New shows open Gallery Night, Friday, January 15
Gallery A: Boris Ostrerov, new work
Gallery B: A Winter Chapel, a collaborative installation with painter Marsha McDonald, welder Kendall Polster, the Urban Ecology Center and beaver chews from the collection of David Niec.
Black is Black: An interview with Boris Ostrerov
(Boris Ostrerov is a painter who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is originally from Russia. He graduated from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. A show of his work is at Portrait Society Gallery from January 15 to March 13, 2010. This interview was done via e-mail by Debra Brehmer.)
DB: What does it mean to you to work exclusively in black and white? Is it about purity, simplicity, polarities, oppositions, space and non-space? Do you tap into Franz Klein, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Ryman, Frank Stella….any of those guys who simplified form?
BO: When I first started working with ink, I was thinking about existentialism—the way everything really means nothing unless we infuse it with personal meaning. Existentialism is very emotionless, much like the process and result of my poured ink paintings. Black and white is emotionless. Color is about feelings. Also, black is the most logical to use when documenting the path of a liquid. There is also this simplicity that contrasts with the complex patterns of ink splatters. Black is also very authoritative and seductive in its reflections. In the blob paintings the light in the room creates nearly a full value spectrum in the reflections. Some of the pieces happen to look like something such as boobs or a butt. Once I saw that I realized it’s humorous. And the fact that it’s black makes it seem serious.
I didn’t look at any of these artists at the time that I started the series. After I started the series I was introduced to Sol LeWitt and saw my process similar to his and later researched Kazimir Malevich a little.
DB: LeWitt, hmmmm. He didn’t exactly court chance the way you do, but he did leave the completion of his compositions to other people. LeWitt would provide a written account of how one of his wall drawings should proceed and then other people would execute them. Can you explain a little more how you feel akin to LeWitt? Or maybe it’s his later paintings that you responded too?
BO: Oh miscommunication… I was thinking of my early India ink pieces where I would set up an accurate system (of shaped and arranged paper) and then pour ink on it from the top. So I was creating clear obstacles and rules for the ink to follow but I don’t direct the ink after it’s poured. I could do the same set up again and pour the ink the same way and the same amount and the outcome would be at least a bit different. And I could write down and draw a diagram of how to make each of these paintings and someone else could do it. In the new abstract work that resembles the walls of my studio, Sol LeWitt is not someone I am thinking about.
DB: You seem interested in the forces of control and spontaneity. Talk about that a little. Are you interested in that just as a working process or do you expand it more philosophically?
BO: I want to let the medium be itself; not fighting it, at best working together with, rather than against it. For example, I would hate to paint a photograph, cause it would be too boring since I know I can just take one. Andy Goldsworthy, is a great example of an artist who works with nature allowing it to be itself while controlling or directing it. I’m interested in the physicality and other properties of whatever medium I am working with. In order to distort these properties and get the medium to do something logical yet surprising I guess you have to know how control it. Get a feel for the way it handles, spills, blends etc. But I’m very interested in spontaneity, and intuition, because I think that’s when the best art happens. Art is irrational and being “in the moment,” as in zen philosophy, is the best way to create something irrational. For me the control aspect I guess comes in when you contemplate about concept or arranging the composition. It’s a conceptual art thing. But concepts are often begun intuitively, when you aren’t specifically wondering, “hmm what art should I make?” It’s always a balance. Even punk rockers and No-wavers incorporate control by consciously getting into the state where they are not self-conscious.
I’m too excited to work slowly. I just can’t sit and wait; I like immediacy. Maybe it’s the hormones. Working quickly forces you to not think with words and second-guess yourself. Creates the unexpected, the irrational. If it’s not irrational there is nothing to contemplate.
DB: Can you talk a bit about the kind of impact you are seeking in these works?
BO: I hope the new work challenges the viewer to first investigate what they are looking at and then to accept or reject the work as painting or not painting, art or not art or cope with its uncertainty. If we observe ourselves or others we will see how often people are doing or being two things at once, or are in two places at one time. I want to make people understand that what we pass off as trivial and “low” can actually be, depending on how you look at it, just as important and interesting as what people accept as valuable.
BO: My family and I immigrated to Milwaukee, WI from Uzbekistan in 1992. My family brought me up with a lot of traditional Russian values and perspective. My parents grew up with a completely different mentality during the Soviet era where one had to present oneself in public in a good faithful way cause everyone was spying on everyone meaning they were suspicious of their neighbors. Also religion was forbidden by the government so my parents don’t know much about any religion. So a lot of people were skeptical of or disliked everyone, and sometimes would be rude to customers on purpose just because they want to feel important.
There was no opportunity to make more money, and even if you somehow did it was extremely hard to actually find the product you wanted to buy because it simply was not available unless you had connections with people who made or sold it–sometimes the stores were empty. It was miserable and money was and is the most important thing to them, which I don’t necessarily disagree.
Then we come to America and there is opportunity and products everywhere and everything is secure. It’s kinda funny that my parents saw America as a land of opportunity and hoped I would become a doctor, or at least a pharmacist, but I chose to become an artist instead–so I had to do a lot of explaining and “schooling” for my parents, haha. Russian parenting is conservative and more based on punishment for wrong and is very concerned with making children act in a socially acceptable way. In America, parenting, like society, is very permissive especially today. In Russia, there are clear expectations on what a female and male should be like and their roles. For example, many parents discourage girls to play soccer on a team, boys aren’t supposed to cry, and always, always you should punch someone back if they punch you first. Both should say please and thank you.
Status is important to Russians and they judge others–Americans are much more accepting and treat people with MUCH more equality. Russians are very attentive to manners, politeness, working hard and succeeding in financial terms, and presenting oneself as “civilized” and fitting into the ideal popular image. Interestingly, the Russian definition of “intelligent” means well-mannered/civilized. In Russian culture one needs to think not just about oneself but how his/her actions will affect their family and friends. America encourages individualism. My friend was telling me that 6-10 years ago, if you dressed in baggy pants and walked down the street listening to rap, and some young skinheads found out they may just beat you up for liking rap and following “the monkeys” that make it. In America strangers actually say “hi,” or “how are you?” and, at the least, pretend to care. People don’t say that in Russia unless they are friends. In Russia if you did average at something your teacher or coach would be honest and tell you you did average. In America if you do OK you are told, “Great job!”
I traveled to several cities and countries and lived a bit in NYC and Baltimore. So the contrast in various cultures made me see the same thing in multiple ways. I’m always interested in talking about art to people who aren’t into art to try to open up their mind so they realize it’s actually very interesting. Whether they are careless teenagers or my parent’s conservative Russian friends, I respect them all for who they are and discussing art with them makes me see art the way they do, and I hope it will inform the ideas in my work. The more ways you can see something the more interesting perception becomes, and I think it inspires more dynamic art.
My upbringing taught me multiple ways to perceive the world. I feel like I have two identities. Even in life, I feel like I am always addressing a few audiences like my family and the rest of the world. I guess I’m uncertain about things in life now so I’m in-between goals, priorities, interests, and ideas. It puts my identity in flux. I usually can’t commit to one way of being. I think this uncertainty made me associate with the idea of carelessness, in-betweeness and the here and there that I see in my recent paintings. Sometimes what is right for one ideology is wrong for another ideology, and I see this play out in the recent work in terms of an interest in presenting something ordinary and trivial in a context where the opposite is expected. I want to make people understand that what we pass off as trivial and “low” is actually, depending on how you look at it, just as important and interesting as what people accept as valuable.
DB: That’s really interesting. Your new work deals exclusively with boundaries and fluid borders. It all makes sense, doesn’t it.