Myroslava Mudrak
| BRAMA | Arts & Culture |

Tangled Roots
Where have all the mallows gone?
By Myroslava Mudrak

An Essay taken from the Exhibition titled
Tangled Roots: Artists of Eastern/Central European heritage re-view their
personal/cultural history from a range of positions.
October 13-November 3, 1995
16th annual New Music & Arts Festival
Bowling Green State University

For as disparate as is the work represented in this exhibition, so the more appropriate is the name "Tangled Roots" to describe it. Like a spectacular garden, boasting a variety of botanical personality, so too, the work in this show represents discrete approaches to a common substructure. Underneath the surface of all the works in the show, one finds a matrix of common pursuits and shared inspiration relating to connectedness with a mother culture. The artists represented are not bound by any other link than simply a drive to use their art to work through a cherished relationship with the inherited cultural heritage. Their art is also thus inextricably connected with the political destiny of their respective countries of origin, in this case, Poland, Russia and Ukraine. The fate of their ethnic cultural background lies at the base of their work, from the psychological to the material.

Not all of the artists have shared the same fate. Some are of an older generation, some are of a generation younger, some were born in the countries to which they feel such cultural allegiance, others were raised outside its borders. There are those whose life's work responds with dissidence and dissatisfaction toward the dictates of official art known under repressive totalitarian rule; because of such regimes, others have only recently visited the countries of their parentage for the first time. The current political moment inflames their work, but is not always addressed directly. Through oblique methods or direct references, they resuscitate traditional folk motifs or render unpredictable responses to the spiritual culture of their forebears. Whatever the method, it serves as a departure point for dealing with their personal relationship with the indigenous culture of their forebears. In none of them will one find sentimental or nostalgic elements. These are not mellow expressions of country scenes, or native topographies all aglow with the domestic familiarity of hollyhocks and made sweet by stabilizing homestead. Instead, we find rugged search for meaning and understanding. One senses an aggressive invitation to partake of their delight, of their disappointment, of their desires to incorporate whatever fragments of cultural remembrance that exist for them and to keep them vital.

Rimma and Valeriy Gerlovin
Dissidence and resulting emigration is the perspective represented by Rimma and Valeriy Gerlovin, a husband-and-wife team, who belonged to those circles of independent Russian artists of the mid-seventies who sought to free themselves from the tyranny of art under government dictatorship and became involved in projects to effect change within the art world of Russia of the 1970s. Confronting Soviet artistic governance head on, their impact was immediately felt within the internal circles of their native city, Moscow. Within a short time they became part of the official hierarchy battling government intervention in the arts and together with the now world-renowned Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, and others, they were at the very center of Russia's "unofficial" art movement. In moscow, Rimma and Valeriy Gerlovin would gather on Friday evenings with friends and colleagues and discuss the journals and books that would clandestinely come into their possession. Exposure to contemporary trends in Western art, if only in printed form, was coveted. Collective poring over glossy pages led to collaborative work that, at first, sought to imitate American and Western European contemporary art in use of materials, in the pursuit of formalist experimentation, in a broad range of subject matter, and in the personal, subjective laying bare of the artist's soul. They sought to infuse such pursuits with a conceptual base that revealed the hypocritical biases of official Soviet art. Under the prescriptions of Socialist Realism, such freedom was never allowed to surface. As is widely known, only realism as a style and subjects that celebrated communist life were the norm and standard for any Soviet artist since the early 1930s until glasnost. The 1920s, which gave birth to the establishment of non-conformist art, boldly weakened the constraints that restricted the freedom of artistic expression throughout Eastern Europe. This experience created an environment conducive to a communal, mutually nurturing relationship between creative individuals, especially ones predisposed to conceptual works and performance as the Gerlovin team. As non-conformists, the Gerlovins used their performance pieces to isolate the ideological absurdities that pervaded pedestrian Soviet life. Since their emigration to New York, the Gerlovins' work has continued in this symbiotic working relationship. Their work is serious in content but not without humor. Their methods draw upon Dada tactics in multimedia instruments, found objects, and the remnants of civilizations long past.

