Critic’s Review of Richard Noyce, 2021. Dark and Light: the art of Olesya Dzhurayeva
Black ink, white paper. These are the elemental starting points for the work of many printmakers – simple factual statements that in many ways sum up the medium. As to which black ink, there is a choice among many that vary in blackness, opacity and usability. As to which white paper, again there is a choice among many that offer various possibilities of weight, surface texture and absorbency as well as the degree of whiteness and reflectivity. Choices of ink and paper are made by each individual artist, based on experience and availability, and bearing in mind such characteristics as these. Beyond these technical choices there are the detailed procedures required by a wide range of techniques. So, from a technical point of view, what may have seemed to be a simple matter of black and white becomes on further consideration rather more complicated. This is the world of the artist printmaker, one that to many outsiders may seem to be as mysterious as the alchemist’s laboratory.
To the artist in the studio, or the gallery curator or writer who comes into contact with the mysteries of printmaking, it is of course different. Simply put, I have on many occasions stated my belief that Printmaking is Art, and Printmakers are Artists, and see no need to change that view. The artist makes the work, the curator and writer interpret it and help to a make it known and available to others. For all these people the mysteries of making may become understood to one level or another, but for the art enthusiasts (or anyone else who wanders into a gallery or opens an art book) who sees the work and reacts to it, the mysteries remain. Or, perhaps they don’t recognise them as mysteries. The reaction of the individual viewer is something that is beyond the control of the artist, and is different for each person who comes into contact with a work of art.
In essence the true artist makes the work because she or he is driven to do so by a passion for their medium or because they have something to say, and then sends it out into the world to find its own place. The process of creating and making the work is something learned by the artist over the course of a long period of time, as is the experience of the curator or writer when it comes to making a selection of works to include in an exhibition or book. While some of those who view the work in exhibitions or books in such ways may have knowledge of printmaking, and years of study and experience, not all do. Many look at art purely for pleasure, and seek no deeper interpretation other than that they like it and may even wish to make it part of their home. The French refer to such people as an ‘amateur’ of art. The word ‘amateur’ appeared in the late 18th century and has its roots in Latin, through Italian and French, from the words meaning ‘love’ and ‘lover’. The concept of ‘art lover’ is in itself a positive and encouraging thought in the difficult times through which we are currently living.
Olesya Dzhurayeva was born in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and when she was a child moved to Ukraine, firstly to the city of Dnipropetrovsk, and then to Kyiv, the historic city in which she studied and now lives. The roots of her art lie in the connections she has to these places, and to the unique characteristics of the academies in which she studied. She has a long history of participation in group and solo exhibitions that began in 2002 when she was still a student and, until 2013, were exclusively in Ukraine. Since 2013 she has shown her work in a remarkable number of international exhibitions as a result of which her approach to printmaking has become widely known. Olesya Dzhurayeva is now among the most accomplished international practitioners in the dynamic world of printmaking and has received considerable recognition for both her technical and conceptual achievements. She works predominantly in Linocut, a medium that is at the same time very simple and very challenging. At its most basic it involves taking a rectangle of linocut and cutting into the surface with sharp tools to remove areas, the image on the block being cut in reverse. Once the block (or matrix) is completed it is coated with ink and then, using a press, the inked image is transferred under pressure on to paper as a positive image. The cut away areas remain white, the uncut areas print in black. The process is used widely across the world, but has become one of the predominant mediums in Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe. While the process is simple in its basic form, the skills used by contemporary artists in the medium are achieving a very high level of sophistication and subtlety, continuing to develop and attracting widespread admiration in international competitions and exhibitions.
Mastering the technique does not on its own necessarily lead to the production of works of art. It can be said that many of the contemporary linocut prints that are admired for their excellence demonstrate a masterful technique, and are often of a size that presents considerable challenges in both the cutting of the matrix and the production of the edition of prints. It can also be said that those who produce such works that lack something more, something intangible, that certain sense of ‘otherness’, are the work of a technician rather than an artist. For some viewers and jurors technical quality alone is sufficient to measure the worth of prints and merit the award of prizes.
But it can equally be said that in order to be worthy of the description of ‘art’ there has to be much more than merely the mastery of technique. The communication of the ideas and philosophy behind the making of a print is also essential if the connection between the artist and the viewer is to be complete, without which a technically excellent print that does not communicate the ideas of the artist risks being seen as little more than mere decoration. If this is all that a curator or owner wants to demonstrate, fair enough, but much more is desirable, particularly in response to the times through which the world is passing in this third decade of the twenty-first century.
