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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.