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Q & A with Eugene Yelchin By Krystyna Poray Goddu, Publishers Weekly, Oct 02, 2014
A prolific illustrator, designer and filmmaker, Eugene Yelchin won a Newbery Honor in 2012 for his debut middle-grade novel, Breaking Stalinís Nose, inspired by his childhood in communist Russia. This fall Holt is publishing his second novel, Arcadyís Goal, inspired by his father, a talented soccer player and coach during Stalinís reign. Yelchin spoke with PW from his home in Topanga, Calif., about growing up in fear, risking his life to read books, and the safety he found in art. Read more »
"Shroud of Yelchin. Russian artist is a mystery" by Rebecca Schoenkopf, OC Weekly, Novemeber 1997
"I don't like to pry. So even though a mutual friend had told me Russian painter Eugene Yelchin lived an action picture of a life before emigrating here, when I talked to him, I was too shy to mention it. I would say things like, "So, what was Russia like?" And he would answer, "I'm very happy to be here," and then he would talk some more about painting. Yelchin likes his privacy - except when he paints.
In his moody paintings at Diane Nelson Fine Art, he bares his melancholy that must be endemic to the Russian spirit because his life seems to be going pretty damn well. He's a successful, handsome man. He has a stunning, blonde, writer wife and an angel of a newborn baby. And, for God's sake, he owns his house.
But for an alter ego, he chooses Pulcinella-the commedia dell'arte loser/outcast/brute. Pulcinella is one sad stand-in. In the "Gold Leaf" series - so called because he uses a lot of gold leaf, like a 13th-century monk - the ornery buffoon slouches around, sulkily. The idyll of In The Garden is no match for the smog in the sad, blue clown's sky. The dapped sunlight (gold leaf!), the citrus trees, the light breeze are useless. He will not be cheered.
In Hotel Interior, Pulcinella is bathed in hellish reds, as he sits, staring angrily at the TV. We can see details of the room - a bowl of roses, a bunch of cherries - that inform us this is a pretty nice place (for a room in Rome). Yet it feels like a tenement. Sandwiched in the middle third of the canvas, with Pulcinella and the telly on either side, is the doorway to the bathroom. Its stark yellow light illuminates a blonde in a bathtub; she is so sickly looking she could have just OD'd. She looks out at Pulcinella, but she is ignored. For a while, she is even ignored by the viewer; one of the big tricks of Renaissance painting was to include a group of onlookers watching events unfold. The direction of their eyes clued us in to what we should also be watching. Because Pulcinella doesn't see the blonde, we don't either - even though her third of the canvas is the best-lit.
Later, the resemblance between the blonde and Yelchin's glowing, healthy-looking wife, Mary, undermined the possibility that the woman in the tub was sick. Instead, one starts imagining the horrible row they could have had to bring on such angry, active avoidance. And then you stop; it seems like an unconscionable invasion of privacy, if you're able to connect actual people to the figures on the canvas.
But Yelchin wants you to imagine what is unfolding - as long as it's in a fictional kind of way. He doesn't want to whack you on the nose with his narrative, but he does want to suggest starting points and let you take it from there. The mystery is the thing.
And that also is antithetical to the American consciousness. We like things to be out where we can see them. Even a show like The X-Files, while dealing with the enigmatic, is about solving mysteries rather then letting them keep their secrets. We don't care for puzzles with pieces missing.
Yelchin's Woman at the Window shows actors huddled onstage, while a wonderfully fleshy matron - pearls in her hair, a mask on her face, and a bountiful cleavage overflowing her bodice - looks on from the balcony. She can see what's happening, but we can't. The actors have closed ranks, their backs blocking the action from view. Everything is what you can't see.
What you can see are gaunt, twisted martyrs in the back hallway, with their translucent flesh stretched across sad rib cages. They seem like something out of Goya - or an internment camp. Or you can view monstrous dancing dwarves in top hats and tails. Or even leaping dogs, though sadly, they're not anthropomorphized. But clues to how Yelchin's experiences have shaped him must be gleaned carefully - and always with the caveat that "truths" you might gain are only backed by your overactive imagination; here, it's all you have. Yelchin likes to remain shrouded. And you wouldn't want to press, would you?"
EUGENE YELCHIN: A Thousand Casualties by Michael Paglia, Denver Westworld, September 2006There's one thing you can always expect from the Singer Gallery in the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture: high-quality art exhibits with some kind of intellectual content. So it's no surprise that EUGENE YELCHIN: A Thousand Casualties, a solo featuring expressionist abstractions based on Old Master paintings, is one of the most compelling offerings on display so far this season.
Singer's reliable success rate can be attributed to gallery director Simon Zalkind, who has an unfailing eye for accomplished material, as well as an abiding interest in art about art. The Yelchin show meets both criteria handily, because while the paintings are odd and somewhat disturbing, they are also undeniably beautiful and filled with more than enough intellectual content to make them conceptually credible in a contemporary-art context.
To make this show happen, Zalkind turned to Mina Litinsky, the director of the Sloane Gallery in LoDo, a nationally significant center for art created by those who came of age in the former Soviet Union. He also enlisted the aid of David Thickman, who loaned some important Yelchin paintings.
Yelchin was born in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, in 1956. His mother was a teacher at the Leningrad School of Choreography at the Kirov Theatre, where he spent a great deal of time as a child, and his father often took him to the Hermitage, where the budding artist got an early taste for the masterpieces of European art. Probably because of his mother's influence, Yelchin graduated from the Leningrad Institute of Theater Arts, specializing in set design.
