Surrealistic glamour of other worlds.
“Memory is the great criterion of art,” poet Charles Baudelaire remarked in his Salon of 1846—but how to read this statement in the age of the internet; a period of image distortion, when mass- media proliferates in so many aspects of our daily lives? Lithuanian-British artist Vilte Fuller’s dramatic dreamscapes play with this contradiction of our times. By manipulating found imagery from internet subcultures and fusing it with hazy scenes sourced from archival photography, Vilte imagines uncanny worlds that could be described by using philosopher Michel Foucault’s notion of the heterotopia, as being somehow ‘other’: contradictory, incompatible, intense or transforming. Often unsettling, these milieus build on a lineage stretching from two of her creative influences; the Japanese horror mangaka, Junji Ito and the Polish Surrealist artist, Zdzisław Beksiński. Sometimes painted in exaggerated and sinister hues, the semi-real entities that Vilte invents take inspiration from excessive research into human dermatology; as well as an obsession with makeup and plastic surgery—gently mocking the sanitised ways we are conditioned to think about beauty. This interest in skin extends into Vilte’s mediums of choice, seeking to paint on unconventional materials like Airtex, hessian and latex because of their porous qualities instead of polished and primed canvas. Last year, she took her paintings into the third dimension by establishing her clothing brand, Gherkin Worms to make bespoke, up-cycled garments including screen-printing experiments of her 3-D digital renderings made with Blender animation software. Recently, Vilte has embarked on a new project to design a visual story, in manga format. Titled ‘Jars and Rhinoplasties’, the narrative layers her iconic symbolism—animistic dill pickles and glamorous, androgynous figures—with a dystopian world where residents live in a town controlled by television.
Born in Lithuania, could you take me through what it was like growing up in the British countryside near Gravesend in Kent? What were some of your early creative influences and interactions with art?
One of my mother’s go-to dinner party stories explaining my interest in art resulted from her attempts to discipline me for being a messy child and leaving toys everywhere. To teach me a lesson, she decided to hide all my stuffed teddies whilst I was at kindergarten. Upon my arrival home, she informed me that all my stuffed friends had escaped as I hadn’t looked after them well enough. Apparently, on receiving this news, I shrugged and simply said ‘never mind’. I then proceeded to pick up a newspaper and pen, entertaining myself drawing all evening and forgetting all of those runaway toys. Growing up on the outskirts of Gravesend, if I can be totally honest, was bleak and uneventful as there was nothing to do. In a typically teenage fashion, a ridiculous number of hours were spent watching television, using social media, sketching Twilight characters and skinny models found on Tumblr. Yet the one thing that I will concede to Gravesend is the excellent craft beer scene!
TV soap operas from the Post-Soviet Bloc have influenced the subject matter of your paintings. How might the narratives of these TV shows differ from those we might find in the UK?
Dare I say it, shows like ‘Eastenders’ and ‘Coronation Street’ are far more realistic and believable. Lithuania is a small country and therefore heavily relies on dramas from Russia, Mexico and Turkey, as well as producing independent television. What I love about Lithuanian-made shows is that they take on stylised themes that are similar to those that they import such as heavy use of glamour or thunder sound-effects whenever anything slightly dramatic happens. The women all look like undiscovered supermodels in domestic settings with brown and mustard interiors. On the other hand, men don’t even bother ironing their shirts.
In her essay on Post-Representation, Hito Steyerl describes a new political aesthetic that is rooted in technology, where the many “brightly lit glossy surfaces” fail to reveal “anything else but themselves as surfaces” Everything is there to be seen, although incomprehensible. I found this idea reverberates deeply in your work. Themes like alien world, glossiness and self-distortion link all your paintings throughout. How would you consider your practice in regard to representation?
I completely agree with this. Although all my paintings appear like separate projects and I never work in series, I believe they constantly link to each other because the depicted characters are all coming from the same world. During the first lockdown, I watched countless superhero films and was surprised at how enjoyable they were. The corny storylines were predictable, yet I fell in love with how these constructed universes were so intricately detailed, all with their own rules and laws. I see my paintings in this way; like screenshots or thumbnails from a larger storyline than just the one frame. In other words, if the story was performed in the format of film or theatre, the painted image would be that narrative’s crescendo.
Can you tell me about your experiments with unconventional painting materials?
