by Patti Verbanas
When you encounter the art of Tatyana Zhurkov, you are transported into a phantasmagorical place that is at once hypnotizing, challenging — but yet oddly familiar. For the past two decades, the Russian-born New York artist has been creating an oeuvre focused less on telling stories than on creating universes inhabited by futuristic-mythologic beings that speak in a language that contemporary audiences actually understand.
To Zhurkov, the voice artists use is paramount to the success and sustainability of their art, but the language often chosen by contemporary artists is limiting. “Art has become very local and very personal,” she explains. “Many of these works have no universal language that can be understood by everybody. Artists are talking in a symbolic language about themselves in a way that only they can understand.” For contemporary art to be relevant, she notes, their creators should have knowledge of the past, of the great artists, but create a visual language for their own time. This is the message she preaches to the students who take her popular drawing courses at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Natural History or study under her in private lessons. “You might have the soul of an artist, but you also must have some long period of understanding of what art really is,” she says. “If you seek to recreate the work of the Renaissance today, you are only copying. To be serious as an artist, you must absorb all the great art, yes, but then create your own path. Art is a knowledge you collect through the decades of your life.”
Zhurkov’s artistic voice connects with our “beginner’s brain,” the innate sense of childlike wonder that fades with the abrasion of age and the influence of our geographic, ethnic, and religious cultures. Working in textiles, porcelain, and plastic she draws upon her classical training as a sculptor at Rerich College of Art in St. Petersburg to create methodically planned, intricate forms. The “sparkle,” as Zhurkov puts it, in the works that engages our primal selves, comes from the artist’s own recollections of her childhood as well as her training in costume and fashion design at the Institute of Theater, Music and Cinematography, in St. Petersburg, and at Parson’s School of Design in New York. And the art world has responded to the magic: Her plastic and soft sculptures are included in such collections as the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers University, and The State Russian Museum and The State Hermitage Museum, both in St. Petersburg.
For art to effectively relate, Zhurkov says, it must be approachable, not monumental. “With sculpture, a smaller scale is more human,” she explains. “Objects need to be able to pull you in. If they are too big, they dominate you.” Her sculptures, which she has been creating for the past two decades, make effective use of their diminutive size. Constructed primarily of 19th-century porcelain heads, antique fabric, and embroidery, they invite us to create a dialogue with them in a common voice. “It’s important to me to connect some sort of appearance of human beings to my works, and this is best made by the porcelain heads: They are not too serious; they are simple and very effective,” she says. Texture, too, plays a role. “Embroidery and fabric are not scary, but rather objects that give comfort and warmth,” she explains.
A few years after she began creating soft sculpture Zhurkov became intrigued with translucent materials and began investigating plastic and glass, a journey that led her to complete a residency with glass masters in Murano, Italy, in 2004. In her plastic series, she explored natural, historical, and scientific ideals in sculptural necklaces and traversed the essence of our humanity in anthropomorphic assemblages in which porcelain heads gaze out from bodies that resemble caterpillars — an allegory for the metamorphoses of the human soul from one state to another. In this latter group, the bodies are engineered by a complex juxtaposition of mass-produced pieces and found objects this artist with a self-proclaimed “gypsy soul” collected during her world travels: beads from Italy, polished stones from France, antique porcelain from Germany, buttons from uniforms of the Tsar’s cavalry, and plastic curiosities from China. Having such a vast, unique collection of potential materials allows Zhurkov the freedom to do what she wants as an artist who employs disparate objects as her medium.
In the artist’s hands, these minute colored pieces transform the light, absorbing and reflecting it and making the sculptures appear vibrantly different, depending on the viewer’s vantage point. With her thoughtful repetition and assemblage, Zhurkov creates an effect of three-dimensional stained glass in her pieces. “When you move the art around, it becomes a mosaic, and the colors work together to create something new — yellow pieces against blue become green,” she says.
Look closely at the building blocks of these assemblages, and you’ll see other human elements that serve as entry points, examples of how Zhurkov speaks a universal language: the serene-faced porcelain heads and the disparate objects that comprise the body are linked by flexible plastic tubes that run, vein-like, throughout the work in a circulatory system all its own; the structure is unified by a series of children’s scissors, lined up as if they formed vertebrae, their finger holes splayed in anticipated motion. “I have a weakness for scissors and have a huge collection of them,” Zhurkov says. “I’m less interested in their function than their shape — I’m attracted by how they open. They are like a skeleton.”
Like her caterpillars, Zhurkov, too, is ever-evolving, constantly seeking avenues to discover a new visual language through art. In her latest series, Zhurkov explores new universes with drawings, using the unforgiving medium of art markers. With their painterly strokes, these drawings challenge our sense of architectural perspective, confront us with otherworldly beasts that inhabit friendly or hostile environments, or invite us to join the dance. But the subjects of the drawings are secondary to Zhurkov’s vision and her rendering of the object. Seen through the prism of the artist’s life experiences, her chosen subjects transcend their physical entrapments and embody a more universal message, one pure and without prejudice: Her ballet dancers create a dialogue of honest movement; places speak of the communal society that inhabits them; and animals remind us that the life force that runs through this world is not exclusively human.
As in her other works, Zhurkov emphasizes color, proportions, and texture in her exuberant drawings. “The art markers create strong color and unbelievable texture,” she says. “There’s a three-dimensional quality to it.” In these brave new worlds, the object matters less than the style and execution. And, of course, there’s that connection to what makes us human: our reality and what we hope to attain.
“The human soul absorbs so many things around us, even against our will. We were expelled from paradise, which is light, to darkness,” she says. “No matter our religion, we all have our own idea of paradise: What we want it to be and what we expect it to be.” And in Zhurkov’s universe of impossible but sympathetic beings, we are reassured that, yes, paradise can be regained.