Guntars Sietins is a graphic artist, layout specialist and designer with a mastery unique in the context of contemporary art in Latvia. Technical solutions honed to perfection and topics hovering between the worlds of reality and illusion are the trademark features of Sietins’ artwork.
The Latvian National Museum of Art just closed a personal exhibition devoted to the famous graphic artist Rihards Zarins, founder of the Graphics Workshop. The exhibition is a powerful testament to the long and complicated journey towards excellence that the graphics genre commands. Like Zarins, you too have devoted your entire life to graphics – from standalone graphics masterpieces to book illustrations and graphic design. How did your journey in this space begin? Rihards Zarins was a completely different calibre of personality, the chief artist and technical manager of the Tsarist Russia Mint, and the manager of the Republic of Latvia Mint. By the way, the Art Academy has, since its establishment, been in possession of two presses, one for lithographs and one for etchings, which Zariņš purchased with state funds in the 1920s. This is mentioned in academy rector Vilhelms Purvītis’ report to the Prime Minister in 1928. Both presses are operational and still fit for printing. However, I did not know any of this when I enrolled in the Academy.
Why did you choose the department of graphics? Graphics seemed most suitable for me, even though I only had a vague understanding of the genre at the time. Naturally, over the course of my training, I tried out a number of techniques, but I cannot say I did it all with enormous enthusiasm. I immediately understood that I preferred working with metal and intaglio techniques. I have never regretted this choice.
When did you get into book art? I developed a serious interest in book design later, after graduating from the Academy. After all, book graphics and graphic design are the daily bread in our profession.
You currently mostly work with mezzotint, a technique that arose in the 17th century and is still considered one of the most complicated ones to use. Can you tell us why? I would not say mezzotint is a complicated technique. It would be more appropriate to say that it is time-consuming. Why did I choose mezzotint? Perhaps because this is a tonal graphics technique, which best reflects my expressive range. I also use aquatint a lot, which is also a tonal technique, but its difference from mezzotint is that it is more suitable for producing uniform tonal fields. My works combine mezzotint and aquatint, leveraging the advantages of each. I do not shy away from other technical shortcuts – anything that makes my life easier. Before I start making a cliché, I spend a lot of time at the computer. I have tried out photoengraving and photopolymer techniques as well.
How would you describe the technical processes of producing a mezzotint? Mezzotint may appear awe-inspiring because of the process of producing a copper cliché, which is performed using a special tool called a mezzotint rocker. Depending on the dimensions of a plate, the process may take between several hours and multiple days. But that is only the beginning. Once the cliché is ready, the time comes to polish the image, which takes a lot more time than preparing the cliché. However, this is a very pleasant part of the whole process – it can be done at home because mezzotint does not involve any chemical processes. The image is seen on the cliché in positive, so all you need are quality tools and diffuse lighting. People often ask me how long I spend working on a piece. Sculpture is very time-consuming as well, but sculptors rarely get this question. Everyone understands it is not a single day’s work. But work itself will not cover up for the lack of ideas.
In the series of videos “What’s So Contemporary Here?”, Elita Ansone, the curator of your personal exhibition, “Squaring the Circle”, commented that you are a perfectionist – with unquestionable quality of execution and technical proficiency. Can one claim that your works reflect your personality? Most probably so. I might have an internal drive to occupy myself with something for long periods of time. I like to enjoy the process and to reach the point of greatest technical quality. There is some sense to this – I have discovered a formerly unknown technical solution in this way. Graphics techniques are evolving, and you may find a new approach while going through the process.
