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Dr. Andreas Kilcher | Professor of Literature | ETH Zürich

For Zhenya Gershman’s “Days of Awe”: The Semen of Darkness

In the beginning, there was darkness. Not an empty and negative or absolute darkness however, much more a filled and swinging darkness, one that bears its invisible fruit in its lap: an initially pregnant darkness imbued with its counterpart. The semen of this replete shade is: light. And thus, light emanates from the sublime shades of a carrying night.

Such conceiving darkness is not just an archaic cosmological beginning. It is also the initiation of true art, as we see it in the paintings of Zhenya Gershman. They unfold their pictorial realm against the background of an imbuing darkness which is also here the fertile ground of creation: unshaped matter, unshaped however full and ready for formation. Because out of this fullness emerge the elementary forms of being, shaped and tinged matter: body. This emergence of bodies from the backdrop of darkness is not just a technical shaping and coloring of the canvas. It is more essential: illumination. The emerging of corporeity from filled darkness is the very process of enlightenment, of illumination. Because it is from light, that color and form emerge. Zhenya Gershman’s paintings are in this primordial and highest sense illuminations. In this vein, the body appears on the canvas as illumination, i.e. as formation in shape and color. This body-shaping light is warm in many shades. Warm in color: between bright yellow, beige, red, and dark brown, warm in form: curved, inflected, flexuous. In Zhenya Gershman’s paintings, the body is revealed as scenery of warm colors and warm forms. However, we do not yet know if this is a human body. It is initially just “body” that comes into the picture as a multilayered texture of forms and colors. That this body appears as human, is one of the mysteries of Zhenya Gershman’s art. Art is, in this sense, fundamentally metamorphosis. This transformation takes place on the one hand in the artwork itself, on the other hand in the very moment of its contemplation by the spectator.

Zhenya Gershman’s paintings enact this metamorphosis already by their large size and the space they therefore demand. Each painting builds a universe in itself. This space is the primary stage of manifold processes of transformation: from the initial marking and sketching and formation, up to the refined shaping and coloring. From this large scale, we then zoom in very close to the surface where the actual work of the artist is performed: the skin of the artbody. This close look may reveal the texture of that skin. It consists of only vaguely shaped particles of bodies, of lines, traits, strokes, dots etc. They might seem lacking form, but in truth they in turn are fundamentally formative themselves. These particles build virtually the primordial matter, and in their totality the torso of the artwork’s body.

When then the contemplators steps back, they experience the primordial scenery of unshaped forms transform into the shape and colors of human bodies. This is a quasi-magical process of metamorphosis: the bringing to life of the primary matter by composing the particles to a larger entity. Metamorphosis is at this primary stage: conjunction, correlation, combination of elements. This composition happens literally in front of the eyes of the spectator: He or She sees the particled unshaped primary matter organize and form into the shape of human bodies.

In this way, Zhenya Gershman enfolds the human body, first of all its most expressive, most meaningful, most emblematic limbs: heads and hands. Thus, in the moment, we perceive the configuration and constellation of heads and hands, we witness a second virtually magical transformation: a vivification and ensoulment of the body. It is true: These, limbs are bodies in a very visible and tangible way: they are strongly marked by time and space, by the course of life, thus not smooth or in any way idealized, much more corrugated, wrinkled, lived, felt. But just this way, they appear at the same time also as the strongest materializations of the elementary forces of life. These bodies are inspirited and ensouled. They turn out to be expressions and manifestations of the soul and its realm of emotions, feelings, dreams, fears etc. At the same time, it gets also clear that the soul is not existing independently from the body, much more the soul needs the body as its living matrix. Zhenya Gershman’s paintings therefore are dedicated to both at the same time: the body and the soul of the human being. They display the body as fundamentally ensouled, and they enact the soul within the spatiotemporal course of life and its history. These artworks thus perform the two basic movements of the human life in one and the same moment: ensoulment of the body and embodiment of the soul. They search the equilibrium of spiritualization and materialization, the alternation of elevation and concretization, of sublimation and profanation. The mystery of these paintings is the mystery of the equilibrium of the two basic processes of creation: embodiment and ensoulment.

This applies to the human being, living in two realms at the same time: the material realm of the animal body and the ethereal realm of the angelic spirit. Of the manifold gestures of Zhenya Gershman’s paintings, the folding and lifting hands perform this movement in an exemplary way. The moving gesture of this earthed and marked body is: elevation. This applies however not alone to the human body but at the same time also – and essentially – to the artwork itself. That is why the human body is the primary object not just of this art, but of art as such – or even better: it’s subject. The human body is the metonymy par excellence of the work of art. Because it itself performs this double movement of material formation and configuration on the one and semantic interpretation on the other hand. Each painting is virtually a scale that searches for the equilibrium of these two complementary movements of creation and being.

