Interviewer: Crystal Kunze
Interviewee: Vilnis Putrams
I started in a Latvian art academy but it was a long time ago in the 80s or something like that. I was taught orally in the graphic design department but I never worked really in graphic design but I started mainly in Latvia and in Germany and Norway and some other countries like Lithuania and Estonia. It’s not easy to survive as an artist, even in the USA and Eastern Europe and I’m working also not only as an artist but as an event designer and exhibition designer and sometimes I work as an assistant for a quite well known European artist. I made an exhibition for Robert Morris, I built a few pieces from the concept of his exhibition where they had to be made where it was shown and then afterwards it had to be destroyed. It was pretty big in the museum Abteiberg in Germany. It’s a small contemporary art museum but it has a good collection of contemporary and pop art like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, there are a lot of good German artists as well. I’ve been working as a freelance artist and decorator for almost 15 years and sometimes just as an exhibition designer or architect, maybe in Lithuania or a neighboring country. That was how we met Curtis and Tammy because in 2016 there was a big exhibition from an American graphic arts exhibition and I was the exhibition designer and then we met and that’s how we got connected to Norman and everything. I’m also making bigger installations and years ago I made graphic art and painted a lot but meanwhile it’s mainly murals or some bigger installations.
This is my first time in the USA and I don’t think the people know anything about Eastern Europe, or maybe nothing, probably some fake research about the Eastern European mentality. Here we have some graphic works which are dedicated to Latvian history. They were made for another exhibition which took part in White Russia, Belarus, which is ruled by some authoritarian systems and I thought “oh I have to do something political here.” There are 3 works in the exhibition for 100 years of Latvia. There are 3 different historical moments put in the form of collage put on the paper and one tells the story about a Latvian artist who wrote a graduation letter to Hitler during World War II, another one is from 1949, his brother also a well-known Latvian artist wrote a graduation letter to Stalin and the work’s title may have been 1986, it’s about a Latvian artist who wrote some information to the Soviet National Security organization KGB about the performance of artists and something to do with how the artists are trying to survive and how they’re always looking for an opportunity to survive which compromises what they’re making because Eastern European history was pretty wild. The history between Russia and Germany can cause some problems in Latvia. But it’s something to do with the mood associated with the history.
It’s crazy because we flew in a few days ago and landed in Dallas and it was pretty warm and then we came in here to Norman and it’s pretty similar weather, the same shades of gray. Somehow it’s quite easy to work here. For me, it’s a big surprise, almost everything is quite similar but different in the same way. You can’t walk really which is also surprising, in my homeland you can reach everything by bicycle or by foot. The people here are pretty friendly though. Even if I don’t speak English so well I haven’t had any problems communicating.
Q: Do you consider your work to be art, design, or a blending of both perhaps?
A: It’s art in this case. I used to study in graphic design, I have graphic design skills. It’s not so far away but this is an art installation and has more to do with myself or my feelings. The history of my country is maybe too loud to say but it’s more my mentality. There are several pieces of video work and I have some small tiles, maybe 24 pieces, and it was printed with really bright color and plant motifs, really exotic ones. I found them in my flat that I rented and I thought it’s too good to throw away. I didn’t know exactly what to do with it though. A few months ago somehow it came to my hands and I thought “well, these are good things I could maybe use for my artwork.” The first reaction was really strange. I had this feeling I wanted to paint it somehow, maybe so it’s not so bright so I felt a little more comfortable. Then I started to think about why it’s like that, maybe it’s Eastern European or Northeastern European. The mural on the other wall is a test picture from the tv stream from my Soviet childhood. It only showed for 6 or 7 hours a day and the rest of the time the screen was there and it was also in black and white. Autumn and early Winter is pretty gray, there are different gray shades or tones that you can maybe compare with American Inuits. I think it’s something to do with that, of course there are also some other problems, economical and relations play quite a big role to move the mood in that direction. It’s something like that.
Q: How would you describe what you do to someone who’s never heard of or really considered exhibition design as an artform and its importance to an exhibition and space?
A: I’ll build illusions and build some stories or something like that but they’re quite connected with me and my own experience and history from my parents or country or universe; but I have fun, it’s important. It’s not always fun but I at least have to have the feeling that it’s interesting for me and meanwhile I don’t care if someone wants to buy it, it’s of course wonderful but I don’t care about that part of it. Sometimes I’m selling works but I couldn’t really live form it, you have to constantly produce and they have to be in a certain way and I would like to just have this freedom.
Q: What kind of artwork are you into?
A: I like installations at the moment because I like to play with the space and I also need some kind of a narrative from literary stuff because then it makes it more and more interesting, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like abstract art of other things, there are also good videos around. At the moment it’s mainly things that have to do with the space.
Q: What are your favorite places around the world to visit or work in?
