In the age of 140-character tweets and a world in which computer screenshots have become highly sought-after works, an artist such as Aerosyn-Lex Mestrovic might seem out of place. Unlike digital art or even Jeff Koons’ glossy, mass produced balloon animals, Mestrovic’s paintings harken back to the age-old art form of calligraphy, in which every mark and detail is meticulously rendered by hand.
Upon completion, his penmanship can stretch up to miles, resembling ancient scriptures that have been etched into a wall. On the other hand, Mestrovic’s latest body of highly abstract works, appropriately dubbed “Living Paintings,” calls to mind old Japanese scroll paintings. All of his works are as dazzling as they are obscure. Unlike much of today’s readily digestible art, Mestrovic’s pieces require a heightened degree of sensitivity, both for viewers to process the work and even for the artist himself to create. For the Argentine artist, it means being in harmony with his emotions, his mental state of being, and remaining true to his family’s roots and cultural experiences that have helped shape him. As he’s stated in his own words, “It’s about maintaining a truth in what you’re doing—people gravitate towards that eventually.”
Indeed, it seems that both the art and fashion worlds are enthused about Mestrovic’s distinctive style. In recent months, he has directed and produced his debut film Scriptura Vitae, created a massive installation dubbed ATRAMENTUM for SCOPE Art Fair, and has exhibited his Living Paintings at MoMA. In the past, he has collaborated with Kanye West, done work with Paris fashion house KENZO, and designed his own collection for Nike. Additionally, Mestrovic was handpicked by Diane von Furstenberg to create all of the artwork for this year’s CFDA Fashion Awards. We caught up with the artist and discussed his creative background, the meditative qualities of writing calligraphy (where his interest in the archaic stems from), his thoughts on the digitization of everything, and more.
Interview by Susan Cheng (@scheng_)
How did you get started in the arts? Do you come from an artistic family?
In a sense of speaking, yes. My parents themselves aren’t artists in any capacity, but my father has always drawn and painted himself. He didn’t have the opportunity to really explore that, and he doesn’t have any formal training. My parents immigrated to this country from Argentina; they made a lot of sacrifices for me to be able to be here. My parents always saw that when I was a kid, I drew. That was something that was a part of my identity growing up.
My father, having that impulse himself and never being able to follow that, really encouraged it in me. So when I was a kid, I was going to art summer camps instead of regular summer camps. I was doing photography and figure drawings and painting. I even took calligraphy classes when I was 9 or 10. That started a long trajectory of me working in that aspect of artwork. It’s just something that has always been a part of my life. I don't have that background. I don't really come from that kind of family. It’s just something that I've always pursued personally.
You mentioned that you had dabbled in calligraphy at summer camp. How did you end up working with so much?
My dad actually has really good penmanship, and he suggested that I take that course. I didn’t like it at first, but I actually came to enjoy it quite a bit. Then, it progressed. When I was a teenager, I got into trouble—I was writing graffiti, running around Florida…. I didn’t really realize it at the time, but as things progressed and when I came to school at Pratt, I had some great professors in typography who really opened up a whole other world to me. I studied with this professor, Kevin Lyons. In his class, I really made a connection—all these things sort of have a very strong parallel, both graffiti and calligraphy; they are forms of communication and language. So, I think it was that understanding that kind of brought it all together and made me want to pursue the type of calligraphy that I do now in a more focused and academic way.
What’s your creative process like? For instance, with your latest paintings, did you have an envisioned final piece in mind or did things just kind of unfold?
Things are always evolving. For me, the latest series of works—it’s very much about not exerting control over every detail but more so about creating and controlling an environment in which these things can happen. So you sort of create an environment and hope for happy accidents at times.
It’s very much about letting the material speak for itself, understanding the value of a gesture, understanding the value of the substances that you're working with, and allowing them to sort of speak. You, as an artist, are sort of acting as a conduit to allow these sorts of things to take place.
I think it takes a heightened degree of sensitivity in order to understand and almost anticipate what might happen with the work. When you're making it, it very much becomes a performance. These latest series of paintings that I’ve done for the CFDA and shown at MoMA, and some of these other recent stuff—they’re paintings, but they're just as much performance pieces. They are the memories of a gesture, of a movement, almost like choreography. For me, that’s something really interesting.
Some painters don’t want you to think about that. They want you to only look at the image on the canvas; they want you to see the color. But to me, I really love when somebody can impart the movement that had to take place in order for it to look that way on a piece of paper or on a canvas. The process is a little intense. In a weird ‘hippie dippy way,’ you need to be in tune with things in order to have these sorts of genuine results.
So by "in tune," you mean to have experience in the mediums you're working with?
Yeah, it’s sort of like the Zen of calligraphy. In eastern cultures, it’s practiced in a meditational way, where you are essentially becoming a higher being or becoming a higher sense of yourself. When I say you have to be in tune, you have to come to a place where you understand that by relinquishing control over every aspect of what you're doing, you're being in tune with something else and allowing things to happen. It’s not only about material; it’s very much about the person using those materials. It becomes about your state of mind and the emotionality of the moment. I think that’s what people can relate to, even if it’s not there on the surface. It’s more like a general feeling or a gesture of a feeling.
So in a way, you’re returning to an archaic art form. Your work is kind of the stark contrast of pop art and the aesthetics that people are used to today. How do you make an old art form so relatable?
It’s not that I’m intending to create or make an archaic art form relatable. I think that it’s just situational. It comes from through me. I’m interested in these things inherently and have always been interested in them, culturally, spiritually, and emotionally. These are things that are near and dear to my heart. At the same time, I’m somebody who lives in 2014. I’m on the Internet. I make GIFs and all that other stuff.
