Fish Friday #8: Paulina Jaśniak on art, literature, and the 1%

As administrator at Fish Island Labs, it took us a while to discover Paulina Jaśniak is also — in our minds, infinitely more importantly — an artist. A polymath of the arts, Paulina has previously exhibited photography, drawings, videos and paintings in both Poland and the UK, including a ‘best paintings’ exhibition at Kobro Gallery in Lodz (2013) and in Stoke Newington at La Groovy (2014). Her recent show here in Hackney Wick included a series of intimate portraits which showcased her deft use of light, shadow, colour and texture, and her work has lately received acclaim from — among others — the judges at NOISE festival. We spoke to her here at Fish Island about her painting.

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Perhaps we can begin by going back to how you first got into painting.
I knew I would draw in the future, I knew I would design and stuff, but one thing I knew is that I would never paint. I didn’t want to paint, I felt — because you can feel drawing, you feel sculpture, if you are inclined that way. But I didn’t see painting that way. I didn’t know painters; I wasn’t interested.

Then I wanted to apply to art academy in Poland. They have plenty of tests, so I had a painting test, and I remember the first moment I started painting: it was a revelation for me. I started seeing the world in a very different way. It was like understanding something. You start understanding that you don’t really know anything; the world is completely different. It makes the world more interesting in a way. You see stuff and you start to think about how it works, how it’s built. How the light and the shadows create us. What makes us pretty, and what makes us ugly.

And then you went to art school?
Yes, and I actually started studying painting. I was supposed to study graphic design but I took up painting.

Can we talk a little about your style? I know you paint in a very specific way: you try and paint very quickly, and not let the paint dry…
I’m very impatient! And I want to see the result very quickly. I remember at the art university I saw a girl painting this way. I didn’t like her paintings: they were very dirty, you could see every mistake and they were very unprofessional. But I liked the medium; flying over the canvas.

I understood that it was action and reaction. It’s always this in painting, because you have light and shadow, colour and another colour, so it’s action and reaction all the time. In this kind of painting, though, you have to be quick, so you don’t have time to overthink things — which I usually do. When I act quickly, I act better in a way. I don’t complicate stuff; I don’t over-make it.

I remember the first two paintings. They were portraits of my grandparents; it took me about fifteen minutes to finish each one of them (although they’re quite small anyway). Before that my grandparents didn’t want me to paint. They thought I should be a lawyer, or a doctor; do some serious job. That night they started supporting me a lot, and saying, ‘you have to paint. No matter what, you have to paint, don’t think about money, you have to paint.’ So it’s been like this for a while now. I really feel that paint style.

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You mentioned colour there — contrasting colours. Could you talk about that a little? Because you have a very compelling pallet in your paintings; do you select before you begin?
No, no. Once you observe colour you realise you don’t really see colours. Like if you look at that wall, you think it’s green; but if you start observing it, you see, in two or three points it starts being green.

That’s what happens with painting. It’s like going to Hogwarts! Seriously, I’m not joking. You just start realising that nothing is what it was like. Then you practise, so you see more colours. You see a face and you see the shadow on the face is blue. If you tell this to someone who doesn’t know how to paint they think this is ridiculous, but when you paint it, it works — and no-one sees the blue, they see the face.

That’s what made painting interesting, and in my opinion, that makes good painting and bad painting, many times.

Do you now find you can’t switch it off, when you look at people?
Not so much, but I look at people a lot — and that really annoys my boyfriend, for instance. I’ve heard I stare too much! But I think, just analysing stuff, practising all the time… it really makes your day more interesting, as well; you can play wherever you are, and whatever you do. And it makes the world more beautiful, so I would call it quite addictive, but not that you can’t stop doing it. It would kill you if you started seeing all these colours subconsciously. It’d be really bad in the street, if you had to cross the road or whatever. I think I wouldn’t survive a second.

What was it that brought you to portraiture? Because this has very much become your thing, painting people.
I think emotions. It makes you understand people more, and makes you more compassionate. It makes you forgive people, in a way. It’s like being a psychologist basically. Because people have to be very natural; with big paintings it takes maybe two hours, three hours, and they sit there in the same position. It’s not like posing for a photograph, where you make your face [she poses] and then go on. You also speak a lot to the people you paint. I have a problem with that, as well, I’m not very sociable — I don’t feel like meeting people, many times. When you paint someone you have to understand them. That’s the first thing.

Then, I’m really interested in identity. What makes us be the people we are; also physically. Because you can say someone has a long nose or big eyes, but when you compare the faces it’s not like this really. In 99% of ways we are similar, and then there is this 1% where we’re not, at all. I’m trying to find the 1% that makes the same faces different.

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At Fish Island Labs

What about the influence of other art forms? You’re very interested in poetry and literature; is that something you self-consciously bring to your art?
Lately I spoke to someone from here [Fish Island Labs], and he said, ‘if you see one painting, you don’t know where he [the subject] comes from, and where he goes to.’ I said, look, you can contain a whole story in one painting. It’s like reading a book basically: you have a beginning, and an ending as well, but you’re only allowed to enter in this certain period. There’s life before that, and after that.

I think it’s really similar, but it would be quite hard for me to express myself with words. I wouldn’t be self-confident enough, I suppose. Showing is easier than telling sometimes! And as I have this skill of observing, it’s a way of conveying it.

But you see a lot of narrative in painting.
Yes, I think there’s a lot of it. It’s like diaries; Picasso said painting is sort of like a diary. When you paint a portrait, you remember every single word you said, every single feeling you felt. I have some paintings that make me cry — I mean, it’s embarrassing, it’s not like Stendhal syndrome, being overwhelmed, it’s just that I feel a lot when I paint. I feel naked, basically, when I do it. I have paintings from the past that make me feel really bad, so I have them behind the bed, you know. I don’t really look at them.

It also takes me time to like my paintings. My boyfriend always asks me: so, are you happy with your painting? And I say, I don’t know yet! I have to wait; I have to put it back, and come back to it in 2-3 weeks.

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I life model, and I find it very interesting that you feel exposed when you’re drawing somebody else…
Well, it’s like; it’s not judging, but it’s all about your way of seeing things. Sometimes I paint very realist things as well, because they make me feel safe; I can prove that I can do that, but chose to do something else, it’s not my lack of ability and skill. I find it really hard — maybe not right now, but before it was harder for me — to say, ‘I want to do it like this.’ I like it the way I do it, but it is basically like being naked, and showing it to plenty of people and going, hey, how do you like me?

What would you like to do with it next?
I just have to paint. It’s funny, because all the people around me say that, my family, my friends. They always say — every time I’m not feeling good — they say just paint, just paint, you’re going to be okay. They treat it as my therapy.

I want to get better. I actually get better when I read a lot; I start understanding more. I don’t only have to read about it, but there’s a certain psychology in painting, as I said, in portraits specifically, and the more you can imagine entering someone else’s head and their story, the more you can show. It makes you notice things, reading, hearing and listening to people — watching good movies, seeing works of art. It helps you notice things about people so you can say more as well.

More of Paulina Jaśniak’s work can be found at her tumblr, and at Epic Forest, a collaboration with her boyfriend Konrad Kwietniewski.