Vadim Tsirkulenko-Suvorov is a Ukrainian painter whose work cause my eye a few weeks ago as I perused a gallery catalogue featuring contemporary Russian artists.
He does not use bright colors or complex scenes, but these paintings are still quite striking. There is a stillness to each, yes, but also deliberate contrasts of lines and color create visually engaging images, holding the viewer’s attention. These are what I’d call subtly dramatic portraits.
Tsirkulenko-Suvorov does a fine juggling tones their effect on the perception of space and content.
Take a look at Figure 1: notice how the black and white image shows little contrast on the surface of the skin. However, surfaces with warm colors pull certain features forward in space, adding curve and character and creating the subject’s unique form. This can be a soft, subtle way to communicate space, though it is a difficult balancing act! There are times when an artist tips the scales too much, and the surface seems thrown into another plane entirely (see Figure 2).
For the most part, this artist stays on the cool side of hues, so whenever warmer tones make an appearance, the colors really shine. Generally those warm tones appear on the subjects’ skin. He manages to depict their light-colored skin, though, communicating pale complexions without making them vampiric. In fact, when surrounded by cooler colors, there is a distinct warmth about them. There is blood in their veins! They’re aliiiiiiive!!
Irregular? Yes. Particularly when we compare how he approaches the background and the skin. Strokes in the background can be short and choppy, long and smooth, and everywhere inbetween. Sometimes the object is easily identified and sometimes we simply detect a bundle of abstract shapes conveying solidity. And he balances these busy and calm areas nicely, even if they appear on the same plane in space (i.e. more vigorous, varied strokes to create a shadow on the wall. see Figure 3).
Now, this juxtaposition of brushstrokes does a couple different things:
1. It gives the scenery character and significance. (You all know I hate a throw-away background!)
2. It creates a knowable space for the subject without being too specific. Thus, the viewer’s attention is not snagged by minute details in the background. Tsirkulenko-Suvorov seems very focused on the figure, and he wants most of the audience’s attention to linger there.
The artist obviously pays more attention to the figure and slight variations of the skin, and that intent focus changes how he paints his subject. The brushstrokes on the skin are small and exactly placed, making them appear more controlled and contained (see Figure 4).
Yes, Tsirkulenko-Suvorov approaches the background the figure differently, but there are stylistic similarities in the strokes that succeed in tying the two together in the scene. Many of the brushstrokes have a slightly watery quality, looking diluted, almost blurry. He builds solidity in his paintings layer by layer, amassing material into sturdy volumes. However, many overlapping strokes appear slightly translucent, bringing a thinness and vulnerability to the painting and its subjects. Sometimes the texture of the canvas even shows through the paint.
LINES AND FORMS
A line does not have to be clean-cut. Tsirkulenko-Suvorov rarely uses sharply defined lines and angles. In fact, as mentioned above, edges are often soft and slightly “fuzzy”. This technique ties the subject to the background, as the strokes that makeup the two surfaces are muddled: does the stroke belong to one or the other? The answer is both! (see Figure 5).
Those blurred lines also conjure a sense of quiet and calm (the quality of the lines themselves, not the role they play in the image). Think of it like this: if the angles and lines were sharp, they would cut through the space quickly, like a knife jab. Immediacy. Action. Noise. Decision made, and we’re moving on. The slight wavering and layering of strokes create a complex line that invites the eyes to slow and linger, to participate in the calm.
This stillness is also generated, I believe, by the strong balance of angles. Take a look at Figure 6: notice that what would be a strong diagonal is tempered by the similarly-colored background. However, the vertical and horizontal are coupled with contrast, elevating their visual weight. Hence, steadiness and stability play a more dominant role.
THE SUBJECTS AND THEIR WORLD
Vadim Tsirkulenko-Suvorov does a fine job giving a simple scene and a single face so much character. He plays with light and shadow, creating a complex sea of hues and tones that manage to fuse and create a visually interesting, and yet very cohesive, face. Indeed, he spends more time on fine details of the face and hands than those nuances in the background.
Now, as I mentioned before, this can be a dangerous game. The artist does not want the background to be a throwaway element, or the viewer will lose touch with the world in which the model lives. Without context, she exists in nothing, and that makes her less real, less alive, less relatable.
Walls are particularly tricky and easy to underestimate. They are flat objects behind the subject, chosen for their plainness. But “plain” shouldn’t mean “boring,” and “not boring” shouldn’t mean “chaotic.” Tsirkulenko-Suvorov does a nice job building the space around his subjects in such portraits, maintaining the blankness of the walls and augmenting ever so slightly the drama of shadow and light in the space around the figure.
Overall, these female subjects are fascinating, delicate creatures. They are pale and pink and feminine, sitting alone in the scene. The artist uses a slight change of color pallet and stroke to stylistically differentiate the figure from the environment. There is separation in that variation, but not total isolation. For example, the blurry line quality at the edges of the figure bind her in place. She belongs there, she undeniably occupies the space, she has gravity. In fact, I could argue that those blurry lines communicate the bending of space (gravity) and thus her ability to change and to influence the things around her. The figure is truly present in and truly separate from her world.
Ivan Albright once said: “Loneliness is not a fault but a condition of existence.” I think that is what lives on these canvases. I do not mean that they are all exuding loneliness, but they are all indeed alone.