The Slovakian artist based in Texas discusses the symbols in her erotic, bear-filled paintings.
The paintings of Slovakian artist Katarina Janeckova are soused in sex. Three lovers romp around in bed; a brunette poses for naked photos in a swimming pool; a woman spanks her partner with a hairbrush. But there is one thing lacking from her provocative tableaus—men. Instead, the women couple up with brown or black bears, rendered in woozy watercolor or acrylic brushstrokes. "For me, the bear is a perfect substitute for a man," Janeckova explains. "I paint those bears as simple, strange dark figures, because it allows you to fantasize." It also allows the women to become the central figures in her works, and for Janeckova to present them as strong and sexually empowered. "It's a stereotype that pretty women are usually submissive, so I like to play around that," Katarina says. "Sometimes it's less visible and more in my head, sometimes it's obvious or exaggerated." It's most apparent in some of her recent works, which portray the massive muscles of female bodybuilders. Katarina honors their forms by depicting them on the side of a Grecian urn, or even turning a container of Muscle Milk into a flower vase. "My ideal of female beauty changed," Katarina discusses in the following interview, along with sex, symbols and her current exhibition, How to Make a Bear Fall in Love, which is currently on view at Studio d'Arte Raffaelli in Trento, Italy.
When and why did you start making more sexual work? Did you have a sort of sexual awakening?
I grew up in central Europe and when I was a teenager, sexuality was already everywhere around and very easy to reach on the Internet too. At first, it was a latex mask that caught my attention. Browsing the Internet, I found amateur couples uploading their sexy photos with the latex masks on while making love or doing ordinary activities like skiing. I was amazed—it could have been my neighbors! You can never tell what others like to do in their privacy. I was 19, and this world of sexuality was like some hidden treasure full of strange things, and I was curious about how people would react if I painted them.
Why aren't there any men in your work? Just women and bears?
It's natural for me to identify with the women on the canvas and it was never really important for me to paint an actual face of a man, unless it's someone I have some feelings for. For me, the bear is a perfect substitute for a man. Sometimes I depict the bear as a lover, voyeur, playful cub, perverted old bear or as a symbol of protection. It's also for my own amusement. I love to create stories and relationships between the figures I paint. I paint those bears as simple, strange dark figures, because it allows you to fantasize. The monolithic black surface of the bear also gives the eye a place to rest among all the colors and wild brush strokes of the painting. Sometimes, I give them glasses or eyes and blushing cheeks to outline a little more about their character or mood. Everyone has different stories or feelings trying to read the painting, depending on their experiences or memories and I love to hear about them.
What is your current exhibition about?
During the time when I was getting ready for the show, it all came together naturally and I realized that most of my works are about my feelings in relationships, about fantasizing and analyzing myself and the way I currently live my life. It's very different from the way I used to live before. It's my first time being married (and hopefully the last time), and I moved from Europe straight to the small town in Texas where my husband is from, so there were lot of changes in my life I had to adjust to in past two years. As far as formal approach, I used to use a projector for the larger formats, and this time, I let my fantasy and hand get completely wild without knowing exactly how it will end up.
How do you make a bear fall in love?
You can make him feel like your muse, let him sit for you and portray him, and then make love to him—if you are a painter.
Is depicting women as powerful and dominant, in terms of their sex lives, important to you?
I always enjoyed depicting women in my paintings as dominant and strong in their relationships with the bear. It's a stereotype to think that pretty women are usually submissive, so I like to play around that. Sometimes it's less visible and more in my head, sometimes it's obvious or exaggerated, like with my series of bodybuilders. When I moved to USA, I was lonely, looking for things to do in this small Texas town where I live and the gym was the only active option. As I observed the gym culture, the cult of the body, my ideal of female beauty changed. Suddenly, I started appreciating six packs, big strong thighs and so on. On the other hand, it was funny to watch how women go crazy, showing off on Instagram and taking pictures of their butts after squatting. So I work with all of that in my paintings, showing admiration and respect to those women bodybuilders, and also playing on the irony, and the unhealthy commitments those seeking to be "fit" engage in.
You didn't just appreciate or admire the bodybuilders, you became one. Can you talk a little about that experience?
Once I got into the gym life a little more and it started influencing my painting too, I thought it might be a great experiment and authentic source of the inspiration to attend one of the competitions myself. The most difficult part was cutting out all the carbs before the show and eating proteins every few hours. It was summertime and I was visiting my family in Europe—I actually went for a road trip across Portugal with my mom and brother. Imagine people licking ice cream and eating their typical pastel de nata everywhere. I also had to visit the gym every day, which meant I had to find one in every town we went to, and if there was no gym, my brother was training with me on the beach. I felt like Rocky!
The competition itself was a huge experience full of absurd situations I never imagined myself in. All the competitors were staying in a really posh hotel together, and everyone looked perfect. We had professional hairstylists and makeup artists taking care of us, but the paradox was that none of us could take a shower for three or more days because of that brown spray tan they put on us. We could only eat fish and rice, which we just bought frozen in a supermarket nearby and cooked in a microwave in our room, so you could smell fish everywhere and you also felt like one. You couldn't drink water the day of the show, or even for a few days before the show, depending how serious you take it, and I heard conversations like, ''You are so lucky, you are more dehydrated than me!'' Walking on the stage in a bikini and having my body rated by judges felt a little strange to the artist part of myself, but I understand that's what these competitions are about. Eating after the show was like being born again, and I had plenty of ideas for my paintings and a solo show called 'Janeckova on Steroids!', but of course, I did it all natural.
Many of your paintings are self-portraits. Do you ever feel uncomfortable when people are looking at you and your work?
When I'm painting a woman, using just my fantasy, even if I don't aim for it, she most likely ends up looking like me because I know my face features so well. In the process of the painting, I don't mind at all, but when they are hanging in the gallery I do get slightly embarrassed when the viewer spots the resemblance between me and the naked woman enjoying herself. But it's okay, I want to paint real life.
Text Zio Baritaux
All images courtesy the artist