Vasily Shulzhenko

at Maya Polsky, through June 1

Gaela Erwin

at Lyons Weir, through May 29

Joseph Piccillo

at Perimeter, through May 28

Peter Kitchell

at Mary Bell, through May 29

By Fred Camper

Moscow painter Vasily Shulzhenko makes ambivalent references to a heroic past in his exhibit at Maya Polsky. The Atlantes shows two men holding up not the world or the heavens but protruding portions of the apartment building behind them. A man sweeping the pavement doesn’t even come up to their knees, making them seem giants–but ordinary, somewhat absurd ones.

Shulzhenko’s layered use of paint also conveys this dualism. Building up his pictures slowly, he produces a complex surface that suggests the spatial and spiritual depth of many old masters–not only northern Renaissance painters but Rembrandt. The eyes in their deep sockets in the figure on the right in The Atlantes suggest the soul residing beneath the body’s rough exterior, and the detailed skin of both men–mottled surfaces full of contrasting lights and darks–also suggests an inner complexity. As in most of these paintings, Shulzhenko’s paint clusters in coarse patches revealing his brush strokes, alternating with suppler areas that convey the texture of skin or clothing. He sets up tensions not only between light and dark areas but between paint as paint and paint as illusion.

In the ironic Venus in Moscow, a nude Venus seems to float on a white sheet outside an apartment window. Even the windowsill blends classical allusion with urban grit: sitting on it are a sculpted woman’s head, household objects that include a teapot, and a rat. Venus’s flesh is as light and transparent as Shulzhenko ever paints it, which is to say not very, but there are bright areas reflecting light from above, and the skin looks supple. At the same time this figure clearly diverges from the classical ideal: wearing a slight smirk, she has the expression and hairdo of an everyday modern woman. While Shulzhenko’s Venus retains a certain grandeur, even a bit of the majesty and power one finds in old masters, she also resembles the two Atlases: she’s a figure you might see on any street.

It is Shulzhenko’s mix of darkness and light, of thick globs of paint and illusionistic rendering, that brings his paintings to life. The paint itself establishes a rhythm, sometimes growing dark and thick and heavy as it congeals around brighter areas with an almost oppressive weight–as if the stuff of the world were threatening to snuff out life itself. The building facade behind the two Atlases is mottled with dirt and decay; parts of it seem to have peeled off. The building not only bows their shoulders–each millimeter has its own feeling of weight, as if the thick paint made the solidity of the structure palpable. An archway between the two men leads the eye to a fragment of another building that seems much better kept, its clean, pastel surface heightening one’s awareness of the peeling archway that surrounds it and seems to weigh it down. Similarly, the bent backs of the two giants form an archway over the tiny street sweeper, almost as if pressing on his much smaller form. Rather than ennobling humankind, as many old master paintings of gods seek to do, these figures seem to pull us down.

The heaviness of Shulzhenko’s paint is finally an expression of the way the materiality of the world denies us the transcendence that classical ideals seem to promise. Venus’s body may glow, but we can see that she’s lit by everyday light from above–the only way that light can enter this courtyard. Moreover, her glow comes from globs of paint rather than some inner light. The facades behind her, discolored and peeling, are even more mundane than she is. Her brown skin is echoed throughout this mostly tan and brown image, tying her to the buildings she floats beside; though suspended, she seems about to be pulled down by their heavy surfaces. To Shulzhenko’s other dualisms one must add the opposition between buoyancy and mass, between some imagined inner freedom and the oppressive, heavy stuff of the world.

The idea of individual freedom has never fared well in Russia, which may explain why the limited autonomy of Shulzhenko’s figures seems at once contingent and poignant. Diogenes shows a man wearing a somewhat goofy smile huddled before an old section of pipe. Is this the philosopher himself or the honest man Diogenes is said to have sought? Though the figure’s arms and legs are crossed, and though the curving pipe seems to both frame him and assert a heavy, threatening solidity, his vital smile gives him a hint of freedom. It’s also significant that another pipe can be seen in the background: Shulzhenko surrounds his figures with the material aspects of their particular cultural landscape, not metaphorical representations of the human condition. It is in part because Russian buildings are crumbling and Russian vacant lots are strewn with refuse, he seems to say, that Russians can’t be fully free.