In a society, where the world -- through slogans, mottoes, memorized phrases -- educated the population in the ways of socialism and communism, it is not surprising that the Gerlovins would utilize this mode as a symbol of understood norms and universal dictates. Both the blatant and subconscious ideological message serves the Gerlovins as a starting point. It is cryptically delivered to the subconscious, through crude markings like the primitive codings of civilizations long past. Unlike the anonymity of primitive artists, the Gerlovins identify themselves with their action and message by using the close-up photographic portrait as background. These "photoglyphs" serve as mute performances frozen in time and space. The visceral textures of the human face and hands define the personal character of the Gerlovins' art, upon which are imposed inimical associations suggested by the meaning of truncated superimposed words. Straight-forward symmetricalities, simple primary colors, sharp contrasts of light and dark establish the elementariness of their messages and a direct reading of them. The natural qualities of the human physiognomy and its expressionless features forge the associative meanings of the words with unsettling force. Close-ups are important, for through them the viewer sees that the human is at the base of the creative work. The silhouette of the human face, its mappable textures, are like escape routes from harsh realities at hand, into realms of fantasy and independent contrivance.

Jerzy Onuch
The perfunctory nature of life under the regime of Soviet standards is questioned and probed in the work of the Gerlovins. Despite the apparent whimsicality, there is a profound moral seriousness in their conceptual construct. So it is also in the work of Jerzy Onuch, a conceptual and performance artist who now lives in Toronto, but hails from Warsaw, Poland, yet is confronted by his Ukrainian background and roots. As complicated as is Onuch's history, he uses his art to untangle what he perceives to be the undiscovered potential of Ukraine's art, a virtual terra incognita and a polity whose art is worthy of attention during her historical passage from a dependent and unrecognized entity to an independent cultural force. In the autumn of 1991, Onuch visited Ukraine for the fir time after a 15-year hiatus. Even though he lived in Poland and was close to the border, the relations between the Soviet Union and her satellites was inimical enough to prevent any genuine exchange among artists. His introduction to Ukraine's art is recent and from the advantageous position of an invited guest artist, no longer living in Poland but in Canada. He was invited to present performance pieces in Kiev and Lviv where, in many circles, performance is still regarded as a marginal art form, insignificant in its impact. But Onuch's visit extended to serve on the jury for the First Biennale of Ukrainian art. It was then that he first had occasion to view the current state of Ukrainian art in its current crucial transitional period. That opportunity gave him cause to think about the role of the diaspora in the revival of Ukrainian art on its native soil, to assist in a return to normalcy, to allow Ukrainian artists to reestablish a connection with Europe and its ethos. His performance, therefore, are as with every artist, a self-searching with this goal in mind. It is an attempt to identify one's place in the larger cultural arena of a specific native heritage. But more than just self-expression, his work assumes the role of a conduit.

Under the Soviet system, general education and the regressive nature of official artistic organizations forced Ukraine out into the periphery of contemporary art developments. And yet, as recognized by Onuch, there were individuals who made their mark in recent historical events such as during the famous Sotheby sale and auction of 198, but their acknowledged connection to Ukraine was negligible, if not totally absent. Most of them were absorbed in the mainstream of Moscow galleries and marketed as Russian, not as Ukrainian artists -- a tremendous loss for Ukraine's current art. Onuch feels the overwhelming pain at what amount to unethical decimation of Ukraine's historical present; thus he sacrifices his work to emphasize the ennui, the grief, the banal, as in selling oneself out. Such pervasive mundaneness results in the inability to take a stand, to protest, to fight for a justified existence and a total release from subservience and a total release from slavish adherence to artificial norms and conventional practice. His art seeks to break through such stultifying stereotypical behaviors by focusing on the image of a wanderer, one entangled in perceived self-images or the total absence of an identifying self. It is a struggle he upholds even for himself as an artist, wishing not to be seduced by the lure of commercialism. In this regard, Onuch's performances are autobiographical in nature. The work, "HI-STORY," is a liberating exercise in which the artist admittedly "no longer feels the need to pointlessly struggle with the enclosing net of socially imposed stereotypes. He finds the possibility to shape his own identity; yet, conscious of the illusory nature of his situation he always holds back from fully giving in to his dreams and aspirations." Thus the leitmotif of a wanderer in Onuch's work does not connote an aimlessness but is directed consciously at a reconnection with his roots, and at a firmer understanding of deviations therefrom. It is an existential route, poignantly mindful of disinheritance and restitution. Indeed, banality is exaggerated because it represents the most natural route to acceptance. Yet the distractions are ubiquitous for that is what is encountered for the taking and most frequently forces one to deviate from set goals and moral values.

