Everything This Young Artist Touches Turns to Gold
One corner of Lina Iris Viktor’s Manhattan studio is covered in a mindscape of images—from work by West African studio photographer Seydou Keïta to that by 15th-century French illuminator and miniaturist Jean Fouquet and British painter David Hockney. Viktor, who was born in 1987 in the U.K. to Liberian parents, doesn’t discriminate when it comes to time periods and geographies. Past, present, and future are one cyclical continuum that she mines for inspiration, and different cultures and communities converge in a singular, universal experience—“the oneness of things,” as she puts it.
The result of this expansive perspective is a body of work that blends a dizzying range of references and styles: the figurative with the abstract; Babylonian goddesses and Western madonnas with Japanese geishas; mathematics with mysticism; rich, multivalent black tones with shimmering, luminescent gold and blue. These allusions come together in images that are alluringly difficult to put a finger on. Though they are organized into series whose names speak to cosmic space, deep time, and fraught history—“Constellations,” “Materia Prima,” “Dark Continents”—they all feel like slightly different angles of one enigmatic point of view.
Portrait of Lina Iris Viktor working in her studio in downtown Manhattan. Photo by Alex John Beck for Artsy.
Viktor considers what she does to be painting, with a conceptual edge—but the works also incorporate a variety of other media. Her process is elaborate. For her figurative compositions, she first photographs her own body—sometimes covered in paint, sometimes in ritualistic garb, often with gravity-defying hair arrangements—creating prints that she layers atop one another, along with pigment. She completes her compositions with dense architectures of pattern that resemble glistening portals or reams of shifting, gold-leaf code. Resin or lacquer are then added to parts of the surface to create “different lusters of black,” she says.
It’s a complex, arresting style that has earned Viktor considerable praise and attention over the past few years, creating a stir in 2014 with her debut solo show at Gallery 151, drawing eyeballs at the Armory Show earlier this year with paintings from her “Constellations” series, and attracting the (unwelcome) interest of Kendrick Lamar’s team.
Lina Iris Viktor, Eleventh, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Mariane Ibrahim Gallery.
Lina Iris Viktor, work in progress from the series “A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred,” 2017–18. Courtesy of the artist and Mariane Ibrahim Gallery.
She currently has a solo exhibition on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art. There, she’s showing a series entitled “A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred,” which meditates on the extraordinary story of the founding of Liberia, a nation state created to resettle African-Americans after the abolition of international slavery. (It’s a narrative that connects particularly to New Orleans in the form of local 19th-century merchant and slaveholder John McDonogh, who sold freedom and passage to Liberia to his slaves in exchange for extra labor.) She also has work on view at the Untitled fair in Miami with her Seattle-based dealer Mariane Ibrahim this week, as well as an upcoming show at Autograph gallery in London next year.
Viktor doesn’t consider these accolades successes, exactly, but more part of a process of self-determination that has come with a price tag. “What’s happened in the last few years is a coming into myself,” she says. “That in itself is very attractive to people. With that comes a lot of extraneous things that are not desired, and which can push you into this public sphere in a particular way that—if I had a choice—I would rather had not happened.”
Portrait of Lina Iris Viktor with her painting Syzygy, 2015. Photo by Alex John Beck for Artsy.
Yet she has discovered in the art world something she values above all else in her career: creative autonomy. This search for freedom is what drew her along an intuitive path toward the visual arts. Viktor grew up acting in plays and musicals from the age of 11, and once imagined she would go into the theater. She attended Catholic boarding school in London and was enamored with “the pomp and regalia and the performance” of the church. She moved to New York to attend Sarah Lawrence College and major in theater, but found America to be “a very different beast” when it comes to racial politics.
“In London, you play men, women, different races—none of that stuff matters,” she says. “It’s: ‘Can you play the part?’ And here, it’s: ‘You must play a black part and you must know about these things because you’re black, right?’”
She was about 19 when she came to the realization that wrestling with typecasting would not be her battle. She switched to film, and studied directing, cinematography, and film history—and went on to work for a certain Spike Lee (whom Viktor, in our conversation, simply refers to as “a particular film director”). The artist found herself in a very macho environment. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the medium, but she felt the culture of the industry would dictate the parameters of her engagement with it, that she would “become a slave to the medium and the culture and the politics,” she says. So Viktor switched gears again and began to experiment with photography and images at the School of Visual Arts, showing her work to friends in the art world.
In 2013, her first “Golden Ratio” painting went on view in a group show at a now-defunct Lower East Side gallery, and she received an excited reception. “The last thing I ever thought I would be doing as a creative is being a visual artist,” she says, “because I think that was my weakest thing when I was in school. But that happened very organically, and you have to trust that in life, you know?” She turned her attention to making artwork full-time, eventually moving to a studio, near City Hall in downtown Manhattan, that she dubbed Atelier LVXIX—the name suggesting the insertion of her initials into ancient time.
Artwork by Lina Iris Viktor. Photo by Alex John Beck for Artsy.
Lina Iris Viktor’s studio wall featuring various reference images. Photo by Alex John Beck for Artsy.
Gold has been a central preoccupation for Viktor since the beginning of her artmaking. The precious metal forms the intricate, multifarious patterns of her “Constellations” series, as well as some of the curling paisley motifs in her abstract “Golden Ratio” paintings, which look like something between designs of Islamic illuminated texts and the inner workings of a grandfather clock. And gold defines Liberian ethnic groups in the backdrop of her painting Eleventh (2018), part of the series on view at NOMA, as well as the painting’s glowing, stele-like tablet that forms a throne behind the queenly figure who appears in front of it. In her latest “Dark Continent” painting, Know we will reborn amidst all the stars. Ex nihilo. (2018),Viktor appears painted in black against a dense black- and grey-scale landscape, imparting golden rays from her hands that form the gilded surface of a moon.
