E u g e n e Y e l c h i n
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For a quick fix on Eugene Yelchin's paintings, think of them as autobiographical—not as works representing different stages of his life but rather the evolution of his sense of inner freedom and personal identification. In fact, there are two different, intertwined elements here: first, as a young person born in 1956 who grew up in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) understanding that Soviet propaganda and reality were not the same thing—often not even close—and, second, keeping separate his Russian and Jewish identities, the former insisted upon, the latter frowned upon.
Both Jewish and non-Jewish Russian artists who rejected their government's duplicity led a double life intellectually and psychologically. They lived a virtual schizophrenic existence keeping their thoughts to themselves or sharing them with a few trusted friends while living publicly as good citizens for fear of reprisals such job loss and various kinds of official harassments. The fear factor, which Americans are only beginning to understand because of the current administration's disregard for individual privacy, was a constant, stifling presence and humiliation.
For Jews, life in the Soviet Union was complicated by the very fact of being Jewish especially after Israel's success in the 1967 war. Increasingly, Jews were viewed as an alien group, synagogue entrances were monitored, the study of Hebrew was considered a criminal activity, and, in 1983, the year that Yelchin immigrated to the United States, the Soviet Public Anti-Zionist Committee was formed in order to point out similarities between Zionism and Nazism and to dissuade immigration to Israel which had begun the early 1970s. Several Russian artists have told me that their interest in their Jewish identity, which they might have willingly dropped, grew stronger ironically from Soviet anti-Semitic activities. Their interest sparked by repressive governmental policies, they explored their religious and cultural heritage for the double purpose of self-definition as Jews and as a way to demonstrate hostility to the regime. Any number of artists have managed and sustained this dual feat in their own individual manner--when still living in the Soviet Union and after immigrating to another country.READ MORE +
Yelchin was quite lucky in this regard because his parents encouraged his interest in art (one less obstacle that other artists faced). His mother managed young ballet dancers at the Leningrad School of Choreography. As a result, he lived part of his youth backstage at the Kirov Theater and the many performances that he saw only whetted his imagination. And his father, a lover of art, spent many hours with Yelchin in the Hermitage exploring its incredible collections of western European art, especially its paintings by Rembrandt, Velasquez, and Rubens. In 1979, the budding artist graduated from the Leningrad Institute of Theater Arts. He has said that the environment there was largely free of anti-Semitic bias unlike his experiences in elementary and high school where he was made to feel ashamed of his religion.
For several years, he worked as a set designer. Had he remained in Russia, he knew that his career would be determined and circumscribed by various rules and regulations. Wanting to grow as an artist, anxious to surprise himself and to radicalize his thinking and art-making, he realized that he would have to leave his country to develop his talents further. After settling in the Los Angeles area and able to reflect on his experiences in his native country, Yelchin came to understand that his many visits to the Hermitage with his father were absolutely central to his continued growth as an artist. The many paintings he had studied there could be appreciated for their particular merits free of contamination by daily events or official propaganda. He could relate directly to their subject matter and style without interference, free of governmental static. Furthermore, they provided one of the very few ways to connect with western culture. They became a kind of life line at the time and years later in America a source of his imagery.
He also realized that he had become displaced in another way--as an immigrant in America in addition to having been a Jew in Russia, a foreigner in his own country. Trying to sort things out in the late 1990s and bravely using his art as an instrument of self-discovery, he recognized and began to question the fact that he was hiding his images (as well as hiding from his images) by painting faces without features, and making obscure references of which even he was not fully aware. Meanings were camouflaged and he felt that he was denying himself access to his own thoughts. Figurative imagery, especially barely recognizable forms hiding within abstract shapes, rarely revealed themselves openly to him. What was going on? He decided to revisit in his mind's eye paintings he remembered from the Hermitage--not to make works about other works or to challenge the old masters, but rather to revisit the experiences he had at that time. Perhaps through such memories he could express feelings previously repressed and heretofore unspoken. The process was painful, emotionally draining, and is still ongoing, but necessary for his sense of self-awareness and his future as a productive artist.
