Yelena Yemchuk, Notes on Fantômas

May 3 – June 1, 2008
Works on paper by Yelena Yemchuck
Curated by Neil Grayson.
Made possible by the generosity of Anurag Bhargava & Vassilis Kertsikoff.

The Alchemic Origins of Yelena Yemchuk’s “Notes on Fantômas”

Fantômas, a morally ambiguous character of film noir crime stories, was significant in the work of the Surrealists, particularly Magritte, and was an extremely popular anti-hero in the Soviet Union for decades. To Yelena, Fantômas was her sinister-looking grandfather who had been so nicknamed by the neighborhood children who feared him. Yelena is a Surrealist, but as no good artist is in any way pedantic, she developed into the tradition through everyday and casual exposure, adopting and adapting to her tastes, blending and distorting as she pleased. Surrealism, the decadent alternative to Social Realism, was the more persuasive artistic influence in Kiev where she spent her early years. Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Marguerite was her bedtime tale, intermixed and maybe confused sometimes with Russian folk- and fairy-tales. She remembers well Surreal street performances, with actors wearing animal heads contorting themselves into mythical beasts. Daniil Kharms and Francis Bacon were heroes. Gypsies, carnivals, and acrobats fitted equally well into her cultural milieu. The Soviets could not censor the Slavic awe for the subterranean expressed by Surrealism, which placed special value on dreams, gnomic truths, a Manichean mix of good with evil, and the irrational. “Official” atheism may have licensed a disregard for traditional religions but it fanned the fire of disorganized spiritualism. If a rational and good deity is difficult to conceive, a devil is slightly less so, and capricious demi-gods, daemons and magicians, comparatively easy to imagine, can be even more readily seen toiling among the ordinary.

“Dreamreaders,” Yelena’s 2004 exhibition at Dactyl Foundation, introduced us to the sinister characters who, in her current exhibition, enact a number of Faustian vignettes. Her beloved Bulgakov had refashioned the Master after Marlowe himself and turned, with a beautiful economy of effort, Protestant into Soviet censorship. In the Faustian story, a desire to understand truth, a pretty highbrow interest, is followed by a bunch of comic antics. Philosophy gets tangled up with farce. The devil, even more than pain and suffering, delights in absurdities. Yelena, in her own turn, adds yet another layer of idiosyncratic and contemporary reinterpretation. Recalling imagery found in painters Paula Rego, Henry Darger, Goya, and James Ensor, as well as film directors Fellini, Luis Bunuel and David Lynch, she simultaneously looks forward and back. This collection is primarily inhabited by half-naked flappers (a crucial scene in Bulgakov), but also by some of the zebras, elephants, cats, dogs, horses, fish, monkeys, swans, chickens, bears, bats, frogs, and mice that have appeared before. Among the props available to her characters one tends to find blindfolds, dead birds, old-fashioned wheel chairs, guns, nooses, nets, red flowers, wrecking balls, axes, masks, animal heads, megaphones, umbrellas, black flags, clubs, capes, balls, crowns, bags of money, knives, tutus, berets, bicycles, hula-hoops, and prosthetic devices. The list is various but finite. Objects and characters repeat often such that one might be tempted to look for “image clusters,” a term used in Shakespeare studies referring to a kind of visual grammar that is idiosyncratic to an artist’s way of seeing the world. It’s something like a signature, an identifying pattern, always similar, never the same.

It was characteristic of Shakespeare to unconsciously associate flattery with dogs and sweetmeats, and this might say something about how he felt about flattery. In Yelena’s work, for example, zebras are associated with knives. What a pattern like this might mean is something I won’t try to answer, except maybe to gesture at the zebra’s black dagger-like stripes as a kind of answer.  In an Italian film version of The Master and Marguerite, a criminal is a Frenchy in a stripe shirt, such a character also appeared in “Dreamreaders.”

The Surrealists, enamored of Freud, sought to know the meaning of such apparently arbitrary connections in dreams. The complex problem would-be pattern solvers face (and why we find Freudian concepts difficult to apply) is that the translation of the meanings of signatures is an organic process not a machinic one.  Algorithms, for example, are not suitable metaphors for the patterns artists employ. In organisms (people, for instance), a rule such as “if x then y” must have an x and a y that do not depend upon identity relation. Any kind of vague likeness of x to something or chance proximity of y to something else will do to evolve a connection. I see this kind of pattern formation occurring in Yelena’s imagery. It guides her, Muse-like, as she designs the compositions. Beginning with a single figure, the others take their rightful places on the plane, spinning a web of relations, that partly because of their alchemic origins, are tinged with duplicity and intrigue. Why is x associated with y in Yelena’s work? because x happened to be nearby when she first saw y and they sort of look alike too, so it makes sense. It’s almost insanity, but it’s not. These kinds of associations, often mistaken or just plain superstitious in character, sometimes reveal true affinities that no one would have been able to conceive before. This is how we learn new things and how language grows.

Language is formed by processes that link up disconnected things based on coincidental likenesses and chance proximities, the metaphoric and the metonymic, the accidental icon and contingent index. Recent neuroscience tells us our brains apparently work in this way, at the neuron to neuron level, the neuronal group to neuronal group, as well as the thought to thought level. We may have believed that logic and reason is linear and rule-governed, but actually, at the most basic physical level of cognitive processes, it is these poetic kinds of associations that are generating, through a permissive selection process coupled with innumerable iterations, the law-like sense we call coherent thoughts. We may say that iterations so numerous are corrective, that is, tending toward truth (as Pragmatist Philosopher C.S. Pierce would say), through the Law of Errors, but the product nevertheless remains unpredictable due the poetic flexibility of the selection process. Yelena’s work explicitly lays bare this kind of artistic process that is the essence of language itself.

Victoria N. Alexander, Ph.D.
Dactyl Foundation
New York, April 30, 2008

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