In Conversation with Marko Velk

by Claudia Vitarelli

photography Monica Elkelv

9 December 2013

Religious iconography, folklore and the darker side of human nature are some of the departure points for Marko Velk's artwork. Charcoal turns into black velvet on his large scale works on paper, where he alternates between revealing, concealing, or hinting at the works' narrative. 

The following conversation took place in his Brooklyn studio. 

What comes first when you start a new work? 

It’s instinctive. I don’t think about it, and then realize it. It just comes out. And then one image becomes the next one, but they also have to work separately. 

Do you use reference material for the images?

Yes, sometimes—sometimes. What’s Left, for instance, comes from an old Spanish painting, an old master. It’s St. Agate, who was a saint and a martyr, and who was tortured because she refused the advances of her master. She devoted her virginity to God. 

Are those her breasts on the plate?

Yes. She refused everything from him, so he imprisoned and tortured her, cutting her breasts. She then healed, but later died in an earthquake. I was always fascinated by this image. 

There’s one thing in the works that’s a fil conducteur—hands. There are hands in every drawing, and they’re the only piece of life you can see. They’re the only image that suggests there’s something alive in the work. 

That is a soldier's human head in Collision

Yes, he's—how you say?, beheaded. This one is also from the old masters. I am captivated by those cut heads.

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There are a few religious references in your work. Where you brought up catholic?

Well, my mother is Catholic and my father is Orthodox, but nobody was bringing me to church. I went to church to see the paintings.

What materials do you use to achieve the rich, matte black of these works?

This is all black charcoal.

Are the white lines painted over it?

No, I erase the charcoal. I could think about it before, but I don’t. Sometimes you need to see the image in process before you can finish it. Unless you know exactly what are you are doing.

Do you jump to the final paper or do you work on preparatory sketches before? 

Small ones like these on the column. But for the other series, "Something in the Air," there’s no sketches at all. It looks almost like a big sketch. I start, and then construct the image depending on what’s the first element. I cannot think of those images beforehand.

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On the right: Entre-deux, from the "Something in the Air" series.

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Above: charcoal on paper from the "What Is Left" series. On the left, Surrender, and What's Left on the right, both from 2012.

On What's Left: "Une femme, sans tête, portant un plateau. De la même façon que dans l’image précédente seules les mains indiquent une présence humaine. Sur le plateau, ce qui pourrait etre des seins, symbole de la féminité. Ils sont détachés de ce corps, tranchés, nous renvoyant a la soumission millénaire de la femme qui dans un effort ininterrompu continuera a engendre la vie. Trophée de chasse, vengeance masculine, martyre évoquant St Agathe, ou soumission calculée...? L’image nous invite a plusieurs interprétations."

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Tell me of the passage between that series and this more recent one, "What Is Left."

There’s a simplification of the elements. I just wanted one strong element, to not be confused, not get lost, in the story—a symbolic figure, for example. The viewer will do what they want with it. Depending on what’s your background, your culture, where you come from, you’ll see different things. I’m not interested in one interpretation. I have mine, but mine is not necessarily the one I want to give. I just want it to raise questions. I want people to create their own interpretation of it.

The title of this series is "What Is Left." So, literally, what’s left? This man stepping on a skull, or this plate with breasts on it. But behind this image, there are other things that your imagination can construct. It gives you the impression that something terrible happened, but it’s up to you to imagine possible disasters.

How do you work on a series? Do the works come together organically or do you intentionally draw a connection?

I’d say it’s more instinctive. The theme of the hands we were discussing, for example. It was not something I was thinking about. I realized it afterwards, that it had become—how do you say that in English—a fil rouge

A common thread.

Yes. And after three or four drawings, I realized that was the only party of the body I wasn’t hiding. It is the most complex part of the body, both to draw and anatomically speaking. In a human figure, anatomically, it is the part that is capable of doing the most things compared to any other. To me, it’s the most sensitive part as well. The hand makes decisions.