Aka Pereyma
No element, no motif, no artistic consideration is regarded as banal in the art of Aka Pereyma. Her entire being is suffused with raising the moments of daily life to a rousing celebration of everyday living. The question of what it means to "be alive" is bound up with the artifacts of her native Ukrainian roots that surround her daily routines. The source of Pereyma's art is generated by the power of nature, just as the very rhythms of nature that defined the visual expression of Ukraine's ancient culture -- the forces of negative and positive, void and solid, dark and light, geometric and curvilinear -- found on vessels, monolithic pagan sculpture, ritualistic objects, and including the simplest source of restorative symbolism -- the decorated egg (pysanka). In all of these, Pereyma discovers and rediscovers universal values and knowledge about life's vicissitudes. They are imbedded in the rituals of her native culture and emerge as signposts on the road to an ebullient expression of joie-de-vivre. The regenerative cyclicality of a human life, its dizzying erotic origins, and consummated complexities are matched by the evolutionary organic parallels in nature -- the bud, the leaf, the branch, the oak tree, the acorn.

What is compelling about Pereyma's life's work is that the hybridized forms she employs are charged as carriers of good fortune. Her domestic and mythological metal birds, for instance, constructed of found objects and farm implements, establish a sacred space between work and rest, action and stasis. Like a divine sentry, they sustain her labor and protect her creative impulses. The shapes in her paintings and ceramics are fragments woven from the rich tapestry of her ancestral culture. Through these she devises visual narrative rebuses derived from the melodic lyrics of Ukrainian folksongs; the magical realm of folkloric description of spirit gods suffuses her work with mystifying elements what she encases in hard-edged embryonic units. The seasons of the year feed her imaginative spirit and dictate her internal work cycles. Despite the fact that her entire creative period as an artist has been spent in America, and even though she was geographically distant from the Ukraine, she preserved a powerful link with their native land. Seemingly severed from any identification with Ukrainian culture in Ukraine, nonetheless, she and those like her have been the keepers of the cultural spark during a period of cultural darkness. They've spent their entire mature adult lives as contributing members to American life in general; they've raised their children in the diversity that America offers, constantly on watch to make sure that the generations that follow be cognizant of their cultural and national roots. Her formal education in art began later in life than usual, but its prelude was replete with experience, discovery, innovation. She abandoned the idea of living in a city, for it meant being cut off from the agricultural ethos that informed so much of Ukraine's customs. As a practicing artist working on her farm near Troy, Ohio, surrounded by wheat and corn fields, chickens guinea hens, and peacocks, Pereyma immersed herself in the search for the very core and spiritual essence of Ukrainian cultural life from its cultic origins to a cultivated modernity. Although one of a mass generation forced to leave the homeland after the second world war, she was raised in a predominantly Polish setting, where Ukrainians were in a minority. But this only made her family even more determined to cultivate Ukrainian customs, to share that which could not be practiced openly. There is nothing in Pereyma's long and productive life that does not relate to her art. All of it is nurtured and channeled into and from within the wondrous containment of the ovoid form and through the fluidity of harmonious lines that symbolic form generates. And yet, she is able to break through the safe haven of this two-dimensional art to concentrate on the unwieldy, cumbersome and aggressive processes of welding and sandblasted stone sculpture.

