Matthew Baigell, Professor Emeritus, Art History, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA

(published on 6 May 2016)

Yury Kharchenko

Through whatever lens a viewer observes a work of art, be it political, philosophical, historical, purely stylistic, or iconographical, or perhaps in search of connections to works by other artists, it begins for me by interacting with the work directly in front of me and by desiring to understand what might have been on the artist’s mind during the process of creation.

All the other associations the viewer might have in mind might come later, but such associations risk taking the work away from the artist by turning it into a subject for discussion based on the viewer’s interests, imagination, or agenda. It is true that with really good artists, their imaginations are broad enough to ignite and allow the viewer’s thoughts to roam freely, but these thoughts are the viewer’s and not necessarily those of the artist.
I prefer to stay for a time with each work trying to understand the artist’s intention. Observing Kharchenko’s career develop over the years, I think that his big idea is the subject of memoryreal or imagined. It is always present but he never able to confront directly because it is found and lost simultaneously and that it cannot be precisely resurrected and clearly articulated. In several works, curtains seem to part or doors seem to open and instead of seeing anything clearly, we see a jumble of colors and forms as if these express a kind of anxiety that suggests that the artist is not sure of his own past, how he should relate to it, what he should remember, and how it might connect to his present moment. In short, these are intensely autobiographical paintings expressed not through words but through the activity of color and form. The viewer can say how well done and interesting—how professional—the level of the artist’s work, but at bottom the work—Kharchenko’s work—reflects the artist’s own state of mind at the moment of creation rather than the relation of the work to that of other artists or to philosophical or political ideas and concepts, although, these might certainly be present.
I am particular moved by the recent portraits of Felix Nussbaum and the artist’s wife posed in her wedding gown. In these works, the visualization of memory is made more specific than usual and speaks to Kharchenko’s attempts to understand his own relationship to specifically Jewish memories, particularly at a time of rising anti-Semitism in Europe, a topic that should not be ignored or about which we should remain silent.
Nussbaum is seen as if through veils or windows suggesting our distance from him and the experiences as a Jewish person during the Second World War. The look on his face describes his anxieties and fears and, it must be stated, a similar kind of fear that often inhabits the minds of Jewish persons today. The portraits of his wife invoke traditional Jewish wedding ceremonies when in the moments before the ceremony begins the bride sits as if on a throne receiving congratulatory and admiring comments from the guests. It is as if we are witnessing a replay of a scene that occurred many times in generations past but is rarely seen today. Because the viewer might imagine these works to be filled with tragic references to memories real or imagined that the artist chooses not to repress, they are also about invoking those memories to understand how to relate to the present situation in Europe. An artist cannot be only an artistbecause he or she brings to the present moment one’s heritage, one’s background, one’s present experiences, and one’s hopes for the future. Kharchenko’s recent works seem to clarify what he imagines lies between the curtains and behind the open doors and the turn of his mind today.