London based artist Ewa (formerly Ewa Wilczynski) talks to us about art, philosophy and self acceptance.
Interview and words by Giselle Fryatt
Transcribed by A.W. Wolf
Ewa is one of the youngest artists in history to hold a debut solo show at the Royal Academy of Art. Her work is mesmerising, her charm is rare; a modern painter entangled with the spirit and soul of the old masters. She doesn’t want platitudes, or wanton art ‘for art’s sake’, she’s not trying to sell you anything, no political theory, or disposable carbon copies. She paints, and she paints well. Her recent series C H A N G E straddles the age-old philosophical dichotomy between body and mind, she tells me “What I paint is what I think, and how I paint is how I feel”… We know that the future for this emphatic fine artist will be distinctive and luminous.
What are some influences within your work?
“I like to think of things in terms of duality, and I’m always drawn to the suggestive dichotomies: what people say they are vs what they are on the inside, the truth and the mask. I think Oscar Wilde said, ‘Give a man a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth.’ And for me, when you read the philosophies behind what is truth, is it something uncovered or something covered? It depends on the standpoint from where you’re looking at things. So there always seems to be this veil, or separation, or this membrane in between two binary oppositions. And I’m interested in how that veil separates them, also connecting them and how it diffuses through the veil, the membrane, to become one in the same.
So we can use myself as an example: a lot of people say ‘Oh Ewa you wear a mask, you’re dressed up, you’re concealing yourself, this isn’t the real you.’ But then you can say from the other side, this almost is more truthfully me, because it’s something I’ve constructed, and it shows more of the mind, and actually shows the inside on the outside. And the whole creation of something can be truth in itself, the construction, the creation of glamour shall we say. I love glamour in the true sense of the word. Glamour isn’t natural, glamour doesn’t exist in nature, it’s something we created. So I’m fascinated by all those kinds of things really.”
You have a new series of paintings called C H A N G E, could you tell us more about it?
“So generally with my work what I paint is what I think and how I paint is how I feel, that’s how I put things simply. So the composition is always the ideas within philosophy and the changing nature of the self, and I’m interested in the biting point in between all of the opposing binaries in human nature, like those dichotomies; so like the skin where Jekyll and Hyde meet all their horror and magic collide in human nature – that’s what I’m interested in. I use myself as the subject because, I’m here, I live alone, it started out of convenience and then it actually became a part of the work and I looked at the dichotomy in between myself on canvas and off canvas, (again those binaries) and that skin and how they meet and clash. So what started on canvas then eventually evolved onto vintage antique brocade materials. It’s still the same subject matter essentially and the same philosophies behind the work, but I chose to do it on this fabric because, like I say, I’m just fascinated by technique and craft and all things vintage which have that lineage to the past.
So by painting on antique material you immediately have that predisposition, and that whole context, that whole story just within the fabric, so then I paint upon it. And then the whole reason that they became freeform was just by accident, you know I was painting, took it off, and then just realised ‘actually I might as well just utilise the properties of the fabric’, and it seemed to work with the concept of transformation, metamorphosis of the self, and it just kind of worked. So I’ve been doing that since the beginning of the year. and I even wear them as outfits, I finished this, and I wore this last night at the Groucho, just pinned it on as a little skirt, again that’s part of the work. In a sense it’s the performance side, it’s me on the canvas nude, visceral, naked, bold, and then me off the canvas flamboyant with the self presentation almost like I’m jumping out of the painting. But for me the artwork is almost the psychology in between, so the duplicity of masks, the veils we wear, appearances, how we choose to reveal ourselves or conceal ourselves and almost the double bluffs you can use when you know that psychology, so those things, that’s like the in between part between the canvases.”
I get a real sense of feminism and personal power within your art. Feminism is very much within the zeitgeist right now, do you feel that it is a message within your work?
