Reading the Painting: Anastasiya Tarasenko at Steven Zevitas Gallery

Grin and Bare it, oil on wood backed copper panel, 48"x36", 2019 
 

By DANIEL MAIDMAN February, 2019

I have been following Anastasiya Tarasenko’s art for some years now. She started as a talented painter combining classical tools and a confrontational, sexual sensibility. 

How Do You Want Me? oil on wood panel, 12”x9”,
2014

Despite her progress and successes in this vein, she reported a sense of deep dissatisfaction with her entire mode of painting. She struggled to find a way to paint that expressed her vision more eloquently. She experimented with using arrangements of the figure to create pattern, as in the 2016 Untitled.

Untitled,
oil on dibond, 12”x12”, 2016 

She also tried out cruder brushwork, applying her paint in a thick and broken impasto.

Blue Self Portrait, oil on dibond,
16”x12”, 2016

She worked elements of everything she tried into future work. The patterned figures appeared again and again, and the crudity of paint proved promising. But it was not yet crude enough for what she wanted. In Blue Self Portrait, the paint still serves to render fundamentally realistic objects, lighting effects, and spaces. As Tarasenko developed her idiom, she rigorously ejected her rendering impulses, until she was able to make an image with no reference to a real physical antecedent – a picture of an idea, evoked entirely through shape and color.

2 Babes, 2 Goats, 2 Men, oil on dibond,
10”x 8”,
2016  

As you can see, the sensibility is the same: she retains the confrontational sexuality. But it expresses itself now less through the detailing of objects in the image and more through the narrative of the image overall, and through text – the painting title. 

This represented a breakthrough, but now that the idiom was about right, the scale turned out to be a problem. The figures were way too big. Over the next several years, she refined her imagery, and finally she reached the state of work found in The Sum of our Parts, her first solo show, currently on display at Steven Zevitas Gallery.

I Hold These Truths to be Self Evident, oil on copper panel, 18”x24”, 2018 

In this insanely complicated painting, the figures are tiny and sculptural – built up to deep relief as daubs of paint on copper panel. They retain almost no internal expressiveness; they show the raw functionality of cartoons because they achieve their function only when they communicate their narrative content.

After so much struggle, Tarasenko discovered that she is an essentially literary painter. This painting is not looked at. It is read. It is a collection of specific anecdotes tackling a theme. Some of the material is visual, while some is literal text inside the painting. As in a book, reading order in the painting is imposed. The scale and detail makes the viewer lean in close and squint. The eye can only follow one of a finite number of smoothed paths through the composition – all other paths are counter-intuitive enough that one would not naturally follow them. One reads her new work as one reads an essay or a novel. 

As an author, she continues to retain that confrontational, sexual sensibility. But now that she has finally innovated an information mesh dense enough to support her ideas, we find that her writing is humorous and wildly associative. Consider the bottom right of the composition. Two pink-and-white-uniformed schoolgirls play Hansel and Gretel, confronting the witch in her gingerbread house, here depicted naked. So she sets up the frightening encounter with the witch as the encounter of childhood’s innocence with the premonition of adult sexuality. Riffing on the theme, a volcano appears next door, into which another uniformed schoolgirl is being dropped, the virgin sacrifice to the volcano god. But the volcano is a beehive and its cells are growing eyes. The white eruption of the volcano is rather ejaculatory, and as the cloud of steam rises and condenses, it forms a field of breasts, which resemble the eyeballs in the cells below. In front of this field, a couple more bees fly a baroque banner which reads “The Earth is in my boner.” 

This represents one reading-path through the painting, and demonstrates the hallucinatory quality of Tarasenko’s storytelling. It appears to come from that zone of allusive creativity where each object shimmers with multiple meanings, and each image crystallizes into the next through an intense but exotic logic. Such stories always address root questions of being, of matter and time, self and other, sexuality, in the key of those most elemental states, terror and ecstasy.

Her work takes its place with other visual art that is read – most obviously, ancient Egyptian painting, in which linear narrative sequences are illustrated by lines of “text,” one line above the next like a book, each line containing a flattened space populated by a semiotic field of characters and objects.

North Side of the West Wall of Nakht's Offering Chapel, facsimile painted by Norman de Garis Davies, 1908–1914; original ca. 1410–1370 B.C. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Next most obviously, she emulates Bosch, with his crazed, overpopulated worlds and compulsive, monstrous figures. But much as her sense of color, figure, and image density recalls Bosch, at a structural level she owes more to the Botticelli illustrations for The Divine Comedy.

Sandro Botticelli, Inferno X: The Heretics, silverpoint on parchment, completed in pen and ink, 1480’s

The ancient Egyptian world is linear – one-dimensional. Bosch, for all his oddity, is essentially using three-dimensional aerial perspective, creating the infernal field as a hideous plane viewed from above. But Botticelli comes close, like Tarasenko, to a truly two-dimensional compositional sensibility. His figures and objects are like points in the Cartesian grid, their x and y coordinates conveying not only their location, but their meaning.

In this, Botticelli emulates his source: The Divine Comedy itself contains exactly the same grid-like structure. Ostensibly a linear, and therefore one-dimensional, story, it submerges its forward motion in a 10x10 grid, locating and repeating motifs at points of structural significance (the ends of cantos 34, 67, and 100, to take the example I best remember from school). The Divine Comedy is a floor plan for a two-dimensional space, and therefore moves partway from literature to picture – just as Botticelli moves partway from picture to literature. 

After much struggle, Tarasenko has found her own way to this strange nexus of literary and visual forms. As it did for her forebears, this region provides her a rich ground for both sophisticated rationalism and wild fantasy. She recognizes that this is world-building, globe-spanning territory, and conforms her ambitions appropriately. Consider, finally, You Can’t Teach Old Dogs New Tricks.

You Can’t Teach Old Dogs New Tricks, oil on wood backed copper panel, 48”x36”, 2019 

You have to see this in person to get a sense of the dense lunacy of the stories. But if you stand back from it, or look at it on a computer, you get a sense of its Dantean sweep, from Here to There, ancient to modern, dayside to nightside, profane to holy, base material to precious metal. She’s packed it all in. She’s painting every idea she has as one ought always to paint, as if there were no tomorrow. WM

ANASTASIYA TARASENKO: The Sum of Our Parts

STEVEN ZEVITAS GALLERY

January 11 - February 29, 2020

Reception: Friday, February 7, 5:30 - 8 pm

450 Harrison Ave. #47 | Boston, MA | www.stevenzevitasgallery.com

 

Daniel Maidman

Daniel Maidman is a painter and writer. His art is included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and the Long Beach Museum of Art, as well as numerous private collections, among them those of New York Magazine senior art critic Jerry Saltz, Chicago collector Howard Tullman, Disney senior vice president Jackson George, and Gemini-winning screenwriter Jeremy Boxen. He has produced paintings in collaboration with best-selling novelist China Miéville, award-winning poet Kathleen Rooney, independent film icon Martin Donovan, and noted installation artist Erika Johnson. Maidman’s art and writing on art have been featured in ARTnews, Forbes, Juxtapoz, Whitehot Magazine, Hyperallergic, American Art Collector, International Artist, Poets/Artists, MAKE, Manifest, and The Artist’s Magazine. He blogs for The Huffington Post. He lives and paints in Brooklyn, New York.

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