Being Jewish, at least in a secular sense, Yelchin was confronted with official anti-Semitism, with the police monitoring those who entered synagogues and the state considering learning Hebrew to be a criminal activity. Like many Soviet Jewish artists, Yelchin responded to this repression by becoming more, not less, interested in Judaism. Jewish emigration out of the Soviet Union began in the 1970s, and Yelchin elected to leave in 1983. He settled in California and earned a fine-arts degree at the University of Southern California. Zalkind first came across Yelchin's work through a tip from Litinsky, who was assisting him with an exhibit titled Russian Revolutions at the Singer in 2002.
The Yelchin exhibit is large and includes more than forty paintings, a number of which are major works from 1998 to 2004. The paintings are extremely consistent in several ways: They all have subtle, moody and almost antique-looking palettes dominated by ocher, umber and cream tones; the compositions all comprise surrealistic abstractions based on the human figure; and all exude an inexplicable edginess that's both disturbing and compelling.
At first glance, the paintings appear to be out-of-focus Rembrandts or Goyas or works by other Baroque masters, and Yelchin does reference various artists in some of the titles, including the remarkable roundel "Mirror After Rembrandt" and the mural-like "Donde va Mama? After Goya." But Zalkind also points out that the Yelchins appear to be a cross between the work of Francis Bacon and that of Chaim Soutine. His point is well taken: Similar to Bacon's, Yelchin's figures appear to be melting before our eyes, and in line with Soutine, his brushwork is aggressive, featuring slashes of color used to sketch out the subjects. Some of the most recent pieces here are a group of small portraits from the "Section Five" series in which the men's features were reduced to smears of dark color. Though the large paintings have a majestic character that recalls palace decorations, these small "Section Five" daubs just might be the best things included.
Back in the U.S.S.R.: Contemporary artists confront their country's past in "Territories of Terror" by Chris Bergeron, MetroWest Daily News, November 2006As if breathing toxic fumes, Russian artists incorporated the gulag's buried terrors into their vision of Soviet life.
Eugene Yelchin twists daubs of paint into tormented self-portraits. He picks at personal and national memory like a scab. Born in Leningrad in 1956, he's showing a series of haunting self-portraits he calls "Your passport, Citizen" or "Section Five". The last phrase refers to a Russian government code for Jews which was stamped in their passports.
A slim, sharp-featured man, Yelchin paints his self-portraits without a brush, shaping thick smears of oil on canvas, finishing each in a single sitting. "I want to work as close to the medium as possible. My face, my hands, my feelings. Each painting recalls a certain emotion," he said.
As if glimpsed in a nightmare variety of fun house mirrors, his face screams and smirks, broods and leers.
More then a decade after immigrating to the United Stetes, the L.A.-based Yelchin said, "You can never shake the fear" born of life in a repressive Soviet state.
Observing several distorted images of himself, he said growing up in a totalitarian society engendered a "certain self-hatred that might be part of the Russian character".
"When everyone is up to their necks in despair," Yelchin said, "only the completely depressed get close to the truth".
How Jewish is "Too Jewish"? by Gaby Wenig, Jewish Journal, October 2004"Eugene Yelchin painted his "Section Five" series using his fingers instead of brushes. In the earthy, orangy-brown tones and thick, rounded strokes of paint, the faces he painted emerge blurred somewhat with the background, as if the artist didn't want them to be seen clearly.
Yelchin, a Russian Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1983, says the series refers to the Section Five part of his passport, where his ethnicity was written. On Yelchin's passport, it read "Yevrei" - Jew, branding him as a "presumed traitor or security risk".
"As a result, Section Five burned like a suddenly revealed secret," Yelchin writes on the artist's statement accompanying his paintings. "It caused shame and fear. It branded one for life. (The) paintings are infused with those emotions - fear of exposure, shame, anger and sadness. The paintings' diminutive size recalls passport photos, while the faces are the faces of Jews whose self-identities are formed not by pride but by Anti-Semitism."
Four of Yelchin's "Secion Five" series are on display at the Bell Gallery at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles in a new exhibit called, "Too Jewish-Not Jewish Enough." The exhibit explores the myriad ways that Jewish identity is manifested, as well as the emergence of that identity from people who might not feel as connected to their Judaism."
Body of Art by Joseph Woodard, Los Angeles Times, 1999
"An exhibition called "Drawing on Figure" is currently showing at the Platt Gallery at the University of Judaism but the title could just as easily be "Drawing Around the Figure".
Figures in Eugene Yelchin's work are detached from reality and turned into putty of metaphor. Yelchin's process involves taking "found" photographs from newspapers and magazines, redrawing them, slicing'n'dicing them into vertical strips and then reassembling them into incomplete images.
The end effect of this process further removes the figures from reality while instilling a kind of nervous, but basically ambiguous, urgency. Call it abstract agitprop.
Yelchin's work reminds us that whenever figures enter the picture, the interpretive stakes are raised."
Complex reflections on oppression by Cate McQuaid, Boston Globe, January 2007
Eugene Yelchin's paintings form a powerful group. For "Your Passport, Citizen," also titled "Section Five," Yelchin made self-portraits in oil, painting only with his fingers. They're tortured works; ghostly figures coalesce from slicks of paint in ocher and black. None have eyes, and some have mouths agape. The titles tell more. The first evokes the fear struck in an ordinary citizen at a Soviet checkpoint when asked for identification. The second refers to the line on the passport that identifies ethnic heritage; Yelchin's said "Jewish," which, in the Soviet Union, was defined as an ethnicity, not a religion, whose observance was, Boym states, "virtually banned for ordinary citizens." This officially wiped away an important part of many Jew's identities.