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Artists mix oddity with tradition at Phyllis Weston Gallery

By Selena Reder · February 28th, 2012 · Visual Art
ac_svetlana_derenchuk_photo_phylliswestonPainting by Svetlana Derenchuk

A legacy of icon and miniature painting from Eastern Europe makes a great migration to the Phyllis Weston Gallery in O’Bryonville. Painters David Miretsky and Svetlana Derenshuk perplex and dazzle with quirky scenes of domestic life in Uniquely Ukraine, on display through March 31.

In 1975 David Miretsky brought his art from Kiev, Ukraine to Cincinnati. His narrative paintings were steeped in the tradition of the Old Masters and the Russian heritage of miniature painting. In Communist Ukraine, they were subversive.

“The State dictates the artist what to think and how to express,” Miretsky says of the former Soviet Union, where he was forced to exhibit underground. As he prepared to immigrate to America his paintings needed a disguise. He covered his own work with parchment paper and painted over them with abstract images. 

“I hid my innocent paintings under the layer of abstract painting,” he says. 

The guise fooled authorities and his artwork escaped intact.

Phyllis Weston gave him his first Cincinnati exhibition at Closson’s, where she was chief curator. Now in New York, Miretsky has gained East Coast notoriety. His paintings and drawings of cabaret dancers and lovers reflect Ukrainian culture in Brighton Beach, N.Y.

“Gradually the gentle borders of before and present become vague. Life of Brighton Beach seeps in without seeming to do so. It doesn’t matter which life I’m painting,” says Miretsky.

His miniatures are a peep show into the human psyche.

The small scale is like looking through a keyhole at a woman dressing. The tiny paintings on wooden panel are set in a frame of gessoed canvas, like a painting within a painting.

The uncanny details verge on Magic Realism. “Cure” is like a stress dream. A frazzled man drops his crutches and kneels, drinking water spewing from a mountain. Curiously, the man has only one leg and wears a woman’s shoe. A hand pops out of the window in the mountain and the man pays it money. It is an allegory of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. Here the man may be paying penance, just as Sebastian died for his religion. But why does he wear a woman’s shoe? Is he the gay icon often interpreted in images of St. Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna and others?

In “Man Who Can See Only Horizontally" and "Man Who Can See Only Vertically,” two men in suits clap their hands. Vizors frame the eyes of one man. Distant blue skies and fluffy clouds recall a Rene Magritte landscape. Miretsky reinterprets the iconography of the businessman whose view is obscured by a green apple. As Magritte said, “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.”

Ukrainian icon painting lives on in Kiev resident Svetlana Derenshuk. She was born into a family of icon painters and studied at Mariupol Art Studio in Ukraine. The Byzantine religious subjects, painted on wood with gold leaf backgrounds, began to influence Ukrainian art in the 10th century C.E. and remain a cultural legacy.

“You can see the influence of icon painting in her work with the flatness of perspective and figures in profile,” gallery director Cate Yellig says.

Many of Derenshuk’s scenes are of mothers and children, as in “Self-Portrait with Son.” The child appears weightless in mother’s arms due to the lack of shading and his disproportionately small limbs. Mother’s hair is parted down the middle just as Derenshuk always wears it. These personal touches give the painting specificity, but the iconography of Virgin and child is also apparent.

Her paintings run the gamut from ritual to mundane to fantastical. Women dress in dazzling patterns as they march in “Celebratory Procession.” Scenes defy explanation, as in “Man with Petite Woman,” in which the man balances a doll-like woman in his palm against a background of mysterious blue foliage. Her enigmatic landscapes recall modern primitive Henri Rousseau. 

Who can explain in Rousseau’s “Child on the Rocks” and why the little boy appears to straddle mountains like a giant? How does a woman end up naked in the woods beside a snarling bear in “An Unpleasant Surprise”? We relish these curiosities, and let the distorted perspective, strange proportions and surreal-blue skies excite our eye.

The work is naïve in a sense that it is unadulterated by art trends. It springs from the spontaneous heart of the creator. Derenshuk’s paintings are like a distant childhood memory. The colors are heightened, perspective flattened and clarity lost. It becomes a fading dream.

UNIQUELY UKRAINE is on display at the Phyllis Weston Gallery through March 31.



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