Irma Osadsa
The ties of family life are central to Pereyma's existence. It is no wonder that her "amazonic" approach to art served as a model for her niece, Irma Osadsa, whose own work also draws on motifs used in pysanka, that the artist then abstracts and uses as talismans to evoke the organic life-generating forces of the symbols. The monumentalized and detailed motifs signal bounty, fecundity, faith, and resurrection. Through them, Osadsa's works on paper make majestic the pagan rituals of her forefathers. It is a unique graphic mantra for a creative woman in a seemingly sterile modern environment. Just as her pagan ancestors believed that the power of the symbol would transfer to the object on which it was drawn, so it was believed that the symbols chosen attend to the fulfillment of wishes or the repelling of evil and misfortune. Osadsa's art draws on her heritage to assist, as it were, in the peripeteia of modern living. Her works thus have a remarkable serenity, relinquishing the mysterious doings of the natural world to its own inner rhythms. Birds and various fowl denote a free, unhampered way of existence, although a hint of menace lurks in starbursts, in cage-like lattices, in potentially ensnaring spirals and leaves a hint of unease, threatening this otherwise peaceable domain of interconnected calligraphic forms.

Natalka Husar
An undeniable unsettling feeling is powerfully expressed by the work of the women in this exhibition who share a peculiarly common socio-historical background. In addition to Osadsa, two other artists, Natalka Husar and Lydia Bodnar-Balahutrak, are more-or-less contemporaries in age and in the unique experience of starting out their lives as Americans of Ukrainian descent. Schooled in the educational systems of the 1950s and 1960s, graduated from college, they are now facing the dilemma of trying to locate their position as artists, as women, not only within the complex communicty life of the Ukrainian diaspora, but in relation to the Ukraine that they have reached out to with compassion, longing, and deep sentiment. All three find themselves at a key juncture in their lives as professional femaile artists facing the schizophrenia of the double culture that informed their entire lives.

The strict ritualized ethnicity of their emigre mothers, who struggled to teach their daughters all of the grace, handicraft and domestic skills associated with being quintessentially a Ukrainian female, contrasted sharplywith the ocmportment of their American peers for whom such or similar expectations seemed not to exist. There was a certain pride in their richness of this dual life, but as their worlds were filled with colorful embroidery, pysanka decoration, and culinary delicacies, and the preserving of the bounty of the family's garden harvest, so dramatically alluded to by Husar -- oall of this began to intrude upon the more complex, less clearly delineated, multi-cultural world of conflicting values, etc., that bombarded their lives as mature American women. The transition from the narrowness and protection of ritualized family life, reinforced by a tightly knit community that practiced the same rituals, to a chaotic, roller-coaster world of unequally shared values, or even a lack thereof, confronted these developing female painters headon. Their very sense of self depended on finding a zone of comfort within these two disparate worlds. In one world, you knew exactly what you were to believe, how you were to behave, what was expected of you; in the other, you had to forge an identity for yourself. These two spheres, constantly at odds, fed their own form of perversity, and it is these issues that are especially boldly revealed to us in the work of Natalka Husar. Husar's works are about the excesses of belonging; belonging to family, a community, a nation, a culture, a ritual of hospitality and herculean expectations, but through it all becoming automatized and depersonalized, producing to please others or to avoid disappointment and the loss of place.

In that community, it was a dream that held life together, one perpetuated by all political immigrants forced to abandon their homeland. It was a dream about one day seeing their motherland free, and by revisiting that life left behind, to erase the nostalgia and sentimentality that wormed its way through all of life's efforts. For Ukrainians and all East Europeans, that dream became a reality since the collapse of communism. Yet now that Ukraine is free, only skepticism about its glory pervades this generation of disenchanted, essentially newly disenfranchised beings. It is with a sense of irony and elusiveness that the realization about a national future which will be different from the vision that the dream kept alive begins to etch itself into the consciousness of the generation to which belong Husar and with her, Bodnar-Balahutrak. Their parents' homeland is not yet their own. At the same time, the Western world seems equally foreign and alien. They've chosen to fight back in different ways.

