Anna Dusi | Curator | Building Bridges Exchange
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
Jill Conner | Gallery Director | Brand Library
Peter Frank | Curator, Critic Huffington Post | Zhenya Gershman – An Art of Human Moment
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.