The Spiritual on Canvas
(published in 2011)
“Being Between Two Worlds” is the title of Yury Kharchenko’s series of small-format oil paintings on canvas from the years 2006/7, which may quite rightly be considered Yury Kharchenko’s first important group of works. Since then much has changed in his work; in the paintings of recent years he has clearly continued down the artistic path upon which he embarked with this series: the palette has become darker, the formats have increased in size several times over, and his painting style has become more confident.
But the young artist still considers himself to be between two worlds and the viewer, too, finds himself caught unawares between two worlds upon seeing the painting, or rather, perhaps, the viewer is time and again wavering between two poles – those of the spiritual and the material, of abstraction and figuration, of spirituality and the world of the living. These are art’s foremost themes and Yury Kharchenko does not shy from tackling them in his paintings.
When talking about his work, the artist constantly comes back to the term “spirit” and to the question at the heart of the matter, which is how the immaterial spirit per se lends itself to being expressed in the physically experienceable medium of painting. In Hegel’s sense of the word – and Kharchenko’s view is very similar – the spiritual is the capacity to reflect upon the self and this in turn is perceived as the ultimate essence of what it is to be human. It is present as the “absolute spirit” in art, religion and philosophy. Whereas the absolute is thought in philosophy, it is presented in religion and brought to be looked upon in art. Recognition and truth are hidden within the sensory nature of painting and it is the job of the painter to reveal them.
In order to accomplish this task Yury Kharchenko placed himself in the limbo world of dreams and the disorientating state between wakefulness and sleep. Nowadays he has liberated himself from these nameable states and moves more freely “between the worlds”.
However, it is vital that the artist, in his emphasis of the importance of the spirit, has a fundamental interest in the nature and meaning of the material – colour, canvas, brushstroke. Truly a child of his time, Kharchenko also sees himself as a “picture maker”. Finding the correct art term is not his priority.
In each painting it is noticeable that Kharchenko deliberates over different painting techniques and applies them with precision. Studying the paintings up close, it becomes clear how complex the brushed, dotted, blurred, run-together layers of paint are and how much care and awareness have been employed in terms of their material properties. However Kharchenko does not strive to bring the actual process of painting to the fore. Giving form to the spiritual in the sensory world is the challenge with which Yury Kharchenko is confronted.
The actual painting process remains hidden and consequently seems transcendental in nature, with the artist as the central figure: painter, alchemist, craftsman and medium. The palette is as broad as ever, encompassing, notably, sober and fragmented colours: bottle green, ochre, earth brown, blue black, rusty red, watery blue, dark grey and violet, yet this palette is time and again interspersed with golden yellow, light red and bright green.
Whereas in his earlier works the paintstrokes bore the form of architectural structures and created stage-like open spaces, in his new works the paint is applied more liberally, creating complex, impenetrable layers of paint which grant access to the viewer only begrudgingly at times. In general the organisation of the pictures has become less concerned with space and more concerned with the surface. Only rarely do recognisable figures emerge from within the paintings.
But the paintings do not completely free themselves from physical points of reference. So it is for example with the – quite rudimentary – shape of the house which we encounter again and again in the new pictures. It lends structure to the formidable landscape of the large canvas and offers not only the viewer but also the painter a foothold and a sense of orientation in the complex colour composition.
With the house Yury Kharchenko has found an image which serves him as much in composition as it does in symbolism: it shows the inside and outside, the front and back, the top and bottom and, at the same time, it forms a connection to our everyday world. But it doesn’t open any narrative or meaningful dimensions – the house functions perhaps as a roof, under which Yury Kharchenko can carry out his research into the subject of matter and spirit.
In the last years the teachings of Jewish belief and the study of the Talmud have become increasingly important to Yury Kharchenko. So the form of the house not only fulfils the aforementioned role of aid to composition and reference to the world in which we live, but is beyond that a reference to the spiritual foundations, upon which the artist moves, not only in his work but also in his daily life: the series with the houses, which still remains unfinished at this time, has been conceived as a presentation of the Twelve Tribes of Israel: Ruben, Juda, Levi, Joseph, Benjamin, Dan, Simeon, Issaschar, Sebulon, Gad, Aser, Naphtali. Specific attributes are assigned to each tribe, which serve Kharchenko more or less as signposts in the picture during the painting process. (See also the texts in this volume, which the artist includes in accompaniment to each painting.)
