Anna Shukeylo’s artistic career started at four and a half, when she aced the admissions test to Saint Petersburg’s art school and entered a rigorous art training in addition to her regular school curriculum. It was prophetic that her family lived on Xudozhnikov Prospect; translated from Russian, it is a Street of Painters. When Anna was around ten, her family relocated to the U.S. She continued studying art throughout school and ended up going to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. A few months after graduating with BFA/Certificate in Painting, she moved to New York, where she received her MFA in Painting from Pratt Institute in 2014. Today, Anna has her studio in the city and lectures full-time as a Fine Arts professor at Kean University.
Her solo show at Gallery 101 on Fort Wayne Campus at Manchester University, Indiana, is on view until July 25th. Sixty-one small paintings are clustered on two walls of the gallery. Masterfully done – there are intricate lace patterns, brilliant light surrounded by velvety darkness, skillfully drawn silhouettes – they take me through a variety of experiences, flooding me with memories and emotions.
Through some, I step back in time and enter my childhood home, the place where I grew up in Soviet Union with tulle on windows, carpets on walls, and ornamented fabrics for curtains, bed covers and tablecloth. Then there are other little paintings that take over me with guilty pleasure of spying on my neighbors who, in contrast to old Soviet habits, do not cover their windows, exposing to the world their lives, perhaps intentionally. Anna doesn’t stop there though. Following her, I step inside their apartments, inside their bedrooms and look at shadows on the bed. Is it a love embrace or is it a gesture of support in a moment of grief? She invites us to keep telling the story she started in her studio.
Just like Proustian madeleines, Anna’s series Spaces evokes feelings of something long forgotten, but nevertheless very precious. Through these images, Anna channels her own memories of spaces in which she once lived. It all started in grad school with an unexpected visit to the apartment, where she grew up in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and which she hasn’t seen for more than a decade. “When I stepped into my old home, I realized that I liked the memory of it a lot more than its reality: it was crammed, small, and kind of worn.” At the same time, she was reading Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard and getting into the theory of experiencing a space. This phase in her work was more about the philosophical analysis of a space and manifested in really big colorful pieces.
Many of the really early pieces from that series are from the perspective of a child. “I noticed that later. It was kind of subconscious. At that time, figures in my interiors, or their shadows, represented people I lived with, never myself. It was an observational appearance of the figure rather than the painting being about a figure. Just like the imagery wasn’t about the interior, but rather the experience of it. These paintings are very personal. It is an experience of someone close to me and has that familiarity.”
Our memory, however, doesn’t retain photographically exact images. It recalls the essence of a space rather than actual physical objects in it. Developing this series, Anna began deconstructing her spaces by breaking them up into fragments. “You might remember the floor and the pattern of the floor looking down at it as flat, but then there is also the space. So in some of the earlier works, you can see there is like a space change where you have some flatness and some perspective as well.”
After she graduated from Pratt and didn’t have the school studio anymore, Anna had to reduce her scale. Unexpectedly, she realized she was onto something with smaller works. A subsequent move from a small basement apartment to a flat on the 6th floor was influential for the development of her new series, the tiny Nocturnes. “All of a sudden, I could see what my neighbors were doing. It was all so intriguing. It wasn’t so much about my spaces anymore, it was about other people’s spaces and what stories I could tell that were across the street.” In these paintings, Anna painted bright little windows to let us look with her and collaborate by completing a story she started. “I love painting light to the point where I’m obsessed with the effect of light and what paint can do. The Nocturnes are about light and about its gem like glow in the dark.” The size was very important because it made the viewer step closer to get a good look.
The most recent series has larger paintings and is called Figments. “These are little excerpts of what I imagine that scene inside of a room looks like. As if I were to enter that apartment across the street. That is why a lot of those have a window and there is a lot of silhouetting going on. The figure, that is now starting to reappear, could be anyone. I’m putting myself in a position where I’m kind of creeping up on someone. It’s more about what we do in our spaces and the privacy, rather then a human presence.”
It is interesting to note that her fascination with voyeurism started in the last year of grad school with her ceramic boxes. “They were concealed cubes with a complete living-room or bedroom scene inside made out of clay. The only way you could look into it was by peeking in through a little hole.” Even now, the figures that appear in Anna’s work are unaware of the viewer. They are looking away, living their lives, doing something private.
It is also exciting to learn that Anna is working on a few ceramic pieces now. I am curious to see what surprises she has for us.
Anna doesn’t work from photographs, only from her memory filled with emotional sensory fragments of the spaces she once called home. However, she uses reference photos when painting certain very specific details, like the pattern of a Persian rug in the apartment of her grandparents, for example, which would be impossible to replicate from memory.
There are many delicate textile patterns in Anna’s work. Some textiles are directly applied to canvas or panel and become part of her collage. The artist also uses certain textiles, like lace for example, as stencil to create a thick beautiful textural pattern that she can manipulate further. “I also paint a lot on paper. I combine textile with paper and then sometimes I paste the paper onto a panel. It’s like a sandwich.” Influenced by Braque’s still life paintings from The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, where he used sand in his paint to give volume to flat objects, Anna started using sand to enhance the texture, sculpting the surface when she painted textiles.
Anna’s constant experimentation with techniques and materials also finds its way into her work as a Fine Arts instructor. She is passionate about teaching and very committed. According to her, there is an ongoing exchange happening where teaching influences her own body of work and being an active practicing artist helps her to be a better mentor for the next generation.
Teaching also ensures that Anna doesn’t have to compromise on her artwork. Nowadays, the art market entices artists to change their style to appeal to big collectors, sell more and get a chunk of the money pie that seems perennial thanks to continued auction records and flashy daily headlines in the art news.
“I think that there is always a temptation – if one piece sells, you feel that you should make another 5 of it to sell more. Because I work in series, some series sell better than others. When I was working on a technique with Mylar in undergrad, all of the pieces were sold out. I managed to pay for a good portion of my grad school costs that way.
But I also feel that, in a way, every work has its audience. I’ve had collectors who only wanted my earlier work, but then also ones who have come back and acquired different stages of my work. I do feel a bit morally opposed to ever doing something just to please a collector. I typically don’t do commissions that are way out of my style. I have done some commissions for collectors with more specific requests, but it still was a collaboration and conversation between us.”