I think there’s a value to pop art, but it’s just not something that has been a part of my own dialogue or something that I really ever wanted to speak to. For me, there’s a little bit of impermanence to that. While I understand there’s a value and certainly a relatable quality to a mass market, I think artists that do make that kind of art find an audience much quicker and much more easily than artists that are making something a bit more traditional or more subtle. I think for me, it’s just something that inherently is a part of my own fabric as a person, and that’s why I am so drawn to it. It just so happens that some of it is relatable to a certain demographic of people.
It’s something that I consciously think about at times—if I would just want to paint rappers or basketball players or something, I’d probably be making more money, but that’s not what’s important to me.
Where does your interest in the archaic art form come from? I know that you write in Latin, and that there are references to Japanese calligraphy in many of your works.
My family, our history is crazy. My father’s family fled former Yugoslavia during World War II, at the occupation of the Nazis. So his family immigrated to Argentina, as many Europeans did at that time. Then, my mother’s family is Argentine—that’s why my name is crazy. In our lineage, there’s a very well known artist, Ivan Mestrovic, who’s one of the most important religious sculptors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He’s a part of our family and our story. Cultures that mimic ancient orthodox religions such as Cyrillic, Slavic, Latin American, and obviously (having lived in and studied calligraphy in Tokyo for some time) Japanese culture have deeply informed my personal outlook and sense of self. When you are true about what you're doing, you can't help but pour yourself completely into a project.
So are you constantly exploring new texts? Where do you find inspiration?
I think those concepts come from things that are already crystallized in me as a human being and as a person. In terms of inspiration, there are things that I’m always researching. I’m always digging around in books; I get inspiration through traveling, even online or through watching documentaries.
People often ask, “Where do you get inspiration from?” But I think you have to have a sense of self and sense of curiosity, of wonderment. You have to maintain that sense of almost naïveté of what something could mean or could be. That is how I’ve always seen the world. Literally just standing out on the streets here in New York, looking at people who are walking by, and imagining what their lives are like. That sort of curiosity is what leads you to become inspired about things, but you never really know where it comes from. Certainly, if I’m working on a particular painting, I can say ‘Oh well, I looked to this piece or that.’ But in general, it’s very much your personal outlook and maintaining a sense of self.
How do you feel about the digitization of everything? So much of what we do now lives on the Internet, and we communicate through tweets, emails, and text. Hardly anyone writes letters now, let alone practices calligraphy. How do you feel about the way technology is shaping culture and art?
In terms of handwriting and penmanship, it’s terrible—not only in western cultures but in eastern cultures. A great deal of the population in Japan, they learn less and less kanji just because they can rely on phones to input the text.
And now you have the core curriculum, which is something that George W. Bush put in place. Schools are cutting out calligraphy, which was something that was taught to every third grader, every second grader. It’s tough because I've heard the arguments as to why calligraphy should still be included in school curriculums. I’ve heard everything from like ‘Oh well, if the kids don’t learn how to read calligraphy, they won't be able to read the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.’ That’s a weak argument.
Beyond that, the ability to write is something that we've kind of evolved. The appreciation of writing also exists humanistically, almost evolutionarily. More and more research suggests that our brain has been developed to react in emotional and real ways when we see art.
The immediacy of today’s communication can devalue the message at times, but it also makes something like a letter than much more valuable when you do receive it. So I think it’s a little bit of a double-edged sword, for sure.
Your work actually reminds me a lot of Islamic art—which you’ve been talking about—both because of the way it looks and its meditative quality. What does writing calligraphy and doing work similar to your latest paintings feel like for you?
The handwriting is a bit different from the gesture. The gestural work—everything happens in an instance. I think it demands a certain presence of mind and a presence of being in order to make that gesture happen. There needs to be a confidence and understanding within you that what you're putting down has an intent. It’s weird; it’s like you’re trying to tell somebody how much you love him or her with sign language or with just body language. You’re communicating something very profound and trying to do so in ways that are so abstract that you can only do your best to imbue that feeling by the movement that you're doing. For me, it’s very challenging but I really enjoy it. Once you do it, and you see the mark that it’s left, it’s almost the validation of what you put into it. It’s the manifestation and the materializing of what you're feeling or what you're thinking about.
Conversely, with calligraphy writing, you very much zone out. It’s like Tibetan monks who do those sand mandalas, in which they’re meditating and using tiny grains of colored sand to make these intricate works that they then destroy. The process is the meditation, and the process is the prayer. With the writing and repetition, it almost becomes like automatic drawing. It almost becomes about muscle memory at times, and you kind of tap into something that’s really deep. It’s a very solemn, spiritual experience. You zone out, you come into contact with something a little bit deeper. Especially in the world that we live in, it’s tough to find that sense of quietude or connection to something deeper than what we are on Facebook and Instagram.
You’re constantly experimenting with a bunch of different mediums. Or rather, your pieces end up transforming into these larger installations or films. How does that all come together or manifest? For instance with your film Scriptura Vitae, did you have an envisioned product in mind or was it spontaneous?
I approached the film in very much an impressionistic way. I got that opportunity, and I never thought I would make anything into film. I always jokingly said that "I'm not a film buff—my favorite movie is Step Brothers, or TRON, or Lord of the Rings." [Laughs] But having that opportunity, I really looked at it as a great way to transfer the methodology and how I try to infuse some of the craft of what I do into a very different medium. The concept, the ideas, the narrative—they’re just as poetic, just as lyrical, and just as kind of obscure as the work itself. The work doesn't scream out what it’s about. It’s subtle, and it allows viewers to come to their own conclusions and feel their own things. And it’s the same thing with film—it’s about duality, it’s about life and death, it’s about the relationship of the artist and the artwork.
The artist breathes life into the artwork, then that piece of art takes on its own life, and it’s sort of seen and viewed by people in different ways. All these large, esoteric concepts—those are the things that I think about in my work.