The Signet Bank Art Collection includes two of your works involving mirror spheres. The sphere is by no means a novel phenomenon – it was featured in the creations of world famous artists – from Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, to Pre-Raphaelite genius John Waterhouse’s Crystal Ball, to Maurits Cornelis Escher’s Hand with Reflecting Sphere. When did you discover reflective spheres in your process? For one of my first mezzotints, I had the idea of reproducing a snake grabbing its own tail in an elegant sort of curve. To highlight the simultaneous stability and lability of this situation, I decided that the snake should be encircling a sphere. Over time, I thought that the sphere could reflect the snake itself. I had no reflective sphere on hand, so I had to draw my imagination. Once I finished the piece, I was not completely satisfied, knowing I should have tried to accomplish a greater illusion of reality. Years later, when I came back to the snake motif, I obtained actual metal spheres. The image was convincing, but the snake presented problem. Getting a live snake to make the exact kind of curve I needed, and to latch onto its own tail at that, seemed impossible. I set that idea aside but started using the spheres for my other works. I began manipulating reflections, deforming reality, modifying some elements or replacing them with others. As time went on, I settled on text that could be read in the reflections. That led to Characters – my longest series yet.
Characters XIV in our collection focuses on a red dot at the centre, surrounded by the words for reddish hues. Would you agree that red is a rare occurrence among your tonally darker works? It all began with one red-coloured point in my Wall of Fire. As the idea developed, I produced a series of works where I used red in addition to black. Characters XIV / Red Circle was a continuation of two other pieces – Circle of Colour and Black Circle, where I did not use the colour red but studied a similar concept: reflecting the names of colours without the colours themselves present.
Your other piece in our collection, Characters X, actually offers more than meets the eye. This sort of interaction between letters, digits and objects is the foundation of your visual language. Is it true that specialists in each of these fields first notice what is closest to them (digital codes, texts, visual execution)? The reasons behind including text and other characters in my works are multiple. At times, specific characters conceptually underlie the production of an entire piece (Black Cirle_2 includes an encoded and computationally transformed representation of Black Cirle_1, produced using the Base64 binary data encoding scheme). An apparently illogical arrangement of letters will sometimes encode a message that cannot be perceived at once. In other cases, the digital environment aesthetic was what encouraged me to manipulate characters in some way. Image encoding schemes generally use a certain number of characters. The variety with which characters are strung together reminds me of natural phenomena. To me, it signifies completeness.
You have been illustrating and producing layouts for books. What have been your most significant book projects so far? I have illustrated five children’s books, perhaps I should name them all. The first one was Vija Upmale’s Slepenais rēbuss (Secret Rhebus). Then came Jānis Baltviks’ Mergusiņš (Merganser), Līdakas trešā vasara (The Pike’s Third Summer) and Cilvēks zirgā (Person on a Horse), Zenta Ērgle’s memoir Pāri gadiem bērnības zemē (Through the Years in the Land of Childhood). Besides illustrations, I also drew cover art for many children’s books. Lately I have been more active in laying out books. One of the most significant ones to me was Anita Vanaga’s Ilmārs Blumbergs. Es nemiršu (Ilmārs Blumbergs. I will not Die). Thanks to the creative versatility of Blumbergs, we were able to implement a number of great, even provocative, ideas. The latest ambitious layout project of mine was the album No skices līdz izrādei (From Sketch to Performance), which was devoted to the centenary of the Latvian National Opera and Ballet. The idea for this book came from LNOB chairman of the board Zigmars Liepiņš.
You also produced the designs for three of the collectible coins released by the Bank of Latvia – Rundāle Castle, University of Latvia, and Art Nouveau. Riga, and another one for the 1 Latvian lat circulation coin – the mushroom. What should a good coin design be like, in your opinion? That is a question for the public as much as the artist. Artists, of course, might come up and say that a coin should feature a rabbit, but it does not happen. The state has a strategy in place for developing the designs if its tender. There are two kinds of coins – those used in circulation and commemorative ones, which are not particularly intended for circulation. The limitations in place for circulation coinage are subject to stricter rules, so innovative solutions are usually sought when designing commemorative coins instead. Since Latvia joined the Eurozone and the first Latvian euro coins were minted, no circulation coins have been issued with custom designs. When lats were in circulation, the Bank of Latvia would regularly issue relatively small quantities of 1 lat circulation coins with distinctive designs. The coins were highly prized and collected, so they were rarely circulated. Today, an artist’s only opportunity of working on a coin design is to be invited to participate in creating commemorative euro coins.
