Having grown up in the last decade of communist ruled Eastern Europe, award winning artist Iva Troj uses her incredible talent to figure out and discuss the world she now lives in.
Working from her studio in Brighton, Iva is busy preparing new pieces for a show in LA and is about to launch an exciting art platform ‘Contemporary Beast’ with FLUX exhibition founder Lisa Gray.
We caught up with Iva recently to find out what inspires, frustrates and excites her as an artist…
Your art has an almost dreamlike quality. What inspires you to create such intricate and detailed work?
Just 3 or so months ago I would have answered this question differently. I’ve been working on a show for the LA-based gallery Dark Art Emporium and that new body of work has taken me on an U-turn towards something a lot more… daring, I think is the right word.
This new body of work is a much more accurate representation of how I view the world differently from other people. Patterns that seem ‘normal’ to most, seem distorted or out of order to me – it’s the price I pay for growing up in a skewed society full of misogyny, discrimination and conventional truths that don’t make any sense. But that same toll is also the price of admission to the realm of truth, in the sense that you have to go through the entire scale of human emotion and relive the trauma, death and grief in order to put it out there in its total nakedness.
My previous work is more like a peaceful protest, with conflicts sub-serving the serenity and peace achieved in the resolution of them. This work doesn’t prioritise between good and evil in the same way. So to answer your question in a sentence… my art is very often inspired by intimate stories that nobody wants to tell and how they make the fabric of life a lot more complex, beautiful and difficult to figure out, like the faulty wiring that happens in emergency during childhood years and what it does to one’s innocence.
Your background plays a huge part in your art, is there anything in particular that has led you to your beautiful style?
This is going to sound strange but the first thing that comes to mind is learning how to cheat conventional truths and propaganda.
Since I grew up in Eastern Europe during the last decade of Communism I had to learn how to be manipulative with reality in order to make some sense to myself. It’s learning how to tell beautiful lies that somehow go around the propaganda and push people’s perception towards truth.
I remember painting a portrait in art class that followed the rules of socialist realism (the only genre allowed at that point) almost entirely apart from one detail – I painted horns on the girl’s head and smudged some bright red paint between them. I was 11 or 12. I was pulled in front of half the school to explain myself and it was remarkable how quick I went: “It was patriotism and utmost dedication to the ideas of communism that I was trying to portray. She reminded me of a portrait of Leo Trotsky when he was accused of, etc etc…” It was of course utter bull crap but they bought it. Later another girl approached me and whispered in my ear “it is because her dad is in jail isn’t it? And now she has to carry this stamp around.”
You use a variety of mediums in your work, and the effect is breath-taking. Can you describe how you use these in your paintings?
Thank you! It varies to be honest. I have a technique that I’ve developed over the years that has taken me decades of experimentation and lots of really stupid mistakes to figure out but I allow myself to do different things with it. As long as I manage to paint in layers I’m within my area of expertise (at least to some extent, I throw away work still).
The technique I usually use resembles the Flemish method (also known as Transparent Oil Technique) of layering thin veneers of paint between layers of varnish. I start with charcoal, pastels or similar, varnish and paint a lighter layer with acrylics or diluted oils and then finish with a detail layer using oil paint and sometimes ink and gold leaf. But, as said, it varies.
The last two paintings I did for the LA show had purple spray paint on the bottom layer and I only did two layers on top of it which isn’t how I usually work. I sandpaper a lot and keep adding layers. It puts a lot of pressure on the canvas so I have to be careful. It took me a while to figure it out, which is why the materials I use are somewhat unconventional. For example I use thick absorbent canvases that are more elastic than usual to avoid paint build ups.
You talk of artists who you look up to, as artists who are in ‘constant renewal’. Who are they and what do you mean by this?
I’m a Contemporary artist and I like contemporary art contrary to what people might think. I am a huge fan of Asian art and I watch a lot of anime, which often leads to various obsessions with whatever is new on the Asia art scene.
I do follow the best known artists like Hiroshi Sasagawa, Yayoi Kusama and Takashi Murakami but there are also several Chinese and Korean artists that blow my mind on daily bases: Xu Zhen, Li Chen and my absolute favourites the sculptor Chen Wenling and the ceramic artist Lee Yun Hee.
These last two are probably my main sources of inspiration right now. What makes them different from other artists is that constant change that happens in their art. Every time I look at something new they have made it’s a surprise. There is no comfort in the way they work, it’s crossing lines left and right without looking back. I admire them because I see similarities in the way we function. Selfishly enough I see myself in their constant exploration of ideas that make them uncomfortable.
