“Kristina Sretkova’s illuminated works stake a claim for the romantic impulse”
“With the same intensity and burning passion, Kristina Sretkova’s illuminated works stake a claim for the romantic impulse in an impressive manner.”
Kristina Sretkova, Ammos, 2011. Oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Kristina Sretkova, Faithfulness, 2011. Oil on canvas, 100 x 100 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
The ability to control fire was a dramatic change in the habits of early humans. An invention of epic proportions, fire allowed early humans to generate heat, light, make food, move to cooler climates, and the list goes on. Amidst a hyper virtual culture in the 21st century, fire continues to conjure up elemental and physical associations. In many ways, fire remains a signifier of ritual, fear, and passion. With the same intensity and burning passion, Kristina Sretkova’s illuminated works stake a claim for the romantic impulse in an impressive manner. Oil paint, in all its thick viscosity, is presented as a visual feast for the eyes. Sretkova piles it on thickly, with grand sweeping gestures that are both sensual and delicate. In the center of her new works one notices a refulgent, glowing light that grows with intensity as we approach the center. It is evidence of a rich interior world, drawing us into the subjectivity of the artist and simultaneously the canvas. It is an interior light that finds its antecedents in such artists like James Whistler and the contemporary artists like Natvar Bhavsar and Helmut Federle. This is fitting, as Sretkova has a multi-cultural background. Sretkova continues this legacy with her own exciting, new approaches.
The first thing one notices about Kristina Sretkova’s new paintings is that they are largely nocturnes—nocturnes in the sense that they have a brooding, melancholy aspect. Yet her work is not without its fair share of sensuality and sweetness. The nocturne is a musical composition that is inspired by, or evocative of, the night. Historically, these compositions were coordinated with religious Offices and, since the Middle Ages, to divisions in the canonical hours of Vespers and Matins. Thus a contemporary literal interpretation of the word might be a devotion to the night, one of near spiritual significance. In later music history, nocturnes resurfaced as calm, often expressive and sometimes rather gloomy, as in the works of Chopin. The term Nocturne was later used by James Abbott McNeill Whistler in the title of a number of his paintings. Whistler’s famous painting Nocturne: Blue and Gold — Old Battersea Bridge (1872-77) has all of the trappings of late 19th century romanticism. As the West became increasingly industrialized, the landscape became a setting for expressive and deeply felt emotional states. If Whistler was concerned with the landscape as a site of emotional transference, Sretkova is concerned with how nature can mirror an inner landscape, a landscape of the heart. In her painting Illuminating Light (2011), a glowing blue orb emanates from the center and fades into the dark blue-black corners. Flecks of red underneath the blue seem to hint that Sretkova has begun to hone her technique, which has evolved into a highly refined, layered abstraction. At 5 by 4 feet, it grasps our visual field and our peripheral vision as we enter the picture plane. The artist’s early paintings referred to a landscape with an implied horizon, but Illuminating Light is entirely optical and frontal, imaging a head, oval, or sun-like shape. From our vantage point on earth we see the sun as varying shades of yellows and orange-reds. If we detached from our bodies and flew around in the atmosphere we would notice that as we got to close to the sun the colors would begin to change to yellows, indigos, and blues. In Sretkova’s effervescent, stunning abstraction we feel the heat and movement of all of these exploding “sunspots” bubbling forth towards the viewer. This work could just as well be a flower in bloom under the cover of darkness. I personally had the opportunity to visit the arid desert of Arizona and was enthralled to find a plant there called the Queen of The Night. It blooms once a year at night after the temperature reaches a certain level for their pollinators to come out. Named the Queen of The Night for its dramatic, white, waxy flowers, the plant is largely invisible throughout the rest of the year. Sretkova’s painting, like this desert flower, is composed of luminous, elegant white petals and stamen-like strokes.
