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Personal History in Narrative Figure Paintings

Personal History in Narrative Figure Paintings, a group show at Agitator Cooperative Gallery featuring:

Noël Ash Gabriella Boros
Andrea Kaspryk Jonathon McKay
Katernyna Tkachenko Xiaotong Zhao

June 7, 2019 – July 6, 2019

Opening Reception: 7:00 – 11:00 pm, Friday, June 7, 2019
Closing Artists’ Talk: 2:00pm, Saturday, July 6, 2019

Noël Ash    

Noël was born and raised on the west side of Chicago and received her BFA in painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2003, and is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Aquaphobic series of paintings. For two months my daughter refused to bathe. What was once a non-issue now haunted us both, and we each had our coping mechanisms: she begging and wailing and writhing, I waiting her out, struggling to keep her little skull  from dashing on the porcelain. My sanity always felt in peril, and I stared deep into the foggy glow of the tiled walls. I could never predict the transition from weeping into giggling, the point when her little person couldn’t pour all her focus onto fighting me. Distracted by the pleasure of warm water, she somehow forgot to keep crying, and I’d breathe to help my brain cool down. 

These episodes became, for me, an example of the sheer pointless misery of many of the tasks of housewifing. Contrary to our culture’s deeply held belief that women’s biological need to nurture makes tending to her home a satisfaction, I find housework to be what it is: a chore. This includes many of the tasks involving my ofttimes delightful children. For me, last spring, the worst was the bath.

Gabriella Boros     

Gabriella Boros has shown her prints, paintings and multimedia works nationally and internationally. Currently focusing on woodblock prints and handmade books, Gabriella also does photography, paints in acrylic on wood panel, drawings, sculptures and found-object cheeseboxes. Born in Israel, Gabriella immigrated to the United States as a child. Her narratives reflect her European parentage, Israeli childhood and American influences. She has a BFA from the University of Michigan School of Art. She currently lives and works in Skokie, Illinois. Gabriella has been influenced by narrative artists such as  Max Beckmann, Paula Rego and Philip Guston.

My love for narrative was derived from the rich heritage of my European parentage, Israeli childhood and American influences. The narratives are a filtration of symbols and choreography which depict a concept. In 2007, I began a new technique of painting in acrylic on wood panel. The grain of the wood contrasts and frames the movement of the figures on the panel.

My symbols stem from associations and ruminations. My process for creating the pieces begins with a written concept on which I build visual images. Animals and plants represent aspects of nature. Humans struggle alongside nature, sometimes oblivious to it, often fighting it.

I am fascinated by narratives and consider myself a storyteller through images. The narrations are both observational and political. The double meanings of the symbols are intentional. Laughter and sorrow rub shoulders in real life and in my stories.

I apply upwards of ten layers on the surface working as the Old Masters did with their layers of veneer. By building up layers of contrasting colors I attain a translucence which I further emphasize with a surface of gel. This final layer also gives the painting an illusion of greater distance and dimensionality.

The UrPapa series was inspired by a trip to Eastern Europe; the UrPapa are middle age men who embody the disapproving paternal figure. They hunt the streets of a decaying, outmoded city searching for blameless individuals to judge, indict and punish. Their punishment is force feeding those terrible Czech dumplings with no gravy! This is my comment on the still-simmering hatred I felt directed at us, as returning Jews, searching for the remains of a former comfortable life lived by my parents in Europe.

As I walked the streets of the city of my mother’s birth, I was struck by the feeling that those who walked by us in the streets, were not far removed from the very people who deprived my mother of her comfortable middle-class life in Bratislava, Slovakia. Outwardly, they seemed officious and busy, some, too busy to offer any help in finding street directions. Others were immediately suspicious when they found out that my mother was a Slovak returning to her homeland after the Holocaust. 

UrPapa: Search. Here the innocent tourist is walking down the street only to be apprehended for no reason at all by the UrPapa, the Most Disapproving Father figures in the world.

UrPapa: Judgement. The towering UrPapas don’t really listen to what our female tourist has to say; they place her on a small stool to further disempower her and slam the gavel at her every word to drown her out.

UrPapa: Punishment. The UrPapa stuff the dry and tasteless dumplings into the throat of our hapless tourist by way of punishing her for her past, for her present and preventing her from enjoying her future.

UrPapa: Search. There they go striding step by step together looking for their next innocent victim to harangue and torture with their past.

