A couple of weeks ago, I remember turning to leave the thesis studio at OCAD University and stopping clean in my tracks when I realized one of Mila Vukosavljevic's paintings was staring at me unsettlingly from the other side of the room. I felt as if I recognized the girl in the painting and, not being able to grasp quite when or where, felt compelled to leave a note. Flash forward to the beginning of the year and Mila invited Joanne Chung and I to her studio to chat about her inspiration, practice and last year in art school. Fascinated by the intersection of the subconscious and human psyche in figurative representation, Mila plays with invisibility to construct an unexpected hybrid between stranger and self. Read more below!
Tell us a bit about your background and practice.
I've always been really attracted to portraiture, especially artists such as Chantal Joffe, who I found could capture a really powerful human emotion though the subject's stare. My aim was to create a sort of emotionally and psychologically tense portrait- characterizing my subject's mood. I'm still drawn to mood, but I've recently come to the realization that in order to depict mood, a human psychological condition, I do not need to paint a figure. More specifically, I do not need to paint a figure that is visible to the viewer. Leaning more towards artists such as Arnulf Rainer, my studio work began to evolve into overpainting. This lead me to what I'm working on now- looking more deeply into the self as a construction of strangers. I paint about the part of oneself that you can never really understand (the stranger) nor can you get to the root of. It's a push/pull between wanting to reach that core but also rejecting it. This inner contradiction eventually causes a divide, the stranger and the self, and an inevitable void builds. I have been working with the human figure, a few vague lines that suggest the presence, which I then submerge under layers of paint. This concept of the stranger and the self pushed me to make life-sized works- I want the viewer to feel like they can insert themselves into the painting, I want them to feel the layers of painting building up over in a sort of haze.
What’s your first memory related to artmaking?
I think I made my first drawing, at least anything beyond a doodle, when I was about 5 or 6. I was in the car with my family and drew a little cow on a scrap piece of paper. I don't know if I'm remembering this correctly or if I was just a cocky kid, but I remember everyone being so amazed and praising me for my cow. Anyways my grandma still has it, and it's framed.
What state do you need to find yourself in to create?
I think it's really romantic to imagine the artist in this sort of emotional turmoil, sitting wasted and burdened in front of a canvas, but my practice doesn't work at all like that. I find a lot of my inspiration from books about psychology and philosophy, literary novels that sort of just describe existence and being. So reading usually gets me in the mood, although sometimes its hard, especially when I feel like I'm in a rut and haven't painted in a while, its hard to get back in that headspace. Sometimes I just need to force myself and do it, and if it sucks I can paint over it later, but usually when it starts to go well it just flows.
How do you deal with inspirational blanks?
Like I said I find a lot of inspiration from reading, so usually that's a good kick start when I feel dry. I also have a huge inventory of images and notes on my phone/computer/sketchbook that I like to consult. I'm not a huge sketcher, but sometimes I'll come across an interesting form or figure, or even if I see that someone has arranged their body in a bizarre way, I'll jot down a little note and refer to it later. I think sometimes you just have to force yourself.
How beneficial do you think art education is for today’s aspiring artists?
I think it's really easy to hate on art school, it's also really popular, but OCAD has really pushed my work in a way that I'm not sure I would have found on my own. Being constantly surrounded by other artists that are just as lost and confused as you are is really beneficial. Yes you learn about history and technique, which is valuable, but there’s also the networking aspect and immersing yourself in this creative community that would be really difficult otherwise.
What have been the pros and cons of your school experience?
There's definitely been a lot of tough moments at OCAD, but generally I'm leaving with a really positive experience. It's really fast paced, which is great because it forces you to create a body of work and you don't really have the time to be lazy, but there's been moments when I felt totally blank, and just made a shitty painting for the sake of handing it in, or felt really bounded by the assignment criteria. But even that, yes they force you to try everything and you hate it 90% of the time, but then you'll find one thing that you don't hate and it's worth it. You learn about things that I'm not sure I would have learned on my own, and being in this vacuum where art is the most important thing in the world forces you to look at your own work on a higher standard. They immerse you into this world where you're no longer an artist as a hobby, but as a lifestyle.
What role does experimentation play in your practice?
Experimentation is huge in my practice. The pieces I'm creating now are mostly trial and error, I'm working with materials that I'm not sure even bond. I'm putting things on the canvas that sometimes just slide off, but it's so much more rewarding. I've only been working with these layering techniques for the past 6 months, so I'm still really new to it and trying to piece it together, but I feel like each new painting brings out another dimension, and what I'm trying to speak about is finally coming out in the work. I feel like I'm finally at a point where I know what I want to say and am beginning to figure out how to say it, the materials are just like new words to say it with.
Do you feel the art of analogue has been lost in the age of information technology?
I don't think so, I think there's always going to be a sense of nostalgia in art making. People are still predominantly using oil, this ancient 15th century medium, so I don't really have any fear about us stepping away from that too soon. We just have more accessibility to new materials and methods, which can only be positive.
What direction do you see art of the 21st century going in?
I think the art world is really open right now, in terms of broadening the scope of what's considered to be art, but at the same time I think we're allowing ourselves to be too directed by money and the market, which is disappointing. It's really hard to get noticed, and it's really tempting to create works that are easily digested, something you know will go over smoothly and is popular, so my worry is that everyone is going to make the same work, and it'll all be over.