Ioana Baltan paints large-scale works that revolve around topics such as mental disabilities, poverty, homelessness, dreams and mythology. Working within a figurative landscape, Baltan incorporates abstract and decorative elements to narrate human origin stories and her personal experiences.
Memory I, 2022, Oil and oil bars on linen, 140 x 100 cm, © The Artist
Kelly Foster – I’m interested in the topics that you choose to make your work around: mental disabilities, poverty, homelessness. These are very heavy, intense topics. How did you start with these ideas and why did you choose to make work around these topics?
Ioana Baltan – I started thinking about these topics when I was in Bucharest. I was very interested in finding beauty in these tense and heavy feelings and subject matter. I’ve always been interested in finding beauty in unusual and even painful things. I don’t remember how I started, but I remember being very invested in the topic from the beginning. In Bucharest, there are a lot of homeless people on the streets and I think they all have interesting stories. I wanted to bring something powerful to the work, even through pain. I wanted to begin working on a new aesthetic.
M, 2022, Oil and spray paint on canvas, 42 x 37 cm, © The Artist
KF – Did you have any specific experiences with homelessness or a specific story that inspired you?
IB – Yes, I was doing a lot of research while I was painting. I started researching the history of asylums. I found a lot of images of very expressive people. I also heard other stories on the streets. I would pay people to sit for my photos. I also started going to therapy sessions with a child with Down Syndrome. It was really interesting to be close to somebody who has this. They’re very charming and full of love. It’s amazing.
KF – How did you start going to the therapy session with this child? Was that something you initiated for the artwork?
IB – One of my friends introduced me to this family, and I got to know their child. I met his parents and started to attend his therapy sessions with them.
KF – I see. In the three paintings that you submitted for the exhibition, would you say that any of these pieces are dealing with specific experience in your life?
IB – Currently, I like to combine different things together. My work shifts between personal stories and psychological ideas. I try to focus a lot on providing a specific atmosphere for my paintings. I work with stories in general, but they all have this psychological, atmospherical, and tense element to them. When I started I was trying to portray psychiatric diseases, like schizophrenia. Now I’m more open to personal experiences and softer topics.
KF – Your works feels more abstract in a sense too. They’re not just simple portraits but the figures are often looking away in the distance and seem lost in thought. They’re not really doing anything specific.
IB – In my series “Recollecting Paradise” I combine personal stories, with well-known myths. I focus on the idea of contemplation while maintaining a psychological undertone at the same time. This gives tension to the figures and composition of my work. In the painting, The Survivors, I was inspired by the Biblical story of the flood and I wanted to bring tension to the work through ideas of survival and loneliness.
The Survivors, 2021, Oil and oil stick on linen, 170 x 300 cm, © The Artist
KF – Would you say that the mythological story of the flood is just the backdrop for the work, but then you’re implying a psychological tension? Is the tension depicted inspired by any specific experiences in your personal life, or is it more just a universal thing?
IB – It’s an equal balance between depicting the narrative story and my imagination. The philosophical idea of survival is inspired by own personal expressions being in London, so far away from home and working everyday as a painter – surviving and struggling all the time in order to succeed.
KF – Can you tell me more about your process?
IB – In the beginning, I would usually just have an idea or become inspired by a specific story or image. I usually make some very simple sketches for composition, and then I have a very clear idea in my mind about the colours. I use photo references for the people or just combine different images together in photoshop.
KF – What is your background? Were you always painting from a young age or did you work with other artistic mediums? How did you get to this point in your career as an artist?
IB – I started painting when I was 13 and then I went to art school for university in Bucharest. I started to paint in oil, and my life was like a straight line. In Bucharest I started this project about mental illness that I mentioned and I was experimenting with abstraction. My work came back in a figurative direction because I always felt captivated by the human figure. I moved to London in 2018, and I felt like my work was developing a lot. I started to see a lot of exhibitions and Contemporary Art. I started to get more mature and understand and learn about the art market and how everything worked.
KF – Do you think that moving to London has influenced your work now?
IB – I was looking through my artworks over the years, and I could really see a very big evolution in my aesthetic. I’m more relaxed when it comes to combining different mediums. I learn a lot by looking at other people’s images, even when I can’t go to the exhibition in person, I will see a work online and my attention shifts to details much better. My work definitely opened more. When I came to London, I could see so many different styles of art which was very interesting and important. I wanted to find my place, and I think aesthetically my work has really developed a lot. I pay more attention to the surface and how I’m combining colours.
KF – Were there any specific exhibitions or artists that you’ve seen that inspired your or influenced your work in some way?
IB – I go to a lot of exhibitions, but recently I really liked the Robert Nava show at Pace. I loved seeing the scale of the work and something about it really resonated with me.
KF – Did you have any landmark moments when you felt like you saw a work that really resonated with you?
IB – I remember when I came here in 2018, I was living really close to Newport Street Gallery, so I started going to a lot of exhibitions there. Even though the work is really different from what I make, I really liked the use of colour in the Helen Beard exhibition that I saw. I was quite impressed with the colours, even though it’s so different to what I do. It was an eye opener for me that she could create these volumes from such flat shapes. I realised that I could learn a lot from artists that are completely different.
KF – I think it’s so important for an artist to be going to a lot of exhibitions and especially in London, there are so many. I find that it’s one of the best ways to become inspired and learn something new, even if it’s totally unexpected.
IB – Yeah.
KF – I can definitely tell that your use of colours is very intentional. I’m also wondering about the clothing in your work. I noticed that you depicted a hat with what looks like the Adidas logo. Is there a specific intentionality to it?
IB – Yes, I wanted the characters to have something from present life. I’m really influenced by my neighbourhood, Brixton. They way people dress, and the types of clothing people wear. I wanted to make paintings with people in our reality.
KF – Since the landscapes and atmosphere are so timeless, it’s interesting to juxtapose that with contemporary signifiers like a logo or a specific article of clothing. It makes the painting feel a little more surreal, because the characters don’t really fit in with the landscape. Is the landscape used as a metaphor for something else in your work?
IB – Sometimes when I make a character, I want to make them disconnected from the environment. The landscape could be calm or maybe even dramatic, but the character is in their own internal world.
KF – Is the landscape a reflection of the inner landscape of the character?
IB – Yes, most of the time it is. In the painting, Daydreaming I was inspired by my own dress.
KF – Is the character also based on you, or just the clothing?
IB – Yes – I use myself to figure out the position, or pose of the character for the painting, but I decided not to put my face in it. I wanted to abstract the face and leave a bit of mystery.
KF – Is the character based on your personal experiences?
IB – Kind of. I sit a lot with my thoughts and feelings and see how it is connected with everything.