Since the revolutionary Maidan events in Kiev from November 2013 to February 2014, there’s been unprecedented interest in Ukrainian contemporary art, both in London and worldwide. Perhaps no comparable event in the recent past has seen artists playing such a central role: from the start, they were at the centre of the protests – painting banners, performing, and capturing scenes in paint as they unfolded. International, touring exhibitions such as I am a Drop in the Ocean: Art of the Ukrainian Revolution (an exhibition at Künstlerhaus, Vienna and then MOCAK, about artistic and visual expressions of the protests) have gained global press coverage and sought to understand how artists have dealt with the trauma of the violence. But if you look beyond these international, headline-grabbing exhibitions you’ll find equally important forces at play.
Two women single-mindedly setting out to put contemporary Ukrainian art on the map are Anna Lavrekha and Anna Phillips. Lavrekha and Phillips set up the Ukrainian Art Gallery in London last summer with the sole aim of showcasing the best in contemporary Ukrainian art. They don’t have a gallery space in London but have ingeniously gone into partnership with the Darren Baker Gallery on Charlotte Street. Their plan is to put on four shows this year: Ukrainian artists will be exhibited in Charlotte Street, with the ANN Gallery in Kiev hosting the Darren Baker Gallery in return.
At the Charlotte Street premises this week, until 10 March, is a rare chance to see two exhibitions of three major contemporary artists from Ukraine. On the ground floor are nine paintings by Taia Galagan (Tatiana Gershuni) from her recent ‘Double Portrait’ series, while in the downstairs space is a show of 15 paintings by Petro Lebedynets and Alla Aleksieieva. What ties these three artists together is colour – but they explore it in very different ways.
Galagan has always been interested in colour theory, a subject she taught while working at the Vancouver Art Institute, and she deploys her knowledge with great mastery. Her nine paintings, all oil on canvas and uniform in size (90 x100 cm), explore a brilliantly simple idea: Galagan has literally and figuratively painted two portraits within a single canvas. To see both images you need to use 3D glasses, which the gallery provides. If you close an eye and look through the red filter, you see one version of the sitter – the filter blocking out the colours of the other portrait – but through the other eye and the blue filter, a different painting of the same sitter emerges.
Galagan’s ‘artist double portrait’ series evolved from her reflections on the genre of self-portraiture, and its meaning in contemporary art. She re-presents nine iconic figures in the pantheon of Western twentieth-century art – including Warhol, Kahlo, Picasso, Gilbert & George — all of whom used the genre of self-portraiture consciously to present themselves as ‘Artist’ with a capital A. Her double portrait of Picasso works particularly well: close your right eye and you get the last self-portrait Picasso made on 30 June 1972 – his face skull-like: a fearful, wide-eyed old man. Close your left eye and the filter reveals an iconic image of Picasso in a feather head band, hand resting on his chin. The Gilbert and George double portrait shows first George, then Gilbert – in green and turquoise tones. But what’s brilliant about these paintings is how they work as images in their own right, without the optical prosthetic of 3D glasses. Galagan’s simple act of combining two portraits on one canvas strikes at the heart of artistic self-representation and reveals it as the unstable, multifaceted and fictive process that it is.
Downstairs in the gallery are works by Alla Aleksieieva and Petro Lebedynets, a husband and wife team. Lebedynets is a well-established abstract artist with a career that spans over two decades: the works in the show are some of his smaller pieces (the large canvases couldn’t travel so easily) which are luminous and vibrate with colour. Lebedynets’ use of it is wonderful – he creates shimmering images, saturated with glowing, densely-pigmented paint. Few discernible forms emerge from his canvases; instead there are vibrating pools and planes of orange, blue, green and red. Lebedynets looks like he loves the physical quality of oil paint – Peace of Mind (2014) has a wonderful slick of luscious pale blue paint, from which emerges the form of a white boat.
Aleksieieva’s canvases also radiate light and are saturated in densely pigmented colours. Her images have a jewel-like quality enhanced by the way she scumbles paint all over the canvas surface. Aleksieieva gives form to her paint: vases of flowers and bowls of fruit emerge shimmering out of the canvas. These are sun-filled, cheering paintings and are important artefacts of Ukrainian culture today. As Anna Phillips explained, the Ukrainian community in London and the UK started to wake up following the events last year: ‘By showing people art from the Ukraine we want to help people understand our country, beyond the conflict and tensions now, and change people’s opinion through art and culture.’
The exhibition Contemporary Ukrainian Art is at Darren Baker Gallery, 81 Charlotte Street, London, W1T 4PP between Wednesday 4 March 2015 and 10 March 2015, 10 am – 6 pm, Mon-Fri. Admission is free.