDE TO YOUR BODY CHANGED THEN?
It’s an important point for me, when the idea had dictated a form. The pandemic was overall a difficult but interesting time, and I have walked out of the limits of traditional canvas. I learned to feel myself better and went breaking bad (at least for myself). We have had a perfect partner symbiosis with Jenya: for two weeks we had been painting each other naked every day and talking, and then we had created a visual diary with all the drawings and collages. In the “Video Chat: send nudes” project we haven’t had a goal to work with the body, but we valued a full contact and openness, which most of the people had lost during the lockdown. As a result, we have walked far out from usual personal comfort boundaries and created new ones. My body has become a powerful tool and I strongly feel that now. The body reacts to stress and grief; fear and powerlessness are paralyzing. I work on that in my workshop, but I can’t imagine where in Russia I can show it all yet.
DO YOU CONSIDER OUR AUDIENCE VERY MODEST? HOW ARE YOUR NUDE AND A BIT HOOLIGAN PROJECTS GREETED BY THE AUDIENCE?
Ah, yes! Our society is very puritan and conservative, and it strikes a ricochet at a lot of themes. There is no art without freedom, and all that’s left then is a salon. And also there’s no pleasure if there’s no freedom, it’s very important. One of the big galleries suggested a project to me, but with no nudity as a condition. While I have a two meters of canvas with a huge butt hanging in my studio. I don’t play by these rules. Our project “Video Chat: send nudes” has drawn attention and we were interviewed by Dazed, and then a dozen different media caught this wave. I’m very grateful to hse.art.gallery for publishing this interview. A Moscow Museum called us to exhibit the project, but then they canceled everything because their bosses didn’t want to stamp the 18+ marking. I have stumbled upon lots of censorship obstacles concerning the body and nudity especially. This is actually very weird, knowing these things are fundamental for all the important western art, but not us.
HOW DO YOUR THEMES AND ART CHANGE THROUGHOUT TIME? NOW YOU ARE NOT THE SAME ARTIST YOU WERE THREE YEARS AGO, WHAT HAS INFLUENCED YOU?
It may seem that I’m not the same artist anymore, but it’s always been about the same thing, loneliness, just in different forms. Sometimes it’s a more clear image of an escapist, a man standing face to wall, a broken swimmer underwater, who is not destined to swim to his destination, a cinema theater with no people inside, or an emptiness along the crowd, contrasting to a moving stream. I call that “a nervous fiesta”, expressing two of my favorite extremes. Probably I realized these themes can be discussed in different ways, yet sometimes less is more, and the beauty hides in the truth.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE ARTISTS? WHO DO YOU LIKE AMONG THE RUSSIAN ARTISTS AND WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT OUR YOUNG ART IN GENERAL?
These days I’m deep into Paul McCarthy and John Currin. I’m just very attracted to their world of perversive, repulsive and bold images. It's a step out of the boundaries of things accepted by our society, a visual banditism, and it’s wonderful. My lovely women, of course: Tracey Emin, Cecily Brown, Marlene Dumas, Katarina Yanechkova, Sarah Lucas, Alice Neel, a tear off Jamian Juliano-Villani and may I say, Julia Fox? She’s so strange and amazing.
The number one among the Russian artists is definitely Danini, there’s no one like her, this is life as art. I also like Ivan Gorshkov, EliKuka (an art duo of Oleg Eliseev and Evgeny Kukoverov, – trans.) and, of course, Dubosarsky. I absolutely love his underwater series. I love hooliganism and bold images. By the way, I respect the Moscow conceptualism and everything that it gave birth to, especially the new wave of young artists, but it’s not really a thing for my character. An awesome Ukrainian artist Sergey Zarva and, of course, Masha Reva and Ivan Grabko, are resonating loudly in my heart now.
