Ella Kruglyanskaya: Fenix
Gavin Brown's Enterprise | January 13 – February 24, 2019
The most revealing painting in Ella Kruglyanskaya's show at Gavin Brown's Enterprise is Painter, Discontented (2018). The seven-foot-tall oil depicts a painter in messy negligee sitting before a canvas, onto which a few marks have been splashed from the brush in her hand. The figure has the stature and delicacy of a bear squashed into the frame with her paw-like foot pressed against its edge—she is not happy to be there. The painting itself looks like an outburst of frustration, containing remarkably little nuance of line or color. Upstairs there are several similar compositions, such as Splatter (2018), which shows the artist despondent, her face held in one hand as she collapses on a couch in front of a failed painting (some slap-dash penises). Splatter is more consciously composed, more labored-over than its beastly counterpart downstairs, but both characters are facets of the exhibition's psychological protagonist. All the work here seems to revolve around an artist who is deeply self-conscious about the act of painting.
In contemporary painting, there are no right answers—or better yet, there are infinite right answers to the "problem" of making a painting. A painting exhibition is strong simply when the artist convinces us that she has conjured a compelling solution, yielding paintings that work. Over the course of her career, Kruglyanskaya has positioned herself as a heavyweight, showing brash paintings that draw attention to vacuous, sexualized cultural representations of women by flying in the face of feminine wiles. Her canvases are populated by intentionally ugly ladies, rudely drawn and colored, awkwardly cut off by their frames, brandishing inelegant sausage fingers and flapping fish-like lips, their pubic zones overlaid with actual pictures of fish, their breasts covered by sour lemon hemispheres. They are dancing-middle-finger paintings that dare you to dislike them—flexing muscles, baring teeth.
In her current exhibition, however, the postmodern veneer has cracked, revealing a group of paintings that are scattered in approach and unresolved in momentum, creating an impression of identity-crisis rather than strength. There are plenty of the usual bawdy women here, but they skew sketchy and noncommittal, most of them under-worked. Alongside these paintings are seemingly incongruous representations of folk art objects copied from photographs, which possess none of the bravado of her figurative work but instead are executed in a deeply bland, straightforward manner. These paintings are trimmed in thick white borders to evoke polaroid prints, undermining their autonomy as paintings by referring to the images from which they're copied. Trompe-l'oeil effects pervade the entire show: a drawing of two women is "clipped" to a drawing board within one canvas. Others depict sketches that have been variously abused: folded, taped, overlaid with paintbrushes. These persistent attempts to break the fourth wall seem like self-conscious moves, as if the artist is cracking a joke about the authenticity of painting before we've even called it into question.
Kruglyanskaya obviously knows what she is doing, and could have easily produced a "strong" show, as attested by Art Wench (2018), a funny painting of a busty woman holding beer steins full of paintbrushes. It has tremendous graphic impact, built from assertive lines and planes of color; a show full of paintings like this one would have been powerfully convincing, but Art Wench is one of a kind.
Many writers have noted the way Kruglyanskaya casually dabbles in techniques without committing to a signature style. But this group of paintings suggests she's trying to move beyond postmodern eclecticism to do something more difficult for an accomplished mid-career painter—it is harder not to have a style, to remain open to failure rather than relying on a cultivated lexicon of winning moves. This exhibition speaks to the labor of that creative process—the trompe-l'oeil recursions refer to the process of sketching, rejecting, reconsidering, leaning on source material. These moments of weakness are usually erased in a "strong" body of work. The show is a vulnerable display of searching, and the press release includes a rhetorical question that unintentionally plunges a knife into the heart of the matter: "Is it possible to communicate a sincere, unadorned emotion in painting?" Why yes—yes it is, and such insecurity about the authenticity of painting rings of an old-fashioned postmodernism in 2019. The real question is, can your paintings do this, Ms. Kruglyanskaya?
The answer, again, is yes, because of the potent honesty of the "discontented painters." These images of frustrated artists enthralled in their struggle with failure—more specifically the failure of postmodern caricature—speak to the heavy self-awareness that rules over this show. Therefore this review is an ode to artistic candor, to Kruglyanskaya's vital reckoning with her medium. The strong painter returns to the studio to sweep the ashes of her failed paintings, raising them again, a ritual that never ends.
ContributorAlex A. Jones
ALEX A. JONES is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.