In other works, too, the artist refers to passages from the Talmud, as for example in “Bergbild” – ”In the future time, – the Holy One, Blessed is He, will bring the evil inclination and slaughter it in in the presence of the righteous and in the presence of of the wicked. – To the righteous the evil inclination will appear like a high mountain that can hardly be scaled, – and to the wicked it will appear like a strand of hair that can easily be snapped. (The righteous constantly overcome their evil inclination and, as the Gemara teaches later, the defeated evil inclination constantly renews its attacks with increased strength and vigor. Thus their evil inclination develops into a formidable force which they nonetheless overcome. But the wicked succumb to the slightest temptation, and so their evil inclination never develops into anything more than a slight urge, to which they give in nonetheless).
-These will weep and these too will weep. – The righteous will weep and say: ”How were we able to overcome such a high mountain?” (They will be brought to tears by the memory of their lifelong struggle with the evil inclination. Alternatively they will cry at the loss of opportunity to earn further reward for overpowering the evil inclination, once it will have been eradicated.)
– And the wicked will weep and say: ”How were we not able to overcome this strand of hair?” – And so two, the Holy One, Blessed is He, will wonder with them, – Thus said Hashem, Lord of Hosts: As it will be wondrous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days, so will it be wondrous in my eyes.”
The painting is thus charged with spiritual meaning. However it remains important to realise that Kharchenko does not see his works as representations of any particular thing or even as illustrations of his own theological beliefs. Nor does he treat religion as a topic for intellectual debate. The non-corresponding titles simply hint at references to the Talmud which normally elude the viewer.
Kharchenko’s vision of the spirit is indeed closely connected to his personal spirituality yet he understands his works – on a much more universal scale – as images which emerge from the fusion of spirit and matter. The aim is to find a universally valid expression for the spiritual through the medium of painting, because, to return once more to the words of Hegel: “The spiritual alone is the real”.
Yury Kharchenko – Between two worlds
Visual worlds – this frequently used term seems to be particularly appropriate for describing Yury Kharchenko’s images. Once the viewer has adjusted him to the painting’s special lighting conditions, in the same way he might adjust his eyes to darkness for the first time – then he is given an insight into another world, full of puzzles and forms, which appear strangely familiar and yet foreign.
„To be Between Two Worlds“ is also the title of Yury Kharchenko’s series of small-format oil board paintings. In these works, he hints at the inbetween state of dreams and the sometimes frenzied state between consciousness and sleep.
The frequently muted and sometimes murky colours in these “Verlaufsbilder” („Sequential/Processual pictures“) are dabbed, dribbled, washed, and poured. The paintings are simple yet complex, and almost playful exercises. Yury Kharchenko would like the series to be understood like a chamber music concert. „Spirit“ is a central concept for Kharchenko, referring to another level of perception and the suggestion of its transcendence, which is evident in the images.
The artist does not want to divulge the exact way in which he works. Unlike some other painters, Kharchenko isn’t interested in revealing his techniques. His actual painting process thus remains a secret, and assumes an alchemistic character, which the artist is responsible for, as scientist and magician, as it were.
Every painterly gesture made by Kharchenko shows that the artist engages intensively with painting techniques, employing them precisely. It is not his aim, however, to push the actual process of painting into the foreground. It is rather about balancing the meaning of painting and painted, like the storyteller, for whom the story is as important as the way in which he tells it. In a good story, as in a good picture, these two levels blend together into one, so that one forgets to differentiate between them. In the same way that sometimes the best and most daring twists and turns first emerge when a story is told, Yury Kharchenko’s secretive figures and their stories often first appear during the process of applying the different layers of colour.
The palette is broad, but contains particularly muted and broken colours: vermillion, petrol, pale golden yellow, blue-black, rust red, watery blue, dark grey, and violet. The colours are linked to many coats. They are what creates the impression of spatial situations in the paintings. There is a hidden and exposed architecture between these colours, the precise purpose and function of which, remains unclear. It is these spaces which offer a place for a possible plot. Figures and ghostly beings emerge from them, some more prominent than others, often surrounded by window-and doorlike framing, which both structures the picture’s composition and organise the narrative context. Sometimes, within these sectors, there are openings in the middle or background of the image. In some images, the parts of the surface carrying the paint – the board or canvas – remain completely untreated, and thus function as a blank space.
In the canvas paintings, these marks appear pure white and seem surprising, when viewed amongst the otherwise subdued and undone colours. They attain an eminent presence, without however, fulfilling the promise of their transparence and luminousity. They are therefore an interruption within both the composition and the narrative context, and despite their openness, offer neither insight into what is taking place in the picture, nor an exit from it.
