The grey concrete floors and whitewashed walls of the industrial exhibition space at Krilova Stelfox Gallery give full prominence to Olha Pryymak’s work. Her show is a series of small square paintings in nine groups of nine, neatly arranged in chronological order. They illustrate the first year of the crisis in Ukraine, intermixed with personal images of the artist’s London life and work, her son and her dog. There are also maps showing us exactly where Ukraine is and where the most important sites of conflict are and, running the gamut between public crisis and private life, paintings of social media and English news websites, underlining the fact we can follow what happens without ever having to set foot outside our homes.
The inclusion of news pages and Twitter creates a sharp contrast between the traditional fine art medium of paintings and the modern world we live in. They also suggest that this exhibition, while ostensibly about Ukraine, is firmly based in London. It doesn’t directly show Pryymak’s political stance towards the events, but chronicles what happened from the uprising onwards in a way that even an international audience can relate to, familiarised as they are with the topic, however gently, through maps and social media. What we see is very now because we’re so close to the events in time – yet the paintings are someone’s memories, an unofficial record of events which, in diary form, can be unreservedly subjective. This isn’t a first-hand impression of war translated into paint: instead, Pryymak gives us a personal view of a life – her life – as she paints one small square a day as a pictorial diary, removed from the crisis yet clearly affected by it.
Even the panel discussion which accompanied the opening stressed it wasn’t necessary to have been to East Ukraine to be affected by events there. As writers Svitlana Pyrkalo and Natalia Antonova gave personal accounts of what it was like to be Ukrainian, Russian or a bit of both, we learned that creative output like Pryymak’s doesn’t need to be in the warzone itself to reveal the trauma that comes with war. With conflict-specialist Zoe Marriage’s discussion of the effects of war on culture, Pryymak’s paintings were transformed into first-hand evidence for a creative response to a crisis that’s happening now, that remains unresolved and to which there are no easy answers.
The most shocking piece is that dealing with the shooting down of Flight MH17 last July which, despite being the concluding part of the series, hangs right at the exhibition entrance: a small set of images in grey, ochre and other muted tones that perfectly captures the horrors of that day. A crying Madonna is juxtaposed with a little plane flying in threateningly dark skies with billowing clouds, while a Twitter-feed announces the horrors of the crash and a child lies face down on the ground, reaching out for a map. As spectators we connect the dots, follow image by image and remember all that happened, not so long ago. And even for those unaffected by the rest of this faraway crisis, it brings home just how present the conflict is. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Crimea, Kyiv, Moscow or London – what happens in Ukraine has ripple effects with scant regard for borders.
The pairing of these scenes of horror with personal imagery strangely humanises the subject and, by avoiding the difficulties that come with an overtly political stance, shows how the crisis happens parallel to normal life. But looking back to the questions and subliminal chats of the panel discussion, it’s also evident that even for an exhibition focused on the personal – a private visual chronicle of contemporary events – it’s hard to escape politics in the light of a crisis whose outcome can only be guessed at, and which continues unabated.