I don’t know what to say about young art. I hope it survives and saves its dignity. Russia had/has its own hierarchy. Firstly, there are institutions in charge, secondly, everything is measured in money. The artists have almost lost their place, they are just figures, playing tiniest roles, and maybe there’s a chance this situation can still change.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
Simple things: my friends, movies, my life, my family. I’m always amazed by something somewhere. I take tons of screenshots and photos and then I lose it all, not able to find any of these things. So, the main thing is to be in touch with yourself, to have your art going directly from your heart. And it’s pretty difficult, since you have lots of things in life distracting you and pushing you in the wrong direction. Now activism and reflection are most important, you have to let it all through yourself every day, so it might find the exits in the art, and there is no other way to do that.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON CURRENTLY? WHEN CAN WE EXPECT A NEW EXHIBITION?
I’m preparing a personal project for The Lobby, and it’s a complicated question if we should do an exhibition now. I have things to say, I’m warmed by these things and I hope it finds resonance in people. I’m also participating in the “Light feathering” exhibition in the new Sasha Blanar’s gallery “Serene”. It’s located right in front of the New Tretyakov on Krymsky Val, and I’m exhibiting my large empty cinema hall there. This is the series about emptiness anomaly, where the time is paused and a normal reality is not working.
TELL ABOUT YOUR WORKSHOP. WHY IS IT PLACED IN THIS EXACT SPACE, DO YOU LIKE EVERYTHING HERE, HOW DO YOU FEEL WORKING HERE? IS IT IMPORTANT FOR YOU TO HAVE A HUGE SPACE FOR WORK AND HOW COMFORTABLE DO YOU FEEL WORKING WITH LARGE SCALED ARTWORKS?
It’s a complicated situation with workshops in Moscow, especially when you work with large canvas: you just need big empty walls. I feel like you can only find a small storage room or some former factory space with dusty wires and sockets and such. That’s why the assortment was quite little, just like my budget was too. I managed to find my place right after graduating and I slowly moved from our former workshop. Usual factory looks, bad restrooms, dusty hallways, but what can you do? Honestly, when you start working, you stop seeing any difference, at least you have walls around you. Art is not about comfort anyway. I started collecting bushings from the dump which were thrown away by the nearby sewing factory. I’m always running low on them, as I use them to hang my canvas. I mostly buy rolled canvases, mount them on the walls and then store the rolled paintings too, opening them for exhibitions.
RECENTLY YOU WENT WORKING WITH LARGE CANVASES. WHAT DO YOU EARN FROM THAT?
I don’t like doing small things, though I can. I love the large scale. It’s hard to curb the large canvas, it has its own laws. But it’s very close for me energetically and stylistically, it’s like dancing or even fighting with the canvas, a powerful exchange.
HOW FAST DO YOU WORK?
If the idea is thoroughly thought through and there are no “will be done later” things left, then yes, I can work pretty quickly. Sometimes I get stuck, but I try to face it philosophically. It doesn’t mean you’re bad at your work or you can’t do it. You just need to take a break, and when the time comes, you realize what you have to do and just do it in one second.
WHAT IS WORKING FLOW IN THE WORKSHOP? DO YOU HAVE SOME HABITS OR RITUALS?
I have some simple routine: to make coffee or tea, burn some salvia and turn on the NTS Radio. I go to my workshop just like an ordinary job, every day from 12 to 9 o’clock. Of course, I’m not painting all the time. I design sketches, do some administrative work and communication, and read the news.
AND WHAT KIND OF PERSON ARE YOU IN THE REAL LIFE? DO YOU VALUE DECORATING YOURSELF? DO YOU HAVE SOME ARTISTIC ALTER EGO, LIKE DANINI HAS?
Frankly speaking, I don’t even remember what person I am anymore. The pandemic and 24th of February have changed everything. We had no time to breathe out, to realize what was happening. There was no thinking, acceptance, just an infinite obstacle course. It was definitely important for me to change my looks. I always put myself in my own world, like some kind of a role. But now I don’t want to be a quiet artist, I want my works to speak for themselves.