Elena Balsiukaitė Brazdžiūnienė (balsiukaite.wordpress.com) was born as the younger of two children on March 4, 1958 in the family of pharmacist Elena Kaktaitė Balsiukienė and financier Pranas Balsiukas. The first formal art education for her was the attendance of the Four-Year Art School for Children (now Antanas Martinaitis Art School) in Kaunas. In 1978 she graduated from the Applied Arts College in Kaunas majoring in industrial textile design. Three years later Elena started studying easel painting at Vilnius State Art Institute (now Vilnius Art Academy), which was the only remaining higher learning institution in Lithuania for aspiring painters and sculptors since 1951.
Just a few months before the scheduled graduation in June of 1988 and in spite of the rapidly changing political climate in Lithuania, she was removed from the Institute on the grounds of being politically unreliable. One year later she was reinstated, completed the required course of studies under the supervision of the grand master of Lithuanian Expressionism Augustinas Savickas (1919 - 2012), and became an alumna of VSAI. Very soon after the return to her native Kaunas in the summer of 1989 she established herself as a distinct voice in contemporary Lithuanian painting and an art teacher at the Four-Year Art School now open for children, adolescents, and adults.
Inevitably, the first stage of Elena’s artistic career was inseparable from the tremendous political, social, and economical changes starting with the fall of the Berlin Wall and continuing on to the disintegration of the Soviet system. It also meant the rapid decomposition of the established art world with its rules for distributing studio spaces, artists’ materials, residencies, exhibition opportunities, publication possibilities, commissions, and awards. Yet the onset of careers of the young painters in the 1990s was marked by the exceptional degree of freedom and enthusiasm - regardless of the country navigating through economic dire straits and facing not entirely insured political future - that seldom befalls the art world.
For some painters, and especially for those based in Kaunas at the time, it took on the aesthetic paradigm of expressionism. It burst, simply. Whether painting indoors and turning to the subject matter originating in other arts or own imagination or during a plein air session when a typical Lithuanian landscape or the Northern light is in the eye and mind of the painter, Elena’s painterly stroke at the time could be nothing else but expressionist. These early pictures were still swamped in those oddly greyish hues that the Soviet oil paints were known for and on the canvases, which actual sizes were restricted by the shortage of materials and actual dimensions of rooms serving as studios. Nonetheless, they earned Elena the label of an Expressionist painter.
The look at the long forbidden Lithuanian visual art of the 1920s and 1930s, classical Expressionism, and the deeds of the New Wild Painters and New York’s East Village artists in the 1980s was not the only flood of information engulfing painters in Lithuania in the 1990s. As painting was becoming the pivotal culprit adamantly attacked inside the Lithuanian art world in order to clear the commodious path for contemporary art and postmodernism as the dominant cultural default, Elena responded to these developments with the remarkable series, which one prominent art critic had immediately tagged as The Splendours of Šančiai, thus also trying to tether Elena to one particular neighbourhood notorious for its military and industrial past.
These works were created just before the Y2K, and they emerged at the intersection of a number of trends. It was painting – and not just painting. The pictures incorporated a vast variety of objects found in nature and flea markets into the pictures, mixed the very traditional approach to easel painting and print making with practices like embroidery, compilation of herbariums and bulletin boards, collated purely visual and written materials whilst the framing of the works swayed from boxing to sheer framelessness. At that time, Elena’s artistic interest was going beyond the mere advocacy of painting’s ability to expand its field or demonstration of her own ability to absorb both red-hot and somewhat fusty novelties of visual art. It was the declaration of the method.
Barely a few years later Elena came forward with the first works tentatively titled XXL that was the notification of the entirely new period starting in her art. In 2006 the painter stunned the viewer wont to see Elena as a reticent yet vivid Expressionist and, and even more pleasingly so for some, a producer of fairly sentimental handicrafts oozing the girlish naiveté bordering with inaptitude. The first set of these paintings held the marvel: they all were executed on large canvases without mounting them on stretches first, employing strongly thinned and rather quickly drying paints, hushing the palette to the limited blues and greys, abruptly dropping traditional Expressionist flamboyance in favour of modelled figures supported by classical drawing.
Scintillating and at the same time cowing monumentality of this line of visual reasoning came forward in the series About Them that were painted mostly from 2007 to 2013. The initial conception was primarily social and was meant to involve young adolescents from the socially challenged families into art making. It developed also into an investigation of the first generation born after the Restoration of Independence in 1990. Immense portraits zoom onto incredulous, frightened, disdainful, glance avoiding faces that stem from the photographs taken of each other by the sitters. They tell the story of the society, which dreams had gone awry and which hereby abandoned its children by handing them over first to the streets and then to the internet.
In a way, the majestic series I am dr. Love from 2012-5 had branched out from About Them. Taking the starting point in the Hamlet’s Syndrome and re-working one of the principle iconographic images of her pictures – the liminal humanoid figure – the artist has diagnosed the dreary shape of the human life today. When social ties are cut off, also because the technologies inveigled the mind, even madness of the Danish Prince is impossible - one can only be like Hamlet because all that is solid has, indeed, become ethereal. The multi-layered semantically paintings are complex in the handling of the canvas surface too: each started as an expanse, where the masses of paint are firstly sculptured, moved around, scratched before the imagery could surface.
Until now Elena has shown her works in Germany several times. Her paintings were included in the group exhibitions held in Hamburg (1991), Hern (2005), Duisburg (2007), Bochum (2010), Büdelsdorf (2014), and she was introduced by Meno parkas to the Berlin crowd during the art fair Positions Berlin in 2017 and 2018. The showing Labas, draugai // Hello, Friends at Meno parkas in Düsseldorf is the first time when the German viewer can see her paintings unaccompanied by someone else’s works. Having never rejected the concrete reality as one of the points of departure for her art, she has inhabited the pictures created in 2017-9 with miscellaneous objects residing in her studio. Essentially, it is a wisp of visual tweets from the room of hers own.
They are there, the objects strewn around the studio: the kitschy embroidery of pigs and clay kittens picked up at a flea market, the doll that migrated from another artist’s studio and co-triggered Hamlet, the vintage Soviet clock, toy figures, vinyls, the medicine bottle, and paints themselves that have hardened on more surfaces in the studio, not just canvases. Many of these mass produced objects keep on traveling from one painting to another for years, and so the particular choices of colours as well as the decisions to articulate paints are well known from Elena’s earlier pictures. However, to take the utterance that the exhibition is only a set of glimpses into the artist’s studio or little postscripts to earlier works is to agree gladly to be debauched. It is a decoy.
This small in size but magnificent in its conception retrospective of Elena’s painting is her unfeigned artistic statement. When religion, art and politics have left economy alone to grapple with the longings of the human mind, soul and heart, it is an act of bravery to keep the faith in art as the magic making human act. It is more important than the danger of being perceived as a circus girl taming lions with one hand and pulling rabbits from the top-hat with another. This archaic magic springs from the medicine bottle in the jurisdiction of the faery dominatrix – it contains love that threatens to leave the human life for good. Ultimately, the story of Elena’s artistic endeavour is about it. It is a rarely encountered version in art – somewhere in Kaunas or elsewhere.