Justyna Pennards-Sycz: Searching for “Where Real Life Happens”

If you look at one of Justyna Pennards-Sycz’s paintings and think, “I know what this is – but not quite,” you aren’t crazy. This artist, hailing from Amersfoort, the Netherlands, doesn’t believe in such a thing as abstract art, but neither does she anticipate uniform interpretation of her work. In other words, she’s pleased with “confused.”

Justyna’s ingenious color play is part intuition, part art school retaliation. Her reversal of conventional value and texture to communicate depth is what leaves your brain pondering, transfixed. You’re looking at things you’ve seen, like a coral reef or a dimly lit diner, but through new perspectives you’d never thought to consider. But don’t allow yourself to get stuck there – Justyna has much more to say.

Each of her paintings is fueled by a longing, an acute awareness that “the reality of the ‘here and now’ is all we will ever have.” For Justyna these longings, these desires to have just a little bit more of every experience than before, manifest in a hot summer night in the city or beneath the vastly unknown ocean, two of the most frequent themes in her work. I had the opportunity to delve into these themes with Justyna as well as her artistic background, her impressive propensity for language, and her belief that thinking can be overrated.

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When does art become abstract? How do you classify your own art?

I’m not sure if something like abstract art really exists. The human brain always tries to construct an image, even if there are no recognizable elements. Therefore it is almost impossible to depict “nothing.” I don’t think that my art is pure abstraction – on the contrary, it is derived from realistic images such as pictures of nature. In my head those images and the emotions connected with them are tied to the paintings, so I never see the abstraction. I always see my own vision of the painting.

How much planning occurs before you put brush to canvas?

Everything starts with an idea which sometimes develops very slowly. Some of the works live in my head for years before I allow them to materialize on canvas. I paint in layers. The brushstrokes building the background have to be painted in the same direction with a semi-dry brush, which allows the colors to mix on canvas but not to drip. Once dried, the background cannot be changed. When a mistake happens in the further steps, there is no easy way to correct it. The focus during the rest of the painting process has a different dynamic: I abandon all previous plans and react to the things which happen on the canvas at that moment. At that stage there is no planning at all, and the painting takes over.

How do texture and color serve you?

Many people are startled by my use of unusual color combinations. I don’t think too much about the psychological impact of certain colors. I use them to achieve the feeling I want to express. Of course, I cannot be sure if the feeling is shared by the public. Color can be used to stress perspective and depth – some colors always appear to be nearer than others. Sometimes I use them in this way, sometimes I just do the opposite to distort the impression of space.

While still vibrant, your recent work (Night Forest) has been quite darker than your earlier work (Ocean, etc.). What different themes are you exploring?

In my earlier work I explored the composition of “fullness.” Inspired by the baroque style, I wanted to test how many elements, colors, and techniques can coexist in the restricted space of a canvas without getting completely chaotic. The culmination point of this experiment was the Ocean series, for example Ocean 5 or Thursday (2010). Those works are really controversial: either you hate them or you love them. In a way they were a protest against the realistic tendencies at my art academy where figurative art was very much “en vogue,” and everything else was not appreciated.

In my recent works I got quieter. Now the challenge consists in the exploration of the details, the dark/bright contrasts and a darker palette. I also use different kinds of paint and spray paint to achieve more light effects. In order to play with light you need more darkness, therefore the general impression of the works is darker. And maybe the long winter had its influence, who knows?

The general theme of my work has changed slightly. In the Ocean series I drowned in life, felt overwhelmed in a positive way, and wanted to express this feeling by depicting the depths of the ocean and using water as metaphor for life in general. In Night Forest the main theme is the search for the place where real life happens. I feel this longing to find this secret place, where you feel at peace with yourself and the world, the elusive center of the universe.

You mentioned that some of your controversial works were protests of your art academy's thinking. Did attending art school benefit you at all?

Attending the art academy was an absolutely life-changing experience. I finally found a group of people who thought about the same strange things as me – the importance of a line, the color of a dot … I felt at home immediately.

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Ocean 5, Ocean series (2010)

Talk a bit about your Night series.

The night is my favorite time. As a child I used to stare out of my window into the darkness, wanting to leave the house and explore what lurked behind all the shadows, dark corners, and streets. I love the scent of the night in warm climates, the sound of remote conversations in a bar around the corner, the promise of those millions of stars above us. This feeling of longing for something unknown is the main theme of those works.

Was it difficult to switch from more abstract to more realistic paintings?

In Night my main goal is to convey the impression of realism while still painting an abstract image. The figuration can be seen only from a distance; from up close the painting becomes purely abstract. Some people who visited my exhibitions told me that they didn’t “get the paintings.” They really could not see the image of the city. It’s fascinating how our perception depends on our focus. I never tell people what they should see, I always ask, “What do you see?” Their answers are very diverse.