In parallel to book illustrations and standalone graphics works, you head the Graphics Department at the Art Academy of Latvia. Is it important for you to stick to the Arts&Crafts tradition and pass on your knowledge? Knowledge and practical skills bear a lot of importance, for sure. But I would not want to make the transmission of knowledge an absolute. Even if some sort of disruption does occur, descriptions of techniques will remain in any case, and can be sourced in libraries when necessary. This has happened once with mezzotint. One after another, various graphics techniques such as copper engraving, wood engraving, mezzotint, lithography would be used by book printers, each serving to produce the necessary quantity of images. In contemporary printing, none of these are used, so their initial function of reproducing an image is lost. Aspiring artists nowadays master graphical techniques in art schools and academies. This is now rather an elite craft, and stands to become increasingly elite as years go by. In some cases, commercial print might still use them here and there. But artists generally prefer to make no more than 5 or perhaps 30 reproductions from one cliché, which makes for an extremely limited issue. This means that graphics retains the status of an original work of art.
What has changed in graphics in the past decade? Has the age of digitalisation affected this field as well, has it made an impact on the work you do? The development of technology has had a substantial effect on the work done by book illustrators. Perhaps the principles behind laying out a book have not changed as much – contemporary book design is still based on the ideas voiced by the Modernists and Bauhaus artists in the first half of the 20th century. Printmaking and the process of preparing a layout for a book have changed, however. Besides theoretical knowledge, an artist needs to be able to use layout software, to prepare the layout and imaging for print. The graphic printmaking arts are also amenable to technological solutions in preparing clichés, such as CNC machining and UV printing. The process of printing itself has not changed much, it still operates manually.
So how might the graphics industry develop in the near future? I can certainly say we will see some development in book graphics, design and illustration, since printing is still a growth industry at the moment. I think artists will still be interested in the various graphical techniques; interest in these on a global scale is rather persistent.
Who are your favourites – the ancient graphical masters or the “new classical” artists in contemporary graphics? I draw my inspirations from more than just graphics. I try to keep up to date on developments in all of the visual arts. If we speak about graphics, I never miss the opportunity to view the original works of 17th and 18th century greats. It helps me maintain a certain balance. I have drawn a lot of influences from numerous contemporaries. I’m afraid I would be unable to name them all off the top of my head, since some favourites have been superseded by others over the years. While I studied at the Art Academy, I was fascinated by Japanese art, particularly the mezzotint work of Katsunori Hamanishi. At the time, I could not have dreamed of actually meeting the master in person, shaking his hand and expressing the respect I had for him. Today, I have seen so much great art that naming individual artists is much more difficult. One name I would certainly mention is Vija Celmiņa.
Some say graphics is an art that does not tolerate errors. Do you agree with this? That depends on what constitutes an error. If a technical flaw cannot be remedied, the work must be produced from scratch. But, by definition, an error is an action that leads to an unexpected result. That does not mean that the unexpected result itself will be a failure. Art may be irrational at times. Artists are not tasked with putting forward hypotheses and trying to verify them. The process itself is often what imparts a certain direction to an activity. While preparing installations for photography, I did find that the lighting of a piece produced visual effects so unexpected that I had to change the initial intent behind the work. These are situations where “luck” is a more fitting term. So I adore errors.
Guntars Sietins is the contemporary virtuoso of Latvian graphics and professor at the Art Academy of Latvia. He consistently prefers the complex, time-consuming mezzotint technique. Sietins is consumed with resolving the tension between space and volume, between dark and light, transforming reality into a surreal universe of items and entities beyond time or human presence. The objects displayed in his notional landscapes levitate somewhere between earth and sky. His art tends towards a universal understanding, borrowing the term unicode from information technologies. It promises to envelop the world in a variety of semantics, allowing these to exist in parallel without a unified encoding/decoding method.
The Signet Bank Art Collection includes two pieces from Guntars Sietins Characters cycle. Both works focus on a mirror ball as the central object reflecting surrounding space and lettering. The scenes highlight the contrast between photorealistically tangible objects and the elusiveness of the environment.