Making Continuity Contemporary: Eastern Europe in New York
On view from March 13–July 17, 2016
Text by Emily O’Leary, Associate Curator
An exhibition featuring work by eight artists originally from Eastern Europe, Making Continuity Contemporary: Eastern Europe in New York, addresses themes of personal history, geographical dislocation, identity, and intellectual freedom. In different ways, each artist explores both the disruptions in and continuities with their cultural backgrounds, whether through pictorial abstraction, participatory projects, auditory or written language, or conceptual reinterpretation of cultural symbols. Their mediums also range widely, from hand-drawn animation and audio, silver light drawings, and painting to works in mixed media, photography, sculpture, and installation.
Maryna Bilak, a Ukrainian artist originally from the Carpathian Mountains, earned an MFA from the Institute of Art of Subcarpathian National University in 2007 and came to the U.S. in 2012 to further her art studies by enrolling at the New York Studio School. Using her knowledge of traditional Ukrainian textile motifs, she incorporates these patterns into three-dimensional paintings in which she manipulates color and shape by folding canvas and in multimedia installations in which she assembles hand-painted stones. Bilak started crafting the stones from discarded materials, such as scraps of plastic and tape from the floor of her studio. The painted stones suggest how fragments can be rearranged and assembled in such a way as to foster cultural continuity.
Alina and Jeff Bliumis’s series Casual Conversations in Brooklyn (2007) engages questions of how cultural experiences and identities intersect. The photographers spent a day in Brighton Beach—home to a large Jewish and Russian-speaking community—and offered passersby the opportunity to choose from three different signs featuring the words “Russian,” “Jewish,” and “American,” or to create their own. On view are three photographs of subjects photographed holding the signs they chose—sometimes more than two—to represent their cultural identities. Alina and Jeff Bliumis were born in Belarus and Moldova, respectively.
Yevgenia Nayberg, who grew up in Kiev, Ukraine, is represented by the painting Bird Dictionary (2011), a rumination on the process of learning a new language. Phrases in Cyrillic text are incorporated into the work, labeled as ordinary things: “regular person,” “regular landscape,” and “standard moon.” However, the reality is the opposite, and the work touches on the idea that learning a new language is strange and surreal for non-speakers. The artist also pays homage to Suprematism in another work on view, a triptych entitled Happy Man Series (2013).
Bulgarian-born artist Eva Nikolova references Balkan architecture in her handdrawn animation and silver light drawings—works on light sensitive paper—that construct narratives about memory and personal dislocation. In the animation Zemya Zemya (2008), the iconic architectural form of the Orthodox Christian church is seen through a series of free-associative events, leaving interpretation of the narrative up to the viewer. According to the artist, the title is a doubling of the Bulgarian word for earth, land, or ground and refers to the signage on rockets designating the missile type—ground-to-ground or surface-to-surface. The architectural images in Nikolova’s works function as cultural emblems—whether intact or seemingly dilapidated—and explore shifting identities.
Diana Shpungin’s You Will Remember This (2011) is a hand-drawn animation derived from video footage of her father several months before his death. In it he speaks about life in Soviet Latvia, including an anecdote about how he acquired his first car in exchange for 15 tons of potatoes. The animation is a companion piece to the installation 1664 Sundays (2011), which is not on view in this exhibition, but that was comprised of a pile of potatoes collected by the artist and distributed to attendees with paper bags printed with her father’s recipe of a meal he cooked for her on Sundays. The potato functions as a symbol for this black market culture, used as currency, but remains an ordinary object capable of evoking memory, memorial, and the intimate politics of food that were of great importance during grain shortages in the USSR, according to the artist. The title of the installation refers to the number of Sundays that Shpungin and her father overlapped in their lifetime. The work suggests the transmission and reception of cultural memory across generations.
Wings denote freedom and liberation in the work of illustrator Peter Sís, who emigrated from Czechoslovakia to the U.S. in 1982. His works in the exhibition include two illustrations, one blue, one yellow, from his adaptation of The Conference of the Birds (The Penguin Press, 2011)—a 12th century Persian epic poem. A surrealistic pattern in the shape of an eye formed from his drawing of a flock of birds spreads across a richly colored surface, demonstrating the process of journeying. The motif of wings also appears in Sís’s autobiographical children’s book The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain (2007). Through a series of illustrations and journal entries, Sís tells the story of a young boy who takes flight on his bicycle made with wings of “dreams” and escapes over a barbed-wire fence toward a distant New York City. The wings are represented by sheets of colored paper that throughout symbolize the artist’s own drawings. The story ends with the fall of a border wall.
Leonard Ursachi’s drawings of bunkers and a maquette for Fat Boy (2014)—a large sculpture on view in Prospect Park in Brooklyn referencing the first Atomic bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man—engage what the artist describes as “the bunker mentality.” Ursachi’s native Romania is dotted with bunkers abandoned after the Communist era, existing as militant symbols that instill a sense of fear and the unknown. Fortified and practical structures that function as emblems of violence, bunkers are capable of withstanding heavy damage and protecting those inside, but they also allow their inhabitants to act on the offensive. In 1998, eighteen years after he defected from Romania, Ursachi began using the form to explore the contradictory feelings of fear and refuge that they suggest. The four drawings on view document the various forms Ursachi’s bunkers have taken over the years.
Beginning in 2012, a series of exhibitions have been mounted that were drawn from The Hebrew Home’s collection of Eastern European art of the 1950s and 1960s. These exhibitions focused on different movements, individuals and groups of artists—both official and dissident—working in the former Soviet Union and its satellite states during the Cold War. The current exhibition has emerged in an effort to look beyond those earlier generations of Eastern European artists to the current group of eight artists, who originate from seven different countries and who work and live in new circumstances, yet, in varying ways, maintain connections with their pasts.
Making Continuity Contemporary: Eastern Europe in New York sheds light on some of the strategies and interests among this particular group of artists who have spent part of their lives away from the places they were born. The artists in the exhibition—some of whom left their countries of origin as children and others who left as adults—engage issues of Eastern European cultural identity from diverse perspectives, including the vantage point of some who left Eastern Europe with extreme difficulty and under duress. This exhibition does not seek to trace any direct lines of influence from past to present, but rather delves into how contemporary artists of Eastern European origin are engaging personal histories and cultural identities today.
This text, which originally appeared in the printed exhibition brochure, was produced in conjunction with the exhibition Making Continuity Contemporary: Eastern Europe in New York on view in the Elma and Milton A. Gilbert Pavilion Gallery from March 13–July 17, 2016.
As a member of the American Alliance of Museums, Hebrew Home at Riverdale by RiverSpring Health is committed to publicly exhibiting its art collection throughout its 32-acre campus including the Derfner Judaica Museum and a sculpture garden overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades. The Derfner Judaica Museum + The Art Collection provide educational and cultural programming for residents of the Hebrew Home, their families and the general public from throughout New York City, its surrounding suburbs and visitors from elsewhere. Hebrew Home is a nonprofit, non-sectarian geriatric organization serving more than 12,000 elderly persons in greater New York through its resources and community service programs. Museum hours: Sunday–Thursday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Art Collection and grounds open daily, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Call 718-581-1596 for holiday hours and to schedule group tours, or for further information please visit our website at http://www.hebrewhome.org/art
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This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.