“Self-Exploration has had its day-I’d rather contemplate reality”
The new figure/landscape/still life paintings by the Indiana-based painter Audrey Ushenko continue her evocative journey on linen that brings to mind the fictional adventures of Don Quixote. It’s not a literal metaphor, but Ushenko charges her subjects with the same madcap resolve and velocity as Cervantes’ did with his errant (and chivalrous) knight.
Painting in the figurative mode, and a narrative one at that in the late 20th century is akin, some might say, to charging a windmill. But Ushenko appears to have no qualms about her daunting task, In fact, she revels in it, brandishing her own shiny make of straight-forward realism, scented with paintings and mythmaking from the past.
In a refreshing departure from various attempts by younger realist painters to rekindle the romance of The Ashcan School or retool the great narrative canvases churned out in numbing numbers by the French Academy in Bouguereau’s day, Ushenko’s vision doesn’t stray further than the current boundaries of her own backyard.
“Indian Summer” is a glowing work, a poetical salute to a changing season viewed panoramically from the artist’s home in a leafy Ft. Wayne suburb. Changing colors of sundappled trees, the lazy shadows their graceful limbs cast on well-manicured lawns and the solid architectural comfort of clapboard houses, pretty much describe Ushenko’s composition. A burning red Maple, just a sprig of a tree, draws the limelight in the center foreground. The large houses are set back and complement, rather than dominate, the scene. There isn’t a car or human in sight. The picture is rich and meditative, qualities that cling to Ushenko’s paintings like pollen in hayfever season.
What is missing in the description and what cannot be imagined unless viewed directly, is the liquid opacity of the paint layers and the pointillist-like positioning of color that helps to create well-mannered vibrations across the picture. Her techniques are sophisticated blendings of Venetian school trickery (as the artist likes to call it) appropriated from Bellini and his illustrious followers as well as Post-Impressionist color theories. The dance of light and shadow, the slowly built-up onion-skin layers of paint and the solid geometry of the forms animate Ushenko’s compositions and deliver believable illusions that the viewer is looking at something real.
Though she lacks the maniacally macabre atmosphere of Charles Burchfield’s suburban vistas, Ushenko, like Burchfield, glories in the attributes of small town America and doesn’t shy away from warning labels of “regionalist” painter. It’s certainly true that Ushenko could be making her paintings in, say, Westchester or Rockland County, some of the more bucolic suburbs of Manhattan. But the mannered and playful innocence of her vision wouldn’t hold. She’s right there in Ft. Wayne, on the fringes of the “Rust Belt” and the former might of Midwestern industrialism. That economy created those ample suburbs and helped build and endow a university that also plays a key role in Ushenko’s world.
“Epithalamium”, a multi-figured outdoor composite that could send many rushing to the dictionary for illumination (“a song or poem in honor of a bride and bridegroom”), is ambitious in scope and personifies Ushenko’s unusual preoccupation with ceremony and mythical rites of passage. Conveniently, the painter typecasts at will from a large pool of university types as well as picturing herself in several Cindy Shermanlike guises. There are college administrators and professors, students and personal friends, as well as her beautific daughter, playing the role of the bride, outfitted in a diaphanous gown and cuddling a leopard cub borrowed from the workshop of Titian.
The artist is quick to note that she doesn’t have a multi-cultural “hang-up” but swears the whole world isn’t entirely made up of WASPS. So, even though it’s a cloistered university, the players in this festive ceremony run across an ethnic range of flesh-colored hues and ages. The artist is having a grand time as part of the large cast, her dancing feet are literally off the ground in the right-hand side of the picture, dancing or floating towards a muscular gentleman outfitted incongruously in a t-shirt and cut-off blue jeans. The informalness of the ceremony, linking of hands, the dancing of couples, and the almost electric current of warm communication coursing between the participants, help make this an especially engaging picture. It is almost corny in the sense that something positive, living and down-right spiritual is going on. Imagine that!
Even the architecture in the background of “Epithalamium” has an ecumenical sweep to it. There’s not a cross in sight, the copper-cladded dome of the temple/church could signify a synagogue or even mosque though the scene is far from Cordoba. The characters in it are real people “type-cast” by Ushenko to pose and as you slowly scan the crowd of revelers, you get a sense that this place is a welcoming one. What unifies the figures and the bricked architecture are the Titianesque-blue sky an puffy cloud cover, the surrounding trees and beat-up frass common. It is as inviting as a Brueghal wedding scene, though in this instance, nowhere near as debauched.(Given the painter’s academic background-she has a PHD in art history-there are many layers of pictorial references to joust with if one is so inclined. “Perseus and Medusa,” a painting from 1994 and not included in this exhibition, features the severed, snake-entwined head of the startled-looking artist as the full-figured nude Perseus hold up his gory trophy. Medusa was also a favorite theme of Caravaggio and Ushenko quotes admirably from the spectacular tondo in the Uffizi).
On a quieter and less-operatic scale-the artist moves gracefully between more ambitious figure works and simpler still life/landscape compositions-“Winter Fruit” harbors spiritual overtones that cause one to stop and take more careful notice. Akin to “Winter Fruit II” and Summer Light,” Ushenko simultaneously addresses both indoor and outdoor vistas, using the illusion of the wide-framed picture window to capture both themes. It sounds simple, at first, a large indoor fruit-bearing plant, snug in its ceramic holder and soaking in the brilliant but cold light of winter. Outside, the bare limbed trees are dusted with snow as well as the buried lawn and pitched roofs across the way. The orange tree plant miraculously thrives on the other side of this frigid and decidedly non-tropical atmosphere, a strong sign for hopefulness and even rebirth. It is nature observed-inside and out-but tethered to a message. For this observer, the picture relates to the recent death of the artist’s mother and with it, the necessity, however pained, to move forward.
The season and scale change again in “Bacchus & Ariadne IX” as Greek myth takes over the backyard follies of Ft. Wayne (a far cry from the Greek island of Naxos in the Aegean Sea). There are eleven ebullient figures in the composition, many of them familiar now from other works, such as the wedding picture. Couples chase one another in lustful pursuit while another looks on with amused but reproachful glances. Ushenko is pictured again in various guises, the most charming as a fleeing enchantress in the foreground of the painting. While the somewhat skimpy costumes are contemporary, there is no way to miss the implications of art history and Bullfinch’s narrative mythology. In a daring gesture, full of humor and painterly facility, Ushenko copies Titian’s masterful “Bacchus & Ariadne”, the version at the National Gallery of Art in London, as an outdoor billboard attached to a home and overlooking the swinging and swaying suburban figures.
On a variety of levels, Ushenko scores convincingly high in the current pantheon of figure painters and sets a daunting standard for others to follow.