EUGENE VISHNEVSKY: ICONOTYPES
By Peter Frank
Eugene Vishnevsky is a picture-maker of some sort – in fact, of several sorts. Vishnevsky is a draughtsman, one who clearly abhors a vacuum and adores an avalanche of images, apparitions, symbols. He is an illuminator, encapsulating whole verses and chapters of real and imaginary epics and bibles and fantasies into designated quadrilaterals smaller than the page on which they are inscribed. He is a cartoonist, conjuring up worlds of absurd events – events not so absurd that we don’t recognize the follies of humanity and the extravagances of nature woven deep into them. He is a commentator, passing sly judgment on such follies and extravagances, allowing himself the luxury of God’s vantage for a little bit until falling back, with a wink, into the cacophonous maelstrom. He is a notator, relying on recurring patterns to suggest that some sort of code regulates the otherwise chaotic circumstances he describes – but knowing full well that such imposition of inscription on description “means” nothing beyond his own aesthetic decisions. A crosshatch is a crosshatch, and the fact that it appears a tight and formidable barrier of woven steel means only that such mesh is its appearance, its “feel.” Vishnevsky is in that regard as much a formalist as a narrative artist. It’s in the narratives, however – narratives shared by all humanity in some form or other – where he finds real pattern.
In many regards Vishnevsky is as much a devil-rousing subversive as he is a stern moralist. And he is as much an abstractionist as he is a surrealist. And he is even as much a geometric artist as he is an “organic” one. Vishnevsky’s worlds contain worlds upon worlds. He feels compelled to chart a universe, whether that universe is around him or in him, and whether it is around or in us. We don’t need to agree or disagree with his regard for the vast entirety of existence, we only need to know that he has posited this entirety as dense as well as vast — and that he regards the entirety as brimming with the same energies in every corner. In a sense, the universe is full: it always has room for more, but more is always more of the same. Look closer, however, and the differences emerge within the recurrences, embodied in the graceful, elegant inexactitude of Vishnevsky’s hand. No two dancing animals, no two copulating couples, no two burgeoning plants are the mirror image of any other. They are as unalike as snowflakes, and their behavior is as predictable.
The sources for the Kiev-born Vishnevsky’s images and style – certainly the most prominent and salient sources – are readily apparent. The icons of the Orthodox, especially Russian Orthodox, church echo in these highly detailed, highly centralized, dense and line-friendly renditions. There is almost always a living creature at the center of a Vishnevsky drawing, a more-or-less heraldic figure around whom the entire goings-on rotate. When such a human or animal does not dominate the image by looming at its core, the picture takes on a manic kind of architecture-in-time, a cross-structure of sequential events engaged (even indulged) in by tiny particle-people and animalcules. That in turn betrays Vishnevsky’s training as a medical biologist – as does his fine and persistent line, the mark of the man whose eye is always in the microscope. The sacred and the profane thus vie for dominance in Vishnevsky’s cosmos, but ultimately commingle and conflate as the base appetites and temper the power of the spiritual. The message here is, even angels get hungry; even one-celled creatures get horny.
Vishnevsky, who has lived in Los Angeles since 1993, was not trained as an artist, but “broke open” as one while teaching Biology and Chemistry in Kiev. His impulse to art-making had been fed in the USSR not only by exposure to religious icons but also – more fleetingly but more deliberately – to the more recondite aspects of the Russian revolutionary avant garde, which were beginning to be available to Soviet citizens in the 1980s. In particular, the fractured, shimmering cubo-surrealism of Pavel Filonov allowed Vishnevsky to regard a modernist approach as a way of pictorially examining and expanding rather than reducing subject matter. Spurred by the works of Filonov and icon masters like Andrei Rublev, Vishnevsky conjured his own Russian meta-realism. He also took an interest in the painting of Hieronymous Bosch.
