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Published 30/04/2016 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Asya Dodina and Slava Polishchuk: ‘Material dictates the way you relate to the fact you describe’

The Russian immigrant artists talk about the difference between art education in the former Soviet Union and in the United States and the importance of using materials as expressive means in their work


Asya Dodina and Slava Polishchuk entered a new stage in their lives and careers nearly 20 years ago when they came to the United States from a post-perestroika Russia. In the former Soviet Union, they were well-trained, successful artists, having shown their work in central venues in Moscow and elsewhere. After emigrating to the US, they went to study art again at Brooklyn College in New York City. There, they experienced a different attitude towards the learning process from the one they had grown up with in their homeland. Despite their excellent training, they had to relearn the fundamentals of their attitude towards the materials with which they worked. The result of their lifelong search and experimentation is on view at the Narthex Gallery in St Peter’s Church in New York.

What Remains is an exhibition of 10 paintings inspired by a natural disaster, Hurricane Sandy, in 2012. Featuring stark desiccated plants, nests or birds that stand out against an empty but expansive background, they also incorporate debris and trash the artists found on the streets of New York after the hurricane. Tangled wire, electronic equipment, household items, broken utensils and remains of other objects rendered useless by nature’s force were embedded into the work and became an integral part of its expressive language. The artists’ ability to convey the sense of loss and abandonment turns the images they create into beautiful monuments to destructive and ineluctable forces of nature, against which the human mind can only pretend to be able to protect itself.

Dodina and Polishchuk spoke to Studio International on the occasion of this exhibition.

Natasha Kurchanova: My first question is about your history. Why did you leave Russia?

Slava Polishchuk: The main reason for our departure was that, in the early 1990s, exhibitions of Moscow artists, all-union exhibitions, resembled commercial stores or fairgrounds. There was nothing to see and no one to talk to among artists. The other reason was antisemitism. On the one hand, we had a reign of absolute freedom; on the other, ordinary, everyday antisemitism. We understood that things were changing, but not much.

Asya Dodina: For me, antisemitism was the main reason for leaving. It was not clear how things would develop from there.

NK: Did you believe that antisemitism was getting worse?

SP: Antisemitism in Russia was always fluctuating between being a little better or a little worse, but I became tired of, and bored by, my attempts to resist it internally. It became clear to me that, superficial changes notwithstanding, fundamentally, nothing would change. It was time to decide whether I wanted to live with it for the rest of my life.

NK: By the time you left, you were already established professionally. You had an artistic education and you were showing your work.

AD: Yes, I graduated from the Surikov Art Institute [in Moscow] and then became an artist in residence at the Russian Academy of the Arts. Slava and I met a few years before we left. We exhibited together and separately.

SP: We showed our work in the best exhibition halls, but still I was bored. Asya does not like it when I use this word to describe my condition then, but I think it is very fitting. I did not study politics or economics, but I intuitively knew that nothing would change. I would like to be wrong, but the current situation speaks to the contrary. Many talented artists, musicians and writers moved out of the country, which is too bad, because Russia could be an ideal place for the arts, as it was at the beginning of the 20th century. Then, people were working, thinking and inventing new things. All of this disappeared for the remainder of our lives.

NK: So, after you came to the US, you became American?

AD: In fact, we did not have a goal to become American. I do not think we have ever become American, although some people think otherwise. I think we have stayed the same as we were when we lived in Russia. We are not striving to blend in and do what is expected of us. Rather, we are trying to do what we have always done – to remain who we are. In principle, it does not matter where we live. We left Russia because we had an impression that the political system was not working properly. There are things here that we do not like, but we live here now, work in our studio and do other things that we are supposed to do. We are not trying to become Russian, American or anything else.

NK: Was it important for you to receive a degree from an American institution?

SP: For me, it was important.

AD: It was different for me. I received a superb education in Russia. When I came here, I was not interested in the technical side of drawing. However, my Russian degree was not accepted here, and I wanted to teach. So, I decided to obtain a degree from an American institution, so that I could teach art in schools, colleges and universities. As I studied, I discovered aspects of the programme that were valuable in themselves, apart from my goal of obtaining of a degree. I understood the difference in art education, because this system is very different. Also, here we met someone who turned out to be very interesting and important for us. It would be worth going to Brooklyn College just for an opportunity to meet him.

NK: Who is it?

AD: Jack Flam, a remarkable art historian, an author of many books. He speaks about his subject in such a manner that even those who are not interested in it become interested. He is a very good lecturer, a world-renowned specialist on Matisse.

NK: I know him; he taught early-20th century art at my graduate school.

