Cathedral in the Pines
Enduring portraits of Latvian contemporary artists
Perhaps it is due to life on the crossroads of empires, low population density, or constant wars that ravaged the Baltics in the past, but today the mystical dimension of our nation remains as potent as it was in the fabled days of old: ghosts move around us, patched with histories. There is humming and singing coming from the land, everywhere from the squeezes of sand on the seashore to the lonesome howl in tiny wastelands where pine groves once stood, pocket-sized ossuaries for the logging industry. There is the soft shimmering of Daugava’s waters and there is the wind that shakes wheat fields — stalks respond to the wind with a chant, like some alien organism, a hyperobject, unfathomable. All these songs form a hymn that is daily heard in our sanctuary, a place of power and rest, a monument not cut of stone, but rooted in us as much as we are rooted into it:
cathedral in the pines, Latvian nature.
We hold it so dear not only because it nurtures us with its gifts, or that we will, most likely, one day finally lie into it, but rather due to the inseparable optical connection: even when standing in the very centre of Riga, you are never more than half an hour away from some majestic forest, coast, field. Seeing them so often, they thus imprint on your retina, and if you’re attentive enough, and have that irrepressible urge in you, that visual imprint turns into art.
The relationship between the Latvian ecosystem and its metaphorical relation to art is a phenomenon (or a figure of imagination) that never ceased to haunt me. In the previous essay, “Souls by the Sea”, we’ve walked the landscape, exploring the places and sights that form the character of the Latvian art world. This time, we’ll switch from geography to biography, getting acquainted with those personalities who actually breathe soul into all the marshes, old groves, overgrown lakes, blossoming fields and forests, abundant with life. However, before fully embarking on that quest, let us step back and get one more look at the general picture: in what world do our artists live?
Just like the network would be the best term to describe Latvian artistic geography, the community would be the perfect fit for its characters. Both concepts have no solid centre, allowing a degree of hierarchy, although mixed with freedom and fraternity. Of course, community foremost has a social dimension. This is a sentiment that, many would agree, is just a perpetual companion of life in a small country: the scale fraternises us. There is this humble dialectics in being both a critically-acclaimed artist and a nameless passerby, known only to those who are, just like you, neck deep in that mess.
Any list, any attempt to categorising the most attention-worthy names in today’s Latvian art world would be a limited and subjective exercise, for it’s my creed that anyone who practices art in this realm for at least five years straight deserves their place in our little humble pantheon. Nevertheless, we shall point out some of the most obvious characteristics: the artists that attract the most public and critical interest are mostly young, starting their careers in the late ’90s or throughout the ’00s, increasingly interdisciplinary (though retaining some degree of traditional media such as painting), their face is to a significant extent female. Of course, Latvian artists don’t earn much from their practice, sustaining themselves via side jobs that eventually form the web of arts & creative industries of the country. We can write countless articles about them, never stopping. Many words can be said about Kaspars Grosevs, Evelina Deicmane, Evita Vasijleva, Daria Melnikova, Kriss Salmanis, Kristina & Reinis Dzudzilo and others, and I urge everyone to look into their practice, visit their shows and, who knows, perhaps even buy their works. However, the artists that I’d like to pay homage to and direct attention to in this article are a bit less on the front page, and less visible. They are known for depicting something very local in their practice, so local that it overcomes the boundaries of regional or national, becoming both solely their own and overwhelmingly cosmic, ecumenical. To some degree, I cannot even say that they are Baltic or Latvian artists — they are their own artists and their eyes are directed towards the world in all its intimacy, tranquillity, silence and fearsomeness. They are artists of nature, revealing its monumental and floating sanctity, deaconesses in the cathedral in the pines.
There are two persons, in particular, I want to direct attention to: those who seem among the most interesting in that very special genre of metaphysical nature art, Zane Tuča and Luize Rukšane. One comes from a generation of mid-career artists, and another is a younger name, my coeval. They both create realistic monochrome works, but each through their own optics with which they perceive faces of the natural world, from monumental to playful, from enduring to fleeting.
Tuča has an extensive artistic education, studying painting in Antwerp and Riga, and despite her long exhibition career, she still manages to remain a sort of elusive figure in the Latvian art world. At the very least, you won’t find much online: just like the forests depicted in her works, those paintings themselves are best-experienced face to face.