He kept his early fantasies to himself. Not only was it unorthodox for a biologist to present himself as an artist; the USSR, even under Gorbachev, was still not especially tolerant of “unofficial” art practice. Furthermore, in comparison with the Chinese pictorial art that directly prompted these efforts, Vishnevsky himself regarded his earliest efforts as “primitive” – relatively crude, rendered in black and white, and dominated by harsh, forthright renditions of some frightening personages and events. Emigrating in 1990 first to Israel, then to Canada, Vishnevsky reconnected with his artistic impulse when he came to Los Angeles. He also widened his intellectual resources. In particular, his exposure to the writings of Carl Jung, most notably that groundbreaking psychiatrist’s theory of archetypes, brought forth a new series of drawings – this time far more finely honed and also more subjectively focused. In fact, Vishnevsky dedicated himself to a project he called “Visual Coding of the Archetypes on the Basis of the Bible and Biblical Mythology” – thus reconsidering the raw imagery of icon painting (as well as Russian folk art) in the context of unconscious reflexive narrative, the kind, Jung proposed, that lies at the very back of our brains and motivates us invisibly.
Vishnevsky took particular note of what Jung called “cultural archetypes,” symbols and motifs that recur in all forms of mythic and fabulistic (and, some would say, even non-fictional) discourse. Literature, theater, painting, dance, all the arts – even, in its own way, music – display cultural archetypes and are in some way bound by them. From 1997 until today, Vishnevsky has sought to make overt the presence of these archetypes in his own art – not propagandizing for or illustrating Jung’s theories but simply manifesting them in the process of telling tales and setting scenes. At first Vishnevsky applied Jung’s interpretive structure to Biblical stories; then, he branched out to find and describe archetypes throughout human consciousness. In these especially – although often enough in the Biblical accounts – sex and procreation play a central role. But so do other base, animalistic drives. Vishnevsky clearly sees human consciousness springing from animal consciousness, and regards Jung’s archetypes as at least partly the result of the reasoning human mind trying to make sense of its pre-human stem.
The intricate clusters of activity that comprise Vishnevsky’s obsessively assembled pictures may have a lawless and inchoate feel to them, appropriate to their droll regard for human appetite as animalistic. But even a casual examination reveals – especially in the rhythmic repetition of motifs – a powerful sense of order, manifesting the coherency of human society (however primitive). Intricate and obsessive, Vishnevsky’s art, taking its cues from the universes both around us and inside us, relies on a carefully calibrated logic. These pictures tell their stories as persuasively, even grippingly, as they do not only because they describe their elements eloquently, but because they balance their elements exquisitely. Every picture, finally, makes compositional as well as discursive sense.
Every Vishnevsky picture, after all, tells a story, condensed or expanded, or at least depicts a “moment” from a well-known tale. This anchors the artwork in a pictorial tradition as basic and ancient as human society itself. Vishnevsky thus does proud the Chinese pictorialists who spurred him early on. He does well by his countrymen, too, inventing a new kind of icon that engages the stylizations of the illuminated manuscript and Filonov’s fractured space. And he honors Jung, another crypto-artist whose own tightly wrought illustrations of dreams and hypnogogic apparitions have only recently come to light. Has Eugene Vishnevsky taken a spiritual path towards a profane art or a profane path to an enlightened art? Neither of the above. Rather, he has reified what Jung, Filonov, icon painters, Chinese painters, and even the hands that wrote the Bible knew: that the sacred and the profane are just points – not even polarities – in the cosmos of the human mind.
A word on some of the imagery: often direct, and just as often fanciful, depictions of sexual acts between humans – and sometimes between humans and animals – occur fairly frequently in Vishnevsky’s drawings. Given the elaborate ways the human brain recontextualizes an atavistic impulse such as sex – to the extent where the sexual drive becomes a key factor in constructing human society – Vishnevsky almost has no choice but to incorporate sex into his archteype-driven pictorial vocabulary. (Indeed, the prevalence of sexual encounter even in the artist’s early, pre-Jungian work could be said to have been a factor drawing Vishnevsky towards Jung’s theories.) Similarly, the recurrence of basic signs and symbols in his more recent work substantiates Vishnevsky’s turn to Jungian psychology. One of those symbols, the swastika, has accrued universal implications in the last hundred years – associating it, ironically, with a political force that tried to destroy such work as Vishnevsky’s, and such teaching as Jung’s. What Vishnevsky attempts here, in the face of likely misunderstanding, is to reclaim the swastika from its association with fascism and murder, and to restore it to its ancient status as a manifestation of universal harmony. He is careful to draw it facing left, as the Incas drew it and as the Hindus drew it, not as the Nazis drew it. And, given the fact that the symbol occurred in places as far removed from one another as the Andes and the Himalayas, the swastika is a perfect manifestation of a universal symbolic language, the kind Jung postulated.
