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Nataly Khvost: A Persistent Vision in Russian Art

By JONATHAN GOODMAN, July 2019

Nataly Khvost, who was born, grew up, and studied and worked in Russia, is now living in Oyster Bay in Long Island. She is an outstanding abstractionist who also includes the figurative on a regular basis in her paintings. Russian abstraction, early in the 20th century, was accomplished and innovative to the point of greatness. Artists such as Malevich, Tatlin, El Lissitzsky, and Anna Popova were among the foremost practitioners of nonobjective painting in world modernist culture. Despite the indifference and even hostility to their work by the Soviet government, these artists produced art of outstanding originality. Khvost, born in the early 1950s, is the heir to these artists; at the same time, the expressionist bent of much of her painting may be seen as a recognition of American achievement. Yet we also cannot ignore the persistence of the human figure in her art.  

Khvost’s generation is not known so well in American circles, but their accomplishments are far from small. This brief consideration of Khvost shows that her style, an amalgam of influences and styles (realist and abstract), argues for an international independence of outlook, in which stylization of the hand belongs to art as a worldwide endeavor, rather than a painterly manner that reflects a more particular geography and culture. Thus, Khvost examples the by-now-established penchant for what can be called a nondenominational idiom, which rejects the details of the past specific to an artist in favor of a language exquisitely open to painting history. 

This stance results in freedom of a large sort. But, at the same time, it is also true that art usually takes great strength from the past, usually immediate, connected to the specific background of the artist. One of the strengths of Khvost’s art is its cultural non-specificity, yet it is also true that it exists in a theoretical space that acknowledge the particulars of Russian abstraction, and the age-old tradition of figuration. Such theory is not chosen so much as it is acquired unknowingly. The remarkable aspect about Khvost’s work is its ability to achieve a restless complexity, helped by a sense of color marked by lively immediacy. It is true that the artist’s efforts do not line up in a specifically historical sense with that of Russian art, and it is also true that her vision is so much her own as to belong to no one else. The strength of her idiosyncrasy is linked to her independence of hand; but it is also possible that the artist flirts with the presentation of a generic version in her culturally indeterminate art (but this is not really the case; her art is too particular to be seen as a generalization). Khvost’s vision is certainly detailed enough and distinct enough to sustain any examination of influence or its lack. Like other artists working in this manner, she belongs to the first half of the twentieth century, when abstraction was exciting because it was new, because it was technically advanced, and because it occurred alongside social changes that seemed to support radical advances in art. 

Actually, to insist that Khvost’s work is mostly abstract is to overstate the case. Figuration, in the formal of simply outlined heads and bodies, often makes its way into her paintings. But the main thrust of her work has to do with a nonobjective point of view, in which brushwork and overlapping passages of paint speak out in favor of painting itself--a demonstration of the medium’s own innate, magical properties. As an activity. the work is linked in some ways to the performance of painting, what critics in America called “action art” when writing about the abstract expressionists. In Khvost’s work, entitled Deep Orange (1989), in which a very brushy, mostly blue painting, enlivened by the color orange, and to a lesser extent, gray and off-white, surround two evident figures. The head of the female figure in the middle of the painting is sharply angled, framed by outstretched arms. The two body parts beneath the head depict a torso with breasts and a lower element with thighs and legs. The title acknowledges the most striking hue employed in the painting. Deep Orange is mostly about the interaction of color, so that the figuration is secondary to our experience of the dominant blues and oranges. As a result, color is the main element of this work, which happens often in Khvost’s art.  

The painting called Red Moon (1980) shows two figures: a woman with a red head neck and head, which looks surprisingly like a phallus, extends her arms to the white head of a male.The white background accentuates the colors in the painting, turning it into a screen for the bright carmine that dominates the composition. The features and body and brushwork are stylized, so that we see the work as a comment on its own making. Experience in life and art carries this painting’s effectiveness, whose demonstrations of both make sense as vehicles for Khvost’s singular vision . The messy brushwork acts similarly to what we see in abstract expressionism, but, at the same time Khvost maintains her independence--quite a feat, given the long history of the influences affecting her. End of the Night (1990) is a beautiful, mostly abstract painting in blues, black, and whites--the outline of a female figure can be seen in the center of the painting. The colors inundate each other and are worked in a brushy fashion. The white areas seems to be making inroads on the darker colors, signaling the night’s finish. It is a very beautiful painting about the change of light.

Maybe it is best to view Khvost’s art as a painterly lyricism based on recent art history. Discerning national differences in nonobjective art is something that is extremely difficult to do; it involves a kind of intuitional intelligence similar to that which enables us to determine whether an artist is great or merely very good. Khvost’s paintings indicate a poetic insight that, surprisingly, stabilizes the free hand she addresses to her compositions. In light of her achievement, it is fair to ask, What is meant by poetic insight in painting? For this writer, it concerns an open-endedness of aspect, intensified in this artist’s case by a talent for color and its ability to structure a work of art, primarily through color. This is unusual thinking, perhaps, but it leads to a point of view in which art is not only a visual construct but a metaphysical one. In an untitled work (1999), done mostly in a brownish orange with bits of blue, two heads are outlined in black--the one on the left is upside down. The heads keep the painting from becoming a pure abstraction, having being imposed on the generally free-spirited brushwork determining the ground. It is, somehow, a painting of unusual poignancy despite the vibrancy of the color scheme. As with the other paintings, we can see Khvost making sense of an allover painting sensibility, with an emphasis on color communicating joy. In this painting, the heads humanize Khvost’s impulse to render a world with abstract attributes. In the long run, we can say that she is a purveyor of colorful immediacies, in which the audience is carried off by her buoyant effect. It is hard to find genuinely blithe works of art now or in recent times, but Khvost has painted in such a way that passion is merged with an inspired feeling for composition achieved by color. Her emotions, available in all her work, lead us to a point where a point of view becomes a way of looking made inspired by paint, in a manner noticeable for its elation. WM

 

Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. 

 

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