This point is perhaps clearest in Cupid: this young boy’s shirt and jeans are painted with a tactile solidity that denies him the airiness of a traditional cupid. Similarly, his wings seem more the product of a taxidermy shop than the stuff of myth. Most significant, though, is the Coke bottle by his leg, which–like his jeans–fixes him in the present. But however weighed down he may be by the world, his eyes and a few tiny patches of light on his face retain an inner spark.

Sometimes paintings that appear to represent fantastic landscapes are more realistic than they seem. A region of Italy with craggy outcroppings is said to form the background of certain strange-looking Italian Renaissance paintings, and areas of China I’ve seen in photographs appear just as vertical and dense as the mountain landscapes in older Chinese art.

I’ve never been to Moscow but recently visited Saint Petersburg, where I saw many apartment-building courtyards like those Shulzhenko paints. A spectacularly beautiful city laced with rivers and canals, Saint Petersburg has also been decaying for almost a century; many facades are dirty and crumbling, and some courtyards are filled with garbage. Overall there’s a gritty feel to the place: people sell used goods everywhere, the streets are sometimes dirty, and many citizens wear old, worn clothing. Many faces are marked by premature aging. Here the ideals manifested in the architecture of the mostly well kept palaces and churches seem to constantly collide with the dirt of the daily world. Seeing Shulzhenko’s paintings at Maya Polsky before my trip, I found their heavily textured surfaces and somewhat surreal juxtapositions exotic; now, however, they read more like masterful documentaries.

Like most painting outside the conceptual realm, Shulzhenko’s work depends on one thing for its success: the viewer must experience the paint as a protagonist, an element as active in the work as the figures and landscape. Paint clusters into clumps, it congeals into ridges, it seems to disappear and suddenly allow a patch of daylight or the hint of an inner glow to shine through. Shulzhenko’s dynamic brushwork creates pictures as vibrant and unpredictable as a human being.

Work in nearby galleries reminded me of similar ways in which painters make their art vital. The splotchy, variegated surfaces of Gaela Erwin’s self-portraits at Lyons Weir recall Shulzhenko, if only distantly. In Self-portrait as a Bride, the light and dark portions of her face don’t flow together smoothly but remain separate, like different battlefields. One area seems redder than most skin; another is more white. Her collarbone protrudes, an uneasy reminder of her physicality; indeed, in all these paintings she seems uncomfortable with her physicality. As in Shulzhenko’s work, skin often seems less a window on the soul than mere stuff, a substance as inert as clothing; indeed, the lace in Self-portrait as a Bride seems potentially more spiritual than her face. Juxtaposing areas of paint with one another and paint as illusion with paint as paint, Erwin produces a formal drama that illuminates her complex self-images.

Even more dramatic contrasts can be found in Joseph Piccillo’s collagelike mixed-media paintings at Perimeter. #9 includes three pictures within the picture–a supple color landscape plus two black-and-white images that suggest photographs or movies–as well as two large figures, a swimmer and a rope climber. All are set against a blackboardlike background crisscrossed with a white grid and full of other lines and stenciled words. The larger figures’ supple skin and dynamic poses give them a powerful illusionistic presence that contrasts with the smaller figures in the black-and-white images and with the words and lines. Piccillo brings his subject–painting itself–to life by juxtaposing different forms of representation.

Peter Kitchell’s irregularly shaped abstract paintings on paper mounted on board at Mary Bell ought to demonstrate a similar vitality, since each is constructed of quite different areas, some fairly even in color and some with patterns–bands of color or blue and white cloudlike shapes. But in fact these various sections seem merely vacant. The individual areas are soft as fluff and slide together easily, in a manner all too consistent with the “lite” rock the gallery was playing on one occasion. Here the different sections of the work seem almost stupidly inert, giving rise to no particular dynamic. And though each is an irregular shape, with curves and indentations and cusps, even the sharp edges seem to lack an “edge”: they wouldn’t appear out of place in a dentist’s office. Still, they’re pleasant enough to look at–and useful reminders of the inner life other paintings have.