First published in Vault magazine, Issue #8 November 2014
Jelena Telecki knows that formative influences only reveal themselves in retrospect. When the Sydney-based artist was growing up in Communist-era Yugoslavia in the eighties, she couldn’t have predicted that Gustav, a Hungarian cartoon whose grey-clad protagonist skitters between optimism and fatalism, would become an unlikely mascot for her own body of work.
“There’s one episode where Gustav is trying to fix things by painting over them in black,” laughs Telecki, who’s working on a series of pieces inspired by the character for an upcoming show at the Institute of Contemporary Art Newtown (ICAN). “Gustav is a loser, he’s anxious, he’s a pessimist, he’s a nihilist – he will sit next to a woman on the bench and imagine having a child with her, who grows up to be a criminal. A few of my friends from Belgrade were recently discussing him and we were like ‘wow, that’s so dark!’ But it was normal to me. I recognise myself in Gustav. It’s quite funny.”
We’re sitting in a sun-splashed cafe in Sydney’s inner west on the kind of spring morning that makes the city feel wildly incompatible with darkness. A couple of days earlier, I received an email from Telecki, apologetically declining my request to meet at her Leichhardt studio, a tiny space whose chaos she links to a painting routine that’s “completely random.” She sums up her process with the description “scraping, erasing, scraping, erasing,” but you get the feeling that there’s a rift between her levels of self-deprecation and the force of a practice that sees technical precision swiftly unmasked by buried heads, blurred features and facelessness.
“Although I admire artists who can do it, I don’t like polished, complete paintings,” she says, placing her motorcycle helmet aside to take a sip of the morning’s second coffee. “I change my mind so many times and often end up with something that isn’t what I started. I’m very open-ended. At uni, people would often ask me if my paintings were finished but there are a lot of ways to make a painting! To me, it feels finished. That’s the thing in art – you want to feel convinced as an artist. What I search for in painting is something different.”
This search started early. Born in Split, which was then part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Telecki was enamoured with her mother’s art history book as a child. She started making work as an eleven-year-old in the lead-up to the Yugoslav Wars, an era that saw the reign of Communist dictator Josip Tito give way to a bloody civil conflict marked by war crimes and genocide.
“My mum had this amazing book that I would just look through for hours,” she recalls. “I thought it was so interesting that art was always a reaction to what had come before and when I was eleven, I became quite serious about it, which was a bit strange. I always wanted to be an artist but wanted to be a scientist as well and because of the things that happened to us as a family when we escaped from the war, I couldn’t focus academically and started drawing all the time. I felt like history could help me understand art. By the time we moved to Belgrade when I was 13, I felt like I’d become an adult.”
Telecki, who trained at the National Art School and Sydney College of Art – an institution she says afforded the freedom to chase her artistic missives – is quick to clarify that her preoccupation with personal history is an attempt to illuminate the universal. She shudders at the idea that her practice could be misread as an avenue for addressing trauma and maintains that her involvement in projects such as Terminal 00’s 2009 survey of Balkan contemporary artists in London – in which a thickly rendered portrait of a nurse smoking personifies the fugue-state occupied by many of her subjects – was motivated less by a sense of imaginary kinship than it was by a genuine curiosity.
“The curator Piera Ravnikar invited artists from the Balkans to make work around ‘Obsession,” say Telecki, who cites influences that range from Goya and nineteenth century Utopian painter Wenzel Hablik to figurative artists Victor Man, Luc Tuymans and Peter Doig. “There were different mediums in the show and it was interesting to see the parallels but also to see how you make work when you live there or when you don’t. People like to pigeonhole you if you find that history interesting but I think that whatever art you make, whether it’s a painting, video or installation, who you are will always come through. I never wanted my art to be a way of processing, I want to experience it in a way that’s universal. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense. It’s too narrow.”
Narrow isn’t a word you’d associate with Telecki. Although her oil paintings belong to a medium that’s an unfortunate casualty of a love affair with conceptualism, works such as a portrait of Tito petting a leopard obscured by a mountain of faeces, part of her absurdist takedown of state art at 2014 ACCA survey NEW and Papa (2012), which was created for 2013 solo show Roland’s Mother and pairs a white figure with his head erased with the kind of smiling sailor that haunts old war photos, feel plucked from some long-buried collective memory. If the paintings are nightmarish, it’s because you’ve dreamt them before.
“We felt like what happened in our country couldn’t happen in the middle of Europe but then realised that it could, that people are the same everywhere,” she explains. “There were many of us that had their whole lives and families destroyed and even though I’ve tried before, I can’t use colour. It just doesn’t feel natural to me.”
Her palette may be sombre but, unlike Gustav, she isn’t a nihilist. Her ‘Slippery People’ series, which show figures dangling between intent and disaster inverts an age-old physics premise: that what goes down must come back up. “I’m drawn to that falling. But it’s almost like I want to press pause before I hit the ground,” she says.
Telecki is less interested in representation than she is in evocation. Although her prolific output – 13 solo shows and 16 group exhibitions over a seven year period – is remarkable for someone who balks at the idea of ambition – she says when she feels like she’s illustrating something, it’s a cue to destroy it.
“I think the reason why I blur the faces is that sometimes I’ll do a really good portrait that’s resolved and technically good but that’s not the point,” she says with a wry smile. “Even when I’m painting people, it’s not about a certain person, it’s about a story. I don’t see painting as illustration, I don’t like to describe anything. It’s a hard medium, but it really gives me the opportunity to look for something through it. And I never know what I will see at the end.”