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The Worlds, Pierced by Light.

By Lika Kerenskaya, an artist, curator and art critic.

The first words that come to mind when thinking about Natalie Goncharova-Kantor’s work are power and refinement. They are followed by two more concepts: freedom and awareness. Reflecting one another, these paradoxical combinations provide some insight into the special character of Natalie’s paintings and graphic art, although they do not fully cover all the dimensions. The very way the artist works makes a strong impression: confident broad strokes, precise lines drown in one movement, and work across the entire canvas. However, the forms that appear on the canvas are never rough. They are born out of the desire to see an archetype in a random. Here is how Natalie describes it: “My search for an image is a possible synthesis of what could be recognized and understood as the realities of the objective world, yet at the same time is generalized to the level of a symbol.” 
For instance, the Jerusalem, the Old Cityseries. Those who visited Jerusalem can easily imagine that the Old City with its narrow streets of the eternal bazaar may be conceptualized in a genre artistic style. Many artists coming to Israel do exactly that. The coloristic nature of the East, the diversity of character types, and their movements strike and captivate these artists. But Natalie saw something else: Jerusalem as both the Eternal City of the Almighty and the center and the foundation of the entire Land of Israel, where the inviolability and irrevocability of God’s promise coexist with the conflicting tension of its realization. 

However, this is not some abstract  intellectual analysis. The artist peers into this land, as if trying to unravel its speech and to learn from it the language, in which she will be able to talk about it. “It was interesting to me to work with the texture, the expressiveness of the terrain. Here the issue is the very nature of the land and the conflict of primary elements permeated by the spirit. Forms reinforced by multiple repetitions revealed the archetypes of the images: the body of the land, the bones of the stone, and rearing up hills… In the harsh climate of this land, the color interested me as the reflection of the principium, demanding a more radical approach.” 

The identification of the original simplicity of the principium and the unshakable essence of Jerusalem became an objective dealt with in the Old City series: through a search for laconic forms – not random, but those accurately reflecting its character – as well as through color and structural components. This is the Eternal City that does not require any embellishments, confident in its higher calling; the stone on which the history of the mankind is built, with which only heaven is in dialog. Hence, a restrained color of the stone and much more active color of the sky. Through precisely chosen language Natalie builds her own image of Jerusalem. But it is only one of its many facets.  

In Natalie’s Jerusalem series one can see through the stylistic and coloristic changes how the perspective and figurative challenges that she deals with have evolved over the time.  

The topic of the next series was the Jerusalem light. “The image of the Absolute City – the space permeated by light, where one would like to stay forever.” Thus, it prophetically appeared in Natalie imagination even before she came to Israel. In the real Jerusalem the development of the theme of light continued based on the theme of stone. In such works as Meetingand Passerby,the light and the stone are connected inseparably. The light imbues the stone with energy and life, while the stone provides the light with a structure and helps it to manifest itself, to fully enter the format of the canvas and to exist there on par with the objects of dense matter. 

The light dominates the Jerusalem Lightdiptych. It does not only cease to be just an auxiliary element but also subdues the stone. For Jerusalem, where the phenomena of spiritual reality constitute the flesh of history, such a decision is perfectly justified. Inbothcasesthecolorisalmostmonochromatic.

In the second Jerusalem Lightwork we already see a figure, although it is still secondary to the element of light. However, in Passerby the figure is depicted in a contrast way. Theimageisdisturbingandprophetic. This is what Natalie told about its creation: “In Jerusalem one can witness an amazing phenomenon. In the middle of the hustle and bustle of the bazaar suddenly appears a figure reminiscent of an ancient prophet, and you immediately realize that it is a personal message for you.” 

Passerby is a landmark work, full of inner space. It is laconic: only the arches of the Old City and a figure inside them. However, it stirs the desire to look closer delving into details and trying to decipher the mystery of life hidden in it. This is a result of the masterful use of both coloristic and dynamic expressive means.  

Structurally, the work is built around simple rectangles that shape the space in such a way that in the middle of it appears a spiral. This creates an inner dynamic, which complicates and enlivens the simple framework.  

While the color pallet ofPasserby is restrained, it contains a wide range of shades. The stone of Jerusalem arches varies from greenish, to bluish, to ocher, to receding into blackness – it is alive. It absorbed the reflections of light as well as a glare. And on the blocks of stone one can notice mysterious images vaguely reminiscent of prehistoric drawings. The author is very aware of what she means by each hint, but at the same time she carefully avoids imposing upon the viewer any slogans or her own chain of associations. Together, all the elements create a sense of a complete and multidimensional image saturated with inner life.  