What do you want people to feel when they look at one of your paintings?

I think that “confusion” is a nice feeling. I want to confuse people because that opens their minds to new things, new feelings, and their own interpretations of my work or the world in general. Of course, they might also experience the same feelings I want to express: longing for something which is difficult to describe and to grasp, wanting to solve a secret hidden in the ocean or in the night.

Is there humanity in your art?

Mankind is present in the feelings I want to express. I think that my feelings are quite common and shared by almost everyone – we want to belong somewhere; we long for something new, unknown, something better and yet to come, hidden somewhere in the depth of the ocean or our own souls.

Where do you find inspiration? Music, literature, other artists?

Most of my inspiration is visual input, what I see when traveling: the pictures I take, photo books, movies, etc. I get inspired by fragments, not whole images: an interesting ray of light on my teacup, the red of the sunset on a car roof, shadows mirrored in the windows of a building. While painting I listen to loud music (mainly pop/rock) which influences the process as well. Using the same music [throughout a painting] helps me to get in the same mood – I can start immediately where I stopped the previous day. Thinking is generally overrated and should be switched off more often, especially during the creative process.

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NY Rain 2, Night series (2014)

How did you get started in art? What challenges did you overcome?

During my teenage years I was more into fashion: textile, knitting – I mainly created things I could put on. My passion for painting began during my stay at southern France after I finished my master’s in business administration. The Mediterranean light, nature, and new-found freedom after my university years inspired me to paint the landscapes, the light, the view out of my window at night. Just now I’ve realized that the main themes of my work were there right from the start: sea, nature, night. I also met some amazing people [in France] who were very supportive of my art and told me to continue. But being a very nice girl (at that time anyway) I returned to Germany and applied for a job as a project manager, because it seemed to be the right thing to do. I think the biggest challenge I had to overcome was to set the right priorities in life. Is being creative more important in life than a corporate career, a bonus, and a big car?

You tell us.

In my opinion it is more important, otherwise I wouldn’t do what I do. Being creative is also a compulsive behavior – if you feel this urge, sooner or later it will manifest itself. It’s easier to give in than to struggle against it, trying to adjust to the materialistic values of society. Having said that, I must admit that I almost cried when I had to leave my very nice company car in the corporate parking lot after quitting my job [laughs].

From what limited knowledge I have of the Netherlands, it seems to be the perfect location for your work. Did you choose Amersfoort or did Amersfoort choose you?

The Netherlands have a long tradition of art. You can find endless inspiration visiting museums and looking at the masterpieces by Van Gogh and Rembrandt, as well as contemporary artists such as Marlene Dumas. The general atmosphere is very art-friendly, nobody tells you to get a “real job.” However there are also many, many artists competing for few clients and funds. During my studies I had to interview an artist I admired. The artist I chose was quite known and was just preparing a big solo show in a well-known museum. She admitted that her biggest fear was that one day she would have to work as a house maid because the Dutch love art but don’t buy it, and the prices are quite low in comparison to artists on the same level of “fame” selling, for example, in the U.S.

I came to the Netherlands for love (my husband) – you could say that the Netherlands chose me. But I chose the city of Amersfoort. It is really like a movie set in the 14th century: picturesque streets in the old city, small houses, everybody riding bicycles.

What is the last movie you watched? The last book you read?

The last movie which impressed me very much was a Polish one (Life Feels Good), a true story about someone who has cerebral palsy and cannot communicate with his environment. At the age of 22 a psychologist discovers that he is a very intelligent person. The movie is told from the point of view of the protagonist in a very cynical and funny way. The last book I read was A Day in Ancient Rome by Alberto Angela. I am fascinated by the ancient Romans because they were so advanced in their technology, architecture, and art. It gives me hope that art survives everything – all of what remained from ancient civilizations is their art. Isn’t that wonderful?

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.

I really like to learn new languages. Currently I am learning Japanese. I speak seven languages fluently.

Where will you be at this time tomorrow? Next week? Next year?

Tomorrow: at my studio – painting a new Ocean series for an exhibition in Warsaw, Poland, next month. Next week: In Rome, visiting the ruins and risking my life while trying to drive a car in the crazy traffic there. Next year: I dream of visiting Japan… But if I am in my studio again, I will be happy, too.

View Justyna’s work here.

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Images © Cees Wouda & Justyna Pennards-Sycz

Image titles (in order): Dark Forest 0 (2014), Dark Forest 1 (2014), Green Ocean (in progress), Green Ocean (2014), Instincts (2014), Water Forest (2014), Ancient drowning (in progress), Light will guide you 2 (2014).

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