The discontented artist and the pea

  • 2007-01-31
  • By Elizabeth Celms

ABSTRACT: Don't be confused, the women's room is on the left.

RIGA - There is something angry about Aija Zarina's art. But it's angry in a good way, if such can be said. It stirs. Her paintings, bold expressions of Zarina's deep dissatisfaction with society and the roles people play within, scream at the viewer. They implore attention. They ask you to think. But there is also an elusive beauty to Zarina's work - you can't exactly recognize it but you're struck by its presence.

Take, for example, the abstract painting "Love." The pale, yellow-toned backside of a woman stands rigid, without a trace of eroticism. Behind the figure looms a gigantic pair of ruby-red lips, their contours outlined crudely in black. Staring at this canvas, you can't help but feel slightly disturbed.
"Zarina has a very strong character," says curator Elita Ansone, who knows the artist personally. "She sees many problems in society, especially when it comes to the relationship between men and women. She's in continuous conflict with the world around her."

And this conflict shows in her art.
Most of Zarina's oil paintings depict Picasso-like abstractions of women and men. Their faces are monstrous, arousing and angry.
But there are other images as well, softer ones. In fact, many of Zarina's paintings are wonderfully childlike, as if they were made by kindergartners. One of my favorities shows a fanciful elephant dancing across a plaid canvas of orange and yellow, its trunck spouting dashes of blue.

As Ansone explains, Zarina's work is at once sensitive and willful, obstinate and demanding, just like the princess of the well-known fable "The Princess and the Pea."
"We decided on this name for the exhibit because, like the princess, Zarina is extremely sensitive to the small nuances around her," Ansone says. "And she's constantly unsatisfied with these problems around her. So she paints to bring awareness to them."
Zarina has long been one of Latvia's most controversial artists. Her overt social protests, mostly centering on female sexuality, have pinned her with the label "feminist." Yet, this is a term that Zarina herself would most likely reject.

During the '80s, when the laws of Soviet Realism prevented many Latvian artists from expressing their own style, Zarina paid little heedance to social and political boundaries.
Although her characteristically large-scale (a typical canvas measures some 73 meters by 27) paintings caused notorious scandal at the time, her artistic bravery also inspired.

A graduate of the Latvian Academy of Art, Zarina first drew attention to herself in 1983 with a landscape exhibition in the House of Sciences. The exhibit, a bold experiment with Modernism, gave society a sharp taste of what was yet to come.
In 1986, Zarina opened a solo exhibition in the Artists' House, which caused immediate scandal. On one level, the subjects of her paintings were innocuous 's portraits of mother and child, man and woman 's but there also existed undisguised and provocative expressions of female sexuality. This theme became the basis of Zarina's art throughout the next 10 years.
Today, Zarina uses her work to influence the "process of development" in modern Latvia as a newly European country, according to Ansone. Her artistic criticism focuses on cultural policy, and is not only limited to painting. The artist has also participated in theatrical exhibitions, as well as environmental instillations.

"Zarina's art is characterized by expression 's the works are [painted with] a maximum intensity of color, deliberately accentuating the brutality of her images," Ansone explains.
"As I said earlier, Zarina is never satisfied," the curator adds. "She's always pushing people to question society. She's always in conflict with something."

The Princess and the Pea
Aija Zarina retrospective
Feb. 9 's March 11
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