Neo-Symbolism: Bridges to the Unknown at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art

by Robin Dluzen


“Neo-Symbolism: Bridges to the Unknown” at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art presents the work of Stanislav Grezdo, Klaus Eyting, Tom Besson, William Platz, Christina Katrakis and Tor Dettwiler, otherwise known as the Neo-Symbolists, a global artist collective founded in 2001. Upon entering the exhibition of paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures and video works, it becomes clear that the artists are creating within layers and layers of historical contexts, both art historical and otherwise. With a moniker like “Neo-Symbolists,” it is obvious we as viewers must assess the works by these artists as blatantly building upon the history of Symbolism in the visual arts. Distinctly dramatic in subject matter, many of the works in the exhibition are directly influenced by the personal experiences of their makers, made apparent didactically through titles and statements, but also visually through seriousness and urgency of execution.


Several of the artists present works with an emphasis on a personal experiences within a shared history. Czechoslovakian-born Stanislav Grezdo’s prints and paintings of black and white, grayed neutrals and saturated cadmium reds are obviously referencing Soviet-era visual and political culture; Authority, for example, depicting a graphic, simplified face accompanied by cross-shapes, gears and blocky Cyrillic text, is indicative of the not-so-distant past experiences of the artist shares with many. The gas-masked figures in Ukrainian-born Christina Katrakis’s Harvest I and Harvest II paintings are illustrative not solely of a particular political past, but of a shared, more human history. The artist explains that the figures of the Harvest paintings are masked “reapers” who harvest the “fur of the Beast, the one who brings death and devastation,” according to local Chernobyl lore. The artist combines this shared experience with that of her own personal loss, due to the after-effects of the power plant’s disaster. Also combining personal and shared pasts is Klaus Eyting, whose pencil, ink and gouache works on paper range from illustrations of personal family histories like Precious Content, to myths and allegories, as in Totentanz, to the socio-political in Censored Text. Though much of his works in the exhibition are staunchly serious, he retains a touch of humor through drawings like The Myth of Raisins, in which robed characters observe a goat and its droppings.


While Grezdo, Katrakis and Eyting link European history to the present, Dettwiler, Besson and Platz approach histories and the passing of time through alternate means. Illinois sculptor Tor Dettwiler merges Roman mythology, turns of phrases and universally human states of being into his partially figurative three dimensional works. The artist addresses age and anxiety through works like Lusting for Latitude (in midlife), and beginnings and ends in Clutching to Janus, all composed of mixed media that include wood and metal, but also found objects–media that have their own histories as well. Engaging an alternate history, William Platz’s two-dimensional works of oil, crayon and shellac on fiberglass and orthochromatic film are supplemented with digital videos on tiny screens extracted from cameras. Here, Platz’s works employ notions of experiences through mediation; the works, many of which include the word “screen” (Screen Writers, Screen Test, Screen Death), present viewers with fragmented images, forcing us to peer frustratingly through layers of black concealing figures and faces, or into TFT screens displaying sharp, but miniscule video. The artist unabashedly addressing contemporary culture in his content is painter Tom Besson. Through a fluid stylistic approach, the works maintain traditional, painstaking painting technique despite the fast-paced subject matter; Flight of the Enlightened Nihilist and New Code for New Century are the artist’s manifestations of the escape from and the compulsion towards over-stimulated contemporary culture.


Void of abstraction, a tool still heavily relied upon in contemporary art, “Neo-Symbolism: Bridges to the Unknown” offers up multiple visual languages that are still possible in representational art-making. Also not “art for art’s sake,” the exhibition embraces the prevalence of subject and content in stories that are dying to be told, of pasts that reverberate ceaselessly in the present, and of persistent, universal truths.

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