How to Do Urban, by New Yorker of Choice
Two young women, art students, funnel into the bleak and lead-like dreary light of the subway car grasping in their hands, by the frames on which they have been crafted, smallish paintings (maybe 12 by 16). Apparitions they are, the young artists, and holdings of the imagination, their finished images that I may never have the opportunity to observe again.
In New York City one can still think of opportunities not as tearless moments to rebuild upon destruction and demolition, but rather as the unexpected and normal continuance of spirit, (perhaps still) unlike any emanation of spirit anywhere else in the world. An assertion of this kind cries out hotly to be contested, but it more or less stands, if the current exhibition of Anna Shukeylo’s Urban Diaries, at the Morningside Heights Branch of the New York Public Library through January 3, 2013, gives its indication.
Special people like to feel special by taking note of their surroundings. Commonly people riding the subway trains in New York City take no notice of anyone around them, are not concerned about their subterranean existence. Special people, especially in the dullness of these surroundings, do take note, but again by common agreement not so far as to talk to strangers, as is well and good. You could talk about one of the paintings, however, because it was indeed special. It displayed not exactly ground and foreground, but rather, when backed by the subway’s dim disinterestedness, more foreground, being the sharp colors of a musical instrument depicted on the canvas, against less foreground, the different oranges and peaches and reds arranged in geometrical blocks, just as music itself takes geometrical form, and especially that of the instrument depicted in this one artist’s mind, and spectacularly the nature of its realization of the music in frames known succinctly as “bars”. As was obvious, the painting was, and is (though I may never study it again), special. Being special admitted of compliments, even in the subway-train environment. These pleased, and even where people are total strangers they could please, the comment or two that also elicited mild, and to be sure politely concealed, annoyance.
Of such trimmings of contrast and guardedness, Anna Shukeylo’s scenes in New York City include riding in subway cars populated by effaced and remotely and abstractly noted passengers. As such, her tributes to meaninglessness are hardly special. On their facelessness, they are not special. The impersonality of her figuring, perhaps its anti-personality, would seem ever more extensively to be bred of an insight about urban living tired enough to make it unremarkable.
Yet this assessment does not entirely hold. You could call it a strategy, for there is pleasure indeed, and it lies in the coloristic patterns, even though similarly ranged from piece to piece. Something in them stands out persuasively, as an effect to be special and to feel special in amongst all the drabness and the no doubt oppressive spiritual exhaustion thereof. In other words, the colors stand out by seeping through, enriching themselves into interest and specialness and into some measure of sought-after New York City joy.
With a couple of exceptions, the artist uses acrylic on mylar, and hence by way of screening and trickling the known impressions down, by way of everywhere glopping, or if not that forming, she discovers her technique for charging the urban experience, in a way that could only be New York. That New Yorker’s bearing may be a claim (Ms. Shukeylo is from St. Petersburg), only one of a few good claims, for this exhibition of artworks at a local branch library, a claim that even if open to dispute takes part in being special.
The paintings sport a filmy surface, aqueous in its texture, that is apparent and much noticeable though not immediately appealing for all that. Thus “Momentum”, by way of offering its comment on urban depiction, has a downward pull, and is about as remote and silted and sickly as you can get picturing platform and entombing tunnel, with deep feel of mausoleum. At the same time a yellow streak flashes excitedly through the awareness of dreary prospect. Yellow, not known particularly for being lively and cheerful, can of course be so and manages that quality here, with grand sweep and arching, asserting point.
The remoteness in “Wednesday”, not so very different, falls upon huddled ghostly figures preparing for an undefined beyond. Thus the patchwork of vague forms haunts, is fearful as it traps you towards the left side of the frame, though here too with a relieving touch of yellow. Elsewhere spreading patches and pools of yellow, and yellow paint strokes scratched a little ineptly and therefore a little glaringly across the scene, provide impetus. Further relief comes from the balancing against the yellow of complementary colors violet and pink, where they spurt quite beautifully into the upper-right corner. Such vivid blocks of color, if you will, appear out of the way but prominently. Along the same border of the frame streaky and watery blues in emphatic and various shades drop into a quieting extension of the pool effect still dominated by yellow. All of this placing of pools of color with their complements and contrasts gives the painting spirit and even its own kind of panache, but not a specialness of the kind that emerges in “Tuesday Morning”, a companion piece where Ms. Shukeylo uses a similar range of colors and likewise makes use of quieting shapes along the floor of the panel.
As subway scenes generally do, “Tuesday Morning” retains some subterranean feel of a blackened and morbid atmosphere, although the train seems to be travelling at an elevated stage of its journey. In daylight regardless, the figures are effaced, and not a little scary, so that much is conveyed in the way of oppressive urban depicting, but in the pool-shapes that support the flooring a shifting movement from a dirty, dark blue to comforting aqua helps to create a balance against the patches of contesting colors. One of these is a surprising red. Nevertheless, it is again yellow, resting in other parts of the scheme, that holds the balance, and these moments of odd brightness, whereas not nearly as obtrusive or flashy as in “Wednesday” and “Momentum”, are elegantly placed, and serve toward a shaping, not quite a pattern but an engaged placement of sufficiently inspired ordering as to achieve the special, as if that were what the painting was about; and that is what it is about if we feel it, if in and through observing it we sometimes want to be special and feel special.
Thus in “Wednesday” it is a striking overall compositional balance that delivers specialness in and amongst the drab and the dreary. And it does so with great success. The artist, in New York City, wanting to be special and to feel special, as it might seem in these paintings, accomplishes her task for us as her viewers, even as her select viewers. She, the exhibition, the spirit that lights them up in our special place, our landmark that is the Morningside Heights Branch of the New York Public Library, all find pleasure and a kind of glory by means of form, by putting the form and the assertion into it, by undertaking with exuberance, however unlikely for those who are not New Yorkers (we think), to make it special.
New York City
Copyright© 2013, by Robert Mueller. All Rights Reserved.
Robert Mueller has been a frequent contributor of essays and poems to this website journal. His poetry appears also online in Blackbox Manifold, Mad Hatters’ Review, Ink Node, Moria and elsewhere. Of major print publications, there are poems by Robert Mueller in First Intensity and American Letters & Commentary, the latter also publishing reviews of his. Having earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Brown University, he has contributed poetry reviews and essays to many publications, often bringing other languages and thus also distantly-related texts and sources into the picture.