Jānis Avotiņš, Untitled, 2015, oil on canvas, 17 1/4 × 17 1/4".

Jānis Avotiņš, Untitled, 2015, oil on canvas, 17 1/4 × 17 1/4".

Jānis Avotiņš

Jānis Avotiņš, Untitled, 2015, oil on canvas, 17 1/4 × 17 1/4".

Jānis Avotiņš’s paintings seem intangible, like the mental images that embody cherished memories, and yet their beholder experiences them with epiphanic immediacy. The Latvian artist’s most recent exhibition presented portraits and figure works, mostly paintings in small to medium formats; three highly subtle drawings enhanced the show. While much of his earlier work featured landscapes, which unfolded around his protagonists as a spacious stage, this element has disappeared from these more recent pieces, or contracted into a mere horizon—the barest definition of space conceivable. Whether a figure has emerged from an interior or a natural scene can be almost impossible to tell—the distinction between inside and outside has collapsed into virtually complete abstraction. These nebulous settings emphasize the otherworldliness of the figures, who appear almost as hallucinatory visions.

A group of six paintings from 2015, all Untitled, exemplifies the stunning depth effect of this technique. A horizon divides each small, nearly square canvas into fields of light gray (the bottom half is appreciably darker). A female figure dressed in a floor-length white gown, her hair pinned up, her hands folded in front of her abdomen, stands in the upper part of the picture and looks straight at the beholder. Her attire indicates that she hails from the past, but the diminutive size of the depiction leaves one wondering: Is she the protagonist of the picture or mere staffage? Yet she unlocks the capacious pictorial space, marking a point of distance from the viewer and endowing the abstract segmentation of the plane with an ambiguous semblance of depth. Still, the viewer tries in vain to fix an exact division of the space: The figure stands on the horizon, but the line of transition eludes the searching gaze. Avotiņš achieves this effect through glazing, a technique he has refined over the years. He veils the canvas with wisps of color and renders all contours blurry. He also lets the fabric support show through in the finished painting, and the dark pigment that settles on the canvas during the glazing process drifts through the picture as a shimmering, grainy mist. This lends his works physical heft, even as the subject seems to float across the canvas like a fleeting and immaterial recollection.

Each of the six Untitled paintings shows a different figure, and seen side by side, the pallid protagonists become legible as individuals. The artist derives these strangely timeless figures from historic photographs (he terms these sources “precedents”): retouched portraits in books such as Soviet-era city guides, which he has collected for years, or photographic prints from prewar Latvia. He is drawn to imagery from the Soviet Union because, produced for propaganda purposes, it was designed to convey an unambiguous message. “The desire of looking at these empty anonymous pictures forced me to repaint them with my imagination,” the artist explains.

In his drawings, also mostly in small formats, Avotiņš uses different formal means to tap into the same visual repertoire. Take Untitled, 2014–15: Thousands upon thousands of pencil dots model the image of a woman in a high-necked white dress, not unlike the figure in the painting described above. Resolved into dapples and specks, she defies the eye’s attempt to fully apprehend her. The drawing emphatically places her in a world neither real nor fully unreal—the native sphere of the imagination. To Avotiņš’s mind, it is presumably the true scene of pictorial fulfillment.

Jens Asthoff

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.