Works from three series, "Re-enactments," "Sleepwalking," and a portion of "Section 5," make up the current exhibition. They date from roughly 2000, when he began to re-visualize several works in an attempt to recapture the feelings he had at that earlier time as a way to understand himself in the present. Some, like To Rise and To Fall (2001), one his favorites, and Donde va Mama? (After Goya) (1999-2001) exist in the aura of Rembrandt and Goya, respectively. But there is no key to the images, rather a deeply felt, often searching quality to the manner in which he manipulated pigments.
At this point, it is instructive to recall artist Robert Motherwell's thoughts in his essay A Process of Painting written in 1963. Motherwell emphasized the importance of the medium, stating that the subject of a painting does not pre-exist but emerges from the interaction between the artist and his medium. For the artist, the medium "is the only thing in human existence that has precisely the same range of sensed feeling as people themselves do." For Yelchin, his richly textured surfaces--the pigments are often applied by hand--are not surrogates for reaching out to other persons or to "make art" but rather a way literally to feel his way into a subject or a particular passage in a painting and therefore into his own feelings. The movement of his brush or fingers, the application of paint, the thickening and thinning of forms, the superimpositions of one color on another are all part of a journey of self-revelation that lies beyond verbalization.
But in the end, Yelchin is making art--and he does it very well. He tends to favor browns and yellows, combines broad areas of color with intensely detailed forms, and allows some works to adhere closely to the picture's surface while others subtly reveal degrees of depth. Some works seem to be arrangements of abstract forms that might be anchored to the pictorial surface or that seem to float in an open space. Others suggest hallucinatory landscapes of the mind. That is to say, he knows what he is doing and has the ability to do it. For example, The Miracle (1999-2001) suggests a fantastic landscape that has no path for our entry but it might also be a collection of body parts and viscera. Of this work, Yelchin has said that the shape that occupies the left handoff the canvas is a detailed interpretation of a priestly robe that Rubens had use din several paintings. Other works, such as Like Stuffed (1999-2000) are composed of a few heavily impastoed shapes, the dark, unstable central form suggesting menace. But for all its explicit emotionality, Yelchin's handling of the yellow pigments of this painting are extraordinarily deft and carefully thought out. The Hunting Scene of Remarkable Cruelty (1999-2001) is a remarkable tour-de-force of advancing, receding and occasionally humanoid forms that turn in on themselves.
Yelchin eschews such spatial pyrotechnics and generalized feelings in his "Section Five" series. Instead, he gets down to the business of psychological and physical self-exploration. His subject is reduced to faces alone, some with more distinct features than others. By applying paint with his hands, he literally pushes his fingers into the skin of the canvas, molds textures from that skin, and seemingly tears the skin away as if to get at interior states of mind--his, yours, mine. The title, "Section Five," refers to the fifth section of the Soviet Union passport which states the holder's ethnicity. Yelchin was not Russian but Jewish. Neither he nor other Jews could pass as Russians once the passport was viewed. Obviously, this provoked constant anxiety, fear, and, ultimately, self-loathing, qualities revealed to greater or lesser degree in each of these paintings. Each work seems to ask: "Who am I? What is my value? How do I regard myself? How am I perceived? What can I call myself?"
The answers might be complicated and, more to the point, excruciating, embarrassing, and humiliating in that, given the title of this series, one has no control of one's own destiny. Given a label by an impersonal bureaucracy, one cannot appeal its mode of identification whatever one's feelings might be. There are no choices in the matter. Nor are there answers to the questions how or even can Yelchin end the series, memory being an uncontrollable factor in everybody's life. As a result, these paintings are among the most tragic portraits of our time--not writ large as a grandiose, abstract, existential exercise in pitting, say, a solitary individual against modern society, but on the most personal, intimate, and ultimately irrational level of being a victim of official Soviet anti-Semitism.