The committed artist is capable of illuminating and communicating deeper and more complex thoughts. Each artist has a unique vision of the environment and world in which she or he lives, together with the desire to celebrate the beauty of that world as well to point out the risks and dangers that it faces. The true artist makes work that is a response to their world and the society in which they live as well as their attitudes towards it. If their work can communicate such ideas with clarity to those who see it, then the connection between the artist and the viewer is complete, as direct and as human as the shaking of hands.
The work of Olesya Dzhurayeva has followed a fascinating trajectory, with a growing assurance in and mastery of technique, and from subjects conveying a careful observation of the world around her, in both its small and large details, to works that are of a more complex conceptual nature. She has, in previous interviews and texts, spoken about her methods of working in the studios she has occupied. Her work is made in solitude rather than in the midst of a noisy communal studio, spending her working hours alone thinking and making in reflective silence. She seeks out pieces of lino from old buildings, and some such pieces are given to her by friends, finding the age of the surfaces more suitable for her methods of cutting. The surface becomes part of the whole process, providing the starting point, the ‘tabula rasa’, that becomes the matrix for her prints through a long process of drawing and cutting into the surface, removing traces of its former life in order to create new images. In itself that is an essentially reflective process that requires deep concentration and cannot be hurried. As she freely admits there are times when her efforts do not achieve success. In some cases the lines and marks she makes do not print clearly enough to convey her ideas through the technical processes to create a successful print. When this happens she decides to start again, modifying her technique in the light of her previous experience in order to obtain the best possible result in the finished print.
The themes and images in Dzhurayeva’s work have evolved over her working life as her experience of the tools and materials has grown and also as she has explored and studied the wider realm of international printmaking. In this evolution it is also clearly evident that she has developed a deepening understanding of the conceptual possibilities of printmaking and the ways in which it can be utilised to present her reactions to the complexities of living in an increasingly internationalised world in which local characteristics and customs are in some danger of being lost. At the same time her work is based on her particularly acute ability to not only ‘look’ at the world she inhabits but also to ‘see’ it with clarity and in great detail. She has developed the ability through her growing mastery of technique not only to convey such detail but also to convey the transitory moments of light and the movement of the air, those fractional glimpses of passing reality that combine to give us a dynamic view of the world in which we live.
The evolution of Dzhurayeva’s work has been intensive since 2015. In that year she produced a short series of prints titled ‘Traces of Summer’, seeking to capture in interlaced networks of simple lines of varying thickness her impressions of looking up at the sky through the branches of trees. These circular images draw the viewer in and in so doing trigger personal memories of seeing the summer world. A series of topographical images of Kiev, beginning in 2016 and accompanied by related images of Berlin, Paris and Stockholm in the following years, are almost photographic images of largely unremarkable parts of cities, not set up as being carefully constructed images of prime architectural sights but rather as those moments of daily life when conjunctions of buildings, people and vehicles create something worth capturing in an image. The stories these images tell of the vibrancy of passing life, seen and recorded on a journey to somewhere else. ‘Somewhere in Paris, 2020’ typifies this approach: sunlight glints off vehicles in a road lined with street-lamps, people are captured as they walk or stand in the street and, in the foreground the blurred impression of a passing cyclist is captured just before she leaves the frame of the image, her hair streaming in the wind. In this and other related prints a fraction of the life of a city is held motionless. The paradox is that such images, probably derived from a photograph that records that fraction of a second, are rendered into a linocut block taking many hours of concentrated hard work to produce and further time in which to produce the resulting edition of prints. A major series of prints, ‘Blue My Sky’ from 2017 relates in a way to her ‘Traces of Summer’ series, but takes the concept to a different and more intense level. In this series the images are of clouds against the sky, produced entirely by a series of circular pin-prick marks in the block, building up to created a finely modulated succession of tones and folds, capturing the evanescent motion of water vapour in the atmosphere that produces the continually changing forms of clouds. As with other recent work the paradox of time’s compression and extension is present. These are masterly prints produced by an artist of acute sensibilities and great skill.
A print from 2021 takes Olesya Dzhurayeva’s work to an even higher level. ‘Out of Time’ is a relatively small print at 15 x 11cm, but within that small rectangle she creates a image of great and lasting power. Using her skills of cutting small marks, lines and dots, isolated from each other or merging together, the artist creates an image that appears to show a figure, a woman perhaps, perhaps even a self-portrait, emerging into the darkness of the lino block from a patch of bright light. Her eyes are hollows, her mouth and body are hinted at and her reason for being there is unknown. The intrigue of the image is heightened by the inclusion of a number of faint scratches that were perhaps present in the recycled lino or otherwise made by the artist. Whatever the genesis of the marks made in the block this dark image marks a new direction for an artist who observes closely the world she inhabits and considers deeply her reactions to it. This print, to a greater extent even than any of her other work demonstrates clearly that there will be much more to come in the future from this talented artist of international stature.
PhD(hc), Writer and Artist
Wales, March 2021