The Image Hunter: A conversation with Orion Shima
C: Orion I’d like to know about your training. How did you learn and where did you train? Who were your teachers and when did you realize that painting would become vital to your existence?
O: I was born and grew up in Tirana in a family of painters. My father, Alush Shima, is a renowned painter in Albania. I studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Tirana – specializing in graphics – and I graduated in 1993 so I belong to a generation of painters who trained in the years immediately after thecrucial political changes in Albania.
C: I’m interested in the year 1993 because it is an important date in the history of Albania. The conviction that year of NexhmijeHoxha marks the end of many years of lack of freedom. I’m therefore interested in what you knew of Western art prior to ’93. What were the landmarks in your training and what didthe arrival of democracy in Albania represent for those who wanted to paint?
O: I do not think that either the conviction or the release of Mrs. Hoxha, widow of the dictator Enver, serve as a chronological reference nor even as the conclusion of a historical period. The communist system in Albania began to fall apart towards the end of the 1980s, and, during that time, the flow of information about modern art circulated more freely in artistic circles; in the Academy, in art circles and in conversations between friends. Symbolically, the fall of the communist regime in Albania coincides with the knocking down by demonstrators of the monument to the dictator in the centre of Tirana in February 1991.
But getting back to my study period. In the early years of the Academy we were taught the “Socialist Realism” method. It was not a really well-defined method or a study manual, but the teachers came from that school and belonged to that tradition. The academic tradition of the nineteenth century was predominant: model at the centre and students in a semicircle with their easels. The expectations of our teachers, some of them from schools inthe former Soviet Union, had remained unchanged for nearly a century. Anatomy, drawing, the figure, which always had to be in the centre of the paper or canvas, and the slightest deviation was discarded as incorrect. So there was little space to learn about alternatives, let alone those of the experimentation that was going on in the Western world. The only system that existed was centralized and controlled by the State.
Teaching of art theory was limited, with large gaps in the information. Thecurrents and important trends of the most recent modernism,such as Dadaism, Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptual art, etc. and the ideas they represented, had not yet reached the Albanian borders. Even major authors of the historical avant-garde knew them only through a few reproductions. With regard to the technical side, the Academy taught a little bit of everything, while reference points were still fragmentary and stopped at Kandinsky. But not the real Kandinsky, it was only superficial, without any theoretical study; a Kandinsky filtered and diluted by the teachers. We saw poor reproductions of some of his paintings, so what little was proposed came down to us in an entirely superficial way.
C: What do you mean by superficial? Can you be more specific?
O: Superficial in the sense that we could only judge the work from reproductions in books, without understanding or analysing the historical circumstances or the theoretical aspects, without knowing their thoughts and their ideas about art. The way of structuring their ideas and the technical process of Kandinsky or Klee’s metamorphoses, for example, were never pointed out. Of course, in those years, these limitations and gaps were no longer caused by political restrictions, but were consequences of the long cultural isolation of the earlier communist regime.
C: But you, in a sense,had an advantage over others because your father had tried to follow the path of “modernism”, as you call it in Albania.
O: Yes, I was living in a multi-faceted reality: between the art that I was forced to interpret for the academic syllabus, the painting I saw every day in my father’s studio (mostly contrary to the system and methods of Socialist Realism), and finally the painting I dreamed of and urged myself to do. I think this perceiving of different realities simultaneously in those yearsaccustomed me to the plurality of positions in the field of art, and I realized that constant experimentation was the way I wanted to go.
C: Having seen all your work, it seems to me that after 1993 the direction that fascinated you most was American Abstract Expressionism. Why particularly Abstract Expressionism?
O: At the time I was eighteen years old, and as in so many things, I was still uncertain. However, in those years I was in a hurry to break away from the figurative legacy, perhaps because I associatedit with the pictorial tradition of Albanian Socialist Realism, which I was completely fed up with.
