The interplay of density and softness, stillness and motion, in Aks Misyuta’s exuberant figurative paintings

Painter Aks Misyuta has forged a distinctive practice of composing figurative still lifes made up of inflated figures endowed with exaggerated physical presence. Her pathway towards her current artistic work lay outside the conventional trajectory set out by art school and training. Although Aks studied for a journalism degree, visual expression has long held precedence for her. Her illustrative work earned her a commission by a newspaper when she was in her early teens, and while pursuing a journalistic career she regularly contributed drawings alongside written articles. Unsatisfied, however, with her creative endeavours being relegated to the sidelines, Aks left her newspaper job to put her energy into her drawing. She worked as a fashion illustrator before ultimately deciding to focus on her personal practice. Since this life-altering decision, her work has evolved from drawing to painting. Her images, which retain the illustrative elements of her early artistic pursuits, are centred around exuberant, large-limbed anthropomorphic figures in various attitudes of reclining, running, leaping, dancing, bathing, bending and stretching. Using a high-contrast palette of muted pastel hues with dense greys and blacks, Aks sculpts forms that are almost statuesque in their starkly shadowed planes and highlighted contours, yet which have all the kinetic dynamism of bodies in motion. There is a solidity to her figures, in the heaviness of their hands and feet, the firmness of their stances and in how they take up space in the composition, but they simultaneously carry a distinct sense of poise and lightness in the fluidity of their movements, their purposeful grace.

Ambiguity of identity is another important aspect of Aks’ work. Her figures’ lack of distinguishing features means they can be read as anonymous; they are, in Aks’ words, “no-one and everyone”, both painter and viewer, and at the same time neither. Aks obliquely complicates the anonymity of her figures by designating a central character or concept around which her work revolves—an allegorical figure she refers to as “Timewaster”. Timewaster defies the capitalist imperative to do, to produce, to monetise on time; Timewaster values idleness as a legitimate way of spending time, as a worthy pursuit in itself. Aks’ Timewaster is present in various ways in all her figures, who, without becoming homogenous, defiantly and persistently embody the Timewaster’s ethos. In this, Aks’ works drift continually between ambiguity and specificity, the focus constantly shifting, identities never allowed to settle, features never quite arranging themselves into particularity but always reticent, indistinct.

Currently, Aks is continuing to cultivate her instinctive approach to creating from her home studio in Istanbul, in the company of her one-eyed cat and attended by her love of reading, long walks and picture-taking.

‘Two of you’, acrylic on canvas, 110 x 90 cm

AMM: Hello, Aks! To start off, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your journey towards becoming an artist?

AM: Hello! Thank you for having me. Right now I’m sitting in my tiny studio in Istanbul answering questions on my art, although I hail from a provincial Russian city (Bryansk) and have never attended any art courses! Fifteen years ago, I was working at very boring jobs in small local newspapers, as I studied Journalism at university. I’ve always been drawing and my first ever job was a series of illustrations for a newspaper when I was thirteen. My parents have always cherished my creativity as they loved art themselves. However, they wished I’d go into something “more serious” as a profession. I guess a lot of post-Soviet people used to romanticise journalism, believing it could help change the world for the better.

Journalistic work was very alien to my nature, even though I tried my best. Yes, back then I accompanied some writings with illustrations I made, but this compromise didn’t help with my ever-growing feeling of living someone else’s life. In 2007 I created a blog and started posting my daily drawings—in a while I started receiving commissions. Then, as happens with many people, one day I woke up with a firm decision to quit my job and to drastically change the path of my life.

This decision—which scared my parents—led to a decade-long career as a fashion illustrator. I liked it; it helped me to become more thick-skinned. But painting has always been an outlet for my emotions, being a very intimate part of my life. I started sharing personal works and gained some visibility. Today, I focus on my painting practice. So technically, I am a professional journalist turned fashion illustrator, turned painter.

AMM: Your style is very distinctive—how did you begin making these kinds of images?

