Yelena Yemchuk has had a number of fine art photography exhibitions, including a solo exhibition at Dactyl Foundation in 2002 and a group exhibition at Sotheby’s, also in 2002. While Yelena the photographer works wonders with what actually exists, Yelena the painter can express the impossible, and we are honored and excited to be able to present her first painting exhibition. Her acrylic-on-paper compositions are sometimes ironic and whimsical and sometimes cutting and caustic. Circus performers, silky black cats, and crafty birds plot sinister misdemeanors and make general mischief. The characters and their interactions are complex. In one painting, a brown mutt protecting a blue ball looks worried as pregnant humanoid blue bird whispers in his ear, while surreptitiously reaching for his prize. In another, a dog has a rubber chicken and a bag of money that a gray cat seems to want. The execution is rich and painterly: green undertones deepen flesh tones. With simple strokes of her brush, she creates complicated and intelligent expressions. Fellow visionary Billy Corgan chose one of her paintings for the cover of his new poetry collection, Blinking with Fists, published by FSG. That work shows a masked rabbit-donkey, arms raised, balancing on a ball, who is also being held at gunpoint by a kingly bear. Strange. Most of the pieces show pairs of characters engaged in some crime or deceit. Her theme is secrecy: there is always so much going on that we never understand.
Judging from their eccentricities and fable feel, her subjects most likely come from the Ukrainian forest, with its eerie green swamp and primitive huts, and the Ukrainian cities with their colorful life-loving gypsies and little churches. Clearly, Yelena’s early memories in Eastern Europe are the fabric with which she has woven her artistic worlds. In the midst of painting this series, Yelena returned to Ukraine. She was reminded how Odessa is home to criminal types that, well, just look criminal, even if they aren’t. In a street side café you will see a fat cat Mafia boss, surround by seven short mice-like up-start crooks. They seem to have wandered right out of folktale. The Russians have a term, poshlust, for this underworld drama, which we would say is tawdry, meretricious, and cheap‹falsely attractive but destined to escape detection by most. What’s interesting about poshlust, which to the Russian mind is both appalling and fascinating, is its excess. Yelena’s characters, like the real characters she met in Odessa, are engaged in elaborate and unnecessary deception‹deception for the sake of deception. They hide; they cheat; they lie, even when there’s nothing to be gained by it. Maybe this is what helps to make Yelena’s visual narratives authentic though innocuous even when they depict some deliberate evil. As in a game, one character may be dismembered in one scene, but he may return whole in another. No one gets hurt, really.
Deceptive excess is in some ways inverse and in some ways parallel to the artistic excesses of Gothic architecture, in which an elaborately carved stone might be tucked away from view somewhere on an incredibly ornate and impossibly high ceiling. The conceit for Gothic art is that there’s an omniscient Higher Audience for the hidden beauty. In Yelena’s work, with its Gogolian relish for a surplus of strange detail, we have an actor playing murderer, costumed to perfection, right down to his dirty underwear. For whose benefit? It makes a criminal’s petty schemes more significant to him if he believes that Someone cares and is watching; Someone might see; Someone will suspect, if the crime is not perfectly planned and executed. So these criminals lie, even in their own souls, with the hope none will catch on, not even themselves. Excess, gratuitousness, and irrelevant detail lend a sense of reality to falsity. It is the ridiculousness of evil that we see here, a truth caught so brilliantly by Gogol’s nose or Dostoevsky’s idiot.
A large and very long piece, the last piece created in the series, shows a funeral procession. When I learned she had decided to end the series this way, I thought, “Yes, of course,” without realizing why this seemed so appropriate. As a visual narrative, the form of the series does work very well. The front gallery is populated by busy characters, running here and there, hanging out, getting into tussles. Then they all line up in the main gallery in an orderly (or maybe not so orderly) procession. But why a funeral? She told me that she had actually witnessed the death of black swan on her visit to the Ukraine. The swan appears as one of the characters in the main gallery, where he is not dying, but merely drunk. Painting the swan, she said she was anxious to see how another character would react to his being drunk. For a few of the pieces, Yelena can relate some “real life” circumstances that initially sparked a character. For instance, she was inspired by a bizarre newspaper headline involving a “black bear” and a “Jewish baby.” For another piece, she was inspired by a friend’s dream. However, details taken from life undergo such a thorough recombination and renovation in the nursery of Yelena’s eccentric genius that it is useless to try to find their apparent symbolic meaning in real life.
Within the language of visual culture, animals are quite often symbolic of certain human traits: dogs for loyalty; cats for independence; mules for stubbornness. Yelena’s work tempts you to feel that same kind of symbolism in, for example, the image of a zebra, but you can’t quite say what a zebra “means” in any kind of universally accessible language. Looking at her work is a little like looking at some ancient form of pictograph. The meaning is there; you understand it viscerally, but you cannot translate it into rational thought.
Yelena’s work helps us realize that there is an empirical basis of the “gut feeling” or “intuitive” knowledge, which we hold in distinction to reason. I don’t want to try to distinguish between the so-called unconscious and conscious because I don’t want to privileged one over the other. But I do want to distinguish between different ways of knowing, knowing within the language center of the brain and knowing elsewhere. I believe we do have immediate ways of knowing that are never linguistically felt. Visual artists, like Yelena, live more deeply in this other realm of knowing than most of us do, but it is an ability that we all share to some degree. Think about walking through the main area in Grand Central Station, countless people move in all directions, and you almost never bump into anyone. Your body is aware of whose pace is fast, whose is slow; who’s paying attention, who’s not, who’s likely to suddenly change his or her mind and direction. You know all this and can maneuver with ease even though you never say to yourself, That man is about to turn left; That woman is about to pause at the newsstand. We don¹t realize the extent to which we are all acute readers of posture, gesture, and facial expression. Yelena has a special gift for reading and representing visceral language. With simple strokes of her brush, she creates complicated and intelligent expressions, complex gestures and suggestive postures. I think that many of our emotional responses are probably based on this visceral knowledge. That’s why our emotions often surprise or betray us when we rage or swoon in ways that we can’t defend intellectually. An assiduous viewer of Yelena’s work will feel the meaning emotionally even when she has not named the specific details to herself. Sometimes the body knows before the “mind” does, or so says recent research in neuroscience. Scientists monitoring brain activity can actually see the brain make a decision or realize a change before the subject is aware that he or she has done so. This is why eureka always feels strangely like déjà vu. Yelena’s work is like this; it conveys of feeling of surprise or sudden enlightenment about human emotions and intentions while at the same time affirming some deeper knowledge that we feel we already or always knew.
As a photographer Yelena Yemchuk has contributed to major publications including Japanese & Italian Vogue, ID magazine, and W and worked on campaigns such as Dries Van Noten and Cacharel. Her fashion photography is influenced by her art background, which allows her to create painterly, richly-colorful compositions that flirt with the surreal. In rock portraiture, Yelena has lent some of her fey charm to a number of celebrated performers, most recently former Hole bassist Melissa Auf Der Mau. In general, her still photographs seem to prefigure a tantalizing future by capturing moments in narrative time, and suggest a deep love for story-telling, as seen in some of her early work: the haunting silent movie/carnival imagery of Smashing Pumpkins’ videos that she directed. For those who have been intrigued by her photography, this exhibition represents a special opportunity to glimpse the dæmons motivating the characters she has created on film. The series of works on paper reveals, in a more immediate way, the aesthetic that underpins the sensual, magical, and picaresque content of her photographic work.
Victoria N. Alexander, Ph.D.
Director, Programs for Thought, Dactyl Foundation