"In The Studio With:..." is a weekly feature that takes us into the private creative spaces of emerging artists to discuss their work and career.
Roman Kalinovski is a gifted young artist working in Brooklyn. He has adopted both a traditional painting practice loosely based in classical techniques reminiscent of Johannes Vermeer, and a digital media practice informed by video gaming and Japanese pop.
His subjects are frequently derived from erotic media and Asian culture, but he manages to view them through a traditional western art-historical lens, giving both the digital and traditional work a new resonance.
Anthony Philip Fine Art: So you are a painter, but you are also very involved in digital art. What about each appeals to you, and how do the two practices inform each other?
Roman Kalinovski: I think that both processes represent ways of seeing that are existentially tied to their unique materialities: pigments and binders for one, electronic impulses for the other. Each has its own freedoms and affordances as well as certain constraints: a bad brushstroke may ruin a painting visually, but it won’t “crash” it like an illegal instruction or a null pointer would crash a computer program. At an experiential level, I think that painting tends to be better at generating bodily reactions on the level of one person relating to another. Digital work, however, tends to excel at a kind of impersonal affect that moves the user without going through the body. In my own work, I’ve been attempting to invert this formula. I want my paintings to be affecting without necessarily being relatable on a bodily level, and I want my digital work to have a kind of corporeality and personality that defies the phantasmic disembodiment of the virtual. I don’t discount the body completely, but my personal interests lie closer to the theatrical body in the midst of a performance. If all you want is a body, that’s easy enough to get, just go to a figure drawing class and paint the same conventional poses that have been used since the Renaissance. The question, for me, is: what do you do with the body? That’s where the theater begins.
APFA: One long term project you have been working on is "Miku Forever." Please tell us about what drew you to this project and kind of explain what it is about.
RK: When I was at graduate school at Pratt, I needed to de-stress a bit, so I went to a Japanese bookstore in Midtown to buy some CDs. When I was paying at the counter paying I saw a flyer for a Hatsune Miku concert at the Hammerstein Ballroom. I already knew a bit about Miku and Vocaloid technology in general: she is a virtual pop idol whose voice is generated by a text-to-song computer program. In her “live” shows a 3D rendering of her is projected onto the stage like a hologram where she sings and dances alongside a live band. Anyway, I bought a ticket and went to the show, and during the grand finale I had a moving experience and started to cry. I was moved to tears by a non-human synthesized voice generated by a computer program: I was captivated by the absurdity of this and felt compelled to pursue it further. I bought a license to use Miku’s voice and started a “collaboration” with her. Like any good addict, I wanted to recreate that initial, unrepeatable high. With support from the composer Christopher Palmer, the residency program at Babycastles, and feedback from my colleagues at the Electronic Literature Organization, I made Miku Forever, an endlessly recombinatory pop song perpetually performed by Miku. The song rewrites itself every two minutes, mutating its parameters and slowly transforming into something different. As in her “official” live performances, Miku sings and dances across the screen, performing her endless song without any sense of exhaustion. I designed the program to work on several different platforms: it can be streamed over the web to any number of simultaneous viewers, or projected into a space or onto a stage for a single site-specific performance. The odds of the same song being generated twice are somewhere in the order of a trillion trillion to one: somewhere in that cloud of probability must be a song that is as moving as the one I heard at the concert, although I have yet to come across it myself.
APFA: Another project, "Minori Aoi" paintings are traditional oil paintings, that have an almost Vermeer-like quality about their lighting and texture. How did this series come about?