The subjects in the works my father painted in secret left a deep impression onme and influenced me to a certain extent. His research, in this very specific situation, instigated me to undertake my own experimentation, although it was without fully understanding how. The expressiveness and the motion in my father’s “political” painting, however, remained figurative, and I wanted to break away completely from figuration. In those circumstances it was natural, therefore, to feel the charm of Abstract Expressionism, which for me was total and immediate rejection not only of figuration, but also of the avant-garde of the twentieth century. Of course, the main reason for this choice was Kandinsky because, in my opinion, there are many stylistic similarities between his painting and that of Abstract Expressionism. But despite a limited knowledge of the theoretical aspects, I painted mostly instinctively. Painting in Albania in the ‘90s consisted of a widespread misunderstanding. Albanian painters of the period often fell into the trap of imitating foreign artists without understanding how they actually evolved. So, the coming out of isolation was represented by a desire to try out, one after the other, all the trends of early modernism. This was pretty much the atmosphere during the years I was working as an Abstract Expressionist.
But in my following work, happy with the anti-figurative aesthetic, I had fun experimenting, if I may use this term, with the spontaneity of the action of painting, what Pollock calls “the making of marks on a flat surface.” Meanwhile, I had seen other artists from other schools, because I felt the need to see and know everything. I wanted to understand them all if possible, from Hans Hartung to Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Emil Schumacher, and the German Expressionists too.
C: Explain why and when your interest in American Abstract Expressionism ends. It lasted I think for at least three or four years. And then when, and why, you start thinking differently, about the paintings of Antoni Tàpies, for example. From that moment on another story begins, another that, to me, represents a turning point in your style of painting.
O: Tàpies represents an important stage for me. In 1996 I had the chance to go to a solo exhibition of his in Germany. What interested me most in his painting was the idea of matter as an existential reality, the temporal dimension of his painting, and structure finally freed from figuration. This is why my experimentation brought me closer to him than to Alberto Burri or the Informal styleof Jean Dubuffet and Jean Fautrier.
My thoughts changed and matured. I saw the work of other artists, but I was not interested at that time, because for me Tàpies was Tirana, with the same material I found almost everywhere in my city. The subjects of that period were old walls, doors, furniture, worn facades etc.
C: Orion, the most ordinary things are always present in those paintings: a door, a bed, an architectural detail etc. Why?
O: I mentioned before that I was fascinated by Tàpies’ “matter,” but I also wanted to explore more the idea of time, I wanted to translate onto the surface of the canvas the giddy game of time in the actuality of the present. Focusing attention on the most common details of everyday life helps us, I think, reflect on an important issue: do we create those objects or do we simply pass on and modify the results of an earlier era?
With those works, I discovered that the present is stamped with the mark of the past. The walls, the rooms with their objects, become for me “indestructible footprints of time”, tangles of memory on the very forms of our present life.
C: This period lasts from 1998 to approximately 2000/2001. At that point there is another change in your painting. Where does this change come from? Why does Tàpies no longer correspond to your expressive needs? And which painters impressed you and made you think beyond Tàpies?
O: In the meantime I had grown up, both literally and intellectually. I had come to a saturation point where the dialogue with matter became boring. I felt an urgent inner need to break away from Tàpies, an artist who had played a very significant role for me. Of course, we are speaking of a great painter, whoextended and expanded the visual and philosophical implications in hisartistic field. I felt the need to avoid remaining imprisoned in his language. I found “salvation”by going back to my childhood, to Orion the child who was trying to understand the world and painting.
C: It’strue, it does seem like going back, but to move forward. You return to German Expressionism, but without throwing away anything of your previous research, even if you are looking for a new language that allows you to tackle the problem, which becomes more and more urgent for you: that of the origin of the image. What Aby Warburg defines as nachleben or survival, or maybe you could even say “the anachronism of images.”
O: You can also call it that but, above all, it was dealing with the need to do a type of painting that looked more within myself. You make a journey with the great masters. Then you stop and see that it’s not enough for you anymore, you have to find the meaning of your own painting. By that time, of course, I had at my disposal various means derived from previous experimentation and study. But the problem was now how to use them together to create what was to be my painting, the genesis of the image of my painting.
