After coming to the United States she exhibited her works in solo and group shows throughout the United States and Canada, including the Museum of Contemporary Russian Art in Jersey City (New Jersey); Triton Museum of Art, Art Museum of Los Gatos, and Bakersfield Museum of Art (California); Union Street Gallery and Mary Bell Galleries in Chicago; the Maryland Federation of Art in Annapolis; Berkeley University YWCA and the Weir Gallery in Berkeley (California). Kazanskaya has also had exhibits at Windwood Gallery and Images Gallery in New York. She has had a solo exhibit at Stanford University.
Straight Mirror by Maria Kazanskaya
Brian Sherwin: Maria tell us about your academic background. Did you study art formally? What about influential instructors that you have had?
Maria Kazanskaya: I studied in Russia: four years of art college and five years at the Stroganoff school, the famous Moscow Institute of Art and Design, which has its own rich traditions. These traditions, especially with regard to drawing, were very different from what I was taught in college. I had to break old habits, which was painful, but, as it seems now, rather useful. It's easier to be yourself, if you are not constrained within the confines of a single formal school, but are well versed in several.
We studied seriously: many hours daily of working with models – drawing, painting, sculpture. Of course, there was art history as well. At Stroganovka I had a great teacher of drawing, sculptor Lev Mikhailov. Sculptors make excellent drawing instructors. They have the sense of shape, space, plastic grace of the human body, -- all this is essential in drawing. Besides, Mikhailov is a brilliant, charismatic person. He is still creative, still exhibits and teaches, though he will be 80 this year.
MK: What I'm primarily interested in is the art of painting itself, not ideas of any kind, although they do sometimes sneak in somehow. I just recently realized that I'm a Russian—American artist, not just biographically, but in a meaningful way, because I combine the traditions of Russian art (the search for beauty, for example) with the achievements of American art --- I mean Abstract Expressionism. (Although abstract art was invented by Kandinsky and Malevich, the Americans deserve credit for developing it thoroughly and exhaustively.) The point is, like the Abstract Expressionists, I love paint on canvas for its own sake, I value THE WAYS IT IS SMEARED, whatever the subject. Maybe that's what is most important for me.
BS: Do you think at some point we will have a global art rather than art defined by geographic location? In that sense, are you concerned that geographic traditions will be lost-- or saturated to the point of not being overly recognizable? With that in mind, why is it important to maintain traditions within the context of contemporary art?
MK: Art is one of the most conventional of human pursuits, and so it can't be appreciated without context. Previously, when the human world was narrow, contemporaries were well aware of the context, and the artist could create within its bounds or break out of them, but either way, it was clear to the viewer what was going on.
MK: Well, when Leo Tolstoy was asked about the message of Anna Karenina, he famously said that in order to answer he'd have to write the whole novel again. If the painting can be reduced to a verbal message without a loss for the viewer, it's not worth much. On the other hand, I believe that a painting should be comprehensible without the aid of verbal explanations beyond a title.
BS: What can you tell us about your process in general? Give us some insight into how you work… as in turning an idea into reality, so to speak? Can you discuss some of the methods that you utilize?
MK: Oh, that's simple. The initial push always comes from a visual image from life. Probably, one could try to figure out after the fact why a given image, and not some other, caused the stir and the sense of where it should go. And then I start developing the theme with variations, mining it like a mineral deposit. Sometimes, a series, rather than a single picture, becomes the unit of work from the very beginning.
BS: What about influences? For example, are you influenced by any specific artists, world events, or art movements?
MK: This is a very difficult question for me. I know that I love many individual artists, as well as whole eras (for example, Russian art of 1900 through 1920s), but I don't know how they influenced me. It's been said that every person is an intersection point of social relations. Maybe, an artist is an intersection point of artistic influences. But in my case the point itself doesn't have anything to say about it.
MK: My works are currently carried by a couple of galleries here in Northern California, and also in Russia, in Moscow and my native Samara, where a solo show is planned for the summer. In March I'll be in a group show in Chicago (Union Street Gallery), and I also sometimes participate in group shows in local museums (Triton Museum, Los Gatos Museum), where perhaps something will happen this year as well. In early May my studio in Palo Alto will be open as part of the Silicon Valley Open Studios event.
BS: Do you have any concerns about the art world at this?
MK: I'm concerned about the devaluation of painting. Museums and leading galleries have switched almost entirely to video, performance and installation art, painting is no longer on the cutting edge, it is not considered contemporary art. It seems as though it is even losing the status of fine art and is being relegated to the niche of utilitarian aesthetic activity – decorating homes, covering stains on the walls.
Maybe I'm behind the times, but I am attached to this amazing way of creating spiritual objects, from the eye through soul to hand. And I'm sorry that it is degenerating, or being devalued, or just dying out.
