The masters’ originals are not the flat, glossy, photographic pictures we see in art history books. I would invite anyone to look at Veronese’s work or Rembrandt's late period up close in order to see how incredibly textured they are. But these methods are somewhat concealed from casual viewers: not until the 20th century did the culture decide that “laying bare the device” was interesting in itself.
I worked for a long time on reconciling plein air feeling with a deliberate process inherent in earlier painting and developed a set of methods that allows me to get the results I want.
- You emphasize the necessity to embrace our own experience and the importance of this in a culture “neurotically obsessed with meaning.” Could you expand on some of your own experiences in these scenes? What memories or feelings do they evoke? Is there any in particular that attaches to a specific anecdote?
As a child, I spent every summer in the country. Those days of simply hanging out with friends on a sand bank of a winding brown river, searching for bugs, picking wild strawberries in the flower fields, or foraging for mushrooms in the forest are etched in my mind--full of colors, sounds and sensations. By contrast, the rest of my childhood, though spent in the architecturally beautiful city of St. Petersburg, Russia, exists in my memory as a monotony of grey dreariness. This makes me ponder the incredible value of “pointless” unstructured time spent simply being present to nature and to oneself.
It is usually easy for me to reconnect to these childhood states when I find myself in nature, though it doesn't happen everywhere. When I lived in Alberta, I found the Eastern face of the Canadian Rockies foreboding. In those years, I often traveled to the Pacific side of the mountains to find places where I could feel at home. There is one town in British Columbia where my husband and I spent days wading the river as if we were children. The river has amazing sculptural rocks, some of which I managed to bring with me across the border to the United States.
I found it easy to connect to the Arizona desert, the Utah parks, Acadia National Park in Maine and to the Delaware Gap area. I can't explain why, and I don’t think it is important to try to do so.
- How much time had passed from the first time you saw the sunlit hemlocks to the outing where you found them devastated by the parasite? What was that moment like?
Some 5-6 years. When I was confronted by that drastic change it wiped out my illusion of security. I knew that trees die but still thought of the forest as “eternal” compared to the span of my own life. There is a short poem by A. Pushkin about an oak tree on his estate: “As I look at this patriarch of the forest, I know it will outlive my age just as it had outlived the age of my forefathers”. A century and a half later, I was able to sit under that very same oak, reciting the poem in my mind. But after seeing the hemlocks wiped out I could no longer believe the “eternal” forest would outlive me.
- Surely a lot has changed in the world you once knew from the one that your son is coming to know, as you touched upon. Does this impact your work a lot? Does it influence your view of the world? Lastly, does his perspective of the world at all inspire your idea for a “childhood tunnel vision”?
If you're referring to the natural world, I don't think that much has changed-- though the specific instance of the hemlock grove being decimated had a profound effect on me. But if we're talking about societal change, then yes. In my case, this was not just the historical change, but also the immense cultural one brought on by the experience of immigration.
I spent my childhood in the Soviet Union during a period known as Stagnation – nothing around me seemed to change except the names of the cosmonauts in space and faces of announcers on TV. But then all of a sudden there were drastic political changes and the USSR abruptly came down. Now when I explain to my son what communism was, he considers my stories relics from a distant mythological past, just like the Greek gods and heroes he likes to read about.
That something as domineering as totalitarian communism could collapse so rapidly is a thought to behold, but perhaps it would be better suited to an interview about my political work. In this body of work about nature, I am seeking to hold onto something. As I realize that the forest is not eternal, I am trying to tap into both a collective consciousness and unconsciousness. The idea of childhood “tunnel vision” is one of escape that connects to the adult need “to get away from it all”.
- It seems as though a lot of your older work had a very clear criticism or message you wanted to get put to the viewer, take “November 7” and “Naked Truth” for example. What made you want to create something so different as the “Minimal Landscapes,” something that impose no clear meaning on the viewer?
At the time when I painted “November 7” and “Naked Truth”, political work felt relevant and appropriate to me. Then for a while it did not. I think every artist gets in and out of sync with societal issues depending on the hand dealt by his or her life.
To come back around to feminist subjects, after I had my son I became less interested in what was going on politically. Instead, I developed a strong need to reach out to everyone I had known to create this one big safe family. And when I did hear political news, I reacted differently. Every time NPR acknowledged a soldier who had perished in the Iraq War, I felt incredible pain for the parents who had lost their son. If it was the effect of oxytocin, it was perfectly fine with me.
However, I can see myself revisiting political subjects, and maybe soon. The recent tragedy of flight M17 certainly strikes close to home for me.
- The transition from being an accredited professor in Russia back to being a graduate student in Canada must have been a tough one. How did you adjust? What were some challenges you faced and how’d you overcome them? Do you think this shift helped or hurt you as an artist?
Yes, it was a tough transition.
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