Interview with Olexander Wlasenko

Line Gallery:  Why do you think you came to focus on drawing as opposed to another medium?

Olexander Wlasenko:  Drawing is eternal. It’s ancient. When one thinks of the earliest forms of visual communication, thoughts turn to lines drawn in the sand or other kinds of mark-making. When I participate in drawing, I feel as though I’m in touch with something primordial. I feel I’m in commune with the infinite. It’s a contemporary feeling.

LG:  Are there any artists or experiences that have shaped/influenced your practice?

OW:  I’ve been fully immersed in art and artists’ experience my entire life. My earliest memories of visual art were at home. My father was an untrained artist and many of his pictures were on the walls at home. It was sort of “do-it-yourself” decor for my immigrant parents. I suppose that had a profound impact from an early age.

Galleries, museums, art history classes followed for decades… My instructors at the post-secondary schools had a big impact. Teachers like Natalka Husar and Cathy Daly at the Ontario College of Art still resonate with me. Margaret Priest at the University of Guelph and Sheila Butler at the University of Western Ontario had a conceptual influence on my studio practice. Then there’s the vast numbers of artists that one is exposed to at school ranging from Gerhard Richter, Jan Fabre, Joseph Beuys and Vija Celmins to Titian and Degas. There’s a world of art.


LG:  Why do you think drawing is important in contemporary art or as a practice?

OW:  Things have really opened up for the drawn medium in the latter part of the twentieth century. The early hierarchies of media equalized during what was called the post-modern period. It was now considered that drawing could be an end in itself, not just a means to that end. There’s also something else that occurs to me: it’s safe. There was a heightened awareness of health and safety in the mid-nineties. Drawing is much less toxic to work with compared to other traditional media such as oil paints, printmaking, etc. The materials I use such as charcoal and earth pigments are non-toxic. Occasionally I get a good sneeze, but aside from that it’s not too hazardous to one’s health.


LG:  We’ve had a lot of questions from visitors asking about the difference between “pigment” and “charcoal”. Could you speak a little more about these materials?

OW: Most people know charcoal, it’s pigment that needs a footnote. Pigment is the dry powder form of all paints. I use a pigment called Mars Black and I grind this fine powder into the surface of my paper. There is a range of black pigments available to artists: bone, lamp, ivory, vine and carbon black each with their own qualities. Mars Black is a wonderfully rich pigment, which has a high iron oxide content. It literally rusts on the surface of the paper. The pigment drawings mellow over time and become less “contrasty”


LG:  In your statement, you speak about how using your hands impacts the outcome of the drawing, can you elaborate? Can you speak a little more about the importance of touch in the work?

Tactility is a very important element in my work. Earlier I mentioned Titian. It was that experience of seeing his late works in Venice that galvanized how I work up to this day. In his latter days, the Venetian master stopped painting with brushes and began using only his fingers. I was enthralled. His paintings were so direct and visceral. Since that moment in Venice over fifteen years ago, I’ve worked exclusively with one tool: my index finger. I like to joke—it’s real digital art.

Back in 2003, I had a show in Kyiv, Ukraine. The fact that I draw with my finger fascinated the Ukrainian public. The story even made the national news, if you can believe. It was really sensational. But, I can recall something that was written in the newspaper about the process: something to the effect “that the warmth of the hand transfers into every work.” I like that analysis between the “warmth” of tactility and the “coolness” of lens-based source material.

Touch is the most direct means of making images for me.


LGIn many ways, your drawings have a painterliness to them, so it is interesting to hear you say that Titian working with his hands in painting influenced your work.  Despite the painterliness in your work, I think we automatically see your work as drawing because they are charcoal on paper, but do you think that is really what makes them drawings?

OW:  I guess immediacy elicits both “painterliness” and the drawn medium. Drawing is inherently versatile. It overlaps with painting, photography, performance, handwriting, etc. Drawing can be many things at once. It can simultaneously be fluid and desiccated.


LG:  How do you choose which films and more specifically which images you will work with?

OW:  My works are an immediate response to a discrete cinematic moment. A feature-length film contains over 130,000 images. Where does one start? And that’s just a single movie. Now consider the archive of cinema history. IMDB claims 1.7 million titles. So that would put the estimate at around 229 trillion individual images. It’s a taste of the infinite.

I have to rely on some level of “intuition”. It’s usually a response to both visual (mise-en-scene) and narrative (diegetic) structures. It’s both a retinal and cerebral stimulation.  Added is a fascination with incidentals captured by lens-based media such as blurring, scratches, exposure variance and others.

My early years were shaped by the movies I watched at home. My father was an avid collector of Soviet-era Ukrainian films and these showed up in past drawings. Recently, I turn to sources outside my familial archive. Continental European cinema of a certain vintage appeals to me. You could say my works are becoming more westernized.


LG:  How do you think the process of drawing changes the film stills that you are working with? 

OW:  I find it interesting that the colour of old films is the same as burnt matter.


LG: That is a compelling observation. Can you elaborate a bit more on this comparison? You’ve got me thinking about burnt matter as dead matter, or something that has been consumed or used up. It also has me thinking about fires and flickering lights and how film requires light to be projected and viewed.  I suppose I am just musing about the potential for that relationship to be more than just a visual comparison.

OW:  For sure. All those things you’ve mentioned fit with the idea. I think that film has had a far-reaching influence on contemporary consciousness. Cinema has a way of indelibly “burning” into our psyche. Your question may somehow relate to something else — a few summers back I burned several drawings. As these movie-inspired works went up in flames, I was struck by the material processes at play: wood to paper, wood to charcoal, charcoal and paper to ashes. And all this was being mediated through lens-based media as I video-recorded the fire. 


LG:  Do you work on one piece at a time or multiple pieces?

OW:  I concentrate on one piece until it’s completed. I never go back to it.


 LG:  Are there any drawers you have been looking at recently or any Canadian draw-ers we should check out?

OW:  Phaidon’s compilation of international contemporary drawing titled Vitamin D is a great resource. The highlight from that publication for me is the Lithuanian artist, Mindaugas Lukosaitis.

London (Ontario) based David Merritt’s materially-diverse production is outstanding. Winnipeg is home to drawing royalty like the Royal Art Lodge and Leslie Supnet. Sara Hartland-Rowe rocks the east-coast with her drawings. I recently discovered a Montreal artist and animator, Christophe Jordache. Toni Hamel is an exceptional artist who concentrates on drawing here in Oshawa. I’m glad she lives near-by. Canada has vastly contributed to the medium, eh? Line Gallery will always have fresh and engaging artists to showcase.

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