I often use textured surfaces as I find you experience much less control of the paint than on a basic canvas. It’s fun to paint images on fabrics like Airtex mesh that have an enlarged pore-like grain, or with acrylic on latex, it feels similar to painting on skin. Hessian fabric is also great as the loose weave blurs the paint very easily together, however it can be problematic as it is inclined to warp if too much is applied and as it is rough and unprimed, brushes tend to wear out very quickly!
The worm recurs as a phallic device in many of your works, and it’s shaping visually resembles many of the other forms that we find—like gherkins and sausages. As if “food porn” has been taken to the extreme! Could you be referencing the intimate ways in which food is sold to us as an extension of identity?
Food is an extension of our identities, and this is exacerbated in British culture. What we eat can predict our income, class, health and wellbeing. Even supermarkets themselves have their own ‘social status’. My interest in the gherkin imagery arrived after an experience in my hometown when someone said to me they would never eat Eastern European food as it was “weird alien muck”. This led me to think more carefully about the culinary traditions I had grown up with and whether or not they were actually ‘weird’. Some of my first memories included pickling gherkins with dill, making kompot, and there was nothing I enjoyed more than fishing and barbecuing my catch from an early age. These activities are so common in Lithuanian families and yet I couldn’t think of anything similar in the British culture. The gherkins were delicious in salads and prepared with love, and the fish couldn’t have been fresher. A child caught it for God’s sake, it’s adorable! After discussing this with my mother, she sent me an article by Aisling McCrea named ‘Why British Food is Terrible’. I then realised it’s not that Lithuanian appetite is strange or horrible, it’s just foreign. To many people from where I grew up—particularly in post-Brexit Britain—anything external was seen negatively, and lesser than the superior triangle of beige British pastries. So, the gherkin with a face image that I often paint has evolved into a little alien character itself, representing this view of “weird alien muck” alongside the images I painted of lavishly curated Lithuanian meals.
The people depicted in your works, often in disturbing hues like blue and green, appear both glamorous and repulsive, human and alien. Could they be subverting the mainstream, sanitised ways we are conditioned to think of images of health and beauty?
The hues in my paintings are over exaggerations of the natural colours and textures that occur in a variety of normal skin conditions: dark under eyes; white flakes from dry skin; redness across the nose and cheeks from rosacea, allergic reactions and severe temperature jumps; or overproduction of sebum that causes oil production and a shine to your face. Since my early teens, I was obsessed with researching the topic as I had severe acne with constant facial bleeding. Now, I couldn’t find anything more boring than painting a figure with airbrushed Kardashian-like skin (don’t get me wrong—I love the Kardashians and could talk about their businesses for days). Personally, I wear a lot of makeup and thoroughly enjoy having a little cosmetic session every morning. When I paint characters, not only do I feel like a makeup artist, I also get to experiment with bolder looks that I can’t quite transfer into real life. I also get to be their experimental plastic surgeon! It doesn’t take long for me to alter the shape of a chin, add or remove wrinkles, give their lips fillers or dissolve them. Although the colours I use are in fact sickly, I find them rather beautiful.
I’ve always made clothing as a hobby but had never really taken it seriously. Just over a year ago, I started to teach myself how to use Blender and began rendering images and small animations of 3D characters. I decided to turn one of the images into a band t-shirt for a fantasy music group called ‘kimchi beans’ and it took on a life of its own. Since then, I have been experimenting with making up-cycled garments including my signature motifs such as gherkins and comic panels. I’m very fastidious with the clothes I buy and wear, so thought why not learn how to make these items myself? It remains a massive project in progress, but I have a great friend who is an amazing designer and tailor that I often annoy when asking for advice with fitting and fabric.
Some of the figures in your works come from memes found online, how relevant are internet subcultures to your practice?
Internet subcultures are one of the main points of reference for my compositions and imagery. I download or screenshot many photographs from Reddit, Pinterest and YouTube that I then combine in Photoshop to create a narrative. For instance, my painting ‘Homemade Sausages (Date Night)’, originated from when someone posted a meme on a Junji Ito fan page of the artist Photoshopped with a bowl of spaghetti. I was immediately drawn to the composition of the image and had already been thinking about how to feature images of Eastern European cuisines in my work. As you may see, I gave him a little makeover with some gorgeous blush and lipgloss that I wish I could buy.