Jonathon McKay 

My paintings orbit around whimsical narratives loosely based on modern life. I take a lot of inspiration from the traditions of the Old Masters, and constantly painting myself into unpredictable space and crawling my way out of it. I was taught figurative painting from my mother as a child and I am currently earning my bachelor degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 

My recent body of work investigates how the tradition of figure painting can be bent, adapted and updated for contemporary investigation. Specifically, I have been exploring how the stories and skills developed by the Baroque and Renaissance masters can be siphoned through my imagination, resulting in whimsical narratives updated for the everyday world around me. Jonah as a Hot Dog compares depictions of martyrs and the Chicago hotdog, raising up this processed cliché into the Western Canon, resulting in a hopefully unexpected hybrid of both genres. We Must Be Over the Rainbow! and White Sheep both test the line between abstraction and representation: they exist in a briefly described abstract space; for me the picture becomes secondary to how they sit within the abstraction.

The most pictorially complex of these picture’s is The Trials of Saint Luke, which is based on the Catholic tradition that Saint Luke painted the first picture of the Madonna and Child. This is a historic genre where artists portray themselves as Saint Luke, unintentionally elevating themselves to semi-divine beings on a quest to pack the Old and New Testaments into one picture of a mom and her son. The resulting picture, which I reworked over and over again, only seemed to make sense once I painted out this grand narrative and was just left with the painter staring into the unfinished unknown.

Kateryna Tkachenko

I began my art path in Ukraine, where I was born and educated. I studied in both the Kharkiv State School of Art and the Kharkiv Academy of Design and Arts. I began painting in the “magical realist” style at that time.

One of my main projects which continues to this day is ‘Blossom World’ where I talk through my art about the deep connection of everything alive on this earth: human beings, flora, and fauna. Through the metaphor, the symbol, the allegory of flowers, I demonstrate both the diversity of people and of the surrounding world.

Flowers are a symbol of art, internal germination, thoughts, feelings. The heart of the earth is connected with people who live in harmony with themselves, with nature and universe.

For me painting is psychoanalytical, the embodiment of my thoughts on canvas. When we positively adjust the inner world, then the outside is perceived organically to help us escape to a parallel world, as in dreams to a changed state of consciousness. Everything starts with us. Art is something akin to dreams and is also a parallel reality. Creation is a state in which everything is good; where there is no time, where everything happens under other laws, where one can find the answers through which we pass[AK1]  through in real life.

I like that the artist is at the same time part of the world around her and also a mirror of that world. I like to admire the beautiful world around me. I like that by putting emotions and experiences through the mind I can create works of art.

What do I want to say with my art?  I want to talk about the connection of all life on earth. I want to tell you that humankind is an integral part of the universe, like all living things that surround it. I want in my art to celebrate the beauty of the universe in all of its manifestations. I like that everything in this world fulfills its mission – birds sing, grass grows, trees give fruit, the artist creates works of art. Wood is life, flowers, creativity and art is the flower’s’ heart. An artist is like a tree that can grow. So, an artist can grow flowers. The flowers of an artist – it is an art.  

The paintings Self-Portrait and Desire are united by the idea of the interaction of everything alive on earth – the world of people and the world of nature.

Self-Portrait is my immersion into self-awareness through the purity of the white background and the absence of anything but flowers. Just me, white infinity and flowers. In addition, Self-Portrait is close to the national interpretation of clothes and flowers (I am from Ukraine) and this is one more characteristic of me .

Desire. Passion. The experience of attraction when the physical, natural, non-intellectual predominates and we become like a flower ready to receive pollination while waiting for a new fruit.

I like that the artist is at the same time part of the world around her and also a mirror of that world. I like to admire the beautiful world around me. I like that by putting emotions and experiences through the mind I can create works of art.

Xiaotong Zhao    

I am a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Artists who influenced me are Mary Lou Zelazny, Anne Harris, Marlena Dumas, John Currin. My paintings intend to start a conversation between gender, identity, privileges, and consent. Do women approve of male painters depicting their bodies in lewd ways, and how will these bodies be different, if I, as a woman, depict them? My paintings are successful, if my commentary becomes apparent through their quality and content.

Make Me an Angel was painted in an academic painting style that references nineteenth-century romantic and neo-classic formulaic images of an ideal female body, whose gesture, position, gaze are all in service to beauty. For me bringing back the subject matter of the nude and trying to not make it into cheesy cliché is quite challenging. This is an attempt and an introduction for my future studies of essentially a conversation between high painting techniques and contemporary relevance.