I thought a lot about Pollock, but I was not interested in dripping: my problem was the reverse, to control the painting as much as possible, making the imageresurface from the matter. In a way, the same operation but carried out in a different way. A landscape of trees for me is the same as a wall, even though they are two completely different things.
It’s hard to explain, but landscape for me has always been a battle between the author and nature’s freedom. Landscape for me is not what I see, but the landscape that everyone carries within himself.
C: There are so many misconceptions about landscape, about what landscape is and some, including those who have written about you, have highlighted the importance of this theme in your painting. In your paintings, however, there is never the desire to communicate the destruction of nature by man, such as in the work of Alain Huch for example. Instead,although in a very different way, your search is closer to that of the sculptor Giuseppe Pennone.
O: Whoever sees my painting as simply landscape painting interprets it in the wrong way. My relationship with painting has never been thematic, but an ongoing research on the process of producing art, understanding the ideas and concepts that make this production not only possible, but irreplaceable.
I’m not interested in the subject, but the question of the “image”, and, especially, the process of its appearance. My painting is not “modernist”, it’s a mixture of different experiments, developed in a continuous internal dialogue with examples, quotations and references from art history. This way of working and analysing leads me to a result that I consider my own.
C: That’s the point. What you are interested in then is the language and the means to use to express yourself; what interests you is the structure of the painting and how to build it up.
O: The language, technique and careful planning, especially in the larger works, are for me ways of reproducing reality through consciousness. And this is how images are generated in my painting. Sometimes landscapes are populated and sometimes empty. Sometimes with different animals that come out of layered images from childhood and other times as if emerging from some computer that captures images of the past: Tirana of the communist period, the zoo, the artificial lake, the public gardens etc. While the process of actually creating the painting is more complicated. It interacts and asks for help from examples and experiences from the history of art. So the dialogue expands, but the problems I’m trying to solve grow progressively as well. In a nutshell, if you look at my “Wood” series you will find references to the landscapes of Christian Rolfs, reinterpreted, however, Pollock-style, but without the dripping.
C: There are paintings in this exhibition which may help to clarify what you’re saying.
O: This picture here, entitled “Coming Home” (2010). At first glance, it seems technically like a Pollock, with regard to the hay carried by the donkey, but the resemblance to Pollock is misleading, because Pollock used gesture and the randomness while I plan carefully, checking every brushstroke, because this way the “image” of the donkey should appear; a distant image which, however, is not an archetype, but rather a “symptom”. That is, an image that visually announces something not yet visible. If you look closely at the so-called content: a horse, a donkey, or any other animal, it isn’t actually there in reality, it is only animage in the memory. There is a splash of colour and it does not come out of representation in the classical sense, but out of the way in which the picture is constructed. The image I want to convey through the technique is a mental “phantasmal” image. In the play andthe unconscious aspect of the shapesjust the kind of image you’re talking about is to be found; I think it’s the best way to feel and to give voice to my “ghosts”, which are perhaps also those of all the others who look at the picture.
C: In the paintings of Klee, ontogeny and phylogeny coincide. Does this happen in your painting too?
O: With the modern use of the word “art”, we mean the process or the result of the materialization of a work, from the initial idea that contains the “creative impulse” to its completion. I think my painting develops through a balance between technique (and its means) and the idea. And it is precisely this balance, this relationship that becomes the structure of my work. So, the process is also the idea, but the result is not a random product, everything is deliberate. It is a painting that does not originate from the elation that nature gives you or from the idea you want to convey. Most of my landscapes have nothing to do with “plein air” and much less with a fairy-tale,illusory world, à la Marc Chagall. I consider myself a careful observer of nature but, more than anything else, I’m a careful observer of the subtle connections formed by the relationships between things.