Let's look at The Keeper. Is there a human figure there?

The chest carriage reminds us that it’s human, who is stepping on a human too—the skull. But is it his own, or is it somebody else’s? 

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Above: on the left, The Keeper, 2012. "Il a l’air satisfait comme un chasseur venant d’abattre du gibier... trophée sur lequel il pose fièrement sa botte... un crâne humain. Je l’ai tué. Mais qui est-il et qui est sa victime? Un masque épais nous cache son visage, nous laissant supposer qu’il s’agit plutôt d’un ennemi. Il se protège de quelque chose... Etre reconnu? Respirer l’oxygène de l’air ambiant? Et... en a t-il vraiment besoin de cet oxygène après tout? Son accoutrement semble militaire et sa victime humaine. On appercoit en transparence ses côtes a travers le manteau nous renvoyant a notre provenance commune. "Je suis fait de la même structure que toi, et pourtant, je te tue. Et j’ essuie mes bottes sur ton crâne afin de le rendre plus luisant! Voila ce que je suis capable de faire," semble t-il dire... Voila ce que l’homme est capable de faire a l’homme. Garder pour toujours sa capacité a être plus fort que la mort en se l’appropriant."

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Above: Collision, 2012. "Un homme debout seul, en armure, décapité, dans ce qui pourrait être son dernier souffle, sa dernière vision. Seul, face au monde, malgré son épée et sa cuirasse, symbole de protection archaique d’un autre temps, il ne semble pas en mesure de se protéger totalement. Le dévoilement momentané de son visage et la mise de coté de son haulme pour sentir l’espace dans lequel il évolue ne lui laissera aucune chance de survie. La collision est alors fatale. L’abstraction graphique tiède de la chair semble alors rejoindre celle froide formée de polygones aux angles parfaitement blancs. Malgré la ligne d’horizon suggérée et l’effort de protection, le corps ne survivera pas. Et l’âme n’a comme choix définitif que celui de l’enfermement ou de la décapitation."

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The duality of human nature is very immediate here. You don't mind uncovering the darker side of the characters in your works. It's an honest attitude towards human beings, acknowledging their sullen, glum side.

I’ve always been honest with myself, and I never really got used to working with people who wouldn’t be. And then you discover that, especially in the States…

You discovered that it’s very rare.

Everything is “great.” Someone was saying to me, “Oh, you’re saying what your thinking?” I’m like, “What do you mean? Of course I am saying what I am thinking! What am I supposed to do?”

I went to buy a bottle of wine yesterday—I always go to the same place—and the guy tells me, “You’ll tell me what you think about it?” I said, "Yeah." The next day I go back to the shop. “Hi, it was really good,” I tell him. He responds, “Oh, yeah.” And I’m like, “You asked me yesterday what I think about it. You don’t remember me?”

In this respect, language can be used in very misleading ways.

It’s just being polite. Constantly being polite for no reason. Many times my wife told me, “Oh the French, they’re rude.” They’re not rude, you just have to get to know them, and when you’re close to someone it’s real. It’s a different culture.

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You are now based in New York, but were classically trained in France. 

Yes, in Paris. I grew up in Paris. I studied at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs. 

I was born in Croatia, which was Yugoslavia before, and that is my origins—croatians. But I was brought up in Paris—completely, actually. I was born in Croatia on a vacation trip. It was summer, and my parents used to go there every summer. I was supposed to be born in October, but it happened in August.

I guess I always had this double identity—I’m French, but part Serbian. I don't like putting people's identities in a box—where they're born versus where they live, or where they were brough up. My kid, for example: he's born here, I'm speaking Serbian to him, thinking I should maybe teach him French... he's not gonna care.

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On the right: Cephalophore, 2012.

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Above: Sweet Veggie III, from the "Transitation" series. 

Marko Velk's artoworks were featured in an original series for GREY V.

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