The translucent and dreamlike Jerusalem Motifis also a variation of light, but rendered in a completely different way. This light has dissolved the stone and turned Jerusalem into a flickering vision. 

Coming to the next series I would like to quote an excerpt from an article by an art critic Marina Genkina regarding Natalie Goncharova-Kantor’s works represented in the catalog of the Christiaan de Boks’ collection (Holland). 

“Over a number of years that the artist has lived here, internally Jerusalem has remained a vision, a dream to her. In her works it has been dematerialized. Even her beloved Jerusalem stones seemed to glow, giving off the heavenly light. However, now everything is blazing with the festive bright red. The wide energetic planes of openly blue and green colors as in her work Sheppardonly enhance the red color – the color of joy and jubilation.   

… the figures, barely distinguishable in the artist’s semi-abstract canvases, that seemed to come out of the Jerusalem stones and disappear back in them merging with them and dissolving in them, now acquired materiality, became recognizable and concrete; from an abstract “ben-adam” they almost became characters of a genre painting: a shepherd, a girl on a bicycle, children playing a ball … Immersing  herself in the atmosphere of Jerusalem’s spirituality, the artist sees and experiences something else as well: the mundane and the eternal organically coexist in this city. Thatiswhyin her recent work the children who enthusiastically chase a ball on a small square among old Jerusalem houses and a shepherd with his goat – an altogether timeless character – appear side by side in a very natural way. Maybeheisamodernshepherd, but maybehe is a one from the biblical times.

Mysticism and everyday life, past and present, heavenly Jerusalem and earthly Jerusalem merge together in Goncharova-Kantor’s works and this is the true Israel and the true Jerusalem.” 

In these series Natalie’s talent as a colorist is demonstrated in its entirety. With incredible freedom she uses the whole range of the palette, and at the same time, thanks to precisely set accents, the balance of spacious and dense, and a correlation of nuances and contrasts, each work preserves its integrity. These works can also be looked at for a long time – one may delve into the details, each of which could become an independent picture, and then return to the contemplation of the whole.

The artistic language of the artist has gone through several development stages, while always remaining recognizable and ingenious. Natalie graduated from the Kharkov Art School, however, her true self-realization as an artist took place in Odessa.

The situation of the 1980s and 1990s became a powerful catalyst for her art. In order to understand the significance of this period, one needs to realize its place in the general artistic context of rich and original “South Russian” painting school.  In 1960s, “the second wave of avant-garde” appeared against the general background of the realistic tradition, including the dominating socialist realism. In Odessa, the famous “Isdebsky Salons” paved the way for it as early as in 1909-1911 by introducing the city to the works of the avant-garde artists of the first wave. The Association of South Russian Artists (TASRA) and the Society of Independent Artists had defined the subsequent trajectory of artistic movements in Odessa. 

TASRA continued the tradition of thePeredvizhniki(the Wanderers) late 19thcentury artistic movement, but the southern reality suggested a brighter palette, more intense color and light in their paintings. The creative endeavors of the Southern Russian artists were closer to the Barbizon painters and the Impressionists, while the “Independents” focused on the avant-garde. The artists were fascinated with the ground-breaking trends in French art. They were even called “the Parisians from Odessa.” The very existence of the two large artistic groups competing for influence and leadership and even their animosity towards each other, became the driving force behind the art development in Odessa. 

During the Soviet times, any avant-garde endeavors were mercilessly suppressed, however, even during these harsh times underground exhibitions were held in Odessa. 

The second wave of avant-garde art was marked by the “Fence Show” by Sychev and Khrushch in 1967 in the courtyard of the Odessa Opera Theater. Theshowonlylastedfor threehours. But despite the fact that the artists together with their paintings ended up in the KGB offices more than once, this could not stop the flow of the living art, even if the shows had to be moved to private apartments. The core members of this group of avant-garde non-conformists were Khrush, Rakhmanin, Yastreb, Marinyuk, Sychev, Strelnikov and Anufriev.  

Since the artistic tradition in Odessa existed without interruption well into 1960s or even 1970s, the words of one of the prominent “independents” Amshey Nurenberg from 1922 remained pertinent:

“Regardless of the name of the country, the city in it called Odessa has always been different from the rest. It differed in its style, its inhabitants, and, of course, in its culture. Paintinghasnotbeenanexception. The traditions of the City and its cultural myth combining kindness, humor and tolerance with intellect and cosmopolitanism, largely determined the peculiarities of Odessa style of painting, providing the works of Odessans with a southern charm, European polish and gentle elegance.”

