About to Become

On the work of Paula Zarina-Zēmane

-- Jurriaan Benschop, 2021

Looking at the latest series of Paula Zarina-Zēmane, named Changes (2021), is not unlike looking at clouds shifting in the sky. Many of us have memories of summer days on the beach or in the garden, looking up and seeing the passing clouds. Some forms look familiar – they resemble the shape of a country, the head of an animal, or a giant nose. But that is just for a moment; the clouds move on, the drawing was just temporary, and imaginative. The way figuration appears in the paintings of Zarina-Zēmane is similar to this experience. The works are full of possibilities, clouds of color, so to speak, and in these shapes you can see formations coming and going, just as you can see the light changing. But nothing is fixed; movement, or, as the title says, change, is at the heart of the work. Who is in charge of these volatile compositions: is it the artist or the viewer, or should we call it chance?

The center of most paintings seems to coincide with the center of attention. There might be a tiny figure leading the viewer into the depth of a landscape. Or a white light spreading from the center. A painting with a pink background (Changes 10) resembles the form of an embryo, in this case showing undefined life developing, a half-realistic conception. A related painting (Changes 11) also has an oval shape, but shows instead a dark area in the center, like a black hole that sucks in form. It suggests an entry to a world behind. The moment of conception is an ongoing interest in the series, even though in each of the works it plays out differently. It is not the scene or figure itself that is the focus of the work, but its birth and appearance. All forms come from change, you could say, and are in the process of becoming.

The artist feels at home between figuration and abstraction. She grew up with both being available as visual vocabularies, one not better than the other, but rather complementary. In earlier series, such as Episodes and Awareness (both 2015), there was a clear landscape orientation with a horizon line, often including a human figure as well. Later on, with One as Another (2018), a series of abstract works followed, withdrawing from the world as we can name it with identifiable anchor points. And now, in the series Changes, the two come together. Elements of landscape and a bit of human figuration mix with largely abstract paintings. Occasionally, figuration shows up by accident, or, it also happens, nature produces figurative drawings. Looking at the pattern of a marble plate, a slice of wood, or a riverbed of sand, you can see shapes that evoke life.

The artist will not confirm her focus on a particular motif. She was not aiming for a vagina or a precious stone, as is suggested in Changes 12 and 13. Just as nature can offer unintentional forms of figuration, paint can, too. In this context, some painters like to say that a painting paints itself. Of course, this should not be taken literally, but a painting can tell the painter where to go once the setup is there. Where to turn the brush, where to stop and pause or mix in another color. Where to be insistent and where to hold back. The painter responds as the work unfolds, deciding for or against the image that appears, defining the motif, blending it out, or leaving it open.

On the wall in the studio, there is a reproduction of Caspar David Friedrich's painting Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (1818), showing three people in the foreground, at the seaside, looking down onwhite rocks. The relationship between figure and landscape was central to the GermanRomantic painter, a reflection of man's place in life and in nature. In the center of the painting,an endless view of the sea opens up between the rocks. Such relationships between figure,stage, and endless view can be traced in Zarina-Zēmane’s work as well, yet in a different way.Against the slow precision of Friedrich’s process, she places her fast way of painting. Recurrentin her work is a reflection on the figure in the whole of life. If people appear at all, they areusually very small, while the landscapes are grand, which is a way of showing us our place onearth. In the universe, we are just a grain of sand. Yet, being human comes with the specialability to express our situation, vision, and experience through paintings.

The paintings have the feeling of speed and movement. Most of them are indeed made quite quickly. Zarina-Zēmane’s technique of mixing colors, wet in wet, requires a certain tempo. And she is not the kind of painter to endlessly rephrase what she did, correcting the composition. There might be periods in which she does not paint, as there is no idea or incentive. But once she finds a reason to start a new series, the work goes swiftly, in a couple of sessions. Interestingly, the resulting works seem to invite reflection, slowing the viewer down, which gives the works a paradoxical quality. It combines a feeling of speed with an environment for calm and reflection. It is like hopping on a fast train, and then sitting down, enjoying the view and reflecting while the landscapes pass.

The colors and their combination define the character of each painting. Usually, the color scheme is quite contained, remaining close to nature, to what you feel in stones, in woods, in a seascape, in sunlight, in moonlight. And if the colors are bright, they are reduced in number. Two darker paintings (Changes 1 and 2) show the form of an opening or gate. Dark color does not mean that the mood is also subdued; the paint application is thin, transparent. And looking through, there is a grey-blue sky, or something similar, which co-defines the character of the work. It could be the view from a cave or an overhanging rock near the sea. The resulting arch works as an interface, connecting different worlds, even if the identities of those worlds remain in the dark. In a third, related painting (Changes 3), between two rock-like shapes, there is a white appearance, the possibility of a figure, faint and ghost-like. It was not intended, the artist insists, but it is hard not to see a presence appearing through the fog.

Zarina-Zēmane does not see painting as a direct way of putting her feelings or thoughts out onto the canvas. The work should not be taken too personally. Rather, content and experience from life flow into the paintings in an implicit way. A painting can be like the morning fog, or like a crisp autumn day at noon. Or it may have the photographic feeling of an X-ray or a negative. Impressions do not have to be spelled out or viewed through a psychological lens. Instead, in painting, meaning comes through color, movement, and atmosphere. It is about complex layers, opaque versus transparent, and light coming through or fading out. Painting is about being sensitive to colors, to seasons and changes outside, but also to mood fluctuations or mental shifts during the studio practice. The painter seems especially at home where the outside and inside world blend or are connected. That is what her work offers us – a connection between worlds. The shape of a tree can be a trace of memory. A passing cloud, a state of mind.


Paula Zariņa. Awarenesses. - exhibition catalogue (ed. and text author I. Šteimane). - Daugavpils: Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Centre, 2015. 16 p.