Lydia Bodnar-Balahutrak
In the tactics of Postmodernism, Bodnar-Balahutrak appropriates details, such as the Crucifix in the Arezzo Chapel overlaid with photographs of famine victims with swollen feet. She thus pays homage to the universal tragedies that today befall many cultures, but identifies these poignant moments of human condition with tragedies that have been visited upon Ukraine in this century: the nuclear holocaust at Chernobyl in 1989 and the artificial famine of 1933. Her choice of materials describes her psychic empathy with the compelling pathos brought about by man-made cataclysms: common use of destressed wood, peeling as in aged gold-leaf, chipped and uneven over the surface, objects worn not by the patina of climatic conditions, but by the layering of transparencies of one hopeless event after another that shred the internal wholesomeness so coveted by the nation. The selling out of the nation, its spiritual values and material treasures, are poignantly brought to the current moment by Soviet ruble coins attached to the fram of Bodnar-Balahutrak's work. The compositions establish an undelinable link with the format of traditional and conventional icon painting, not only in the use of wax, but also in the slightly recessed internal image, creating a natural border. The faded image of the Theotokos (the Mother of God, protectress and model of faith) is replaced by a ghostly contemporary mother, holding her wanton child in her lap. In another work from this series, the suffering eye of wasted child becomes one with the madonna's. The margin, reserved as a convention in icons to elaborate in episodic narratives on the life of the saint, contains a wooden relief form of a visibly empty village house, totally abandoned and lifeless.

Frames are painted black, as if representing memorial portraits caried in ritual processions. All the surfaces, whether they consist of soil, dried flowers, or other plants, coins, and/or ruble notes, are scored, torched, or covered with wax to emphasize the visceral quality of the experience. The torching is an obvious link to the famine during the 1930s when under Stalin's plans to collectivize farms, those who would not comply found themselves burned out of ancestral homes. Millions of people were sacrificed to that cause. Again, the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl is the sad reminder of how a nation falls victim in the name of progress. The material comes from the everyday adornments and family heirlooms that could be found in any Ukrainian home, on either continent: embroideries, carved frames, handicraft that gives identity and bonding to a larger national group. Mementos are in the form of printed holy cards; sacrifice is symbolized by liturgical chalices appended to the surface of the frame. The compelling use of ecclesiastical attributes is a direct reflection of the impact made upon her by the desecrated churches she witnessed during Bodnar-Balahutrak's very first visit to Ukraine in the spring of 1991. Yet it is equally significant that Lydia Bodnar-Balahutrak's affinity toward liturgical symbols belies a genealogical, as well as a cultural link with Ukraine. Her paternal grandfather was a Ukrainian Catholic priest, a vocation that carries with it the designation not only of guardian of the faith, but also preserver of the culture. In the past, she dedicated her work, not only in name but in subject, to her grandparents whose guidance instilled in her a love for a heritage that she could only know from afar.

Oleg Kudryashov
Icons, too, form the very basis of the art of Oleg Kudryashov, a Russian artist, who left Moscow for London in 1974, at the age of 42. Working mainly in the graphic medium, he reveals the ambiguities of his youth, living in a totalitarian society which cut through every aspect of individual life. As if to express the intrusiveness of the government in all affairs, Kudryashov's works are thus a unique mix of the simple, populist hand-colored woodblock art of the lubok, or crude broadsheet, the construct of the icon (including the illusion of an internal recessed area and resultant frame surrounding the image), and futurist shards of urban, industrial landscape through the center. Within a system of lattices, scribbled notations, and other markings, Kudryashov presents a dramatic synthesis of sights and sounds of the cityscapes culled from memory and animated to reflect the atmosphere of his youth; in other works, a strident concatenation of sharp incised lines, a la Kirchner or Grosz, are imbued with the seductive military scenes reminiscent of avante-garde artists of the 1910s or 1920s, especially Mikhail Larionov. All these images have been described as allegorized adventures from his youth. Indeed, the subjects and the flashback handling of them suggest an intimacy with a time past, but endearingly close to the heart. It is Kudryshov's technical handling of the printmaking medium that imbues the art with its potent qualities. Kudryashov chooses to draw directly upon zinc plates that he pulls himself to be reworked and recombined into constructed works of unusual scale. The representational aspects of his work become more like vignettes than a conclusive reminiscence. Contrary to the reproductive nature of the graphic medium, each of Kudryashov's works, reconfigured in their immediate relationships, remain uniquely unreproducible works.