Natalie wound up in Odessa in 1986, during the rise of the second avant-garde wave. The avant-garde artists have already formed a community – CAA (The Creative Association of Artists) and Natalie was able to attend the first officially authorized non-conformist show at the Architecture Institute. As a result of this exhibition, the artists formed a creative socialization circle that featured such artists as Sergey Lykov, Elena Nekrasova, Evgeniy Rakhmanin, Alexander Roitburd, Alexander Voloshinov, Sergey Ilyin, and Victor Pavlov. The artists discussed each other’s work, as well as various artistic movements, argued and experimented. This was a living creative “kitchen”, an interaction that enriched all its participants. Natalie became a regular participant of the non-conformist shows and an active CAA member. 

Much has been said about how an environment forms an artist. But only the elements to which artists feel kinship will really affect them. In other words, true artists will add their own note to everything that they have absorbed, and this will make their art distinct. 

So it was in this case: the atmosphere of Odessan avant-garde art turned out to be familiar, stimulating the creativity and the desire to experiment and a search for new forms. However, it was the non-politicized part of Odessa non-conformist movement distinguished by its emotionality, withdrawal into pure art and the search for aesthetic forms of self-expression that particularly appealed to Natalie. 

The 1990s brought with them the spirit of freedom and a new artistic movement – the postmodernism, which broke the ice of Soviet conformism, but also re-sealed every genuine feeling, this time through the all-consuming irony. However, the method of quoting, which is so characteristic of postmodernism, requires a careful revision of all cultural baggage, while the irony destroys the habitual perception patterns and enables to refresh the outlook. 

NataliepresentedalargepostmodernistworkThe SpringIsComingat an all-Ukrainian show of young artists. The entry was very strong and she could have continued developing in this direction, which was the most sought-after at the time. However, she quickly realized that although her postmodernist experience provided her with some additional tools, the language in itself, although understandable, was not sufficient for her. For instance, the quotes in Natalie’s works are, as a rule, emotionally colored. 

Having strongly absorbed the traditions of the Odessa avant-garde, which expanded the sense of the infinity of the pictorial language, Natalie could not help but see that she would benefit more from the traditions of Russian avant-garde and Post-Impressionism in order to realize those internal objectives that she wanted to achieve with her painting. Suchadevelopmentresultedinturning to evenmoreemotionallyenhancedNeo-Expressionism. 

This is what the artist said about choosing an artistic direction: “It is impossible to place oneself outside of the context. Whatever the contemporary artist invents, the experience of the past will always be heard in it. I do not reject traditional figurative forms. I am simply interested in such means of figurative language that have come to life for me. That is, the ones that help to adequately express experiences. And my attitude towards them is, one might say, quite direct and, at the same time, attentive and careful. I do not look at them with irony but rather try to see what can be understood and recognized in myself and in them.” 

In practice, it means a greater freedom in using both traditional and avant-garde elements when creating her own artistic language. After all, the main thing is to fill the work with life that would transcend the bounds of ordinariness and simple appreciation.

A good example of this approach is the Giraffesseries, painted for the “Biblical Zoo” project in collaboration with artist Lera Barstein and in partnership with children. A visitor to the show, a representative of the American magazine Apraksin Blues, Irina Kerner, wrote: “Every image of the animal reflects the inner life of the entire Universe. Apparently, in this case, the animals for the artist are but a reason to express her attitude toward the world.”

Itispracticallyimpossibletoregardtheseworksfroma purelypictorialpointof view, simply arguing about composition or color. Any compositional element turns out to be intrinsically connected to an expressed experience or even an idea. Thus, a gesture is not simply a movement of a hand but rather a message and a statement.

Here is a work, the surface of which is divided into two unequal parts. The left one contains a large almost black area, the right one,an expanse of blue. The division is vertical by the stretched neck of the giraffe separating light from darkness and raised like in a prayer to heaven.  The bright flashes under the feet of the giraffe are like its true foundation, joyful and vivid, while the line of the back and the neck is curved restraining the pressure of the oppressing dark mass. Coming as liberation and joyful experience, the head of the other snow-white fairytale-like creature, recognizable as giraffe but quite extraordinary like a miracle from a children’s fairytale, is plunged into freedom and azure like a multi-colored rainbow-arc. This work is free and daring, showing a kind smile that can be traced in most of the works in the series.  

But then we see completely different giraffes (the Procession). As higher creatures that have descended on earth, they are magnificent, wise, and incredibly beautiful. They are awe-inspiring; their footsteps are fascinating, the rhythm of their movement, repeatedly emphasized, carries the soul forward and upward, to the highest fullness.