“Gender and those issues never really struck me until I was 18 and living in London. But my work definitely does have a strong feminine voice, and that’s something I’ve learnt to see reflected in the work from other people’s opinion of it. They tell me, ‘Oh its very feminine’. And I never see that, because I’m too much in the work to be able to step outside and see that. But my references do come from feminine things. Obviously I’m painting nude self portraits, and I am a female. But also in terms of the philosophy, I was looking a lot at Derrida, the French philosopher. And he would use a metaphor of the hymen to describe that mask or that dichotomy in between things. So he would use the hymen (the membrane), and that for me was a vehicle to explore portraiture and how like I said, it diffused through that hymen. And then how the hymen broke, and all this shit kind of happened on canvas and it all spilled out. But my work is very vaginal as well. And I seem to be drawn to this red colour, hymens, nudes and flesh; and the flesh kind of breaks out of the skin and becomes a fleshy landscape. So my work is feminine, but that’s kind of naturally occurring because I guess that’s the life I’m living. The fact that they are kind of visceral, vulnerable, a bit grotesque at times. I mean I’m completely bald, no makeup, it’s not meant to be glamourising or something pretty. It’s just raw, the raw me on canvas.”
You have such a keen sense of personal style, how does that relate to your art?
“Thank you, that’s so kind. Well I always approach an outfit like I would a painting composition, but that’s just because that’s just me in life, how my brain is built. But growing up at school, if you saw me in my school days oh my god, I went to an all girls school, school uniform. I was bullied my entire school existence, and it actually taught me a lot of lessons about human nature, psychology and human character, which has put me in good stead now. But it was an awful time. And I was living in school uniform until I was about 17 when we finally got to wear our own clothes at school in 6th form, that’s really when I first ever owned my own clothes and had the chance to actually wear an outfit, because prior to that I was living in a school uniform. I think even at the weekends I wore my school uniform because I had no clothes. So for me, I just went crazy and it was the only bit of release I had from all the tensions of bullying at school. So I just thought ‘I’m going to make every day fancy dress and use this as a chance to do something positive’, and have a bit of a fantasy element to escape that horrible reality I was in at school. So I’ve been dressing up and having fun ever since I was 17 really. But my heart goes out people getting bullied nowadays with technology, it’s dreadful. At least when I was at school we didn’t have iPhones. But you get bullies now, even in the business, you just learn how to deal with them. And I always did when I was at school too. Whatever they said about me, never made me feel bad about myself, and I would never go and say something nasty about them even if I was thinking it. I just learnt very early on in rudimentary terms: what they are saying says more about them, then it does me. And once you learn that, you’re free in a sense.”
What message would you give to your younger self?
“To anyone getting bullied now, I would say as long as you know in your heart that you’re not doing anything to hurt anybody, and you love what you’re doing, you’re moral and you have respect for others, there’s nothing wrong with you being you. Do you.”
What’s one of your superpowers?
“I would say probably say compassion and empathy for others. Because I think that nowadays it’s so easy to be so insular. And we’re a consumer society, we’ve been growing up consuming and consuming, taking and taking, even taking from our parents because thats our position as your child. I think it’s so important to give, I make a conscious effort to do that. Like with my C H A N G E paintings: whenever I sell a C H A N G E painting, that money is actually donated to charity. So it’s ‘change to make a change’, and that’s just with the C H A N G E paintings obviously because it works with the title. But I think it’s so important to do things like that. So giving to others, sacrificing your time for others. because you do benefit from it and it’s important to do that because there’s been so many times in my life where people have given to me and it’s been so beneficial, either work opportunities, or inspiration. I think it’s now time to make a conscious effort, and I do that-I make sure I give to others, and to the younger generation of artists coming through as well. Because we’re all on our own journey in our creative fields, and we’ve got to give to each other. Because the business side can be so competitive and I’m just not about that.”
Any last words?
“Just to be kind to one another, be creative, challenge yourself, and remember we’re all on our journey but to give to other people’s journeys too. But I guess also if someone is having a pop at you, talking rubbish about you, you know you’re doing something right essentially, because they’re talking about you, and they’re threatened by you because you’re good at what you do. Otherwise they just wouldn’t bother.”
You can find more of Ewa’s work on her website and on Instagram: @ewawilczynski