Anna Dusi | Curator | Building Bridges Exchange

Portraiture has always been an inseparable part of art history, adapting to the spirit of each different era and taking on either a commemorative or documentary role.Zhenya Gershman’s own rendering of this well-established art genre is an introspective journey into the worlds of the iconic figures immortalized in her representations.What makes these portraits unique is Zhenya Gershman’s execution and technique. Her perfect, elegant lines, combined with a strong sense of chromatic virtuosity, vividly captures the fleeting expression of her subjects. Her distinguished style sets her work apart from other contemporary renditions of this genre.

Zhenya’s eye does not merely reproduce the shape and features of her models, but focuses on those gestures that elicit a more intimate and individual portrait.
The image of an icon is thus achieved through the unfinished quality of her strokes.
The artist is the observer. Therefore, the “portrait” becomes a conceptual device through which the artist also looks at her own self. It is not just the mere picture of a celebrity but a visceral and psychoanalytic interpretation of selfhood.

Zhenya Gershman’s portraits reveal a chiastic, at times conflicting dualism between the self and its mask, and between the individual and the person.

Jan Baum | Gallery Director | Jan Baum Gallery

Figures inspired by the everyday, some with biblical references, become iconic under the power of Zhenya’s brush.

Jill Conner | Gallery Director | Brand Library

The work of Zhenya Gershman first came to my attention in Brand 30, an annual national juried exhibit at Brand Gallery in 2000. Her larger than life profile of a man playing a guitar was so vivid and original that I can still bring it instantly to mind. From then to now, I have seen the artist’s work explore a variety of figures–both male and female–with equal aplomb, as she has followed a cohesive course of study and advancement of painterly skills.Her subjects are captured in time and oil like specimens from another dimension. We can peer inquisitively, but entry onto the canvas is by her invitation only. The figures are bold and mesmerizing, yet ethereal and contemplative. They loom like large afterimages of people and places we might have seen in a glimpse, yet they remain in our thoughts like a face in the mirror.

Peter Frank | Curator, Critic Huffington Post | Zhenya Gershman – An Art of Human Moment

The human figure has been the primary subject of art in the western world for as long as there has been a “western world” as such. The philosophic underpinnings of our civilization(s) begin with the human being; the Bible asserts this from the moment God narrows “His” focus down from the universe (“the word”) to the earth (“the dominion”). As importantly, the human being is forged in His image, implying that the human image is an intimation of the divine. No wonder that two of the three major monotheistic religions have evolved proscriptions against the rendition of the figure – and that the artwork that has been a keystone of the third has centered on that rendition.Zhenya Gershman’s approach to the figure inherits this resonance of the divine, and reflects the many modifications and diversions that have faceted this resonance since the beginning of the Enlightenment. Furthermore, as a product of her times and places (note the plurals) Gershman represents both a culmination and a denial of Enlightenment values. Russian-born and -educated, Gershman engages that unique culture’s Janus-headed regard for western civilization, a regard that at once embraces and turns from Europe. A product of Russia’s – in fact the Soviet Union’s – contemporary Jewish community, its success and its vulnerability both sourced in its simultaneous assimilation and distinction, Gershman inherits that community’s contrasts and conflicts, contrasts and conflicts that have long roiled within the maelstrom of Russia’s larger contradictions.Working in America may provide Gershman with practical and emotional grounding, but it has only served to deepen Gershman’s inquiry into the human presence – if not into the human soul, than into the dynamics of human interaction, dynamics that, in America at least, are expected to manifest themselves in novels and theater and cinema rather than painting. In these art forms is where such dynamics have most memorably manifested in Russia as well. But there is a strain in Russian painting that also embodies such dramatic engagement with people; too little known to us over here, naturalist painting in late 19th century Russia – best (but not solely) embodied in the work of Ilya Repin – tells stories not simply through vivid mises en scène but through the virtuosic and electrifyingly expressive description of characters. This painting is among the most successful narrative-realist work ever painted, surpassing its French academic counterpart (and model) in its visual detail, expository flow and operatic sweep.As with her Russian predecessors – and, notably, certain French and American ones such as Degas and Eakins – it’s not the figure that preoccupies Gershman so much as it is the person who inhabits the figure, who gives life and meaning to the lump of flesh. Gershman individuates her subjects one from another as much as she can, highlighting the particularities of their faces, the peculiarities of their stances, the irregularities of their bodies and the histories and mysteries suggested by their clothing, no matter how colorful or how scant.Gershman is more a portraitist than a figure painter. She is fascinated by who people are, not simply how they occupy space and sight. Further, Gershman is a storyteller. Although her technique is rich, her narrative approach is so spare and laconic that it gives little notice of any larger account. But, carrying forward the rich Russian tradition, she renders individuals – and the situations in which they find themselves – with an arresting vividness, a vividness to which her visual economy contributes. None seems to speak; it’s not as if Gershman has depicted her figures in mid-gesture or peroration. Rather, she has caught them at points of reflection, moments of introspection or self-regard, or both, which deliver them to self-realization – and deliver their self-realization to us.