C: Looking at your paintings from 2001 onwards Walter Benjamin comes to mind. It is that moment of awakening. It is that image that you do not recognize, which is a before and an after, a picture that is in the middle. That’s the balance we talked about earlier. That’s its strength. Only you build this force through the almost obsessive grasp of a painting technique you’ve developed. This is the aspect that interests me most. Your paintings have, as a demonstration of what I’m trying to say, different points of view, and the viewers find themselves in a different dimension depending on theviewpoint they choose. The intention is to build a “dialectical” space, not a fixed perspective such as in the Renaissance, for instance, in which the objects are arranged in a fixed and measurable grid, but instead a space in which near and far, front and back, tactile and optical act dialectically, where things appear and disappear. An image, in short, that is not closed or locked, but open.
O: What you are saying is perhaps one of the points that intrigues me most. I paint this way because I try to enter into a dialogue between the ‘splash’ or ‘blot’ and the public. My large works are not random for this very reason. But my painting is not domestic.
C: Let’s go back to the construction of the work. A series of your paintings are made using collage, or on paper, which really resembles the work of Emil Schumacher. Once you have cut the image out on paper, are you interested in what remains afterwards, or not?
O: As well as brushstrokes, as a technical means I use scissors too. Although painting has an outstanding arsenal of different means, sometimes for the image I want to convey, even this is apparently not enough so I resort to scissors.
I love the print of colour on paper, and paper also offers the possibility of being ripped or cut around an image and pasted elsewhere. It is a partial use of the collage technique. I often keep the parts remaining afterwards, like materialhalf-ready for other works.
C: In some pictures there are figures cut out of paper on a neutral background. How do you get to this figure? What were you interested in: the outline or the technical details?
O: The outline, the shape. I cut the figure out and take it out of its original context then I put it back on a neutral background. I prefer the white background because it makes both the figure and the operation that led to that figure theremore visible.
C: Why wasn’t the original context satisfactory? Why this deconstruction of the visible?
O: It’s a process that I enjoy. I cut out an outline or a detailfrom an existing work and I build a new one, so in a sense I destroy and build at the same time: a sort of creative destruction. The real job is choosing what to save for tomorrow among theunused pieces of paper. This choice in itself determines the work that follows.
C: Is it a Dadaist operation?
O: In a certain sense, maybe. I collect different pieces of my torn or cut work, to build a totally different picture. This method does not seem to have much to do with Dadaism if we think of the collages of Max Ernst or the poems of Tristan Tzara with random bits of newspapers. The image I create is deliberate, planned and controlled. Because it is only by moving away from the “real” that you create a new vision of the whole; once you get closer to reality, it is decomposed, exploded.
C: In some of your recent works walls reappear in the landscape. Why did you return tothe wall?
O: I am struck by the brutality of the introduction of an element such as a wall in a landscape. On the other hand I like to explore the relationship that is born and develops between them. I’m attracted by the contraposition of the accuracy and symmetry of the wall with the irregularities and asymmetry of nature. And I’m interested in it for the relais that alternates the visible with the invisible, with what is hidden.
C: There are two things to clarify: how is it that you love to work on large sizes, but you also make sketches?
O: I am a painter who wants to live, and enjoys living, inside his painting. This is the reason for the large formats. I want to live in the dimensions of my painting. I want to transmit to the audience the emotion I feel as I create a painting. Sometimes it seems to me that the large format constitutes a scene that encourages the viewer to enter. But close up the scene is a confusion of colour spots and I enjoy the fact that moving away from this scene you understand what takes place inside it: distance frees the imagination, which takes on a new meaning.
C: You talk about the large formats, and I understand, but, as I said, you have a habit of creating a series of sketches before getting to the big format. Why do you need a small sketch if you then, in some cases, make them again,only a little bigger?
O: The sketches are my moments of reflection. I draw with the brush, jot down ideas that come to me. I use drawing a lot as a means to free the images I have in mind. Then I decide what they will gain if reproduced on a bigger scale. Often the works remain the small size of their first version. It is a wonderful process because at that stage you are free and you have no obligations. However, it is like an editing job, like when you take a detail from a photo and blow it up. Enlarging means, at least for me, making something that is different from what it was when I started it.