A: I used to work quite a lot in Germany and I have some kind of nostalgia around Italy and Mediterranean countries, or France and Spain and Portugal. But in Europe it’s easy to travel and work, it doesn’t matter which country you like. If someone needs you or wants you you can easily move them. I like it a lot because I grew up with the Berlin Wall and in my childhood it was impossible to move out of the Soviet Union. I have friends in a lot of countries. Actually a funny experience I had on the way to Norman is we moved through Iceland. We stayed maybe one day and it was pretty impressive. I’ve never been so far in the north it was the complete opposite of Latvia, it was really impressive. And then we moved to Detroit and from Detroit to Dallas so in a few days it was pretty crazy. In Iceland it was pretty heavily in Winter, but wonderful landscapes. Norman surprised me because the streets look absolutely empty.
I used to watch a lot of American movies and I have this feeling that I’m in some kind of Hollywood movie. There are a lot of empty streets, but then you’re moving and the restaurants have people but it’s been fun here and it was also a strange experience in Dallas. We thought “okay we have to get from Dallas to Norman somehow, let’s take the train” but it goes so slowly. There’s a bus, let’s take a bus and I ordered the tickets online and I didn’t know the thing about Greyhound buses and when we moved to the bus station in Dallas, it was a big surprise where you get the complete opposite social view of this rich country and it was mainly quite poor people. Afterwards Curtis told us in America the buses don’t get used a lot it’s completely different in Europe.
Q: Do you have any influential people in your life or someone you’ve learned of throughout your life who may have influenced your work? Are there any events that occurred in your life that may have influenced your aesthetic or style?
A: My bigger brother is an artist too and he’s 8 years older than me, he maybe influenced me most, he’s well known in Latvia. There are certain artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol and then it moves to German artists and at the moment I think there are some, I worked with a lot of exhibitions where there are some Venetian artists. At the museum where I’m working is near Dusseldorf and there are really good contemporary art museums that have different kinds of exhibition halls and you always get really good art and the possibility to see it. I think America is similar whether you’re living in New York or Los Angeles but at the moment I don’t think I have one particular inspiring artist, it’s also not so easy to find some artists, but it can definitely change.
Q: Is there an element of the artistic process or medium that you identify with most?
A: I’m trying to mix mediums because there are also projections and a small video in the exhibition. I think medium isn’t as important because the message or idea behind it is more important to me because you can play of course with medium and make wonderful things and can find them as well but in my case I prefer the message over the particular medium.
Q: What was your process concerning this particular exhibition? Do you normally approach it in a similar manner? Do you have a favorite part when getting a show together?
A: I partially like to go with the flow but in this case I checked out all of my photos, I’m always taking photos because I travel a lot and then I do research on the internet and read books about history and I’m trying to put this puzzle together and in this case where it was some exhibition in the USA it could be not only for me but also maybe for someone to get a touch of Eastern Europe.
Q: Is there a particular method to your work? How did you discover what worked best for you?
A: The research process is really important, it takes a long time, possibly the most time and the realization that it’s already there but you have a more or less clear picture in your head. Sometimes the material does influence you and then it turns somehow into a different unexpected way. It’s quite clear and I’ll try to make some kind of illusion from this Eastern European landscape or environment but it’s of course not really realistic to think the images or icons will help us to understand those feelings. But yes, research is the most fun part, I like to look for information on the internet and at the library and I’m trying to find these old photos and then the work which is dedicated to Latvian history where I tried to look for the architecture which represents the time like the Nazi architecture from the early 30s, the Soviet’s from the 40s and 50s and the concrete structures and elements of buildings as well from the 80s. They’re in quite bad condition but somehow manage to show the time.
Q: Would you say you feel personally connected to the work, past and present, that you’ve done? Why or why not?
A: I usually have a big project maybe 2 or 3 times a year. It’s not always so easy, but mainly I like the work, there’s the contemporary art museum in Germany and this year I had a good job in Lithuania which will also be more or less fun. Meanwhile I would say about 70-80% of jobs are works in which I’m making projects and I end up quite satisfied. Maybe 20% is a little bit less because sometimes I also work assistant jobs and it isn’t so easy, it depends on the person. I had to sometimes help really well known artists and some of them are very… special. One funny work was more than 10 or 15 years ago, I made some murals with an artist named Richard Wright and his brother helped him and then for two weeks we worked together with 3 people and it was a wonderful room in the museum. We just painted black dots and that was all. It was a complicated picture of dots and it was funny working, we would start in the morning and work for hours just painting black dots alone in the room without talking to music or anything. You get into a kind of meditational feeling or trance and if someone came and asked you would immediately break the trance and make a mistake. Richard Wright a few years later got the Turner Prize in the UK, the highest award you can receive. It wasn’t for that work, but another one.