Gershman’s long paintings, of course, partake in the rich history specific to full-length portraiture. In their concentration on normal, even ignoble (and sometimes odd-, even mad-seeming) subjects, however, she turns away from the parade of dukes and duchesses, generals and statesmen, prosperous burghers and their mates, that marches out of the Renaissance, through the Baroque, and into the Rococo. Instead, with a fond glance at Gainsborough’s insouciant children, she finds her stylistic ancestry in the romantic exhalation of the 19th century. In particular, at least in these vertical post-impressionist tableaux wherein atmosphere, movement, and even depth of soul is described in a few open (if carefully laid-in) brushstrokes – that is, in a manner that limns an image as much through omission as through commission – Gershman recapitulates the kind of full-length portraiture that was in vogue a century ago. She follows thus in the footsteps of such painters as John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler, painters (notably American) who honed their pictorial focus down to the subject him- or herself, narrowing the breadth of field beside and behind the figure, painting the figure larger than life, and, no matter how lifelike, never letting the presence of the subject obscure the facticity of the paint engaged in molding that presence

Indeed, the painterliness of these pictures, Gershman’s at least as much as Whistler’s or Sargent’s, insists on the realness, the palpable presence, of the image. Like the bust-portrait’s eyes that supposedly follow the viewer around the room, such painterly presence is a trope of apperception, a device not simply for convincing the viewer of the image’s credibility, but for inculcating the viewer – hermeneutically, you might say – in the establishment of that credibility: the believability of the image spreads from viewer to viewer, as if contagious. Here, Gershman’s effort evokes not only Whistler’s and Sargent’s, but that from which they took inspiration, Manet’s and Velazquez’s – masters of the figure who in their own ways avoided the banal literalities of their contemporaries for a rendition truer to the vagaries of vision, and (thereby) to the dynamics of human presence.

Gershman may thus conjure the artistic manners and attitudes of centuries past, but her approach is not anachronistic or retardataire. Rather, it is summative. Besides its Baroque and romantic features, Gershman’s style bespeaks a thoroughgoing familiarity with the modern, with painterly expressionism, surrealist distortion, and even the structure and sensuousness of pure abstraction. Gershman’s brushstroke may inherit its integrity from that of Whistler, but its assertiveness, even its sculpted quality, descends from Soutine, Nolde, Munch, even van Gogh. The isolation that virtually enshrouds the figures may be a formal mannerism going back to Velazquez, but has a psychological frisson here that insists on the 20th century. (We’ll wait to see if it insists on the 21st as well.) And the intense, vibrant colors with which the empty fields comprising that isolation are painted – not to mention the colors used to render the figures themselves – sing forth with a clarity and boldness seen both in Kazimir Malevich and Barnett Newman, Mikhail Larionov and Clyfford Still.

It is not a little pretentious to regard a current body of work as a kind of culmination, a delta of artistic rivers flowing together after centuries of discrete evolution. But the pretense is this writer’s, not the artist’s. Zhenya Gershman has not consciously sought to recapitulate the entirety of western art, or even the multiplicity of so many of its streams, in her oeuvre, much less in this latest body of work alone. But this body of work does evince a familiarity with the history of painting that is unusual – or certainly no longer common – among younger artists in the western world. If the artist is to avoid the self-conscious, even parodistic gimmickry of late post-modernist rhetoric, the result of such familiarity must be either a deliberate rejection of its entire weight or a thorough embrace of its vast complexity. Gershman opts for the less ascetic, but not less perilous, of these two paths, and negotiates its many possible pitfalls with increasing deftness, confidence, and grace. As a result, in this body of work the bodies work as more than just bodies.