‘Fun is a chalybeate bath.’
Max Horkheimer / Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment
Over the past fifteen years, Yury Kharchenko has undergone a remarkable development, in which his painterly work has always been marked by existential questions and an attitude that extends further than our ever faster and more contradictory present. Yury Kharchenko reflects his Jewish identity, which influenced his youth in the final years of the Soviet Union as well as his upbringing and artistic education and life in Germany.
In a time of increasing anti-Semitism, fuelled by the current crises and the right-wing extremist populism that accompanies them, Kharchenko’s most recent pictures have broken new ground in terms of clarity and aggression, making it clear that he will not retreat, that he will assert his existence vehemently and self-confidently. While his earlier paintings were still predominantly abstract and oriented towards the formal language of the heroic generation of US-American – and strongly Jewish – Abstract Expressionism of the mid-twentieth century, or referred to archaic-mythical symbols such as the house as a diversely interpretable sign of physical as well as emotional and intellectual home or rather homeland, many of his paintings today are characterised by an iconography in which pop-cultural ideas and figures are mixed with fantasies of violence and actually tabooed references to the Holocaust. This is a risky path that had not yet been hinted at even in the extensive series of portraits that Kharchenko has been painting for a good ten years now. An impressive series of pictures in which numerous Stars of David celebrate the painter’s Jewish identity – for example, David Star from 2020 (300 x 200 cm) and the magnificent painting Jews Are Like Falling Snowflakes from 10 Million Galaxies from 19 February 2020 – is created parallel to paintings with monstrous themes: Bugs Bunny copulating with a playmate at the gate of Auschwitz (Arbeit macht frei, 2020) and Disney’s superhero Darkwing Duck at the gate of the Auschwitz killing factory (Darkwing Duck: I am the terror that flaps in the night, I am the scourge that pecks at your nightmares. Darkwing Duck: I am the terror that flaps in the night, I am the bubble gum that sticks in your hair. Darkwing Duck: I am the terror that flaps in the night, I am the itch you can reach, 2020).
Is that even possible? It would be a great mistake to dismiss these images as superficial provocations that only serve to attract short-term attention – their content is far too complex for that, despite all the noise. An impulse for the painter is certainly the everyday situation in which a society that is both materially oversaturated and intellectually degenerate can apparently only find itself by resorting to blatant forms of exclusion and trivial entertainment. In Kharchenko’s new paintings, autobiographical and collective influences commingle, and the ostensible triviality of the themes is filtered through a conscious examination of the history of the Holocaust by authors such as Hannah Arendt, to whom we owe the formula of ‘the banality of evil’, and Paul Celan, who, with poems such as ‘Death Fugue’, was able to depict the incomprehensible nature of bureaucratically organised mass destruction in his own language, if not with unrelenting intensity. Yury Kharchenko was born in 1986 and has only experienced the trauma of the Holocaust through third parties. He grew up with the knowledge of the Shoa, while at the same time experiencing a childhood in which superheroes such as Batman and Spiderman and the Disney characters were part of everyday fantasies. Two generations after Celan, it is no longer a question of refuting the impossibility of writing poetry after the Holocaust, but of reconciling the impossibility of the actual existence of this history with the banality of everyday life and the heroes of today’s mythologies. What Heracles was to the Greeks of antiquity, Spiderman is to the youth of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries – this assertion can at least be read into Kharchenko’s paintings. His expressive painting style, however, makes it clear that the pictorial statement is not one-dimensional and affirmatively limited; rather, he reveals the questionability and ambivalence of his iconography.
Yury Kharchenko has painted several pictures of comic superheroes, which, with their old-masterly style and with their occasionally elaborate framing, underscore that he sees painting as an art form with high standards. Similar to the way the African American painter Kehinde Wiley depicted heroes of Black identity from hip hop stars to President Obama in the style of baroque ruler portraits, Kharchenko has created a psychologically haunting portrait in the style of realistic painting in pictures such as the portrait of the Joker, whose appearance is reminiscent of the convincing portrayal of this super-gangster and opponent of Batman in Gotham City by Joaquin Phoenix in Todd Phillip’s film Joker (2019). Kharchenko also painted a haunting portrait study of Spiderman using the form and composition of Mikhail Vrubel’s painting The Demon Seated (1890). Vrubel created this major work of Russian Symbolism based on the poem ‘The Demon’ by Mikhail Lermontov – one of the archetypes of Romanticism in Russian literature. The ambiguity of Romanticism in Europe, which in addition to its sentimental, nostalgic mood also contains the germ of nationalism and fascism, makes this theme a perfect model for Kharchenko’s painting, in which he lampoons precisely this ambiguity of our own self-perception.
From a contemporary perspective, Yury Kharchenko’s attitude as a painter of committed pictures becomes clear in all its consistency. He has continuously opened up new fields of content and has constantly deepened and enriched the complexity of his art. His painting is technically virtuoso and sensual, but the pleasure of his pictures can never be separated from the fact that they have a very serious background. This background makes his paintings necessary products of our culture, which must be preserved just as much as his art. This requires attention and an unconditional will to learn. The morality in Yury Kharchenko’s art is that it is above morality.
Kay Heymer, Gärdslösa – Düsseldorf, 8–13 August 2020
(translated into English by Gerard Goodrow)