AD: What was good in this programme is that we could invite professors we liked to our studios. We invited Flam, because he was closest to us. We valued his attitude and his thoughts about our works. Also, we liked the fact that Brooklyn College provided studios for us. In two years, we completed many works there. The art programme at Brooklyn College taught us a new attitude towards the creative process, which we did not have in the former Soviet Union. Here, even the works were discussed differently. At the Surikov Institute, the professor would discuss your work, but the student was not expected to respond. In Russia, you were taught how to draw. But here, unlike in Russia, students are taught how to think. If there were a way to combine these two strong aspects of western and Russian art education, it would make for a perfect system.

NK: So you could experience the best of both systems. You were lucky in a way.

SP: Yes, I agree. This was one of the reasons why Asya and I decided to study art here. As Asya said, we were taught how to draw; we were taught a technical skill, and it was done very well. In Russia, the schools were producing very good craftsmen with no thought in their heads. We were not taught to think, but taught how to copy a model to perfection. I remember how I drew a model for 90 hours, which was a required amount of time in the old-school academic system. However, our heads as artists, as creative individuals were working in only one direction. This is why students did not know what to do after graduation.

AD: Things were different at the Surikov Institute. I studied in the graphics department; there, individual invention and uniqueness were encouraged.

SP: In the graphics department and in the painting department, students’ heads were not thinking.

AD: Slava exaggerates a little. Of course, art education in Russia is more nuanced than he is describing. Here, of course, there is more attention paid to reflection and less to technical proficiency, but there we did have professors who were not trying to turn us into robots by making us copy things exactly. We were taught that it was good to avoid exact copying.

SP: The beginning of my meetings with Flam was difficult because my English basically did not exist. Only now do I comprehend the extent of his patience in our conversations. He could probably understand no more than 20% of what I was saying, but he was always encouraging me to express my thoughts in English. It was a wonderful gift of his time and attention, because most of my attention was given to listening to what he had to say. His speech was very simple – I could understand everything he said. I loved it when he came to our studio and discussed works for half-an-hour or 40 minutes. It was something new to me, something that I did not have in Russia. He did not talk about how to change my composition, but rather he was inquiring of me what I wanted to say. That is, I was put in the position of explaining what I wanted to say, if I wanted to say anything at all. Flam’s course on 20th-century and contemporary art was a wonderful discovery for me. I did not discover new names – because I had known them before coming to the United States. It was a discovery of what art means today. My interest towards technique is the result of discussions and courses that Asya and I had with Flam.

NK: Which technique do you mean? The technique of how the work is made?

SP: No, not this kind of technique of execution of a work, but rather technique of how the material is used. Paint applied to material in one way or another affects the viewer and affects the way the work progresses. We were taught how to make art in terms of the sequencing of representational and technical steps, but not in terms of the artist’s attitude towards material and an intimate relationship between the artist and the material. Material itself may be artistic if it is applied in a certain way in a work. Realisation of this fact affected the way we work. Now the material is as integral to our creative process as artists.

NK: When did your works change in this way?

SP: We began working together in 2003. My first works made with the attention to material were made in 1998.

NK: And before that you worked in representational manner?

SP: Yes, in Russia I painted a series of works about the army and then I painted Jeremiah’s Lament in 2000-2. In Brooklyn College, I was given an incredible studio. It was located in a former theatre and was enormous. I lost my head a little and painted a suitably enormous work, 7 metres in length. It was a series of boxes with painted diverse texture, also known as faktura in Russian.

AD: When Slava worked on that, I was also making large-scale paintings, perhaps a bit less than 7 metres in length. They were large deformed heads in which I paid attention to the way the paint was laid on the canvas. Sometimes it was smooth, sometimes rough. You can find these paintings on our website – bright, semi-abstract heads. They are called Reflections. Jeremiah’s Lament and Reflections marked the end of our individual non-collaborative creation.

SP: In connection with Flam, I would like to make a note of an interesting moment. He visited my studio a few times, when I was working on Jeremiah’s Lament, carefully painting one box after another. Flam was not much impressed with this work. One night I was working late in the studio and happened to notice a roll of brown paper. I used it to dry my brushes and dropped the wrinkled pieces on the floor. All of a sudden, I noticed that the paper absorbed paint and looked beautiful this way. I tore a piece and slammed it on to the canvas. Immediately, paint penetrated the piece of paper and I understood that this material was precisely what I needed. It took me another week or so to experiment with it, and I became convinced that this was what I needed. After this I bought good paper – Japanese rice – and good glue and began to apply paper on wet paint. The work went well after that; paper began working. Not because someone told me to begin using it – no one gives you instructions here about how to do anything. Conversation creates an atmosphere in which the brain begins to work. It is not clear how, but it is working. When a working brain looks at everything through an eye, then it sees things differently. For example, it sees working material in what first appears as trash.

