Life and fiction mix with colorful paintings in art exhibit

By Emily Klingman

An alluring combination of color and detail arrived in the BLC Art Gallery last week, courtesy of the current featured artist, Audrey Ushenko. Between her compelling artwork and mutual friends, Ushenko was a natural choice for Art Gallery director and professor of art Harry Naar to exhibit in a show entitled In Natural Habitat.

Between listening to recommendations and his own online research, Naar selects artists for the gallery based on how much attraction attendees will have to the artist’s work.

“I try and choose work that is interesting to look at and exciting for our student body, the faculty and administrators,” he said. “I think the kind of work that she is creating is really quite visually exciting.”

In a conversation with Naar published in the Art Gallery’s exhibit catalog, Ushenko tells him of some wisdom her father, a metaphysician, passed down to her.

“I remember him telling me that we can’t know life has to be carbon-based,” Ushenko said to Naar. “He taught me that no one can prove something exists, but no one can prove it doesn’t.”

In a description of one of her works, Whether on Ida’s Shady Brow, Naar talks about how, despite many figures surrounding the man in the center painting, it can be said that none of them are actually present.

“If you look at it a little bit longer, you’ll realize there are some really strange things going on in this painting,” he said. “If you look a little bit further, not only are they strange, but they’re really implausible things. Another conclusion could be, ‘Wow, maybe this artist is painting and these figures aren’t really there, but they’re in his head.’”

Ushenko cites one of writer Elizabeth Bowen’s quotes as a description of how she starts her creative process.

“She said she begins a novel with a vision of a room,” she said. “That struck me, because I begin thinking of some sort of space. Then, the figures are conceptualized.”

Many pieces of Ushenko’s collection feature a literary or historical reference. Naar praises that aspect of her work, saying it gives the pieces an even deeper level and meaning.

“If you look longer at the work, a lot of the work is dealing with mythology,” said Naar. “All of her paintings kind of tell a story. Sometimes the story relates to very personal things, and sometimes the story relates to historical things. Or a combination of both.”

Ushenko describes it as a way to give the viewers an understanding of what they are looking at, while also keeping herself out of the story.

“In novels, the authors create the characters,” she said.

“In the visual arts, narrative tends to be more autobiographical. I want to avoid this, by invoking a frame of reference that makes it possible for the viewer to understand.”

There are some pieces in the exhibit that include aspects of Ushenko’s real life. One of these features her daughter, Emily, at a young age, surrounded by beaded necklaces and other trinkets, aptly named Small Treasures.

Another piece that is partially inspired by real life is from when Ushenko was given the opportunity to paint in one of the exhibition rooms of the New Jersey State Museum.

“I would never have thought of it, but working in a space populated by art is a bit eerie,” she said.

During that experience, she was able to incorporate the people who moved about the room, something she enjoys capturing in her paintings.

“I like transitional poses, unstable actions as one moves from one stable pose to another,” Ushenko said. “As I observe the people who are to be painted, I make adjustments — people move so differently.”

Working from real life is what Ushenko goes for when creating her images, saying “What I need to observe — color, space relationships and structure — the camera cannot give to me.”

Above all, Ushenko’s interest in pictures is what people find in her paintings: the tension line between conventional representation and “the individual’s eccentric analysis of reality.”

The BLC Art Gallery will be hosting an artist’s talk with Audrey Ushenko about her exhibit entitled In Natural Habitat on Oct. 1. 

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