Kristina Sretkova, Illuminating Light, 2011. Oil on canvas, 160 x120 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Another enigmatic and moving work of Kristina Sretkova’s is entitled Mystical. This work presents itself as a window into another world. Using a palette similar to that of Illuminating Light, this painting is framed by a slightly off center hexagonal shape. It fades from a deep-blue black to a lighter phthalo blue center. As we move closer to the center, the painting winds us down a narrowing hole, yet resists becoming an entirely deep void. The hole is rather only implied with a shallow depth. Additionally, our perspective is slightly skewed each time we are sucked down the traverse. This beautiful and bending blue vortex is both romantic and existential. Sweeping, feathered paint marks invite us into the expanse, as we are lulled into a trance-like state of mediation. The flecks of white that glisten the pathway serve as arrows to the exit. The use of shapes to imply an inner world is fertile ground for Sretkova and she makes good use of it in this work. In like manner, the Swiss painter Helmut Federle has established himself as the great mentor of younger abstract painters. He too notes “Often my work was misunderstood in a formal sense. I’m absolutely no formalist. I am a deep spiritual searcher in the romantic tradition. Even the geometric work, you will be more correct to read it in a more romantic or spiritual way.” These words might easily as well apply to Sretkova’s work. Sretkova and Federle clearly share a kinship of form and thought.
These exciting new approaches in abstraction posit Sretkova well at the fore of contemporary European painting. Attesting to the fact that her career is taking off are her recently won awards for the paintings My Heart at ARTWEEK in Berlin this past February and for the paintings Fairy Tale and Power at the Bulgarian Artweek in April. Sretkova’s success comes from many sources. She states:
“I was very lucky with my parents who gave me love, trust, and the support to study at one of the best boarding schools in Germany: Schloss Torgelow and at the University of Applied Sciences in Cologne. I lived with my family in foreign countries and visited many cities and places around the world, meeting interesting people and cultures. Living and painting in Cologne and Berlin, two cities with a long history and special spirit, I believe gave me local inspiration, which affects the quality of my works. In Cologne I got the chance to know personally the great artist Sigmar Polke. He was very keen on humor and philosophy and liked music and singing. Once his gallerist asked, ‘what does one see in this abstract painting? His answer was, ‘I don’t know. Everybody sees something different, someone may sees his aunt, and another person may just see a bead or blotch.’”
Sretkova’s success is also due to her bold, daring, emotive imagery. The romantic impulse has a long legacy stretching far back into the 19th century. Artists such as J.M.W. Turner and more contemporary artists like Natvar Bhavsar come to mind as corollaries for Sretkova. Natvar Bhavsar is a famous contemporary abstract Indian artist based in New York. Bhavsar says that he works in Rang. In Sanskrit, Rang has to do with physical color and the emotive engagement of one’s whole person. Using pure pigment and only his hands, he has created a vast oeuvre of luminous color field paintings. One can also feel the aura of Sretkova’s more recent paintings. Her latest work Faithfulness has a lovely, dreamy glow to it. It emanates a light from within and reflects light off the surface. The parapsychological and spiritual aura is a field of subtle, luminous radiation surrounding a person or object. To depict such an aura often connotes a person or thing of particular power or holiness: think Jan Van Eyck and Pisanello paintings in the 15th century. Some people maintain that all living things and all objects possess such an aura. Sretkova’s impressive painting, Ammos, seems infused with a kind of auratic presence. Yet this work is not an illustration of a holy person to be venerated; rather it points to itself as being a sacred form. Here she uses a more familiar scale and format: this work is a perfect square measuring just around 31 x 31. Utilizing a white shard, a shell-like shape to bisect the center of the canvas at a diagonal, this work is predominantly composed of pale blues, off whites, and occasional hints of color. Careening off the edges of this shell-like shape are brown umbers and cerulean blues that emphasize the centrality of the white form. To create this work Srtekova used sand from the beach in Cyprus. It is a work that provokes a feeling of profound transcendence. Sretkova paints regularly in Cyprus, where she has very good cooperation with the Kypriaki Gonia Gallery and likens her experiences and artistic imagery on that Island: “When strolling on the beach I felt as if I became one with the sun, sand, salty water, wind, calmness, yellow, green, blue, music, and simply light.” Like a seashell fragment washing ashore, this painting is in the process of revealing and concealing itself. Too, all of humanity is involved in this same quiet process of metamorphosis. The poet Stanley Kunitz described these changes in his poem “The Layers:”
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.”
“Live in the layers,