RK: Before my “collaboration” with the virtual pop idol Hatsune Miku, I spent several years doing paintings of the retired porn idol Minori Aoi. Pop idols and porn idols are similar in nature: both are fictional characters presented as actual people (with the exception of Miku, of course, whose artificial nature is readily apparent). I stumbled upon photos of Minori when I was first learning to paint, nearly a decade ago, and there was something about her that moved me, maybe not as dramatically as I was affected by Miku, but for one reason or another I began to collect images of her. I imported books, videos, and magazines from Japan, sometimes at great expense, with the idea that if I could see everything, every image of her, I might get some transcendent insight, some hint as to what drew me to her image in the first place. I started a project — a fool’s errand — to paint a portrait based on every published photograph of her. It was something to work towards, an impossible goal that I could never realistically achieve. In the end, I never even made it through her debut photobook before other things, like Hurricane Sandy and grad school, got in the way. By the time I got around to revisiting Minori when I was at Pratt, the futility of my previous project made itself apparent. There was no total, all-encompassing picture of her that could be grasped, certainly not through translating images of her into paint. My focus shifted from the inaccessible whole to the fragments themselves, particularly individual frames from her videos. The series you mentioned, the “Vermeer” paintings, was my first attempt at working with these screenshots. I chose the most overly dramatic moments with overacted expressions and overwhelming lighting and made six large paintings from them during a month-long caffeine binge. My goal wasn’t to be accurate to the source material, but rather to intensify the feeling that the screenshot gave off. I’m not interested in being a “realist” painter: the material I’m working with is far removed from reality, after all, having been filtered through many layers of mediation and artifice before my job even begins. This artificiality, down to the level of the individual person, is what keeps me interested in Minori as a subject. Her anonymous performer plays a character who, in turn, plays different characters herself in a kind of baroque mise-en-abysme. You can’t get much less realistic than that!
APFA: Where do you see yourself headed with your art? Do you find yourself gravitating more to the physical or digital aspects of what you do?
RK: The tension between the hidden and the visible has been a focus of mine lately: last year I did a series of drawings of Minori that I censored, after the fact, with opaque scratch-off stickers. A viewer could, conceivably, take a coin and scratch away the silver box in an attempt to see the “whole” drawing, but in doing so would mutilate the work and transform it into something else. I’m thinking about taking this theme further, perhaps incorporating it into my paintings through some kind of framing device, like the special cabinet that Jacques Lacan had built to house Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde. Hiding parts of a painting, or sealing it away entirely like a sacred relic, is an easy way to create desire through frustration. Of course, this has already been done in my source material itself: Japanese porn videos have the genitalia censored out, after all, and so the erotic content has to be conveyed through a less obvious avenue, namely the physical charisma of the idol. Censored idol porn is all about what is implied but not shown, while uncensored hardcore pornography is about trying to show everything, and while I certainly respect that impulse, I find that it makes a boring subject to paint: if everything is visible, what's the point of depicting it again? What I appreciate about Minori’s acting is that it isn’t realistic at all — her gestures and expressions are exaggerated to the verge of comedy — but as I said earlier, realism isn’t the point. I see her videos as a kind of theater where the production’s artifice is conceded from the start. The voyeur can’t catch a glimpse of a “genuine” moment because everything in it is fake: the acting, the character, the sexual act; everything is artificial, floating untethered from the “real” world that it imitates. Take this to the logical extreme and you have a character like Miku: she isn’t even an imitation of a person, she is something post-human, an entity that appeals to our emotions but doesn’t exist as a singular embodied being.
APFA: What do you hope viewers take away from your work?
RK: Walter Benjamin wrote, “That which lies here in ruins, the highly significant fragment, the remnant, is, in fact, the finest material in baroque creation. For it is common practice in the literature of the baroque to pile up fragments ceaselessly, without any strict idea of a goal, and, in the unremitting expectation of a miracle, to take the repetition of stereotypes for a process of intensification. The baroque writers must have regarded the work of art as such a miracle.” I believe that Benjamin’s expected miracle is an impossibility, and that’s what I feel is the driving force behind my work. Miku Forever, for example, could pile up its fragments of songs until the end of time and be no closer to any sort of transcendence, or I could paint every frame of every video Minori had ever been featured in and never find any grand insights into the figure behind the idol. The fact that it’s impossible makes it so alluring: after all, the best way to obliterate a desire is to fulfill it. There has to be a missing piece — a lack, maybe — for there to be any excitement or feeling at all. This, to me, is the essence of the idol: it’s an imitation of something that is far beyond our grasp. We know that the idol is a poor stand-in, yet we bow our heads because we can’t have, nor do we truly want to have, anything else.
If you would like to find out more about Roman and his art, please visit his website at: http://www.romankalinovski.com