Uncovering the fluidity of the human animal: the shifting states and worlds of Kinga Bartis’s paintings

Hungarian Transylvanian-born artist Kinga Bartis creates vivid, dreamlike landscapes inhabited by figures both ethereal and carnal. Having initially set out to study social science and communication in Hungary’s capital, Kinga decided to move to Copenhagen to practise visual art at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Still living and working in Copenhagen, Kinga participates in numerous artist-led initiatives and collectives, as well as continuing to develop her own practice and exhibit her work across Copenhagen and wider Europe.

The world of Kinga’s paintings is one that is in constant flux, containing multiple perspectives and visions of reality. Over all lies a veil of mysticism that carries its own sheen of the mythic and folkloric; thorned, bulbous flowers bloom from between long-nailed hands; faces, bodies and flowing hair emerge from luminous expanses of landscape and water, leaf-shaped eyes droop from trees, animal and human limbs become entangled and fused, bodies melt together, multiple pairs of eyes spill down the cheeks of languid figures. The mythic atmosphere of Kinga’s paintings comes in part, she tells us, from her encounters with magical folk tales set in the Transylvanian landscape, told to her by her grandparents. While the folkloric has a hand in shaping the sense of timelessness that pervades the mood and imagery of Kinga’s paintings, contemporary references appear elsewhere that ground her art in her own specific reality and experience.

Titles such as ‘Try to Put a Ring On It’, ‘The Benefits of an Existential Crisis’ and ‘Charcoal Mask Treatment’ have a distinctly contemporary feel that propels Kinga’s mythic images into a juxtaposing world of pop culture, self-help articles and beauty manuals, which in turn is offset by Kinga’s unwavering challenge aimed at “a deeply traditional, patriarchal upbringing with very fixed norms and gender roles”. Throughout her art, Kinga is committed to exploring sexuality and desire, as well as the relationships between bodies and landscapes, bodies and other bodies—be they human or animal—not through the conventions of art history or a prescribed ‘male gaze’, nor through imposed beauty standards and gender norms, nor, in fact, through any system or mode of understanding that glosses over the infinite and ever-shifting complexities of selfhood and identity. What Kinga’s paintings show us is that the human animal cannot be circumscribed within confines that are fixed and unmoving; it needs room to grow, to transform, to unfurl its limbs.

Bearing the current global health crisis by continuing to paint and produce artworks for future exhibitions, Kinga hopes to develop her practice by participating in artist residencies and experimenting with different mediums. She speaks to us here about her experience of living, studying and working in different countries, the growth of her paintings from sketch to finished work, and her symbiotic relationship with her materials.

Waves, Did Not Want To Be Rode On, oil on canvas, 130 x 100 cm

AMM: To start with, can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to pursue visual art as your profession?

KB: I was born in a small town in Transylvania, Romania. Like many ethnic Hungarians in Romania, my family moved to Hungary right after the revolution in 1990. After finishing high school in a small Hungarian town, I moved to Budapest where I studied social science and communication. While I was working on my thesis on corruption I had to admit that actually I would never be a social scientist, so I relocated to Copenhagen to try my luck getting into The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where I received my masters in 2018. I still live and work in Copenhagen.

AMM: Was there a particular person or mentor who was formative to the development of your creative practice and who has influenced the way you work today?

KB: My professor Anette Abrahamsson made a big impact on me throughout my studies at the art academy and afterwards. She encouraged me to explore exactly those sides of my practice that made me feel uncomfortable or uneasy, maybe not really accepted. After all that moving between different countries and being a foreigner with an accent in all languages I speak, she made me realise how important it is to develop your own language through painting.

AMM: What was the most significant or most surprising way in which your art and approach changed over the course of your studies?

