YPS at d'Orsay Museum, Paris, 2016
My path to art was long but by no means straight. I have had two careers, one as a literary scholar and the other as a historian, before I finally realized: art is my passion.
I put on canvas what I cannot convey in words. I begin as an artist where I cannot move on as a scholar and at precisely the place where I end up as a scholar, I begin as an artist. Art allows me to transcend the way I work and think; it helps me challenge any discourse I am part of.
Art captured my interest from an early age. If one can believes one’s former classmates, I was making sketches during every lesson at school. When I was ten, I spent a year studying under David Miretsky, an ironic artist who used the language of Breughel and the palette of Vermeer to capture images of the homo sovieticus. However, Miretsky’s arrest during the 1973 antisemitic campaign, followed by his emigration from the Soviet Union, disrupted what I expected to be a long-lasting relationship. It left me without a mentor but not without a way.
I turned for inspiration to the Russian icon painting of Andrei Rublev, the Ukrainian folk art of Maria Prymachenko, the Japanese xylography of Utagawa Hiroshige, and the Flemish genre painting of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Unlike the paintings of Marc Chagall, outlawed in the Soviet Union, works by these artists were on display in Soviet museums or available in art books.
I used India ink on tea-colored paper, imitating Japanese landscapes, and homemade paint applied to wall stucco, emulating Ukrainian folk art. My folk fantasies combined Eastern Christian iconography and Ukrainian folk art.
I found myself searching for a universal visual language that would transcend the ethnic and the national. This quest took me from Zen Buddhism to Eastern Orthodoxy to Anglo-Catholicism to Judaism. Through this quest I discovered the visual aspects of diverse religious experiences. My art became one of them, perhaps the first among others.
Presently, I use the language of challenge—the European avant-garde—to challenge language, including that of the European avant-garde. I discover fragility in strength, falsehood in stability, deception in redemption. I am using colors as words, seeking the most succinct way to convey a complexity that questions the possibility of being succinct. The idiom of Polish resistance posters and the satirical imagery of the Russian avant-garde, mellowed by the apparent simplicity of Ukrainian folk art, are the center of my endeavors. Acrylic on canvas is my technique.
I question established stereotypes, intellectual retentions, religious illusions, and political myths. My questioning is sometimes sarcastic, often tragicomic, and always dramatic. I seek not only to undermine universalistic systems of thinking but also to reveal the particular, which I present as vulnerable, unprotected, fragile, and funny.
My hope is to free my characters and myself from the totalitarian pressure of beliefs and myths. Absolute freedom is unattainable, yet it is still possible in the moments when we question our paradigmatic myths. At such moments, which I am trying to capture, we liberate ourselves by rediscovering ourselves as fragile humans, whoever we are ideologically, religiously, politically, socially, and culturally.
Ultimately, I use a succinct palette to convey a complex message. All people are survivors of misfortune of one kind or another, and my art is a constant examination of this deeply embedded apocalyptic sensibility.
YPS at Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2017
When Russia attacked the sovereign and democratic Ukraine, the country where I was born, I could not stay aloof. I had to help my direct relatives fleeing to Germany and Poland. I had to cheer up my classmates, colleagues, and students in Ukraine, who joined social relief organizations, refugee centers, territorial defense, and the armed forces. I helped raise funds to provide the army with drones and troops with medical equipment. And I found it incumbent upon me to call for the support of Ukraine publicly and explain to the West the real meaning of this horrible Russian war of attrition and of Ukrainian war for national survival.
I appeared in the media as a speaker, consultant, discussant, and expert reaching out to dozens of thousands of people. I gave talks at the Buffett Center for International Studies at Northwestern University, DePaul University, Loyola University, University of Illinois at Chicago, Hofstra University, University of Cambridge, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, George Mason University, Harvard University, and also at NPR, WTTW, ABC, NBC, various Ukrainian popular platforms, and multiple communal venues in the USA and Canada. In the midst of the war, I managed to bring to completion, edited, and helped publish the book of my senior colleague Yuri Biryuliov entitled The Jewish Architectural Legacy of Lviv. I came to Ukraine in December 2022 to lead the public presentation of this book in the midst of Russian air raids.
And I also painted. The song “Red Viburnum” that has become during the war a non-official Ukrainian anthem has a line “We will raise our red viburnum; we will rejoice our glorious Ukraine.” This line became the main theme of my canvas “Red Viburnum” (“Chervona kalyna”). Russian atrocities against the civilian population inspired my work “A Child of War.” And the enormous magnitude of devastation caused by the genocidal Russian onslaught reminded me of the Soviet atrocities against the armless Polish soldiers and officers, twenty-two thousands of them, brutally murdered by the Russians in a forest near Smolensk in 1940. This is how my “Katyn” appeared. If anything, my war-time painting signifies my constant non-stop silent resistance to the aggressor and my incessant pain for the suffering people of Ukraine.