Galleries

Ventiko’s Otherworldly Symbolism #NSFW

by David LaGaccia on June 5, 2013

Autobiographical, Ventiko's work often features multiple images of herself. Photo by Ventiko.

Autobiographical in nature, Ventiko’s work often features multiple images of herself. (all photographs, which are undated, are courtesy the artist unless otherwise noted)

Ventiko just had her first Chelsea solo show at the Coohaus gallery, VENTIKO: The Other World, which ran until May 21st and exhibited eight of the young photographer’s works. Beginning last Saturday, she is being featured in a group show called Toxicity, curated by Aimee Hertog at the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center. Inspired by Renaissance scenes and motifs, in her work we see an emerging and talented photographer who has a clear vision but is still finding her way towards the means for clearly expressing it.

Ventiko's photographs often feel like you're peering into private scenes. Photo by Ventiko.

Ventiko’s photographs often feel like you’re peering into private scenes.

Ventiko, 34, is from Indianapolis, Indiana, though nothing about her appearance or mannerisms would place her in a distinct region. She began photography early on — stating that her father began teaching her how to use a camera when she was 9: “He told me how to load a Pentax K-1000 with film, color film, black and white,” she said. She continued her interest in photography through her teens in high school, forging and stealing passes, and doing anything she could to stay in the darkroom, because, as she said, “my savior was the darkroom in high school.” After abandoning a college interest in being a lawyer, she enrolled in art school, the Herron School of Art and Design, but did not graduate, citing a lack of an ability to draw. Nonetheless, there she found Tony Clevenger, a commercial photographer who later became her mentor and teacher and who gave her a Hasselblad film camera “to experiment with.”

Ventiko now works as a professional photographer in New York City, and plays host to and curates two monthly shows that attract many underground artists, musicians, performance artists, curators, and so forth. The first, Animamus Art Salon, was started in February 2011 and functions as a monthly art salon that travels to apartments, art spaces, and galleries throughout the city and focuses on allowing these underground artists to present their work in front of their peers. The second is a show called Performance Anxiety, started in April 2012, which she curates with an eye “to lower[ing] the barrier between performer and audience thereby further exploring the definition of Performance Art.” That show is held at Culture Fix, a bar in the Lower East Side. Ventiko also performs regularly as a performance artist using “wearable sculptures” under the pseudonym Sylva Dean and Me.

A fixture in the Bushwick art scene, Ventiko is an evasive person; she engages your curiosity with her penchant for dressing up in costume, and her personality has a black impish humor about it, revealing herself indirectly with talk that is all about showing you exactly what she wants you to see. She’s gregarious in a circle of friends and strangers, and shy when alone. She shoots professionally with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II digital SLR, and her photographs, which she says are to a degree autobiographical, are elaborately decorated sets — live scenes featuring models that are “friends, lovers, whatever,” as well as herself. She models in most of her images, and sometimes retouches them with multiple images of herself in various roles.

Ventiko's use of chiaroscuro creates a dark and isolated atmosphere in her work.

Ventiko’s use of chiaroscuro creates a dark and isolated atmosphere in her work.

She stated that rather than modern photography, much of her influence as a photographer comes from classical painting — Renaissance paintings and Dutch Masters, to be specific: “There are very few photographers that really inspire me,” she said, “and I have no idea why that is. I don’t have any idea. I understand how the photography is made, so I look at it more as a peer, and I have a fascination with the painting because my brain doesn’t work like that.” Her photographs do take forms and motifs from traditional Renaissance painting, such as the reclining “Venus” from Titian, or Giorgione’s “Sleeping Venus” in her first portrait with the model Tangerine. Her use of chiaroscuro, recalling Giovanni Baglione’s “Sacred Love and Profane Love,” appears in all of her work.

“Well,” she said, “initially what it really was — drawing inspiration and emulating but also mimicking finger gestures and poses because everyday people look great in certain poses. Anyway, so, what am I drawn to? I’m drawn to — the beauty, I’m drawn to simultaneously the ugliness, I’m drawn to communicating visually, I’m drawn to the color palettes, I’m drawn to the poses — I’m drawn to the power of the imagery, I’m drawn to the passion of it, and especially being into the Renaissance, with the Dutch Masters, well that’s a different time period, but Italian Renaissance painting, I’m drawn to chiaroscuro, the extreme dark, the extreme light, and then couple that with the violence; just something about that just really speaks to my soul.”

Sleeping Venus by Italian Renaissance painter, Giorgione

Giorgone’s “Sleeping Venus” (c.1510)  (via Wikipedia)

The model Tangerine referencing the reclining Venus motif.

Ventiko’s model Tangerine poses in the reclining Venus motif

It’s ambitious — to say the least — to draw your lineage from the Italian Masters, but it will be interesting to see where and how her own visual style will develop. Like the Renaissance paintings she’s influenced by, her photographs tell stories; but, unlike her influences, the stories she tells lack a definite focus. When looking at her photographs, it’s like you’re intruding on a well-constructed private scene that’s surrounded by a mixed metaphor of images. If there is one area in Ventiko’s vision as an artist that needs development, it’s her need to become a better storyteller, and to better clarify her intentions in her use of symbolism to enlighten her subjects rather than obscuring them.

Symbols in art are tools of expression that we use to heighten the meaning of ordinary objects, visual cues, or gestures, so, in Renaissance painting, a skull, or memento mori, recalls death. Ventiko deliberately uses this and other traditional symbols (she pointed out how some of her models were holding coins, as though crossing the river Styx of Greek mythology) throughout her work, so she understands what these symbols are, but she has yet to learn how to effectively use them so they’re not just decoration on a set. For example, in the first photograph with the sleeping woman, the model Tangerine is sleeping on a wedding dress and imitating the figure of Venus, presumably to symbolize and subvert traditional ideals of beauty or eroticism, yet she is also holding the coins for the river Styx, ostensibly symbolizing death. Much of this confusion is due to there being too many symbols in a single photograph at one time. She tries to reference too much without being specific in what she wants to say, how these symbols add to the photograph to enlighten her subjects, or most importantly, how these familiar symbols let her communicate new ideas on these subjects. In fact, it’s tempting to put her intentions more in line with Symbolist painters, though this would go against her stated influences and her use of and references to the traditional iconography of the Renaissance.

Ventiko has said that she used many of these symbols from different cultures to give a universal quality to her images, and so people from different cultural backgrounds can form meanings for themselves when viewing her work. Yet it’s this attempt at universality that creates an opaqueness in her images, an effect that’s incongruent with her original intention. Essentially, what is perceived as universal to the artist is in fact personal and appears esoteric to the viewer. An immense amount of time and work has gone into her photographs, with detail upon detail meticulously placed just so to take advantage of every inch of space in her frame. I’ve seen her set in her Bushwick loft, and it’s impressive how she gets so much in such a tight space. Ventiko has a very precise eye for lighting and atmosphere, and she has given us images of her other world, a world which with perhaps a little more refinement and discipline in imagination could become clearer.

Toxicity runs through June 23 at the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center (135 Broadway, Williamsburg, Brooklyn).

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