Dreams, girlhood, beauty, and nature: The vivid art of Latvian painter Jana Brike

  • “The Witching Hour,” oil on canvas by Jana Brike. Image courtesy William Baczek Fine Arts

  • “Borne of Wings of Fire,” oil on canvas by Jana Brike. Image courtesy William Baczek Fine Arts

  • “Ascension by the Sea,” oil on canvas by Jana Brike. Image courtesy William Baczek Fine Arts

  • “Footfalls of the Sky,” oil on canvas by Jana Brike. Image courtesy William Baczek Fine Arts

  • “Weeping Girl,” oil on panel by Jana Brike. Image courtesy William Baczek Fine Arts

  • Portrait of the artist: Jana Brike in her favorite place in Latvia – the outdoors. Image courtesy William Baczek Fine Arts

  • “Sleepwalking,” archival inkjet print by Jana Brike. Image courtesy William Baczek Fine Arts

  • “River of Styx,” pen and ink on paper by Jana Brike. Image courtesy William Baczek Fine Arts

Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2020

The first word that might come to mind from a look at Jana Brike’s painting “The Witching Hour” is “surreal.” Two teenage girls wearing shifts wade through an indeterminate body of water strewn with pink blossoms and green foliage, both carrying a bundle of the same flowers over their shoulders. Behind them, the head of a ruined Statue of Liberty lies half submerged in the water — recalling the scene at the end of the 1968 film “Planet of the Apes.”

But with this and much of Brike’s other work, one is also struck by the rich colors, a feeling of friendship and companionship between girls and young women, a celebration of nature, and a sense of mystery. Indeed, much seems to be happening in paintings that also reflect the background of an artist born under the harsh rule of the former Soviet Union, one who later discovered a way to express herself through art.

New paintings by Brike, a native of Latvia who has exhibited her work around the world, including a number of places in the U.S., are featured this month in “Flower, Fire and Fallen Star” at William Baczek Fine Arts in Northampton, a show that gallery owner Will Baczek believes is very topical: “She looks at race and gender and our relationship to nature and the environment … those are all timely issues.”

The exhibit features a range of oil paintings and several pen and ink drawings, all of female figures often shown amidst flowers, trees and meadows. But Brike doesn’t create conventional landscapes: Her paintings can offer dreamlike and surrealistic settings, such as “Ascension by the Sea,” in which a young woman floats in the air above the rocky shore of a Mediterranean-type coast.

Work such as “The Witching Hour” and “Borne of Wings of Fire” also explore themes of environmental chaos and the fragility of civilization. In the latter work, a young woman, her head garlanded with flowers stands facing the viewer, while behind her the famous large sign spelling out “Hollywood” on a hill in southern California is partly destroyed, and smoke rises from several places on the ground.

Animals — reindeer, foxes, rams, birds and sometimes mythical beasts — also crop up in some of her work, imparting a sense of serenity as they sit beside young girls. Baczek notes that Brike, born in 1980, draws on Latvian folktales, in which animals can symbolize spirituality, innocence and renewal, as one source for her art. Another key is what he says is the artist’s view that women are “organic.”

Pointing to the small painting “Weeping Girl,” which shows the petals of flowers leaking from the eyes of a young girl, he said “Jana sees women as basically being of the earth — a natural part of the earth — so the flowers in this case are coming out of the girl’s body.”

Baczek first learned of Brike’s work about five years ago through Instagram, got in touch with her, and included some of her paintings in a group show; he has since hosted solo exhibitions of her work, drawn by her background, her technical ability and what he calls her ability to “capture the soul of a person.”

Born under Soviet rule

Baczek says he also appreciates that Brike has long painted people of different colors, despite coming from a country whose population is virtually all-white. Yet Latvia, for centuries under domination by larger nations — Poland, Sweden, Germany, and most significantly, Russia — has several distinct ethnic groups, and Baczek says Latvians, while under Soviet domination, were referred to dismissively by the Russians as “shepherds” — an inferior group fit only for menial work or servitude.

“[Brike] is very aware of discrimination from ethnicity,” he said. “I think that’s made her very sensitive to the issue of racial discrimination.”

What also animates many of Brike’s paintings is a sense of her female subjects being comfortable with their bodies, while also exuding a sense of what the artist calls “mature innocence.”

The young teens she paints are sometimes naked, or more often shown wearing a slip, bra, shift or loose-fitting summer dress. In a 2015 interview with WOW x WOW, an online British art gallery, Brike explained that her own upbringing was very rigid; among other things, the “internal sexuality” of young girls was considered “shameful and dirty,” she said. “I felt shame and guilt about almost everything, my body included.”

Through her paintings, she said, she has “re-lived that growing-up time. I breathe myself into the body, feel its heartbeat, see it grow into this beautiful, fragile thing, discover its inborn nature, discover its natural sexuality. Not as an objectified ‘sexy’ thing for another’s again, not even as intimacy with another.”

That theme is explored in paintings such as “Footfalls of the Sky,” in which two teen girls in the foreground, and smaller female figures in the background, amble contentedly though a field dotted with flowers; the girls are all clutching bundles of flowers themselves, and two small birds fly by with flowers in their claws. Two planets or moons hang in an early evening sky, with one rimmed by a strange, pulsating halo.

Brike, who has described her paintings as “visual poems,” says she also looks to recapture in her work the joy she felt as a young girl when she played in woods, swam in rivers, or ran barefoot over the grass.

That said, some of her work is more enigmatic and unsettling. She previously created a series of paintings of girls with over-sized heads, thin bodies and budding breasts — a sort of half child/half young teen — and her drawing “River of Styx” in her current exhibition shows a naked woman poling a wooden boat across a stagnant marsh, the hooded figure of death sitting behind her holding a skull. In the background, the huge stone figures from Mount Rushmore are sinking into the mire.

Baczek, who reopened his gallery earlier this summer for limited visitation (face masks required), says he’s never met Brike in person. But after many exchanges with her via email, he plans to do a webcast interview with her either later this month or next. The interview will be part of a regular artist interview series he plans to set up that can be viewed through his gallery’s Facebook site and YouTube channel.

“I love Jana’s work,” said Baczek. As he wrote on a recent Facebook post, “There is an honesty in her paintings that is often tainted with irony in many American paintings. But growing up in Latvia, surrounded by nature, has given Brike a uniquely un-American sensibility and sincerity that is forefront in all of her work.”

More about the current exhibit at William Baczek Fine Arts, which runs through Sept. 26, can be found at wbfinearts.com. Jana Brike’s website is jana-brike.squarespace.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.