Dark, dour, blurry paintings, with photorealistic imagery that's ambiguous or indistinct, even on the verge of fading away altogether – there are a lot of artists producing this sort of stuff, particularly in Eastern Europe, where it's become something of a house style in recent years. So what is it that makes the work of Latvian artist Janis Avotins so much more interesting than that – so exquisitely volatile, yet also bleakly deadpan?
Partly, it's down to his technique, which seems strangely elemental. A thin, imprimatura wash of dark oil paint stains the canvas's weave and lint-flecks to create a gauzy, grainy, speckled effect – like looking into fog or falling ash. Isolated forms and figures emerge – ghostly, luminous, sometimes oddly solarised: the result of leaving areas of canvas wispish and unshaded – presumably as a kind of analogy of pre-digital, photographic printing processes.
Throughout, the sense is of images being demarcated by the surrounding blackness, but also threatened by it, as if continually on the brink of being subsumed by its hungry amorphousness: female figures whose features melt into the background; hazily floating, patriarchal heads and busts; two virtually abstract shapes, barely decipherable as a shirt cuff and protruding hand. Avotins tends towards repetition and duality – often within the same canvas or duplicating imagery across works – as if trying to hone in on some pre-existing form: quite literally, in terms of the Soviet-era photographs he uses as sources; but also on a metaphorical level, where the feeling is of past history being somehow, almost physically, excavated – an idea that comes across in his drawings, too, where forms appear like rubbings. Only in a couple of much larger, acrylic works do the ideas dissipate somewhat – the scenes still appropriately maudlin, but their more silkily slathered, knowingly sketchy approach seeming more a matter of stylistic choice than an intrinsic aspect of depicting the past.