AM: Looking at my commercial works, I can see how drastically they differ from my paintings. I guess it was a natural response of my imagination during a busy time to keep me sane by expressing something more personal, with the help of a medium that felt more relaxed compared to drawing. It helped me to avoid burnout. My style has been changing as I myself have been changing. With time, I see works becoming less detailed, and that reflects the process of growing and how what seems to be important might lose its relevance. A few years ago my approach was more illustrative, since it was an attempt to depict certain thoughts. Now, I allow myself to paint whatever my hands want without thinking—it’s a flow. I have no concept beforehand, I just spill whatever I feel onto canvas, so all the things happening around me and affecting me find their way out from the labyrinths of my head.

‘Pink sun’, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 80 cm

AMM: There is something almost statuesque about the figures in your work, in both the shading and in the solidity of their bodies, yet there is also a distinct softness to them. How do you think about this relation of power and vulnerability?

AM: In my work I tend to depict characters—those formally anthropomorphic figures—as still lifes. I was thinking the other day about the hyperbolised proportions in my work, and the thought process was akin to psychoanalysis, sending me into the realm of unspoken. Perhaps my confident hand paints an insecure part of my personality. Those big, statuesque feet strive to stand firmly, while big hands would love to have more control.
A tradition of using hyperbola and synecdoche in art is widespread (in ancient and folk art)—the emphasised ears of Hathor as a symbol of compassion, genitalia as a symbol of fertility, etc. When a body part is exaggerated it stresses its quality or points out a process that is associated with this particular member. I assume my approach might be an echo of that logic.

My characters are vulnerable, and it shows in the balloonish, inflatable nature I bestow on them. I like this ambiguity of plumpness; it’s hard to tell whether a thing is lightweight or heavy.

AMM: We notice a very stark use of high-contrast shadows and contouring in your work. Can you tell us about your approach to light and darkness?

AM: The contrast shading I use in my work is not only an artistic tool I love for its ability to give depth. It fully conveys the dual nature of the works. Although they are quite cartoonish, they always have eschatalogical undertones. The latter could be considered as something dark, but the ironical aspect of subjects brings the works into another plane; they are about celebrating a moment. We describe the reality we know by using oppositions. Light and darkness, both literally and metaphorically, are what define the world we navigate.

‘Betelgeuse bursts’, acrylic on canvas, 100 x 90 cm

AMM: What materials are integral to your work, and what is it about these that is important to your process?

AM: I used to use oils and I’ve also been experimenting with engraving. But nothing gives me as much satisfaction as acrylics on canvas. No fancy tools or techniques involved. I love the surface to be smooth—I don’t like texture in my work.

Black paint is essential for me. For me, it’s easy to see compositions in a dark background. Sometimes people mistakenly think that I am depressive, but black for me has always been a symbol of cosmos, of great emptiness, so it has nothing to do with gloom. It is a symbol of a great beginning.

AMM: There seems to be an ambiguity of identity when it comes to distinguishing between the figures in your work—they have no clear discerning features. Where do your subjects come from? Do you think of them as having different personalities?

AM: Every painting is a form of self-portrait, my own sentiments depicted. My work is not about personalities, it is about the emotions and feelings we are all prone to, no matter who we are in society. My artistic universe spins around one character named Timewaster. It appears in many forms and always symbolises me, you and other people. No one and everyone. That lack of personal features helps to shift the focal point in the perception of a painting, so it’s more “why?” than any other question.

AMM: How did the idea of ‘Timewaster’ evolve? And why did this symbolic character become so central to your practice?

AM: I was raised in a culture where “the clock is ticking” metaphor was widely used, I mean it always puts you under pressure. Unfortunately, society tells us not about carpe diem (which is an amazing motto), it is more about reminding that you owe something to it (to society). Especially it feels acute for women. Very often endeavors which go beyond social expectations, family hopes etc are depreciated. So my character is a symbol of a quiet rebel, Timewaster celebrates the act of time-wasting. We all might be Timewasters, especially in the eyes of strangers.

‘Ultimate autumn day’, acrylic on canvas, 80 x 70 cm

AMM: What kinds of emotions do you hope viewers will project when encountering your work? Do you intend certain moods?

