Henrijs Preiss studied set design in his native Latvia before coming to London to study art. He thinks about his paintings in relation to theatre: his abstract shapes look like blueprints for stage settings where the viewer might imagine actors’ movements or different possible stories. Preiss’s work is influenced by a wide variety of cultural sources, from religious painting to urban architecture and computer game graphics. Preiss uses the imagery and styles of these references to make his abstract patterns. Each of his paintings is based around a central motif that suggests a mystical emblem. Preiss creates his designs to question ideas about power and belief.
Russian Orthodox icon paintings are often characterised by stylised figures that are posed to tell a story; they are often set within ornate geometric designs. Traditionally icons are made very small so that worshippers can handle them. These paintings are a source of inspiration for Preiss. His work adopts similar compositions, and encourages a devotional contemplation. The idea of experiencing a painting through touch as well as by looking at it is important to Preiss. Like icons, his works are painted on wooden panels, and are varnished to make them more alluring and durable. Preiss renders his paintings with heavily textured surfaces which invite the viewer to imagine what they might feel like. (No matter how tempting, please do not touch the artworks!)
Geometric patterning has been used throughout history – from Islamic and Hindu temples to medieval manuscripts and Masonic heralds – to signify spiritual power. In the past, this power, and how it has been represented in art, was often appropriated for political means through the relationships between church and state. In modern times, religion became less important and political ideologies became affiliated with art that represented progressive values. In Russia, the Constructivists were associated with communism because their abstract designs envisioned an art for the people. This movement is an important reference point for Preiss. His work engages with the history of abstraction and patterning as a utopian ideal. Preiss describes his compositions as “symbolic archetypes”, which means he considers his paintings as a “universal language” that can be enjoyed by people from all cultures and backgrounds.
The weathered appearance of Preiss’s paintings makes them look like historical artefacts, but they also seem very contemporary. Preiss’s process is very laborious and physically involved and each painting takes about one month to complete. The pumice-like textures of his paintings are made by scratching and sanding the surface with etching and power tools. In No.240 this ‘decayed’ appearance is suggestive of an urban environment. Alongside art history, the city of London, with its prestigious architecture and big city grime, sparks Preiss’s creativity. The star is like a building plan or advertisement bearing the traces of everyday use and wear, like something that’s been left to the elements of a city street.