Sholem Krishtalka, "Colin (Harmony in Ochre and Cerulean)", 2021, oil on canvas, 60x50cm; "Ashkan", 2022, oil on canvas, 60x50cm; "Self Portrait Process of Reassembly", 2022, oil on canvas, 80x60cm; "Alp", 2022, oil on canvas, 60x50cm; "Liz", 2021, oil on canvas, 60x50cm; "AA", 2020, oil on canvas, 60x50cm.
Q: As a portrait maker, do you actively seek and discover someone to portray, or do you let that person come to you?
A: I’m not opposed to either, but it’s a little more complicated for me. My paintings map my relationships; taken as a whole, they form a kind of diary. I’ve always worked this way. Formal portraiture from life is a newly emergent branch of my practice; I only started doing it with any kind of rigour or dedication about two years ago. The people who end up in my paintings, whether it’s a formal, posed, sit-down portrait, or a painting that captures something more fleeting, are part of the fabric of my life. So there is no discovery of another person in the sense that this question implies. I cannot paint someone for whom I have no feelings or interest – curious, platonic, romantic or whatever. Someone is in my paintings because they are in my life. They have already been ‘discovered’ and there is already a connection there, otherwise a portrait would not be possible, it’s just not how I work.
That having been said, in terms of the formally posed live portraits, I always invite people to sit for me. Actually, the first of these portraits that I did was a commission, but the commission came from a friend, and someone who I work with closely, so the portrait felt like a welcome challenge.
In terms of my other paintings (which still involve portraiture, even though that’s not what the paintings are about in any sense), the answer is much the same, but for different reasons. There is no approach or discovery. Through doing these kinds of diaristic paintings for so long, I’ve developed a keen sense of a reverberant moment. Something ineffable about a particular moment will strike me, and I will take as many photos as I can with my phone camera as discreetly as possible so that no one around me will notice. These moments are so fragile and can be so easily lost as soon as there is the awareness of a camera in the periphery. So people’s likenesses are ‘stolen,’ in a sense. Although, all my friends know that this is simply a consequence of knowing me – you will, at some point, be in my work. The willingness to be a subject is tacit. But they also know that it’s the truest form of affection I can offer.
Q: Is a portrait a performance?
A: I think of a portrait from life as a performance, yes, although maybe that’s too formal a word. To be sure, the sitter agrees to perform physical stillness, and I agree to document that. But the painting itself is so much more than that. It’s a document of a relation and of time. Like any painting, it is the endpoint in an accretion of a series of gestures and brushstrokes and observations and decisions. With portraiture, the painting is a record of hours passed, and the conversations that happen during those hours, the stiffness and boredom of the sitter, my intense scrutiny of their faces and their bodies (because a likeness is very rarely exclusively in the face – it’s much more in gesture and capturing the way the person is in their body), the wrestling match of capturing a face and a gesture and the light and shadows and all that, and also the things unsaid: the sitter watching me looking at them, and whatever is passing through the mind of the sitter in those hours, whatever is passing through my mind.
Q: What can a portrait do?
A: That’s between the viewer and the painting. On the one hand, no stationary work of art can ‘do’ anything in any kind of active sense. Any painting is just a bunch of coloured mud on stretched fabric. It doesn’t do anything. And on the other hand, a painting is an entire reality.
For myself, portraiture brought me back into making art during a particularly desperate time. I had just come through a personal catastrophe and, for the first time in my life, didn’t see the point in continuing to paint. I had a sitting scheduled with a friend that had been postponed and rescheduled multiple times, and despite my hopeless disgust at the idea of even picking up a brush, I thought it respectful to my friend to honour the appointment. And he sat, and we talked, and I worked. It made profound natural sense to do what I was doing.
Before then, I thought of portraiture as a side project, something only vaguely related to the core of my practice. At that moment, I understood that I was doing something much more powerful and central to how and why I make paintings.
Q: What do you think is a misconception about portraiture?
A: That it’s boring or bourgeois, or that it doesn’t ‘mean’ anything, that it’s not part of contemporary discourse. But then again, that’s just part and parcel of people confusing an image and a painting, which people do all the time, especially with Instagram dominating how people take in visual imagery. And very few people know how to look at paintings.
But people are endlessly interesting and captivating, and we are all in many ways mesmerised by one another. Otherwise, we wouldn’t find people attractive, we wouldn’t fall in love, we wouldn’t have friends, we wouldn’t have any kind of relationships at all, and we certainly wouldn’t have art. I’ve always found portraits absorbing and fascinating in a way that I don’t find in other genres of painting. There’s something about one person sitting down to consider another, and the representation of that very intense scrutiny applied to this very basic social interaction that has always grabbed me.
And that’s another thing that people don’t understand about portraiture, I think because people don’t consider how long it takes to make a painting (even a fast one); the scrutiny. When you pose for a painting, you are looked at more deeply and more intensely than anyone has ever looked at you before. It’s an incredible kind of intimacy, almost pornographic, where I as a painter stare over and study every tiny inch of you. But it’s not a sexual thing (at least not straightforwardly sexual, anyway), and it doesn’t matter whether you’re clothed or nude. For instance: if I’m painting you, I have to understand what it is about your torso that makes your t-shirt fold that way, or why there’s a shadow cast in the curve of your hip. To understand the surface, I have to understand what lies beneath. I have to simultaneously look at you and look into you.
Q: What is the core difference between a selfie and a self-portrait?