AM: Feeling is an engine in perceiving art, in my opinion. I don’t believe that the initial creative impulse could be fully explained in statements or comments. What could be shown couldn’t be said. So if a viewer feels something, it’s great, if they remain unmoved, it’s normal. Sometimes the title of a work gives viewers a hint, a starting point. But at the same time it could be absolutely misleading. As I see it, any attempt to rationalise a work of art with verbal explanations is a sort of second translation, which might cut out some meaningful details. The first translation is what the artists themselves do when incarnating a vague idea into a tangible something.

I wouldn’t like to rob viewers by dictating the way they should read my work, as I am myself skeptical when someone forces me to feel what I don’t feel.

What I love about art, when it is sincere, is that it’s liberating for both artist and viewer. Since I paint for myself in the first place, I find the idea of an artwork as an open form very sympathetic.

AMM: We love the awkward grace and poise of your figures. What draws you to this kind of physicality?

AM: I think of them as of sets of objects that are gathered by storm, slightly chaotic yet complete. They are caught in the act—they are not posing.

‘They are gone’, acrylic on canvas, 50 x 60 cm

AMM: There is a very exuberant kinetic quality to your images. How does your work deal with movement?

AM: I describe them as freeze-frames from a movie that disappeared.

AMM: Are there any particular themes that you keep coming back to in your work?

AM: Yes, I guess there’s a range of themes that circulate in my works. Solitude, procrastination, anticipation, love, the end of the world. They are always entwined.

AMM: What is your process like when it comes to creating a composition? Do you have an image in your head before you begin?

AM: It starts with a feeling, with an urge to release something from my head. It is always an impulse. I do not do any preliminary work; I do not sketch. I begin by painting a canvas in black (or sometimes red or blue) and trace the image I see there with a brush. I need to do it quickly. At this point I always feel slightly anxious, but it’s a vaguely erotic feeling too.

AMM: Where do you seek inspiration for your art? Are you influenced by disciplines beyond your own, for example film or literature?

AM: In order to create I need to feel something. I work when I’m happy, when I’m sad, when I’m scared. So basically emotions are my fuel. I’d say literature is a great source of inspiration since it tells us about human nature and irritates our feelings. I love reading. But mundane life is also good for inspiration. Speaking about art, visiting museums is hugely inspiring. Time freezes when I look narrowly at paintings. Even if they don’t speak to me, I love seeing a human being in all the strokes. The amount of amazing things mankind has managed to create in spite of everything is fascinating in itself. Creative genius is inspiring. Once, in a museum, I dared to gently touch an ancient artefact made of stone. It felt like the hand of the person who’d created it touched me back. I’ve always loved archaeological museums and ancient things, as well as all the things cosmos-related. I think these fields of my interests give me a lot of energy. Stargazing is uplifting. Seeing myriads of stars, feeling that we all are equal parts of a huge sophisticated system we have no idea about—that gives me confidence.

‘Before the storm’, acrylic on canvas, 45 x 54 cm

AMM: What is your studio setup like?

AM: I left the studio I used to share with friends when lockdown started. For the moment I’m working in the intimate atmosphere of my home studio. It’s a tiny space and it doesn’t allow me to share with anyone bigger than a cat. My one-eyed cat Miakish takes advantage of being petite and always watches me from the desk. It’s rather comfortable working in my little chamber, as everything I need is at arm’s length. I don’t like speaking while working, and everyone who has seen me work knows that it looks like a machine with a brush. My main concern is daily light, but proper lamps solve that problem.

AMM: How do you spend your time when you’re not working directly on your artistic practice?

AM: For me it’s hard to find a balance. Painting is an obsession. The majority of my time belongs to it. I often blame myself for being unable to focus on other things—it’s a never-ending fight. But when equilibrium is found I am more than happy. Reading is what I love. I also have a passion for fragrances; it’s my hobby. Long walks bring me joy, and I take hundreds of pictures, especially of cats. I’m not a huge fan of crowded places, I prefer spending my time with my family and laughing to tears with my loved ones.

AMM: Are you working towards anything exciting just now?

AM: I started working on bigger scale paintings for an upcoming show. Considering the current situation, it would be too presumptuous of me to say where and when, since plans have never looked as ephemeral as they look today!

Find out more about the artist:

Interview by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.

‘Breaking news’, acrylic on canvas

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