Ling Ling. In my paintings, I intend to ask questions instead of giving solutions. The question I have been asking myself every morning, “Why do people see me as an Asian before they see me as woman?” In 2017 I was walking down State Street in Chicago, when two white men approached me and started calling me Ling Ling. According to the Urban Dictionary, Ling Ling means: “A short, small Asian girl who is too anime for life but is very likable to the point where you’d kidnap her and take her to an amusement park. I was horrified but awakened. This experience led me to ask questions in my work: why do people assume Asian women are demur?

In my paintings, I intend to ask questions rather than give solutions. The question I have been asking myself every morning, “Why do people see me as an Asian before they see me as woman?” In 2017 I was walking down State Street in Chicago, when two white men approached me and started calling me Ling Ling. (According to the Urban Dictionary, Ling Ling means: “A short, small Asian girl who is too anime for life but is very likable to the point where you’d kidnap her and take her to an amusement park.”) I was horrified but awakened. This experience led me to ask questions in my work such as, why do people assume Asian women are demur?

I always see humanity in art. It is one of the very few things that future technology cannot replace, and painting, in particular, is one of the most traditional ways to create images and expressive forms. Art emerges from culture, and merges it with emotion, and narrative. As an Asian woman, who was born in China and immigrated to the United States, it is crucial to tell my side of a woman’s experience. I am extremely interested in the excess of the female nude in Western historical paintings. Painters have been long obsessed with the sublime as represented by women’s bodies and claiming them as a subject of their privilege to paint for the male gaze. Most of the figures in these paintings have silky, smooth skin, soft gazes, rosy cheeks, erotic bodies, and carefully posed gestures which create a sexual fantasy for their male audience. Women were placed inside an illusional box and not even allowed to disturb the rest of the world. Contemporary artists such as John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage, who paint exaggerated female body parts and arousing images, comment on the woman’s objectified body.

The idea of a soft-porn aesthetic influences me deeply since it indicates a disturbing innocence, and I work with mostly figures and portraits. The scale of my paintings and their defined rectangular frame conveys important content. My portrait, Reflection, is a life-size work of a young Asian girl’s face, hanging at eye level, that creates an intimate, yet creepy peeping hole: the girl stares right back, making its viewing audience the voyeur. Instead of creating  coyness, my subject looks directly at her spectators. The directness and simplicity of eye contact is my comment on the assumptions about Asian females being demur, quiet, and obedient, because to me such innocent facial features are disconcerting.

All representations of the Asian woman in my works are, on some extent, a self-portrait. I create powerful female figures in my work that are both beautiful and inspirational, symbolizing the softness and firmness of Asian women.

Andrea Kaspryk    

I received a BFA at the Art Institute of Chicago in Painting and Drawing in 2013, and I have continued to take courses in portrait and figure painting at Lill Street Arts. My focus on narrative painting is informed by my past study of literature. Not finding my niche in academia, I decided to end my academic career after having taught writing at the City Colleges of Chicago for five years and spent many reading and writing in graduate school, studying Slavic Languages and Literatures. I recently published a book Inner Journeys in Search of the Self: Essays, Poems and Guided Meditations which includes and comments on my art and my experiences as a transgender person.

In a series of paintings, a triptych, I used myself as the nude figure model to comment on my transgender experiences and was inspired by the figurative paintings of Kerry James Marshall’s figurative paintings, who has depicted African Americans in iconic poses.

In Facing and Overcoming Stigma I present a nude figure in an imaginary scene calmly holding one diamondback rattlesnake, while another one approaches from below. This scene symbolizes the end of my own struggle with a sense of sexual and gender stigma that is represented by poisonous snakes, who no longer provoke fear and avoidance.

In Lonely Anarchist I present a nude figure holding a red and black anarchist flag, but one who is alone on an open and wide horizon. This scene reflects my past experience of having taken an oppositional stance to institutions and a world that did not have a place and recognition for people like me. In time, after I came out and was no longer so isolated, I began to find solidarity with others and with groups. In Unease in Balancing Gender a figure sits alone on a large, angry mask-like form, which represents my sense of difficulty and struggle that I experienced in trying to  balance a sense of gender, masculine and feminine, which the conventional bipolar system of gender expression and appearance discourages.

Noel Ash

Jon McKay
Andrea Kaspryk

Kateryna Tkachenko

Xiaotong Zhao

Gabriella Boros

Gabriella Boros