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Q&A with artist Maya Kulenovic, who makes American solo debut with Charleston exhibit

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Maya Kulenovic will have her first American solo show in Charleston at Principle Gallery. Provided

A well-traveled artist now based in Canada is making her American solo show debut at a gallery in Charleston. 

Maya Kulenovic was born in Sarajevo, Herzegovina, and began studying art at age 17 in Istanbul before attending the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto and then the London University of the Arts in England. 

She has exhibited more than 20 solo shows in Ireland, Japan, South Korea, Netherlands and several other countries. In Charleston, she will be showcasing paintings of cityscapes, landscapes and portraits that explore imagined history and identity at Principle Gallery. 

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Q: Istanbul, London, Toronto. How were your early studies formative to your art, and how did these different cities inspire you? What can one learn from a city?

A: When one moves into a new country and an unfamiliar city, there is a period of learning the new environment in which one is neither a tourist nor yet a part of the life of the city. To me, this experience always comes with a feeling of being unmoored. There is a sense of isolation but also of freedom in that experience. The city becomes a labyrinth, a puzzle, something to be decoded and resolved — in a physical sense, as well as a cultural one.

The lives of cities such as London and Istanbul are reflected in their architecture: layers of construction and destruction, new structures arising upon remnants of old ones, order imposed upon chaos, decay in the forgotten corners. Traces of more than a millennium of human activity can be seen in a single street. Cities are full of hints, mysteries, clues of events and lives that we may never be able to know but only intuit or imagine.

Painting is not unlike architecture in the sense that both are shaping space. Experiencing cities such as London or Istanbul made me acutely aware of my own perception of space and how notions of presence and absence can create a feeling or a narrative. My cityscapes are not intended to depict the real existence and actual histories of these streets and buildings — these are only used as building blocks, and the paintings themselves have more to do with memories, hallucinations and dreams rather than any desire to document reality in the here and now.

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"Wetlands Inferno." Maya Kulenovic/Provided

Q: Tell me more about your book "Fugue." 

A: "Fugue" is my second monograph. The first one was published in the Netherlands, with a forward by British historian Edward Lucie-Smith. The main essay in the book is written by Mark Kingwell, renowned contemporary philosopher and art critic, and art writer Anthony Collins did an extensive interview with me. 

My paintings are very hard to reproduce due to the use of a large number of various pigments and many translucent layers, which are difficult to replicate with offset printing, which only uses four colors. For this book, we did up to 12 proofs per page until we finally got the results we wanted. 

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"Aether Unfolding." Maya Kulenovic/Provided

Q: Explain your "destructive" technique.

A: These paintings are built of many translucent layers of glazes combined with transparent pigments. I hardly use any opaque colors, which means that no mark I make on the canvas is completely covered or painted over. As a result, traces of the entire history of the painting can be seen in the final image.

Some layers are there to define the subject and others to disrupt it with various kinds of damage — scraping, solvents, wire brushes — which I refer to as "destructive" layers, as they disturb the realism of the image. ... This technique sets the image outside of my ability to fully control the final result and I find this dialogue exhilarating — probably also because there is a risk of irreparably ruining the work in the process. 

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"Cameo." Maya Kulenovic/Provided

Q: What is your inspiration for this exhibit?

A: I never prepare a body of paintings specifically for a show. I have several main themes which repeat in my work cyclically, but I focus on each individual piece with considerable intensity. The process of selection of works for a show and curation of these works become a sort of an artwork in itself.

In this selection of paintings, I particularly enjoy the travel from personal spaces to wide and open areas, from intimate to vast. This exhibition has a relatively large number of landscapes, cityscapes and interiors, as well as some portraits. Even though the themes in the work belong to three seemingly different subjects, in my view, they are deeply related and should be experienced as such. After all, we talk about a "facade" or a "face" of a building, a "landscape of a soul," an "architecture" of a face, "personality" of a place. 

Reach Kalyn Oyer at 843-371-4469. Follow her on Twitter @sound_wavves.

Kalyn Oyer is a Charleston native who covers arts and entertainment for The Post and Courier's Thursday edition, Charleston Scene. She used to write about music for the Charleston City Paper and Scene SC.