Fault Lines in America and Ukraine

Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, July 18, 2022

“Women at War,” at the Fridman Gallery, astounds. I wish everyone could see it. The show assembles drawings, photographs, paintings, a print, and video installations by a dozen excellent Ukrainian artists, none familiar to me. All are women, many of them young. Several hail from the ravaged Donbas region. Two remain in Ukraine. Others have only recently left the country. Apart from one historical piece—a linocut portrait from 1963 of the nationalist poet Ivan Svitlychny by Alla Horska, an artist and activist who was murdered, reputedly by the K.G.B., in 1970—everything postdates the Russian seizure of Crimea, in 2014. Throughout the show, instances of steely discipline ennoble dramas of suffering and defiance.


An outsized oil painting made by Lesia Khomenko in March of this year, “Max in the Army,” tenderly depicts the partner whom, in her flight first to Poland and then to the U.S., she has had to leave behind. Looking both resolute and terribly vulnerable, he is lovable. She loves him. To behold three beautiful watercolors of sylvan landscapes by Anna Scherbyna—one painted per year from 2016 to 2018 and almost inconspicuously featuring ruins in the Donbas, of an airport and two hospitals—you must lift little dun-colored curtains. Olia Fedorova’s photograph “Defense” (2017) shows a row of white anti-tank obstacles, or “hedgehogs,” ranged along a snowy slope. They are made of paper, which bespeaks both a presentiment of futility—premature, as it has turned out, impressively—and a lionhearted will.


These are tough-minded creators whose moral fibre should humble those of us who are cozily remote from a cataclysm that adapts repertoires of international art to the lived truths of a convulsed, actual place. Some disturb. The most unsettling, by Dana Kavelina, are deliberately crude pencil drawings executed on crumpled white paper punctuated by internal rips colored blood red. A number of them allude to rape. A sketch of a woman using a fetus’s own umbilical cord to hang it is titled “woman kills the son of the enemy” (2019). A climactic image suggests the birth of an assault rifle.


But the versatile Kavelina, a rising star in her late twenties, has also created an elegiac, desperately moving video projection. The nearly twenty-one-minute, wide-screen “Letter to a Turtledove” (2020) montages archival film footage of coal miners in the Donbas with expressive women’s faces and hypnotically stylized, almost meditative, fiery explosions. The work engulfs the viewer in a sort of minor-key visual cadenza that sounds the heart and very soul of a nation that has come to awareness of itself—past, present, unknowable future—under unspeakable conditions. Its beauty becomes a Ukrainian weapon as bestirring, if not as practicable, as a donated howitzer.


Nothing in the show is either hortatory or sentimental but only hard-won, such as a series of drawings by Alevtina Kakhidze that begin in 2014 and narrate her contact with her mother in the occupied territory of Donetsk. The mother died of a heart attack in 2019 while crossing the frontier to secure a Ukrainian government pension. Reminiscent in spirit of Kavelina’s video, a suite of ink-jet prints by Yevgenia Belorusets, “Victories of the Defeated” (2014-17), seeks melancholy solace in nocturnal or befogged views of workers who labor at various tasks amid dismal circumstances. The subjects could be anybody, even ourselves if our existence entailed an interminable state of emergency.


The show is elegantly and, above all, eloquently installed by Monika Fabijanska, an independent art historian and avowedly feminist curator who hereby does Ukraine, and any of us who willingly pay attention, a cathartic service.