Visible in these nondescript spaces, between this „architecture“, there are forms, infront of, or behind doors, which rarely come into contact with one another, despite the fact that the compositions often suggest a narrative. They seem to remain framed within their own designated parts of the picture, protagonists in phantasmagorical dramas with unknown outcomes. Within the complex painted surfaces of the image, they appear closed in.
Alongside the narrative organisation and the painterly composition, the framing and different coloured overlays also serve to keep the viewer at a distance. Despite their suggestive colourfulness and transparency, the images appear hermetic, and as such, evoke an unquiet longing for this other ‚world’, which is locked within the picture space clearly representing the ‚Other.’
In many of the images, horizontal stripes appear in the lower quarter of the picture. The idea that these represent a stage within the space, seems to be particularly apt at a time when a strikingly large number of visual artists are engaging with the motifs and gestures of theatre. Kharchenko however, uses this stripe purely as a functional compositional means. The stripe represents the complexity – in every sense of the word – of his painting. It can be interpreted as a border, where painting and history meet, and abstraction and objectivity blend into one another, or perhaps also as a border, or rather: a barrier between the viewer and the picture narrative.
The figures in Kharchenko’s pictures sometimes appear fantastical to the point of grotesqueness. This grotesqueness is necessary to undermine the beauty of the painting, because „if something is too beautiful, then it becomes monotonous“ (Yury Kharchenko). Ghostly dramas appear to develop within them, with heroes at their centre, whose membership of the human race could sometimes regarded as questionable. The images are populated by darkly clad shapes, spectres and the undead, the charred and emaciated, the dislocated and overstretched, but also by strange anthropomorphic forms, as well other equally unidentifiable, animal-like creatures. Sometimes they are dissolved to the point of total abstraction. Pictured in-between these are often objects which appear to come from a classic still-life repertoire – fruit peel, oranges, and drinking vessels, which can be read as references to Cezanne. Some of the forms also appear equally familiar. One closely resembles a traditional representation of Christ, and another image seems to reference „The Scream“ by Edvard Munch, and there are also heads – or dabs –which evoke Alexej von Jawlensky’s portraits.
Meanwhile, it is safe to say that Yury Kharchenko completely respectfully, yet fearlessly engages with the tradition of painting, particularly from the 19th century onwards. He not only gives clear indications of the extent of his craft in his images, but also in conversation. He lists Picasso, Monet and the Surrealists as influences – the word ‚Example’ should be avoided here. Kharchenko also appears to be closely linked to recent art history, and regards some of his pictures as „transavantgarde,“ which can be easily understood as meaning that he and the Italian „Transavantguardia“ of the 1970s, are unified in their interest in symbolic coding, mythical figures and sages, as well as a deliberate poetic visual language.
More complicated however, is the frame of reference for the series of images „Hommage à Wrubel“, which is partly dedicated to the Russian Symbolist and acknowledged trailblazer of Russian Modernism, the painter Michail Alexandrovich Wrubel (1856 – 1910). The work also shares its title with one of Georg Baselitz’s early works, „Hommage à Wrubel – Michail Wrubel – 1911“ from 1963, a gloomy image of the exposed and vulnerable artist. For the reception and closer inspection of this series, it is important to know that Kharchenko did not paint it as a homage to Wrubel. It was actually some time after completing the first image „Tag,“ that Kharchenko became aware of its similarity to Wrubel’s work – „Flieder“ from 1840, and within it, an (unconscious) processing of the artistic influences from his homeland Russia, where he spent the first nine years of his life.
The images in the aforementioned series, which at the time of writing, remained unfinished, have significantly different themes, and incorporate painting techniques and formats to the (until now) much larger groups of “Verlaufsbilder”. This also applies to the large-format images of „Explosions,“ on which the artist has worked in a much more expressive way, using larger gestures, and a lighter palette, as well as experimenting with assemblage techniques.
Both groups of works represent a starting point on a path, which Yury Kharchenko must first test and explore. It is not yet clear what place they will take in his oeuvre. It is clear from these works, however, that Yury Kharchenko is determined, with deep conviction and concentrated perseverance, to find the synthesis from a kind of painting which has purposefully developed from a classical tradition, but which also arises in the consciousness of the contemporary context, with an eye on current and future developments.
Translation: Maisie Hitchcock