Thus, the masterful and free command of artistic techniques, of which only a part has so far been mentioned, produces images that are immeasurably more voluminous than the simple depiction of animals.

To convey her thoughts and experiences the artist uses a variety of technical means with great freedom. After all, each technique already bears its own character and imagery.

She works with finest nuances as in The Jerusalem Light,but also uses a vivid color expression as in the Sheepseries. But, being amazed at the sonority of the active-coloristic series, one should not forget that the harmonization of these canvases still requires a delicate sensitivity to nuances. 

The situation with collages is different. Natalie thinks in a structured way, that’s why the inclusion in the pictorial environment of some elements of colored paper, fabric or even magazine clippings makes it possible to add expressiveness and a dramatic or, conversely, a festive “materiality.”  As it is largely believed, the neo-expressionists brought back to art the imagery, the figurativeness, the lively and emotional style, and the bright and saturated colors. Contemporary neo-expressionism uses not only variations of lines and shapes as means of expressiveness but also variations of color and texture, that is,  everything that exists in an image. The image may also include some abstractionist fragments, both as formal aesthetic component and as a means to reveal the image.  

The most dramatic in their expressiveness are the Night Desertcollages – a mysterious phantasmagoria, both frightening and alluring. At the same time the Immigrantsseries is a real feast, a fulfillment of a dream. There is humor and kind irony in these images. They are filled with children’s joy and optimism. May be the subsequent journey in the new place will proof difficult, but the memories of this joy will give strength and hope that everything would eventually work out. 

Natalie’s watercolors constitute a special world. In them, she uses refined minimalism, immediately evoking associations with Japan and Zen philosophy. Precise strokes of the brush, 2-3 important details, and here it is a well-rounded image conductive to the contemplation of the harmony. The series of illustrations to Joseph Brodsky’s poem Two Horsemendemonstrate that the possibilities of watercolor and ink are much wider than usually thought. The watercolors in the series are dramatic and even monumental. At the same time, all compositions continue to be built on the same “Zen” principle – an instant, accurate entry into the state of mind with the help of dynamic forms and lines. 

The artist, however, uses a different watercolor language as well. As in the series of seascapes, there are almost no lines here – only flashes and stains of colors and their delicate gradations. Working in watercolors, Natalie chooses a pictorial language that is the most suitable to a specific image. She uses various techniques in equally free and virtuosic manner. 

The Musiciansseries rendered in a mixed technique combine the possibilities of watercolor, ink and acrylic. The space created by multiple overlays of translucent layers is perceived as moving like music itself. Somewhere a thin pencil detail shines through; somewhere there is a thickening and compaction of light, somewhere the accent of dark colors is enhanced like a bass chord. Looking at these works, one is so immersed in the atmosphere of a concert that it seems that one begins hearing sounds. This is not some abstract concert; rather it is a very personal and quite concrete experience. Hence, the authenticity of the experience and the accuracy of its transmission. There is no doubt that this is Oriental music with its complex and intricate melodics –as multi-layered as the surface of the paintings.

However, there are other works also rendered in the mixed technique but of a completely different nature. In David and Absalom,the biblical power is combined with modern language. Through the images of their graves, the dramatic relations between father and son are expressively conveyed. For me personally, this is the most powerful work in the triptych. Although, the entire triptych is built in such a way that the drama increases gradually as the forms become bigger. While the Ancient Mysterylooks ornamental and symbolic likecuneiform letters, the last work conveys a personal emotional experience, while retaining the power of the archetype. 

It is impossible to ignore Natalie’s pastels. It seems that Natalie gives the technique, which is traditionally perceived as soft and “quiet”, a new sound –clear, bright, and confident. This allows us to suggest the artist’s move towards a kind of Suprematism and a new expansion of the horizon of possibilities.

From the foregoing, it can be concluded that Natalie Goncharova-Kantor is an artist who has mastered an unlimited arsenal of expressive means having developed at the same time a distinguished language of her own. She is an interesting artist to observe and follow, because she is constantly evolving and changing. What distinguishes her is the love of experiment, because for Natalie each work is an existential journey. 

And one can only rejoice at the opportunity to compile the works from different times, rendered in various techniques, in one catalog, to get immersed in the contemplation and to deepen and expand one’s own vision. After all, who we are, ultimately depends on a multitude of impressions that leave marks on our soul. And the language with which Natalya speaks to us through her paintings is never destructive or aggressive, but invites us to a contemplative and thoughtful dialogue, in order to learn to see the beautiful in the ordinary and the eternal in the mundane.

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