In works such as ‘Paintings for Attics’, we see the female body in an anthropomorphic state (the vagina opening is a fanged space). Shown in the online exhibition ‘Dungeons: A Virtual World’, how was the experience of exhibiting phygital (physical and digital) paintings in the virtual realm? Do you believe that online exhibitions will become more and more important, even in the post-pandemic world?
What I enjoyed about ‘Dungeons: A Virtual World’, curated by Taylor Stewart, was that it wasn’t supposed to look like the work was in a real- life gallery. It wasn’t just Photoshopped to appear on white walls as if it was a space like White Cube or Gagosian. It looked like it could only exist in the digital space. I’m sceptical about online exhibitions that are created by larger galleries. I am yet to see one I find I don’t find a bit of a yawn. I don’t know how it’s going to pan out post-pandemic, but I don’t think people will particularly invest in those kinds of online exhibitions.
Junji Ito, the Japanese horror mangaka is a big inspiration for your work. Dealing with themes like body monstrosity, envy, irrationality or jealousy in the ordinary and the breakdown of society; his work is quite terrifying. On the other hand, your work—perhaps through the use of warmer colour or more recognisable everyday figurative signs—seems to become more humorous and surreal?
One of the aspects that I love most about Junji Ito’s work is how the horrible and bizarre events forced onto the people in his stories simply just happen. These terrible events don’t necessarily occur because someone deserved it, for instance, there isn’t a fable that indicates if you lie or cheat you will face punishment. These seemingly unfair events don’t necessarily make sense and suggest that in life you have to accept your fate – there is no fairy tale ending. Bad stuff happens and that’s it. Granted, in everyday life, you don’t often see life-size mannequins attempting to morph you into one of them, or experience fashion models feasting on your friends while out in the woods! I tend to be facetious at inappropriate times and I think that translates in my paintings. Sometimes they are creepy and dark, but I see them as a horror-comedy. I feel the characters in my paintings all live in the same gross universe, being silly, only for the fun of it.
When visiting your studio, you showed me a collaborative book project you published with your grandfather who owns a printing studio in Lithuania, how did this project come about?
My grandfather, Antanas Stanevičius, is a photographer and has worked in the publishing industry for many years. Last year, I illustrated two books that his company was releasing and recently illustrated his own book of poetry. If creativity is genetic, I believe it came from him.
Working in a variety of scales, from 20x20cm squares to much larger canvases, does your consideration of subject matter differentiate depending on size?
I have only recently noticed that my smaller canvas’ are never the experiments before making larger works, it’s the other way around. Because there is much more space to work on a big canvas, I tend to be more experimental and therefore less successful. Therefore, I like the boundaries that working on a smaller surface gives me, forcing me to be more focused. The irony is that if you make a mediocre painting on a large canvas, it will still look ok because the scale adds some pizzazz to it, but if it’s small and ugly, it’s just rubbish.
If you were to plan an exhibition of these works, have you thought about any methods of display that would combine your multifaceted practice?
I quite like the idea of hanging all of the small paintings next to each other in a grid so they appear like storyboards. I have created so many small canvases, and it would be great to show the remaining works together as if they were a family portrait.
Recently, you have embarked on a new path to make Japanese-inspired graphic novels. How does their quite rigid formal structure differ from the process of making paintings?
Honestly, I am finding it difficult, there are many formatting rules you have to follow which mean you can’t change your mind too often on the story or imagery specifics. Painting seems like such an easy task in comparison. However, I am enjoying the labour of making a comic named ‘Jars and Rhinoplasties’ and watching the individual vignettes grow into a fluid narrative.
Can you give us a preview of the storyline?
It’s a crime horror story following the residents of a town that is ruled by television and mysterious creatures that live in their day to day supermarket produce. Creepy gherkins feature heavily, as well as a police detective that is terrible at his job.
Thinking towards 2021, it is already clear this year will be tough—with many restrictions to movement and mass gatherings. However, do you have any goals for your practice during this unprecedented isolation?
I hope my drive for making work continues, although it does seem like being stuck at my home studio and wearing makeup just for supermarket visits is the ideal creative, living condition. Also, I am excited about a forthcoming group show in Paris titled ‘The Dream of the Fisherman’s
Wife’, curated by Steven Pollock at Ruttkowski;68 where I will show paintings and digitally rendered images for the first time. Going forward, I wish to further explore my 3D rendered works and use them as textile designs and painting sources.
Words by Laurie Barron