KB: It started during my exchange semester in Umeå, Sweden. There I realised how much more work I needed to put in so as to be able to fulfil my expectations towards being an artist. By this I mean being able to formulate my thoughts, keep up a stable work flow, take responsibility for the works I make and still maintain a distance from them so I don’t end up in a loop. I was the most surprised when I bought my yoga pass for 6 months in advance and started to nerd on books and art theory. It didn’t take long to reflect on how the driving force and the thoughts behind my works stem from my personal background, and how the constant wish to fit into diverse social structures is actually a result of homogenisation and normalisation. It’s funny. While studying capitalism, the mechanism of control, society and power, I never saw myself as part of it, as one of the subjects, I was a scientist. It was painting that made me realise this and act on it.

AMM: What are the mediums you prefer to work with? We see you’ve worked with drypoint as well as painting. How does your choice of medium affect the way in which you work, or the content of your pieces?

KB: I really enjoy painting. I love everything about it. Although we don’t always fit together. Using a medium depends on my energy. I usually try to sense the mental space within and then according to this energy, choosing the medium that can best accommodate it. So when oil is not working I switch to drawing. The ground depends on how much material I have and want to load on the surface: canvas can receive more than a piece of paper. Usually I am very rough with the material; I paint on the floor, on the wall, moving my works around in the studio. Things can sometimes get too rough or get out of hand. Drawing can slow things down, so I use it to detoxify or cleanse. Drawing on a fragile piece of paper for days, treating it carefully, is something that I need to do in order to be able to return to painting. Drawing makes me grounded after I’ve been drifting away with painting. So it’s not so much the subject matter that affects my choice of medium but the energy and the focus I have. I have tried drypoint and various graphic techniques while I had access to a workshop and I would love to make some prints again soon.

Soft exorcist, A Spitting Woman, oil on linen, 46 x 54 cm

AMM: How would you describe the world of your paintings? Do you think of it as a singular space that you are revealing a little more of with each painting or are there multiple worlds?

KB: I see it as an ambiguous space that language cannot fully rationalise—a mental landscape that I am mapping out. Through social science I learned to think in structures and categories, various divisions and relations. In painting I am trying to disrupt these constructions through the subject matter, the material and the procedure. To keep it in flux. Because everything is changing, moving; I am an observer and also the observed but this changes with time. There is some share of personal experience but this personality, identity or body is put out in the world and the world is put in the body. Resonating among all these states and worlds loosens the impression of a static state. I guess this is also a way of coping with change, between life and decay.

AMM: A lot of your work focuses on the female subject. In what ways do your paintings think about gender politics and notions of femininity, particularly in relation to the traditionally ‘male’ gaze and heterosexual perspective that is presupposed in depictions of women and specifically the female body in art history?

KB: As a child I often drew mermaids, horses and princesses from my imagination. But then, because they didn’t resemble ‘reality’, I was encouraged to copy other pictures and paintings, to help me get better at it. Copying. That is how my dreams got swapped for another’s reality – reproducing some else’s gaze. Challenging this, disrupting that order which polices conventions, is where I see painting’s power. Everything is in constant change and we are deeply connected to each other and the world. Our bodies are ageing and our subjectivities are in flux. Paying attention to that is what generates my practice. Resonating with the world, putting myself in it then stepping back, putting the world in me.

Gender roles carved in stone are static elements, giving the impression of something never changing, a universal normal. We choose a side (or actually, someone chooses instead of us) then we are told we have to stick to it. According to this view of things, we are supposed to be able to control our bodies and keep things straight, keep things in order, obey, behave.

I focus on female subjects as this is what I have access to: my body, my subjectivity—which is sadly a product of our time, defined by a deeply traditional, patriarchal upbringing with very fixed norms and gender roles. Knowing this allows me to keep exploring what is learned or forced upon us and what is desired, wished for, fantasised about. I am exploring how my sexuality is changing, how I am ageing, what I am passionate about, how I love and how I fight. Through painting I am also looking for alliance, others who are also on an explorative journey, sharing the interest of not only dismantling that male gaze etc. but to contribute to something that is not built on domination, exploitation and domestication.

AMM: There is a certain mythic mysticism to your paintings that makes them seem almost allegorical. Do you draw on the conventions of myth in your work?