Over the past decade, then, Yelchin has embarked on a brave voyage of self-discovery to unlock years of repression. In the act of making a painting, he reveals his feelings to himself. There is no premeditation, no conscious thought. The physical activity of applying paint to canvas is the process by which he opens up to himself. Each gesture, therefore, might convey an emotion and an insight he had previously denied to himself. This does not mean that he uses art as some kind of personal therapy, but rather that he has aligned himself with generations of artists for whom art is really a series of studies in authentic experience. The opposite position would be that taken by, say, Pop Artists who find their subject matter not in their own experiences but in those projected through comic books, posters, and advertisements, that is, the experiences of others or of forms derived from other systems of communication. Yelchin's antecedents include, among many others, artists as varied as Kandinsky, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko for whom art was never a matter of manipulating forms and colors for their own sake (a perfectly valid approach to the making of art) but of finding in those forms and colors ways to express their innermost thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Among contemporary artists, he is not among those who come upon an image and allow it to become a signature image but rather among those for whom the image is the visible expression of his innermost being.
One need not know the artist's enterprise to lose one's self in his color and tonal harmonies, his textured surfaces, and his formal arrangements. That the works do certainly stand independent of his search is a testament to his imagination and ability as an artist--and the serious purpose to which art can serve.
Matthew Baigell is Emeritus Professor of Art History at Rutgers University. He has written widely on American Art and Jewish American art as well as on contemporary Russian/Soviet art. His most recent book is American Artists, Jewish Images (2006)
About the Artist
Several years ago I organized an exhibition for the Singer Gallery entitled Russian Revolutions. The ambitions that informed that exhibition - to document how, from the vantage point of their marginal position in Russian society, Jewish artists were uniquely situated to play a catalytic role in the formation and flowering of the Russian avant-garde - were realized primarily through examples of work from artists whose stature and significance was already critically and institutionally assured. I was persuaded however, by Mina Litinsky to take a look at the work of a young, relatively unknown emigre artist named Eugene Yelchin. She showed me a few paintings - small self-portraits of searing emotional ferocity and astonishing technical bravura. They burst onto my neural and optic circuitry and now, almost five years later, this exhibition represents the fruition of that encounter.
More recently, upon seeing the astonishing paintings that comprise the Reenactments series, I became simultaneously exultant and anxious. The paintings transported me in the way that one hopes to be transported by great art - art that can obliterate and/or intensify the gap between deeply lived experience and the seductive superficiality of modern life, art whose authority, beauty and morality comprise an undivided trinity - art that feels necessary. The paintings also made me nervous. They are based on post-Renaissance masterworks - virtuosic paintings of canonical status by Goya, Rembrandt, Ribera, art located in an inviolate domain and protected by taboo. For sure, post-modernist strategies often breach that taboo through imitating, reproducing, quoting, "appropriating." Yelchin's paintings however have little to do with those attitudes. He actually paints. He relies on draftsmanship, representation, color modulation, etc. Further, his "miming" of those historical masterworks is not in the service of reworking, refiguring or reinterpreting them. More accurately, I'd like to suggest that it constitutes a "working through" them in the sense that Yelchin's paintings amplify, with hallucinatory vigor and vertiginous physicality, the dimensions of delerium, catastrophe, barbarism and humanity that can be "pulled" from those works by the right artist. He can enter the grand and heroic masterwork and pulverize it, unlocking valves of sensation and emotion at all different levels. He's an artist who's expressive in the extreme, simultaneously visceral, painterly, abstract and tragic. His is an ardent, overflowing art whose urgency and extravagance doesn't overwhelm his vulnerability, but rather, exposes it. The paintings in this exhibition have renewed my faith in painting - in its truth, in its necessity, in its capacity to penetrate to the center of things.
I'm grateful to Eugene Yelchin for embracing this exhibition and for all his assistance in every aspect of its realization. Mina Litinsky is always ready to go to battle on my behalf. She is a force to be reckoned with. Dr. David Thickman and the Thickman Family Foundation provided invaluable and much appreciated support for this project.
Simon Zalkind, Director of Exhibitions