The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2012

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JUNE 2012 Issue


On View
Brooklyn Museum
January 27 – April 8, 2012
New York

Though even in presence, faint as fading dreams with a few familiar, recurring signs clinging to memory, Shura Chernozatonskaya’s images tenaciously linger. Her show is married to the mind, in which it refuses to be disassembled.

High on the wall facing the entry in the lobby of the Brooklyn Museum, 33 canvases, each marked with three discs in mildly muted tones of green, yellow, or red, join as in a maze of dominoes. You can read the array as, among other things, a kind of map or musical score of our hopscotch through time—the go slow, stop; go slow, go slow of wandering through the collection in the Beaux-Arts Court. Here, Chernozatonskaya’s monumentally modest, quietly contextualized, contrapuntal pairs of paintings take up the four existing themes of the arms of the Court’s perambulatory: “Tracing the Figure,” “Art and Devotion,” “Painting Land and Sea,” and “Russian Modern/Русский Модерн).” In each pair of paintings, one canvas is introverted, the suggested subject hovering behind and negating the picture plane, and the other is extroverted, with the equally elusive subject emerging in positive pop-outs. The difference isn’t strident. It could work on you without your noticing the scheme.

Shura Cheronzatonskaya, Lobby installation. Photo: Paul Takeuchi.

In “Tracing the Figure,” the artist floats off-center a female figure reduced to the elegant, linear pictogram that appears on trash bins and strangely, given its apparent innocuousness, makes me think of the icon stamped on a door or a pinafore in Margaret Atwood’s gruesome novel The Handmaid’s Tale. To the left, a male body is devoured by a terrible but interesting, indeed strangely beautiful, case of irregularly magnified, radioactive digital dot pox.

In the next pair, “Art and Devotion,” Art’s form overtakes the figure. It’s made of breast-soft bulges, of ovals and eggs, of pregnant convexity and latency, against Devotion, held under and behind the surface of, and pinned to, its lines and handprints that go “boo!” even as we, the worldly, nail it to the coffin-shaped gate to the not-of-this-world.

When standing in front of the pairing for “Painting Land and Sea,” I don’t connect so well with Chernozatonskaya’s take on the subject. In its muddy, fluid nature, the painting risks too literally representing the subject, so the artist has imposed big, counter-intuitive disks of bright color, in part to break from the naturalistic. As a climax in a story told by the room, however, the crash of bright primary cymbals and the ecstatic splashes work well.

“Russian Modern/Русский Модерн” was recently established as one of the court’s four themes. A synchronous choice for the artist, it fits well—Russia being that mongrel Eurasian land, where ever the twain of East and West shall meet to produce neither. Chernozatonskaya captures a more general sense of anomaly in the inchoate, pocked, stained, and otherwise matter-spattered, slate- and earth-toned fields of “Tocka” (between boredom and longing), evoking an underwater land mass of heavy, loosely triangular form from which you can read many stories, as with a cloud. “Kom” (a big snowball) overlays a similarly softly disturbed surface with a pyramid of diaphanous discs, inverting formal logic: the contrapuntal band of flat spectral color floats at the bottom, not at the top.

Having brazenly dared to penetrate the inner sanctum where such venerated works show off their sumptuous surfaces, Chernozatonskaya responds by receding to bring out and reflect what is latent in them all. Her forms play in the most basic pictorial rhetoric—parts aspiring to the geometrically perfect playing against those striving for the perfectly chaotic. Meanwhile, skeletal figures conforming to a veil of vibrations of various colors and tones pull and push into space. Each work functions as a diaphanous screen, through which the viewer is able to glimpse, on the other side of the court, distant images abstracted and reflected in the new works that face them. Soon the whole room begins singing in a way it never has before. You might say that Chernozatonskaya’s small back-up band, dispersed among and almost seeming to conduct the others, is finally pulling together the spiraling maze of superstars that parade before the viewer’s eyes. Each one, otherwise, beyond a match of subject, fatherland, or epoch, seems interested only in harmonizing with itself (as well it does) and indifferent to the space as a whole.

Shura Chernozatonskaya, “Tracing the Figure.” Photo: Paul Takeuchi.

So un-self-obsessed, so other-oriented, is this retrospective back-up band, by contrast, that Chernozatonskaya might have over-run the end line in some cases; a few of the works may be unable to sustain themselves apart from the installation. Where there’s nothing dead around, though, there’s nothing alive around, and these parts that might not autonomously reflect the life of the whole only affirm that these are tracks in an improvised performance keyed to its context. Littered with the dead, left to bury the dead (including the literally rendered corpses in the battlefield painting facing “Tocka”), the space does, if you linger there, leap to life. To flash intermittently into view, the recurrent disc form, wheeling around the court, picks up and sheds various colors and conditions of light. Some discs explode into splashes; others spawn, collect, and pile up into a pyramid form (in “Kom”) that (in “Tocka”) has shifted across, congealed, and calcified into a kind of underwater mountain, as the motion, the music, slows into a pause at the end of one of this improvised symphony’s movements. (Chernozatonskaya is also an accomplished classical pianist.)

At this pause, the installation crystallizes for me. Across the court, where the circles have elongated into egg forms, the painting entitled “Art” has hatched and has hurled toward and between the four corners of the space an eternally incipient, eternally dying world, a present always primordial, new-fangled, and all washed up—in the beginning is the trash can hieroglyphic. It’s all so Russian, dysthymic and heavy with “Tocka,” in front of which I’m still lingering transfixed, between boredom and longing—to be or not to be for this world of drowning substance, furiously painted splashes, and stick figures about to be sucked into big, color-coded black holes, signifying nothing except keep recycling it? We’re made of what pulls against infinity, and when the mind, to which this show is married (to circle back to where we started), dares and demands to fly free and fathom it, our bodies resist. Yet these anguished growing pains in the trees’ upper branches are just another sign that it’s always spring in the aching heart of art, asking the old endless questions with such innocent, irrepressible horror and wonder, as if for the first time.

Of course, this isn’t really a review; it’s a rather tormented dance with some work that I, a perpetually over-heated adolescent (a k a artist), fell gruesomely in love with this spring—though, or because, it constantly eludes, even angers me. Love, like the sibyl, to be revelatory must be blind. It works, but it doesn’t make sense to try to make sense of it.

30 Lafayette Ave. // Brooklyn, NY


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2012

All Issues