BS: True, it has been suggested on more than one occasion that ‘painting is dead’. My opinion has always been that as long as people paint the art of painting will live on. Each individual strengthens a degree of authenticity in regards to the history of painting that would not have otherwise happened had they not picked up the brush, so to speak. My opinion is that the physicality of painting-- the individual brush strokes… the decisions of the artist that are reflected on the canvas-- or any other surface for that matter-- can’t be replaced. That said, are you concerned that eventually individuals will not feel the urge to take brush in hand?
MK: I have no doubt that people will continue to pick up the brush. I know that many artists do great paintings, I can see them on MyArtSpace. But these are just images on a screen. Where can I see them for real? My point is that the contemporary art world is not interested in real painting. It fell through the crack between commercial art sold in galleries (real art is often too unsettling and unconventional for consumers looking to decorate their homes) and museums oriented towards conceptual kinds of art.
Another aspect of the problem is that wielding a brush requires that you first master the instrument, if you want to successfully express yourself. An artist needs artists to learn from, but with the art world oriented away from painting, art schools can very quickly disintegrate.
BS: Tell us more about your thoughts concerning the spiritual aspect of painting as you see it. Would you say that the spiritual is lacking in much of the art of today? If so, what concerns you about that?
MK: It seems that the notion of spirituality comes up very infrequently in the context of contemporary art. Last time I heard the word was from the curator of my show in the Northern California town of Mill Valley. The show was entitled "Multifaceted Vision: Portraits of One Child" and contained the portraits of my small child which I already mentioned. The curator liked them a lot and spoke of their sincerity, of Russian spirituality, the influence of great Russian literature, etc., and also stressed that it is a rarity in contemporary art.
Maybe it's true that spirituality has gone missing in today's high art (where it has been supplanted by intellectualism), and even more so in the sterilized mass production, but I'm not especially concerned about that. Frankly, I'm wary of the word. In the Russian cultural landscape, it is too often associated with nationalism and religious intolerance. It may have different overtones in the U.S., but still it should be handled with caution – so as to not summon the wrong spirits.
BS: There has been a lot of debate recently about copyright and the rights of artists. Do you have an opinion on issues such as that?
MK: I think an artist just can't steal anything from another artist, it's nonsense to even pose the question in these terms. Ideas are always floating in the air, and the point is HOW it is realized. If something is already done, but poorly, whoever makes it really fly is the winner. If somebody develops the ideas of a predecessor, that's perfectly fine, that's how it has always been. The lawsuit against the artist who created a poster based on a news photo, is, I think, completely moronic.
BS: You are right, one could say that art is built from one generation to the next. Philosophically speaking one could say that nothing is truly original in that respect-- emotions are the same no matter what period they were felt in-- there is a long history of art from the ages giving rise to additional visual comment.
However, the market for art today is very different than the past. Concerning copyright laws-- do you think that if an artist is going to support unrestricted appropriation of works by living artists he or she should accept those same terms where his or her own art is concerned? For example, the artist you mentioned has sent cease-and-desist letters to artists in the recent past after they had made parodies of his art. What are your thoughts?
MK: Oh, copyright! I'm working on a series of paintings about my seven-year-old son (he's now eight, and I'm in a hurry to finish before he turns nine). I incorporate into my paintings his own drawings from that period, scanned, enlarged and copied to the canvas. And I'm seriously thinking about whether I'm obliged to cite him as a co-author.
As for that poster artist, of course he should not be able to and ought not to try to prohibit parodies. But parody is the kind of thing that always offends people, so the parodist has to be prepared. By the way, I can't find much artistic value in Fairey’s Giant image (nor in Orr's parody), in contrast to the Obama poster.
BS: What about the internet? One could say that the art world is starting to catch up -- more galleries are turning to the World Wide Web in order to further exposure for their artists. How do you think the internet will impact the art world in say… a decade? Can you see a meshing between the traditional market and alternative (online) markets taking shape?
MK: Of course, the Web is a fantastic way of seeing what people all over the place are doing right now and showing your work to the world at large, but remember that it's only a reproduction, which is completely different. Small works on paper can be judged from the image on screen, but paintings lose a lot.
As for selling through the Web, I don't believe in it for now. I have only sold one work in this way, and that in 1995, when my husband created my first site (which is still up, by the way: www.kazanskaya.com/gal_old.html). There were perhaps half a dozen other artists on the Web at the time, and the buyer, evidently, bit at the bait of novelty.
The Game of Life #3 by Maria Kazanskaya
BS: How do you think the internet will impact the art world in say… a decade?
MK: Having seen what happened during the past fifteen years, it's easy to imagine that in another decade you could install a holographic image of, say, Michelangelo's David in your living room. It will stand there like the real thing, even better, because you could walk right through it and turn it off when you get bored of it. Or you could have on your wall a life-size projection of a fresco by Piero della Francesca.
This is probably a banality, but however perfect reproductions become, it's likely that the original will still be valued as such. After all, we still go to concerts in the age of CDs and digital recordings.
BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the goals that you have?
MK: I don't think I can verbally formulate the goals of my art – it goes where it wants. Follows the way of Tao.
Take care, Stay true,