Artefacts: the works of Henrijs Preiss

The catalogue essay from Henrij Preiss’s solo show at the Latvian National Museum of Art, February 2012 – March 2013.


…truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.
Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, 1873


The device had been constructed by a master craftsman, and the riddle was this – that though he’d been told the box contained wonders, there simply seemed to be no way into it, no clue on any of its six black lacquered faces as to the whereabouts of the pressure points that would disengage one piece of this three-dimensional jigsaw from another.
Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart, 1986


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

WB Yeats, the Second Coming, 1919


Since moving to London from his native Latvia in 2000, Henrijs Preiss has subjected the idea of the artefact to rigorous and sustained questioning. By overlaying multiple layers of symbolism drawn from a dizzying range of ideological systems, and by removing the specifics of direct referentiality, leaving only frameworks and structures, Preiss has been able not only to convey the power that symbols have exerted across the history of human thought, but also to begin to offer an undermining of that power, in one and the same gesture.

As objects made from skill and craft, Preiss’s paintings are artefacts in the strictest sense of the word’s Latin etymology. The construction of each work is a slow and repetitive process that involves the artist applying layers of acrylic paint onto a large, flat wooden board. Areas are masked off and cut out using a bookbinding knife before the application of the next layer, and the next: a single work often constitutes dozens of these different coloured layers. Despite a lack of more obvious ‘painterly qualities’ (Preiss doesn’t even use brushes) the resulting effect is an extremely tactile one, and one that points towards the kind of three-dimensionality that you might expect from a trained scenographer. “I see each work as a sculpture, as a space, as something in a space,” says Preiss.

It has therefore been a logical product of his artistic process for Preiss to begin a first foray into what is traditionally accepted as sculpture. As part of Artefacts, Preiss presents the results of this extension of his practice before a public audience for the very first time. Preiss talks of how his latest paintings can be viewed almost like maps or aerial views of medieval cities – towers and pyramids and castles extruding off the flat and into the three-dimensional ‘real’. The new sculptural works echo the production process of the paintings and are perhaps best understood as a literalisation of that illusory three-dimensional effect.

In addition to the piling up of layers is a kind of ageing effect that characterises much of Preiss’s work, especially in the early stages of his career when the icons of the Russian Orthodox church were a particularly prominent influence. In these earlier works – predominantly produced between 2000 and 2005 – the patina of history was simply applied with a light oil wash that caught and pooled in the subtle imperfections of the acrylic surface.

As his style has developed over the years, Preiss has largely abandoned this technique in favour of using the bookbinder’s knife (an extremely versatile tool in the hands of this master craftsman) to trim off any lumps in the surface that have built up during the layering process. This, combined with careful cutting into some of the surface, serves to reveal the many layers of colour that lie beneath. For the works that make up Artefacts, however, this technique has been used sparingly, as Preiss has sought to create objects of a colder, more mechanical nature than those earlier, more religiously tinged pieces. The result, interestingly, is that Preiss’s older works look noticeably older.

This is not the only new direction in evidence as part of Artefacts. For the first time in his career, Preiss has resorted to preparatory sketches with which to plan out the compositions. Despite the intricacies of Peiss’s work, he insists that it is only his most recent pieces that have become so complex – like riddles waiting to be unlocked – that he can no longer carry the overall design inside his mind unaided. As the sheer quantity of influences builds up in the works, it becomes necessary for at least a modicum of planning, even if the sketches themselves – rudimentary jottings on graph paper – are decidedly rough. In a way, therefore, the evolution of Preiss’s artistic practice mirrors that of the very systems of thought with which he is engaged in exploring. As events leave ideologies behind, a glimpse of past system lingers on, just visible if you scratch beneath the surface.

Unsurprisingly for an artist who was sent by his parents to specialist art college in soviet Latvia from the age of 13, Constructivists such as El Lissitzky and the Stenberg Brothers have been a clear influence across the duration of Preiss’s career. In the early years, the simple, rectilinear geometry and stripped back palette of the Constructivists meshed with the devotional opulence of Russian Orthodoxy to produce small, highly charged icons, rich with a vague and potent symbolism. The very first work that Preiss produced in the UK still hangs in a corner of his East London studio: a powerful votive object, imbued with a certain opaque charge.

Over the subsequent years, a plethora of different systems of thought have come to exert their influence over Preiss’s work – from the Renaissance diagrams of Leonardo da Vinci to Masonic symbolism, the Rosicrucianist defences of Robert Fludd, Sanskrit vimanas and the Merkabah mysticism of ancient Judaism. For Artefacts, Preiss’s points of reference have been more complex and multifarious than previously, and it is possible to trace the influence of architectural blueprints, posters from the Bauhaus and medieval cartography all coming together in these works. So too, the totems of Native Americans, the wide, flat landscapes of Monument Valley, the diagonal lines of early axonometric computer game design, the precision mechanisms of the watchmaker, Chinese puzzle balls, eighteenth century orreries, and even the mysterious Lemarchand’s boxes that provide a portal to another plane of existence in the novels of Clive Barker (later turned into the movie series, Hellraiser).

Whatever the influences that have informed Preiss’s work at different stages of his career, one constant has always been the thorough elimination of the specifically referential. What remains in these always untitled works are layers of outline, and wide overlapping planes of emptiness, to be filled by the experiences, prejudices and expectations of the viewer. By cutting out the salient details – the moments that root a system in time and space – and by layering each influence on top of others in a gesture towards the synchronic, Preiss suggests perhaps that every single system of thought – each dogma, each ideology – may be seen as comparable; and, in addition, that universal, a-historical observations may be made about them all.

What is crucial, however, and what keeps Preiss’s work in such a state of exhilarating tension is that, at the same time as this universalising instinct is put forward, it is simultaneously undercut by the way in which the works themselves have been so deliberately aged. Even these grand, increasingly circular, attempts to bring together every system of meaning, to flatten them into equality and to observe and judge from the outside; even these are worn out, like Nietzsche’s coins, subject to the decaying effects of time. And the apparent outside that the work could occupy is actually a location within the work – a point that dizzies and disorientates somewhere in, or off, a centre that always spirals ever-outwards, falling down within.