Gold is a material through which Viktor creates light, but it’s also one of her subjects. She’s interested in the “otherworldliness” of the metal, as it has been perceived across African, Southeast Asian, and South American cultures—the spiritual value it was once seen to have as a kind of glistening conduit or gateway that “allowed a person to transcend and enter into another world and help their passage.” She laments the way gold has been turned into a commodity with connotations of glitz and gaudiness. “We go to museums and look at all these excavated old objects from the Egyptians, the Nubians,” she says. “These were burial rites, they were buried with the dead and they weren’t meant to be excavated.” Like the artist Yves Klein before her—a key influence for Viktor—she wants to return the material to the divine.
Detail of Lina Iris Viktor’s 2015 work Syzygy, made with 24 karat Venetian gold and other materials. Photo by Alex John Beck for Artsy.
In her studio, she has created a space that offers optimum low-lighting for gold leaf to come to life. The so-called “Blue Room” is a chapel-like quarter with an arched ceiling, majorelle blue walls (the same hue prized by Klein), and soft lighting that emanates from behind crown molding. She sees it as a calm, meditative “holding space” where she goes to decompress and get away from the white space of her production room, and where her artworks can rest between travels to galleries, museums, or collections.
Like the artist Yves Klein—a key influence—Viktor wants to return the material to the divine.
Viktor is interested in space—the way it affects our moods, shapes our experiences, and evokes associations. She wants space to fit around her artworks, rather than her artworks conforming to the clinical white walls of galleries and museums. In other words, she wants to create space, akin to the soft depth of color in a Mark Rothko painting. The chapel that was created to house his work in Houston, Texas, in the early ’70s, is also a touchstone.
“I don’t want to control the experience,” Viktor says, “but I do want to couch the experience. Architecture has the ability to create channels of energy that allow you to focus your view on different things.” At the Armory Show earlier this year, she installed densely latticed panels in Mariane Ibrahim’s booth, creating an additional layer through which to view the work—one that required viewers to disentangle an overload of visual information. The effect, she hopes, “forces you to either run or to have to really sit with it.”
A view of Lina Iris Viktor’s studio wall. Photo by Alex John Beck for Artsy.
Portrait of Lina Iris Viktor by Alex John Beck for Artsy.
One day, she’d like to create a structure to house her work beyond the confines of her studio—she looks to Tadao Ando, in particular, for inspiration, as well as to the holistic approach to space of Zen Buddhism. But for now, this interest generally manifests in the timeless, sumptuous environments that her figures inhabit, with their ornate arches, screens, and tropical plants with beckoning fronds.
Even while Viktor rejects the idea that her work is about herself—the images she appears in are “not self-reflexive but externally reflexive,” she explains—they are, in some way, about the autonomy that she has sought in her life and practice. The “Materia Prima” and “Constellations” series, she says, are partly about the “ownership of space.” It’s easy to see this dynamic at play in a painting like Constellation I (2016), where Viktor’s body is painted in black and decorated with golden tribal markings and a halo; like a pan-cultural deity, she appears to be the source of a thicket of gold patterning that emanates out from her.
Viktor can list off an encyclopedia of influences from all facets of the cultural sphere, but carving her own space in the art world is key. She feels an affinity to artists like Louise Nevelson, with her densely compartmentalized wall structures (and her perspective on black as “the most aristocratic color of them all”), and Chris Ofili and Kerry James Marshall, for the way they have revealed a whole spectrum in the color black, with paintings that train the eye to look for chromatic nuance. But Viktor is wary of being bracketed among women or black artists.
She, too, wants to counter the negative associations of blackness—“the idea of sin, of corruption, of ugliness.” But she considers her peers to be all other artists, she says, not simply “other women, and not other black women.” She has quietly resisted being couched in that way. “The work is the work.”
A studio wall featuring images of work by George Hendrik Breitner, Carlo Crivelli, Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Jean Fouquet, and many others. Photo by Alex John Beck for Artsy.
Portrait of Lina Iris Viktor by Alex John Beck for Artsy.
That work is continually, subtly evolving. Once her paintings for the exhibition at Autograph, in 2019, are complete—she is doing one last installment of the “Dark Continents” series—Viktor plans to move more toward a language of pure abstraction. Pattern has always been a strong component in her work, as a means of communicating a macrocosmic perspective of the world—the sacred whole. “You look at African textiles and you see the repetitive patterns of the universe,” she says. “Even our DNA is a pattern-based, repetitive, cyclical thing.”
She wants to counter the negative associations of blackness—“the idea of sin, of corruption, of ugliness.”
This holds true to her sense of time being cyclical, “as most cultures have seen it besides Western culture,” she says. It’s a circularity that is perhaps more pronounced now than ever, with current events in the world suggesting echoes of 20th-century history and events much further back in our collective past. “We all know that history repeats itself,” Viktor says. “We look at the political climate we’re in now and you think that these things will never happen again, and they always do. To rehash historical events in the young history of America is not even that far-reaching—it’s important and very present.”
For Viktor, though, patterns and symbols may be just as capable of summoning the history of the universe as celestial figures and complex narratives—perhaps more so. They speak to something deep in our biology, helping to unleash powerful associations. And they encourage a certain freedom of mind—the autonomy to form one’s own visual language through which to see the world.
Header image: Portrait of Lina Iris Viktor by Alex John Beck for Artsy.