NK: Why did you decide to work together?

AD: I cannot say that we ever worked in a similar manner, but our inner attitudes towards work were very close. The fact that we shared a studio was also important. I watched Slava work and he watched me. We began to intervene by giving advice to each other almost involuntarily. After a while, these verbal interventions led to our attempt at creating a work together. Since we have a similar attitude towards creation of a work, why not bring in those parts, which each of us thinks important? We decided to work like this first in 2003. I have to say that before this happened we were very suspicious of artists working in groups or in pairs. We could not understand how it was possible to combine two separate visions into one. Then we proved ourselves wrong. Not only did it become possible for us, but I believe that we should continue working together, because it brings good results and reflects our attitude towards our work. As before, each of us has an opportunity to express our individuality in the work. The very first series, which Slava and I did as a team was Cones and Funnels painted in various positions. It was an extensive series. This series was done in mixed media. Then, we spent a few years making Chimeras. This series existed in two parts: on paper and on canvas. It was also mixed in terms of technique: some works were graphic, some painted. You can find it on our website. Afterward, we did the series 365 – 365 drawings, as many as the days in a year. It took us more than a year to make it, actually, but we worked on it every day. We planned to show it as one line, displayed by the perimeter of the gallery space. Unfortunately, two weeks before this exhibition, Safe-T-Gallery, where we planned to show it, closed. It was a big letdown. We have not been able to exhibit this series in its entirety yet, but only parts of it in different spaces.

SP: We need a gallery where the wall is uninterrupted by doors, columns or other obstacles for at least 150 feet. The drawings are small – the size of the palm of a hand.

AD: Looking back, it is clear that the series 365 influenced the work on view at the Narthex Gallery. In the drawing, we used purely graphic means of expression, not mixed media. In some ways, the images in the series of drawings and the ones in What Remains are close to each other in the emptiness of the background, the loneliness of the represented object. In drawings, representations were all mixed together, but it was all conditional. The difference is in the size of the works and in colour.

NK: Did the drawings prepare the ground for the larger works shown in What Remains?

AD: I think so. On both occasions we used paper and pencil, but for different types of expression. And the conception of the works is similar as well. In both cases, we developed the concept of an empty nest. We also represented an empty nest literally many times in several variations.

NK: How do you make the work shown now in the Narthex Gallery?

SP: In the beginning, we make a drawing on paper. Then, glue it on canvas, and then add watercolour. It would be impossible to straighten it and glue it back to the canvas.

AD: Many works in this series have trash and other found material glued to the canvas – parts of broken computers, telephones, wires and suchlike. After Hurricane Sandy, we found mounds of discarded and shattered things. It was a horrifying sight. We collected these remains and used them in our work, in particular in the pieces on view at the Narthex Gallery.

NK: Apart from nests, how did you decide which objects to represent?

SP: It is a complicated process. On the one hand, everything is based on nature. But, on the other, there should be a connecting thought in place as well. Without it, it is impossible to look on nature and find what the eye finds unconsciously, but what corresponds to your thought. That is, the thought is coming not from nature to the artist, but from artist to nature and back to the artist.

AD: In the beginning, we invent an object – a dry plant – for example. It should resemble nature and be different at the same time. Reference to nature helps to make the image more convincing.

SP: If I were to describe this work in two words, I would say that it is about death, death without the pathetic element and without anguish. At the same time, it is our attempt at … not resistance, but overcoming the feeling of death, although it is impossible to overcome. It is the feeling of consciousness of the fact that everything passes and disappears without any prophesies about the future. This attitude is personal for everyone and cannot be generalised. Again, material is of importance here, the way the artist uses paper, trash. Material dictates the way you relate to the fact you describe. In this case, the fact of disappearance of the man himself, things and everything that is real. Sometimes, material dictates your attitude towards the world. I do not think we need to resist this tendency. Material dictates because it knows what it is doing, because it is alive.

AD: The artist senses the material and shows it in her work.

SP: Material works with the artist in the same way as the artist with material. Material selects the artist.

AD: You choose the material and you are certain that it expresses what you want and corresponds to what you are doing. In fact, the paper is thin. Its ability to crumple when glued to canvas gives the work an unexpected effect. The ideal smoothness of the surface disappears while it comes to life.