KB: The first tales I can remember, and those which set my mood for how I imagine worlds and scenarios, are the traditional Transylvanian folk legends. Nature in Transylvania is very mystical—deep forests with wildlife and amazing formations of mountains. My grandparents used to tell legends about the origins of these magical landscapes. Usually the story started with a girl and a boy, their tragic love story and how they ended up haunting certain lakes, rivers or castles. So I guess that plays a big part in how I describe some elements within the mood and tempo of my paintings. These work as mystical elements. Then I try to plant some contemporary seeds here and there, in terms of titles, and other details.

hEYE Hopes, charcoal on paper, 59.4 x 42 cm

AMM: Is there usually a narrative behind your paintings or do you think of them as more ambiguous and symbolic?

KB: Usually the starting point is a narrative which becomes transformed through the process of depiction. The story or experience is altered through the sketches and paintings, contextualised through readings that lead to more nuances and a level of greater ambiguity. I consider this like digging down beyond language and structure. In painting I don’t need to choose sides, I can be all, outside and inside as well.

AMM: How does scale come into your practice? Do you prefer to work big or small?

KB: I have my comfort formats in size S, M, L. Usually I start from a matchbox size sketch. It has to go really fast when something pops up in my head so that is just very practical. Then, depending on the motif, I make one or more paintings with the same elements, always learning from the previous piece, maybe going up in scale if the motif benefits from it. It’s because I don’t like to overpaint, so I’d rather finish a piece and start a new one with the experience from the previous one. Through this process the matchbox size sketch could end up as a large painting. Working on a big painting just generates so much energy, and a small one a lot of intimacy.

AMM: Each of your works seems to have its own chromatic theme, in the sense that there is a resonance and harmony of colour between the different forms and elements that make up each painting. How do you think about the function of colour in your painting? Do you consider it as integral to conveying a particular subject or mood?

KB: Yes, I am very attracted to colours and they are very significant in the process. I love looking at paint tubes—smelling them, arranging them, holding them in my palm and feeling their different weights. I think a lot in colours and often I know the colour scale even before the motif is completely worked out. I give a lot of space and pay close attention to the colour to allow it to decide for itself and the composition. The works balance between transparency and opacity as I work with thin layers over the top of each other, building the space up, avoiding covering the canvas with colours placed next to each other. Rather, they are rubbed into the canvas, while still leaving space for the layer underneath. I find it really difficult to hide the canvas’s texture with paint. As if I would suffocate it if I did.

I use sienna as an underpaint that functions as a source of light; that comes through in almost all of my works. Then I try to combine the characteristic of the colours with the mood and concept. For example, I had a very feverish winter (feelings and mixed energy) when I started using the reds. Time passed in slow motion and the sky was hidden with a grey veil. Each day was a copy of the previous one and I lost my sense of time. It seemed like everything was on standby, nothing changing, but it was exactly what generated the feverish red paintings. The fever has passed and I can’t feel those reds at the moment.

Try To Put a Ring on It, oil on board, 33.5 x 25cm

AMM: How much does your work seek to convey your own experience? Do you tend to incorporate personal elements?

KB: Yes, though not the narrative—it’s more about the sensations or how certain experiences can feel. Since I work without external visual references, it is a lot about evaluating and sensing what feels right to my eyes. As if I am feeling or touching with my vision.

The most interesting part to me in painting is exploring and articulating how it feels when life happens. Meaning, for instance, how it feels to be powerless, when you are grieving, when you are feeling rootless or rejected. When you are crushing someone with your love or when someone crushes you with their lack of love. When you are a killjoy, or life happens too fast and you can’t keep up.

We all have a different reality, we share some parts of it but mostly it differs according to age, gender, race, class etc. My art is not for validating my subjectivity, claiming space with broad arm movements through wild brushstrokes, but it is about sharing a methodology of challenging classical narratives, the constructed hierarchy, unlearning certain traditions and of course as a challenge to the male gaze.

AMM: What inspires you beyond visual art—do you draw on music, books, philosophy, politics?