PETER FRANK is an art critic, curator, and editor based in Los Angeles, where he serves as Associate Editor for Fabrik Magazine. Over his nearly 50-year career New York-born Frank has edited several art magazines, written for many more, and organized exhibitions all over the world.
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Eugene Vishnevsky’s work contained within his series “Genvish Art”, exemplifies the primitive, raw nature of our universe in a unique reading of Biblical mysticism. The pieces are an intricate blending of nature, the Bible, spirituality, science and sexuality; the result of which is ultimately a commentary on their collective connection to one another. Also paramount to a reading of these works is how they “read” and relate to “the Word”. Vishnevsky notes that this project is a “new materialization of the known archetypes”. While it is no revelation to present stories contained in the Bible and other spiritual texts as a pictorial format such as the illuminated manuscripts, what Vishnevsky identifies here is the importance of the works as a “materialization”. They are not just pictures of the events contained within, but a new reading entirely. In essence, they represent a new form that can only be accomplished in a visual reading, as they tell a new story from those we already know so well.
The myriad of themes mentioned above are ingeniously displayed throughout the project, presenting themselves in unique forms in different pieces.The sexuality of the work is present in the repetition of sexual encounters – penetration, oral sex, and bestiality – the presence of which has no bearing on the traditionally hetero-defined relationship of Adam and Eve. Men, women, and gender-undefined characters are presented hetero and homo erotically or with animals. The congregation of life and the sexual longing for the universe makes present the mysteries of life and defines the connection among living beings as an interaction that is far beyond the world of dichotomies we live in. Boundaries between humans, creatures and the earth are erased into interconnected fabric of the image.
Science and the natural world also play an intricate part in the reading of these works. Insects and fish are especially important to the project, as well as numbers and chemical compounds. The fish, a Christian symbol for Jesus, his ability to feed the masses, and the allusion of the disciples being “fishers of men” all play into the images. At the same time, the fish also symbolizes transformation and fertility. Fish are innumerable throughout the project, but are not always placed in a position to be revered. Instead they, like the insects, are almost characterized as a plague, hanging from women, biting at people, feeding off of images. Their ever-presence reminds the viewer of the infinite ability to read and reread this symbol in relation to the “Word” and beyond that context. The number three, represented in both images repeated in threes or as the number itself plays a vital role in connecting the mystic value of the number in light of the Trinity with its reemergence in both a “natural” state, as characterized by the repetition of images, and the presence of the Hindu-Arabic numeral character.
This project significantly questions the relationship between the images portrayed and the texts their interpretation derives from. As mentioned above, Vishnevsky identifies the works as a “new materialization of the known archetypes”. That materialization, in fact, questions the notion of these archetypes as being “known”. Truly, if these stories and symbols are read through the project, the project’s interpretation suggests that there has been something missing from previous interpretations. They are being rediscovered and reread in a new form that suggests meaning beyond what is “known”. This also calls into question how the viewer gains a knowledge of the inspiration for the work in the work itself. Within these pieces, they are somehow identified as a “Biblical” allusion and yet there remains a disconnect between the “original” story and the story being presented. It seems ironic too that suddenly “The Word” is to be read in the absence of words. Without the verbalization of Biblical reference, a freedom emerges that transforms this story into something different.
The themes mentioned above establish an overarching message of collective connection. The visual mixing of the outer world (faces, clothing) and the inner world (penetration), coupled with the many symbolic images is a literal manifestation of the connection between all things. Furthermore, these works combine the spiritual and the profane, science and mysticism, the seen and unseen, to make apparent that the line drawn between all these worlds is not a clear as we may deem it to be. Through such representations, the mysticism of the past is reconciled with the present as the work itself rereads this in the future. The viewer is brought full circle to the in between world and acceptance of those mysteries by making them readable, and truthful in their display of the basic and raw mysteries of everyday life. They are those archetypes culturally we do not escape and they accept the primitive nature of our world, even in an age of globalization. This work ultimately represents a future that accepts the past by reinventing it; the stories of the project are a representation of the world through a series of developments that lead back to a new, yet original source.