Rukšane holds Bachelor from the Latvian Academy of Art and started exhibiting her work only seven years ago, back in 2016. Since then, she participated in many shows not only in Latvia but across Europe as well, becoming a quite notable name among the emerging Latvian artists. I admire the tranquillity and seeming simplicity of her work, the meekness of her tools and the poetical dimension she sees in the world around her.
What is so valuable in the practice of the two artists, is that their subject matter is so relatable: how many of those who draw and paint haven’t depicted nature at some point, giving homage to it in one way or another? However, precisely because of its familiarity, this genre is extremely hard to master: one may lose interest, and find it too routine, overworked, and basic — but this is exactly the point at which you should endure. Most of us will find ourselves in Rukšane’s and Tuča’s landscapes, our own creative endeavours and well-known pencil strokes, hence that pull that their artworks possess.
To some extent, we may also trace the practice of both Tuča and Rukšane to the works of the great Vija Celmiņa, a New York-based Latvian American artist who is also known for photorealistic monochromatic drawings of nature. The most critically acclaimed living artist of Latvian descent, Celmiņa made an exemplary career in the West, with her works ending up in the collections of the world’s top museums, and, as we see, traces of her influence occasionally revealing themselves in newer generations of artists back home. As any strong figure, Celmiņa emits influence that surpasses her direct followers, and any young Latvian artist doing something slightly reminding of her work has to acknowledge this. The way Celmiņa depicted nature, almost approaching its macro-level, allowed her images to be intimate, but also universal — waves are waves, no matter what coasts they hit, and pebbles are equally found in the most remote deserts and park roads in the middle of bustling metropolises.
Technically, following in Celmiņa's footsteps requires a rather analytic mindset, keen to the mode of work that is often monotonous and thought-through. Therefore, among the two artists in the focus of this article, Tuča seems to be a closer match: she is known for her careful selection of source imagery and methodical, gradual work pace — as if mirroring her art’s subject, metaphorically recreating the pace with which a tree grows or a mountain moves by the unseen tectonic forces, spewing over countless Cainozoic millennia.
On the other hand, though Rukšane’s works retain that intimate attention to nature and she appears to be always preferring graphite pencil to other mediums, her lively technique is quite different from the one used by Celmiņa or Tuča.
Look closer: when it comes to Rukšane, there are unavoidable parallels to sketchbooks or instant photography. She often adopts optics akin to an explorer's view — quick, but grasping the spirit of the scene, blurred to an extent as if captured on the move, although specific, occasionally filed with very precise details. In other words, Rukšane’s works appear to be more impressionistic, sketch-like in their visual qualities: sometimes the landscapes look almost as if captured out of the window of a rushing bus or train, an instant attempt to save that what the memory can’t hold, a journey through a familiar country which somehow still surprises. The pencil’s stroke often gives her drawings a storyboard appearance: there is a certain developing pace, the scenic unveiling in her pictures, keen interest in the movement of time, and the play of shadow and light. At the same time, there is also a more detailed dimension to Rukšane’s drawings, best seen in her recent “Exhibition about Falling in Love”, which took place last Summer at LOOK Gallery in Riga. The show featured close-up depictions of pieces of wood, with their peculiar forms, resembling bones, living creatures, and figures of imagination. When seeing them, the drawings gave an impression of something even more intimate than Rukšane’s earlier body of work, precisely because those ones were so meticulously drawn, sophisticated and realistic in nature. This is how you depict something that has personal meaning to you: very carefully, not shying away from any imperfections, with deep knowledge and certitude. Rukšane is the explorer of the familiar, managing to surprise with a peculiar or uncanny form and landscape in a situation where we’d have thought that there is nothing left to explore in our homeland, on this small stretch of soil where it seems that we know every bit and piece. An ability to constantly revisit the world around you and still fall in love with it and point out its poetic qualities is the key to the intimacy and light that shines through Rukšane’s drawings.
