Whitehot Magazine

New York Artist Maria Kreyn's Breakout Moment

  New York painter Maria Kreyn is having a breakout moment. Photo of the artist by Matt Edge. 


Hailing from Niznii Novgorod, Russia and currently living in Williamsburg, Maria Kreyn sets herself apart from the formal abstraction often associated with contemporary art with her figurative, Renaissance- and Baroque-inspired painterly style. Although she studied mathematics and philosophy at the University of Chicago, “there was no doubt in my mind [...] that I was going to be a painter.” She cites her education, both institutional and self-directed, as integral to her development as an artist: her academic background allowed her to realize her interests in philosophy and "the creativity of science," while her time abroad painting in Europe helped her learn "to love the rigors of art," studying the techniques of Caravaggio and Leonardo, among other Old Masters.

Kreyn creates an eye-catching dialogue between the narrative content and the medium of a given work. She balances her desire to relay contemporary human stories and investigates particular sets of human emotions with an overall insistence on the beauty of the work itself, a technique honed under the training of the Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum. Her insistence on a lack of irony for its own sake in her paintings is, in her view, “a bold move at this point in time.” Kreyn also notes that while the formal qualities of her work, such as the overall compositions, human figures, and poses, may appear traditional, the emotions underpinning the works are where the ambiguity and indeed, abstraction come into play. Kreyn continues, "I'm speaking to the internal contradictions in the human mind, which is why ambivalence in intimacy [is] so salient for me." As viewers, we respond to the mythological and classical references on the surface, allowing us to be provoked or even troubled by the sentiments stirring beneath this careful façade. When it comes to the murky psychology of her painting Alone Together, she concludes: "He becomes every man, and she every woman. And through that unique romantic moment, we can see this dynamic of ambivalence and duality present in us all and in all interactions--we want, let go, take, and pull away, together, yet isolated."

Maria Kreyn, Alone Together, oil on canvas

You might have seen this striking painting on ABC's The Catch, television's recent Shonda Rhimes production. Intrigue swirls around and within the work, which depicts a couple caught in a tense push-pull of openness and secrecy. A man and a woman embrace in a chiaroscuro light pattern, but there's more to it than that. The man presses his face into the hollow of the woman's neck, obscuring his expression, while the woman twists away from him - dull-eyed and red-nosed, her hand raised by his head. The title is particularly apt even as it is semantically contradictory; Alone Together could be from the point of view of either the man or the woman about the nature of their relationship. With just a few simple gestures, Kreyn manipulates the figures into an uneasy reflection of a relationship that feels eternally relevant and relatable. Is he moving closer to her in a romantic and affectionate way, or to hide his face from her as well as from the viewer? Does the ambiguous position of her hand reflect her indecision of whether to draw him in or push him away entirely? Alone Together poses the question of what it means to be simultaneously alone and together, to wish for both solitude and companionship, and reveals that the answer is never easy. The work informs the script, as is emblematic of The Catch as a whole, which tells the story of a private investigator (Mireille Enos) whose fiancé (Peter Krause) turns out to be a master thief and con artist—who steals the painting for her as a gift, as he feels it represents their relationship.

Maria Kreyn, The Horizon (Olympus), oil on canvas

Kreyn has, over the course of her career, expanded her scope to include drawing, installation, and other media. She notes that she was always rather crafty and hands-on as a child, "turning every burning candle into a sculpture," and beginning to use a soldering iron at age eleven. She notes, almost amusingly, that "in an ideal world with unlimited resources, I think you'd be seeing me work with just about anything and on any scale." Her 2016 installation Chapel of Dancing Shadows speaks to her facility with multiple media as well as a fulfillment of childhood ambitions. Building from Dali- and Bosch-inspired surrealist drawings and her onetime dream of being an architect, Kreyn created Chapel of Dancing Shadows as a reference to the experiences people have in sacred spaces, aiming to invite the viewer "into their own personal, contemplative experience." The lacework ceiling evokes a "deconstructed Renaissance chapel," with the surrealist drawings looming large, cryptic, and immersive on the walls. Indeed, Kreyn is adept at mixing and matching her influences and references, and the overall effect of her works is all the more intriguing and memorable for it.

Maria Kreyn, Chapel of the Dancing Shadows, photo by Peter Ruperecht

Maria Kreyn, Even Here, oil on canvas

While her works might seem to have a spiritual bent or religious undertones, Kreyn admits, "I think my paintings allude to religion because I don't understand it. I’m puzzled by its power, and its absurdity.” Her aim is more directed towards understanding the devotional impulse and using it as the backdrop for her studies and explorations of humanity and intimacy, though she does concede that her works' "physical trappings might mimic religion." Kreyn continues: "Ideally, the work hopes to pause our cultures' identity crisis, our confusion of public and private, our commercialization of both worlds, our ineffective boundaries that are dissolved by default, not by choice." Interestingly, she draws a contradiction between spirituality and religion, citing the former as a component of a philosophical life, while the latter functions as a "double-edged sword" that can both oppress and create a sense of awe. To this end, Kreyn remarks further, "when I paint figures in a scene or composition, I ask, where have our mythologies brought us? To redemption or progress, to destruction, or both?"

Maria Kreyn, Back, oil on canvas

Kreyn also characterizes her early work as "atmospheric," and largely portrait-based, painted from life. Despite her use of specific models, including herself and her friends, these early works "exist in a sort of ethereal fog," distilling the particulars of her models into an "essential" and "[generalized]" humanity. Her more recent paintings take a different approach; calling them "chaotic," Kreyn describes her evolving approach to and increasing use of composition and context to ground her figures and give them a sense of place and of fitting into the larger whole. As for her overall desire as an artist, Kreyn concludes: "I want to move people, to pause time for a moment. I want them to see themselves as something eternal through the experience of my subjects." WM


Deborah Krieger

Deborah Krieger is a graduate of Swarthmore College in Art History, German, and Film and Media Studies. She has been published in the Northwestern Art Review, Hyperallergic, and other art and culture platforms both online and in print. She was a recipient of a Fulbright grant to Vienna, Austria, where she taught English, researched contemporary art, and studied at the University of Vienna. She is currently a curatorial assistant at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, DE.

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