KB: If I lived in the middle of nowhere I would love to listen to the world but since that’s not the case I need music to tune in and slow down. My playlists are very eclectic. I have gong sound shower, hip hop, trance, pop, you name it. I love to listen to jazz when I draw and trance when I’m struggling with a painting. Usually I try to choose music without lyrics as I find language very powerful and it would move my focus when working. I love books of all kinds. Right now I’m catching up with queer theory, looking at artists whose practice is based on queer as a strategy or tactic, as a tool for questioning the ordinary.

My class consciousness always craves for political insights so I’m reading about white privilege, intersectionality and solidarity. Then Ursula K. Le Guin is challenging my earthly logic through her fantastic book The Left Hand of Darkness. At home I have my plants that I play music to and watch them grow. It’s very rewarding.

AMM: When you set out to make a painting, how do you start? Do you make sketches, write, plan it out beforehand?

KB: I start from a tiny sketch. But the origin of that image can be various. Sometimes I have glimpses of images after meditation or before falling asleep. I don’t consider them visions or anything like that. More like how I interpret life and bodily sensations.

On the other hand I can also work conceptually. It is not a research-based practice I have, reading and looking at images are food to the brain, and these experiences can trigger a personal resonance, then I start digging into it and there it is, a painting. And each painting leads to the next one.

If I don’t have any idea how to approach these glimpses, I usually draw them so that I learn more about the composition and texture and hopefully after that it will be possible to translate it into a painting.

Smudged Coco Rouge, oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm

AMM: Are there any particular artworks or artists that have been a sustained influence on your work throughout your artistic career?

KB: Miriam Cahn’s and Marlene Dumas’ art practice. The way they incorporate the world in their subjective universe, weaving the private and the political together, their unique painterly voice and engagement with the material is very powerful. It makes me want to paint every time I come across their paintings.

I am also very touched by Ana Mendieta’s works, mostly for the same reasons as I mentioned above.

AMM: What is the artistic scene like in Copenhagen? Do you have many opportunities for collaboration or do you prefer to conduct a solitary practice?

KB: I consider myself very lucky to have been able to settle in Copenhagen and maintain an artistic practice. It is a small scene and sometimes it can get a bit tight. Collaboration and collectivity is a crucial in an art practice. The city has different kinds of artist-run venues and exhibition spaces and there is a very supportive system for artists so there is fertile soil for collaboration.

A solitary practice is very difficult for me to imagine. Intellectually I’m very dependent on my colleagues’ input and knowledge and I find them very inspiring. I am a member of a group where we read our own texts and discuss them. The members have various backgrounds but they are mostly visual artists and writers. It is very interesting to see the difference and the similarities between the ways in which people from diverse disciplines approach language. I am also very happy to be able to exhibit with my dear friend Coline Marotta in June—in an artist-run exhibition space called OK Corral in Copenhagen.

AMM: What is your workspace like? Do you have any studio rituals or particular ways of working?

KB: My studio in Copenhagen is basically my home, except that I don’t sleep there. Tuning in to work starts in the morning with meditation and some exercise so by the time I get in I am ready to work. I need a lot of time to really find focus so I listen to music all day. My need for social contact varies a lot but the beginning of a process is generally easier with less interaction. I am trying to find the silver linings as life can get pretty boring in my own company.

AMM: How do you envision your practice developing? Do you have any plans for upcoming projects that you can share with us?

KB: I would like to continue painting as much as I can, gain a bit more experience with the material, maybe find a graphic workshop and do some prints. I would love to be able to meet people and discuss, be a part of a community, share knowledge and collaborate in various forms. I would like to participate in residencies and travel a bit. Relocating can be very beneficial to the practice. I was planning to participate in the PADA Residency in Lisbon to prepare for my solo show scheduled in Copenhagen for November and a duo show with Coline Marotta in June. It is really difficult to foresee the rest of the year because of Covid, but I am working in the studio as always, hoping to be able to show the works at some point in the future.

Find out more about the artist: www.kingabartis.com

Interview by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.

Waterbed, oil on linen, 20 x40 cm