Bogdan Chernetskiy
Perhaps the most traditional from an academic standpoint in the group represented by this show is the art of Bogdan Chernetskiy. Chernetskiy's talents are far-ranging; his erudition in matters of religious art unmatched among practicing artists. His training is impeccable in terms of the rigors of strict academic preparation. He is versatile in a variety of genres and media, from portrait painting, murals, ceramics to still lifes, from tempera to oil. All of Chernetskiy's art is bound up with the theological lessons of icon painting. His activities have been largely in the realm of ecclesiastical art, but his secular work reserves the same regard for nature as is revealed in his trompe l'oeil murals and icons. Chernetskiy's art is bound up with the theological lessons of icon painting. His activities have been largely in the realm of ecclesiastical art, but his secular work reserves the same regard for nature as is revealed in his trompe l'oeil murals and icons. Chernetskiy's sensitivity to the liturgical arts is what links him with his heritage, where the church had always been the fulcrum of cultural life and its denigration during the atheistic Soviet regime fueled the rampant antipathy among the population toward the state.

In Ukraine, Chernetskiy used to work in secret, assisted by villagers and scores of devout indiviuals. He had no access to art materials in the way that official artists of propaganda were afforded, so he used the traditional yolk tempera medium and powdered pigments brought to him clandestinely by common folk. He worked long hours, behind closed curtains and later into the night, fearlessly and insistently pursuing his objectives despite the threat of incarceration by the KGB. He worked in a variety of genres, yet the scope of Chernetskiy's accomplishments and potential could only be fully appreciated if one could visit the churches in UKraine and in the United States where entire interior spaces, from floor to cupolas, are replete with tempera paintings that animate the spiritual ambiance of the Byzantine liturgical ritual of the Eastern Slavs. A multitude of foreshortened figures, interwoven through diaphanous, transparent forms, transform one's sense of place and time. His profound knowledge of canonic depiction of sacred figures allows Chernetskiy to employ artistic license without deviating from the respectful posture required of any ecclesiastical painter. On the other hand, his inventive spirit receives full expression in experimental ceramic work, where clever admixtures of different materials convey in part improvisation, raw and immediate, yet also a deliberateness that establishes historical continuity -- a visceral connection with Ukraine's past.

What would round out this exhibition would be some exposure to the art of Romanians, Hungarians, Slovaks, Czechs, etc., to give some idea of further issues confronting displaced artists, both those who deliberately came to the decision not to remain in their respective countries, and those whose ties with known traditions determine their identities. These artists would give us a fuller picture of the riches that today enhance the art of the Americas, Great Britain, Canada -- or of anywhere they reside beyond the native borders of their heritage. It is important to view their work in the context of its own traditions and the particular situation of the artist vis-a-vis his/her native traditions, especially Eastern Europe, where the very act of producing a painting is political, no matter what the content. Whether you are an expatriot, or born into the Slavic heritage, that connection never leaves you.

Myroslava Mudrak is an associate professor of Art History at Ohio State University. A specialist in Slavic and East European modernism and the Soviet avante-garde of the 1910s-1920s, she received a Kovaliw Prize for her book, The New Generation and Artistic Modernism in the Ukraine, in 1968.

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