What has been your greatest achievement to date?
I don’t know… getting out of that fully classic niche I guess. That paid really well when I was first starting out and I could have gotten stuck in there and lived as a comfortable but miserable and restless artist. I managed to get myself out and I’m very proud of that particular step forward although I didn’t sell anything for a year in the transition from classic to contemporary.
Do you have a favourite piece you’ve created?
Yes… but that’s going to LA and I can’t reveal it yet. Will be able to show and tell soon.
Well we can’t wait to see it! You recently teamed up with Lisa Gray from FLUX to launch Contemporary Beast, tell us all about this exciting venture?
I talk to other artists on daily bases, about things we struggle with, about discourses in contemporary art that go against our principals, about moral codes, what we are made of and believe in. I am always astounded to learn that no matter our age, gender or status we all have the same basic issues:
1. Good galleries are a rarity
2. People get exploited and payments are either ridiculously low or delayed significantly
3. We are all over the place selling our art on multiple channels, always trying to keep it under control
4. Almost none of us have agents or anyone that helps us with admin or logistics. I do now (his name is Gary Pleece and he is great to work with) but I worked without an agent for many years
5. Galleries here don’t like to sign contracts so they can get away with not paying or being transparent in regards to what they do with the work
6. Most artists don’t really do themselves and their art justice when they do their own representation. It’s like being a surgeon trying to perform surgery on yourself… it doesn’t work for most people.
The Contemporary Beast project with Lisa is a direct result from lessons that took years to learn. No platform out there will sit down and look at your body of work through the eyes of an artist and a curator then design and build a place where you can be seen in the same way by others. That’s what Lisa and I figured out and we are lucky to have found each other because we are such a good combination of skill and personality. We are working on the first set of portfolios as we speak.
What do you think of the current UK art scene?
Within the current UK art scene lives the myths of success, modernity and constant renewal, but I perceive it as highly institutionalised and insanely addicted to the male gaze (still used as Contemporary Art’s main currency) and to artists and makers not being paid, as said above.
These issues that I mentioned in my previous answer are so ingrained in the fabric of the art scene here that it makes it almost impossible for people to have a career without somebody helping out. It’s something everybody knows but people only discuss it behind closed doors, mainly because they are afraid of being perceived as “moaners”.
It’s especially bad if you are female. You have no idea how often I get “Oh so you are an artist. What does your husband do?” It sends me doolally every time and it’s hard to keep the verbal mayhem from coming out of my mouth. If the person displaying such ignorance seems otherwise agreeable as a human being, I take my time to explain that I haven’t been married since I was 20, that I was a single mom most of my life and that I’ve been the sole provider in most of my relationships, especially the bad ones.
The day we manage to get the army of incompetent leeches (and there are so many of them here) out of the art industry and get some relevant people in, as in people with real understanding of art and its creators, we will be thriving.
What advice would you give to someone starting their art career?
1 – Figure out the purpose of your art practice. It’s easier to keep on track if you know what you are aiming at. People that do things because ‘it looks interesting’ have no idea what they are doing.
2 – Art has two main components that need to coexist: philosophy and skill. Make sure you have them both and definitely make sure they work together. The day you figure that one out is the day you become an artist.
3 – Look at you art as a body of work and not as individual works. It will help you carry out that purpose of yours and you will make much more sense to yourself and the world.
4 – Work on your ideas and disregard other people’s ideas. If you don’t have any, get yourself educated and think and read more.
5 – Don’t spend all your time in the pub philosophising. The pub is where talent goes to die and if you find yourself there most nights of the week, you are cheating on yourself. The myth of the tormented artist needs to die as it is one of the reasons we don’t get paid.
6 – Work your ass off and tell everyone in your life that your art practice is a priority. If your partner doesn’t understand that, maybe reconsider the relationship. I promise you that your kids (if you have any) much rather have a parent who allows themselves the freedom to think and question things, who builds, creates and teaches them how to do the same with their own ideas, than a miserable sod stuck in a bad marriage. I’m not saying that everyone who thinks they have what it takes should give up their day job and lock themselves up in the studio (I was in my early 40s when I was able to fully commit to my art practice). But if that’s your life then give it your all
And finally, what’s next for Iva Troj?
It’s all about the LA show until September. I need to finish all the work and get all the logistics right so it all goes smooth. Part of me seriously dreads that whole journey, but most of me just can’t wait to get there… and Contemporary Beast of course. We will be working on the prototype until we are all happy with it, then launch and focus on keeping it good.