In the case of Zane Tuča, although her earlier paintings had much more colour in them, the recent works, just like the ones of Celmiņa, are predominantly made in shades of grey. The foggy, often bifid or blurred optics of Tuča’s landscapes gradually turned into those powerful, solid and sharp images that we see today as if some mystery was progressively revealed by or through the artist. The fog is sometimes still there, but it no longer obstructs the vision.
Tuča’s formal vocabulary is both broad and uniform: there are mountains, forests, waterfalls and standalone trees that together form that lasting imprint of that awe in the face of nature, majestic yet terrifying. Pines and spruces are one of the most common subjects of her drawings — the way they are depicted as if seen from a slight bottom-up angle, gives them the grandeur of remnants of some long-abandoned gothic cathedrals, while the graphite used in the works creates that flattened surface that looks almost like a carving in the stone, etching or an artefact from the nascent days of photography: impenetrable, dark, monumental yet illusive, undefinable.
As mentioned earlier, there are also mountains, enigmatic foot imprints on a dark path, and nearly abstract drawings of waterfalls and rivers. It is worth noting that Tuča’s life is quite close to her art, for she is an avid hiker and has traversed the countryside not only of the Baltics but further beyond, from Spain to Scandinavia. The artist likes to spend time alone in the great outdoors, and that solitude shines in Tuča’s artworks — some of the most striking recent works were made during her residency in Norway, which is not that far from the edge of the world, both metaphorically and practically. This bit is worth keeping in mind: the cathedral in the pines is not limited to the Baltics, it is within you.
The detachment from any anthropogenic factor in Tuča’s works, their accent on silence (which is also a form of sound, humming and persistent) consequently leads to their monumental character, reminding us of the world where there used to be a chance to witness things untamed, unpopulated, unnamed. If Rukšane’s landscapes are very personal, as if taken from the artist’s own memory and life, Tuča’s images are of different intimacy: those pines and ridges are not yours, but they are also not someone else’s either, they belong only to themselves and God. Like an eternal presence, a gift without spending, an ever-revealing miracle.
In one of his interviews, Joseph Brodsky spoke about the existential terror in the poet Robert Frost’s texts, especially concerning the forest. At first glance, such sentiment might appear illusive, but on a closer look, it all starts to crawl in. The most mundane things, the routine of natural life, are too simple to be simple. The forest is not an empty concept, nor is the mountain. Many things are going on behind the curtain, and when a modern city-dweller finds himself in the country, a land from which he detached himself long ago, this existential dread reveals itself in full force. Tuča’s world is in a way similar to that of Frost, although it is even less touched by men, their agriculture and their way of life. Perhaps because of this, Frost’s terror turns into something else, an awe maybe, revelation?
When comparing the two artists, it is notable that Rukšane’s works are more documentary, as if she is reflecting the world where Tuča is actively creating it in a more staged, constructed way. The former’s works are rooted in memory, her landscapes are in motion, oscillating between being forgotten and remembered. The latter, however, engage with the world that cannot be affected by time, its life perennial and primordial. Are these two sides of the same coin or radically opposing ways of dealing with their shared subject matter? I believe both, as paradoxically as it may sound. Rukšane’s nature is all around us — she presents her reflection upon it as something familiar, but surely any familiar phenomenon can easily show its unexpected side: one can get lost even in their childhood grove. This is when Tuča’s nature reveals itself, showing that it was always there from the very creation of the Earth, waiting. To better understand this effect, I would suggest trying taking a detour on the road to Riga and letting yourself get lost in the country, explore it and let it explore you: Latvia is both Rukšane and Tuča, reality and the monument to it, just like its pines are both natural facts and metaphoric signs.
To present you with a fuller picture, I should add that the phenomena discussed in this article are not limited to visual art, continuing to other creative forms. In literature, the works of both artists call to mind the already mentioned Robert Frost, but also Thoreau, Lake Poets, Robinson Jeffers, and that myriad of obscure Japanese writers who walked all paths of their country, never losing the sharpness of their eyes and attentiveness of their souls. Their music is a folk song, a church choir chant, dark ambient piece, baroque oeuvre.
Before parting ways, I’ll use this chance to say one last time that as artists, both Zane and Luize are dear to my heart, they know something I don’t, feel and are connected to something that for others is yet to be discovered — yet we can’t use their works as guidance, but only as a reminder to look (out) for ourselves.