SP: Paper is alive, because it has a silk thread. There is life, faktura, in the paper itself. A silk thread is a trace of organic life. These are all echoes of conversations not about paper, paint and concrete things, but about the artist’s attitude toward the material or the surface with which he is working and about their connection. Material is alive and is able to respond to how the artist approaches it and the artist should choose the right material for it to respond. Material cannot err. The artist can err in the choice of material if it does not respond to a particular subject.

NK: What you are saying interests me because I work on Vladimir Tatlin.

SP: Yes, you are absolutely right. Tatlin discovered work with material in Russian art. Unfortunately, this aspect of art education disappeared completely from the teaching curricula of art schools in Russia.

NK: Which artists influenced you?

SP: It is difficult to answer this question, because at various moments we are influenced by various artists, many of whom are unknown.

AD: Tastes change. Sometimes, we see something absolutely astounding in a museum. I remember during one of our visits to the Louvre, we were walking along unending halls filled with huge 19th-century academic paintings. It was very difficult. Slava liked walking there, but I could not bear it. Once I found in a small still life by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, a strawberry on a plate. I was mesmerised by it. I saw it and I did not want to see anything else, so that I could carry the impression of the painting with me for the rest of the day. I cannot say that the works that impress me have one particular quality. Beauty is multivalent and can be found in vastly different works.

SP: I do not want to talk about the classical artists, such as Michelangelo, because they entered our subconscious and became part of us. There are strong artists of the second half of the 20th century who are very close to me, such as Anselm Kiefer, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud. The work of these artists lacks the play and pretence that can be found in the work of many good artists of the first half of the 20th century. It is clear that the German artists were affected by history and by the enormity of atrocities committed by their country. What I like in them is not their history, but the fact that they looked inside themselves. A person who is playing, pretending, does not look inside himself. He looks outside himself, towards people who surround him, and tries to anticipate their reactions to his play, his pretence. The artists whom I like, beginning with Jackson Pollock, looked inside themselves. Those artists refused to consider the viewers’ ideas and expectations as a necessary component of art in general. It is clear that works are created to be viewed by someone, but at the moment of the work’s creation the artist breaks the connection to the expected reaction of the viewer. As a result, a different charge appears in a work, which is directed toward the artist and not the viewer. It is difficult to create while looking inside oneself. This becomes clear if you look at the generation of abstract expressionists and calculate the percentage of deaths and suicides among those artists. They were not postmodernists. These artists did art that matters, timeless art. True art, the one that matters, looks into itself. Michelangelo looked into himself. Then this tendency disappeared for a while, but it always returns.

NK: You think this tendency of looking inside oneself is best expressed in painting?

SP: No, not at all. It can be expressed in any media – Henry Moore, for example, or Ossip Zadkine, who at least partly was looking into himself. Any art form – music, literature, painting – has an element of looking into itself. For me, this quality is a mark of true art. Michelangelo possessed it, and Raphael did not. Brunelleschi had it, and Donatello did not. The fact that Michelangelo looked into himself is evident from his so-called “unfinished” works, every one of which is actually finished. He was not an artist who did not finish his work. We think that they are not finished, but if an artist looks into himself, at a certain time the work becomes finished for him. Rembrandt is an artist who looked into himself, which is evident in his last works especially. Frans Hals, unlike Rembrandt, was looking outside of himself 100%. Hals is a wonderful painter, but he is a far cry from Rembrandt. When I visited the Louvre, I saw paintings by Peter Paul Rubens that were built into walls. It was impossible to take this painting and move it without breaking a wall. After kilometres of seeing Rubens or Nicolas Poussin, all of a sudden one is struck by a Chardin still life, which may be modest in size but irresistible in its painterly qualities. After seeing it, you understand that Rubens does not exist any more. By comparison to his large, cold paintings, Chardin’s apple or strawberry are warm and full of life. It is precisely this moment of looking into themselves by artists of the second half of the 20th century – American and European – that feeds our creativity.

NK: What is the role of the Kolodzei Art Foundation in your life and activity?

AD: Tatiana and Natalia Kolodzei have supported our work for many years now. We are happy that, in them, we have found not only remarkable art collectors [who are] knowledgeable about contemporary Russian art, but also close friends who understand very well what we are trying to do. We rely on their support and attention. During the past five years of our work on this series What Remains, Tatiana and Natalia frequently visited our studio and we talked about the work for hours. We are proud to have our work represented in the collection of Tatiana and Natalia Kolodzei.

• Asya Dodina and Slava Polishchuk: What Remains is at the Narthex Gallery, St Peter’s Church, New York City, until 8 May 2016.

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