C: There is another thing that interests me. Usually the small sketch contains everything that goes into the large work. What’s different in the large one?
O: It isn’t simplya magnification of an initial idea, but a process of rebuilding from scratch and making something that becomes quite different from the sketch. Technically, the material, and its texture change, and very often painting style.
C: That’s the second question: your pleasure is that of the possible explorer; you almost seem like an ethnologist. This is definitely a development, a change from before. Today you are less interested in matter, but much more in what I like to call a sort of “a psychic image”.
O: It is clear that the wall -Tapies-style- is a wall, a mirror, it is a lot of things, but it’sa wall. In the paintings of recent years the unconscious relationship with the past, with children, with my whole lifeis more pronounced. These elements become like dreams, mirrors of memory, consciousness, like lightning flashes that pierce the night. With a mind, which I really like, to create or wish to create an indirect complicity with the viewer. The intention is not to amaze but to solicit a reaction, to get a response.
C: There is this complicity running through an element that you use with great skill, which is the “tracking” image. Orion, among other things, is a name that corresponds to a lot of things that can be found in the most recent works, but there were earlier signs too. Orion is the constellation known for its bright stars and its proximity to the celestial equator; Orion is the myth of the great hunter. Looking at some of your work I am reminded of the famous painting by Nicolas Poussin, today at the Metropolitan in New York, “Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun“.
O: The picture is my “Trojan horse”. Through it – an epitome of my individual memories – I attempt to trick my way into the collective memory. My experimentation, however, is very personal, a kind of archaeology of memories and impressions, but of no time and no place in particular.
C: I think some of your paintings of 2013 summarize very well the meaning of your research in recent years. The “Youth on a Tree” that reminds me a lot of the figure of Cosimo in “The Baron in the Trees” by Italo Calvino, and, especially, “Young man at the river” and “Fall” (2013). In these last two works, although constructed with a strange sense of pleasure, what you are looking for is imagessuch as the “vortex” and “suspension over the abyss”.
O: Unfortunately I haven’t read the novel by Calvino. Of course the youth on the tree is also autobiographical. It is not an escape from the world, but the desire to look down from above, the desire to explore the world. It is also a metaphor for how I see painting: a way of positioningoneself at a distance, in an ideal situation, where everything becomes clearer. As for the other two paintings, I think you have a good understanding of what I wanted to communicate. The images are not “realistic” or even “surreal” as some might think; they are instead an attempt at translating into images the process of involuntary memory as an act of knowledge. They are a meeting between past and present.
C: This was yourexperience. This is a country that experienced a situation we know well and that ended in a certain way. It seems to me however that Albania is now experiencing a phase of rapid growth. I come from Italy, a country with a very ancient civilization, but it is a country that is aging and dying. Even the younger generations seem to have nothrust anymore. What does your search mean in relation toother experimentation going on in Albania?
O: My painting is a personal research with strong references to my past, to the Albanian experience. It is true that this country has lately been coming to terms with major changes, but this has led, at least in my opinion, not always to the improvement of the social and cultural fabric. The mass consumerism and cultural superficialityreally worry me, but my painting is not “committed” or outspoken. For me it’s a means and an opportunity to find meaning and the dynamics of my life, independent from the flow of “rapid growth”, as you called it. Painting may not incite revolution in a country, but painting is also a way to experience a country, to live its everyday life.
C: What is there of all this in your painting? You spoke of the walls of Tirana, are the trees those of Petrela?
O: It may be that the images in my paintings are the distant echoes of memories and impressions. Naturally enough my works are tied to this country. Walls, for example, invaded the Albanian landscape in a frenzy of uncontrolled construction work, like the bunkers once did. The natural, urban and cultural landscape of the Albania of today is certainly part of my painting.
Petrela, 24 July 2014 Arturo Calzona