CLOSE-UP Culture sat down with Ukrainian artist Artem Proot to talk about everything from his erotic work to his love for Liverpool FC.
Q: When did you first pick up a paint brush?
A: I FIRST got carried away by street art when I was 15 and 16 years old. This was in around 2002 and 2003. From that moment on, I began to paint a lot and got carried away with fine arts.
When I was 24 years old, I quit my job to devote myself to drawing. Until that moment, I worked as a designer for advertising agencies for several years. I really did not like it there, but I had to put food on the table.
Q: How would you describe your style and your typical process?
A: I WORK at the junction of different genres. It is a mixture of pop art, design and graphics. I think that in the last two years my stories, as well as the tools that I use, are understandable and relatable to many people, so it is more pop art and pop culture.
In terms of my process, I begin by determining the plot. This choice can be affected by anything: a photograph, a frame from a movie or a transmission, a picture by another artist. But the main thing is that it is close to me.
I then draw a sketch. Sometimes I need time to figure out whether it suits me or not. Quite often, I have to imagine how the work will look and in what colours before I start to work with the canvas.
In general, by drawing one picture it gives you ideas for a new one – one job pulls the other. But recently I have been trying to create new scenes with each picture. So after I drew – for example – a picture on the theme of sports, I switched myself to another story. It is quite difficult because after the sports picture is done you want to draw another picture on the same topic.
But I think that such tasks are good for development and make your view of things wider because when you are working on something you are studying this or that topic. Now I am doing several series at the same time for a long time – not fixating on one thing.
When I do start working with the canvas, I work with it all day. My day is 10 to 12 hours of working time. I am not distracted by anything until I finish the work. It can be three or four days – maybe even two weeks. It is always different.
Q: In your early work, you focused on vibrant colours and these erotic, one-eyed women. Can you tell us more about this period in your work?
A: AFTER my second series of works – Hydra – I began to search for following topics for myself. The female body and the question of female beauty in art is a very popular question, a classic motif. I was wondering how I could realize this in my world.
The first two girls whom I drew caused me a lot of questions. I cannot say at that time it was easy for me to draw them, but in the process of work I studied and understood more where to move on. Somewhere on the fifth or sixth picture, I realized that there will be a series of girls in interior settings. I drew about 20 paintings for this series.
After a series of interior works I wanted to go out into the street and to nature. I wanted to continue to draw sexy girls, but for another series.
So a series of works began to appear titled Girls in Danger. Beautiful sexy girls, not suspecting that they are about to be attacked some kind of wild animal. Whether it as a tiger, a gorilla, or a buffalo – it is just an allegory to the male half of humanity and animal instincts.
Parallel to this, I thought a lot about how I can portray the topic of sex in my works. So there was another series with robots – SexPloitation.
In 2017 a guy approached me with a proposal to make an exhibition in their new gallery in Marseilles. He had already bought a picture of a girl and a shark from me and he said all his friends liked this picture and the series in general. He suggested I draw new works for the exhibition from the series Girls in Danger.
I made nine paintings especially for this exhibition, but it did not take place. I was not given a visa and the organizers did not take the whole process seriously and the work was left in Ukraine. I might not have done these works if not for the offer, but I am still glad that I did it.
Q: There has been a noticeable shift in your style in the last year or so. Your colour palette is more subdued and you are focusing on person-less locations. What has caused this shift?
A: MY colour palette began to change solely from the desire to move on and not to stand in one place. For me it is natural to change. To change your views and tastes. I do not want my creativity to be associated with one single theme.
I always think about what I will draw next – where I will go in my work. I constantly ask myself many questions. I do not want to shut down and walk around in circles. I want to do different things. It is much more interesting if you have to do something that you have never done before. That is progress. It develops you and gives you new sensations.
I want more life in my works so that the pictures that I now draw are closer to a larger number of people, including myself. This is the principle I now use to choose my subjects. It is all very close to me, but at the same time this or that picture can arouse the interest of a person who previously was not very much interested in my art.
Q: What has life been like for you as an underground artist in Ukraine, especially given the political unrest?
A: I THINK that the artist’s life, especially in the early stages, is very difficult. In any country and at any time.
Politics does not play any role here. There is no relation between government and the fine arts. It just so happened historically that in Ukraine there is little interest in art. Most people have a low standard of living. They are preoccupied by survival so they do not have any time to create.
Many sceptics do not believe that you can earn a living through creativity. Some people are enraged by the idea of art as a profession and feel you should go to work in the classical sense of the word.
The fact that you draw for a living is kind of an insult for them. In truth, over the past three years, I was very surprised to see how many have such an outlook – although I rarely see them. In fact, the artist is a warrior in Ukraine – one against all.
But, on the other hand, there are some people who are interested. Among them, a few successful and well-known figures in certain circles from different spheres – and this of course pleases me.
From time to time people approach me who I do not know and say flattering things about my work. It is very pleasant because you do not expect this at all. That is, everything is not so bad and there is some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. But you need time and you need to work hard.
Q: I believe you are a fan of Liverpool and skate culture. Can you tell us about your lifestyle and how (if it does) effect your art?
A: OH yes, thank you for this question! Honestly, I could not imagine that Liverpool would come to Kiev to the Champions League final. It is just very unfortunate that it is so difficult to buy tickets for such a match.
I really like the English Premier League. I dream that I will have the opportunity, one year, to live in England, to buy a season ticket and travel to the stadiums. And of course, such an experience should result in a series of works. I would be very interested in spending time like this.
I see a lot of the philosophy of life in football. You watch the match and in the first half the team leads 4-0. In the second it becomes 4-4. This is a good example of the fact that you cannot relax, and if you succeed, then you must continue to work hard to maintain your advantage. Or, if you do not get something, then there is always the opportunity to correct the situation. This applies to all spheres of our life.
And yet, thanks to football, I had an understanding that in some issues there is the opportunity to solve the problem in extra time. As it happens, when the referee adds three to five minutes at the end of the match. During this time you can win the match if you make every effort. We all know that there are such cases. You must always go to the end.
This is a kind of motivation for me. I like the team and its fans, the whole philosophy around the clubs and you project it onto yourself.
I got interested in skateboarding when I was 15 years old and it influenced me somewhere up to age 25. But since that time I began to worry little about this culture. Maybe this is all the age. I do not know.
Q: What do you love about producing art and what have been the great challenges?
A: I LIKE working with colour. In my paintings, colour determines the nature of the work. If you pick the right combination of colours then the picture will work. If not, then the picture will not produce the proper impression and will not work.
I also like it when the creation process is like clockwork and you have done 90 per cent of the work already – and there is very little to finish and this feeling of anticipation before the end of the work is very strong. Sometimes it happens, I do not finish work on purpose and I enjoy this moment of near completeness. These are very personal and powerful moments, between you and the picture. In general, I like the whole process – not a single occupation so fascinated me as that of the creation of paintings.
Sometimes you get in shape, you do a lot of work and everything works out for you. However, there are times when there are failures and you lose magic and do not know what you want. This is the insidious side of our work.
You can paint five to six days and nothing happens. You do not like anything even when you change the stories. It is upsetting. I cannot rest easy when this happens and I cannot do anything else. I do not know what this is connected with, but from time to time it happens and takes up a lot of my energy.
Q: Where do you want to take your art in the future? Do you have any ambitions?
A: I AM young enough – 31 – and I believe that I am only at the very beginning of my creative career. Definitely, I am ambitious enough.
I see no reason to voice my desires and goals. I hope that in the future all this will be realized. For this I need to work hard and realise my ambitions.