On June 9, Oxana Mas finished Sotheby's first auction of Ukrainian contemporary art as the most expensive Ukrainian artist. Her large colorful painting, Drive 9, (2008), sold for 33,650 pounds on a top estimate of 15,000 pounds.
Two days later on June 11 over 300 art luminaries, socialites, music world stars, and collectors crammed the Zorya Fine Art Gallery in the elite New York City suburb of Greenwich, CT for Mas' debut in the United States. That exhibition features about two dozen of her recent artworks.
Clearly Mas, who was born and still lives in Odessa, is going places. She is an artist to keep an eye on, and in the very near future she will most likely emerge as one of the leading contemporary artists from Eastern Europe.
For about a decade Mas has grown as an artist with the Aidan Gallery in Moscow, which continues to represent her in Russia. In November Mas had her first major solo exhibition, which featured a few dozen of her paintings, panels, objects, and video works at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. It was there that I became fully acquainted with her work. (I had been introduced to her while visiting Odessa just two months prior, in September). Mas' energy, intellect, and ability to create beautiful and sophisticated images is captivating. In the United States, Mas’ exclusive agent is Katerina Luki-Khalupsky, an Odessan-born U.S. citizen. She is the co-organizer of the current exhibition at Zorya Fine Art, which is headed by Zorianna Altomaro, an American of Ukrainian descent. Zorya Fine Art is the only private commercial gallery in the United States specializing in Ukrainian classical and contemporary art.
Below is an interview with Mas made in Venice, during the Biennale, on June 5. (Unfortunately, I wasn't able to attend the June 11 opening, nor to speak to Mas since then to get her reaction to America.)
John Varoli: How do you feel about having the first major solo Ukrainian art exhibition in America? How important is this for you and for your country?
Oxana Mas: ``I take this exhibition as a big responsibility because how it comes off will have an impact on how the American audience will later receive other contemporary Ukrainian artists.''
JV: What was it like doing the show in Greenwich?
OM: ``At first Katerina (Luki-Khalupsky) and I planned to send totally different paintings to Greenwich, works directly from Ukraine, but there were some problems on shipping them as they were delayed on the Ukraine border. In the end we sent works, from 2008 and 2009, directly from Aidan Gallery in Moscow; works of museum quality. These are big and beautiful works (2.2 meters by 1.9 meters), powerful works that might not be easy to sell, but they will give Americans a good impression of contemporary Ukrainian art.''
JV: Russian is your native language, but you are a citizen of Ukraine, and live there. Are you a Russian or Ukrainian artist?
OM: ``Ideally, a contemporary artist should be either mute, or speak 15 different languages. I have the blood of five nationalities in me --- Polish, Greek, Russian, Jewish, and Ukrainian. I don't think it's a good idea to emphasize an artist's ethnic background. I'm an artist from Ukraine; I'm not necessarily a Ukrainian artist. Do you understand the difference? It's not important what my native language is. ``A contemporary artist has a dialogue with the world, giving something from his or her native culture and absorbing influences from other countries. Art on the territory of Ukraine goes back as much as 10,000 years. It's an ancient land. When people see my works they will see art from Ukraine, and when discussing art, beauty and love, the issue of nationality is secondary.''
JV: What's it like to be a contemporary artist in Ukraine?
OM: ``Unfortunately, it's difficult to do a show in Ukraine, especially one on a large museum scale. There are very few spaces where a contemporary artist can show his or her works.
``There's a lot of tension and commotion now in Ukraine --- political, economic, and social -- and this makes life difficult for an artist. For an artist to develop it's important to distance oneself from such chaos and confusion, and to have the opportunity to think deeply about the essence of things. ``The problem in Ukraine is the lack of a contemporary art infrastructure --- lack of art experts, critiques, trained journalists, curators, and galleries.'' JV: What do you think about Sotheby's deciding to have a separate Ukrainian contemporary art section at its recent auction in London?
OM: ``What Sotheby's did with having a section dedicate to Ukrainian contemporary art was a major turning point because it announced to the world that contemporary Ukrainian contemporary art exists, and that is a worthy part of the international art scene. Sotheby's action is a stamp of approval that Ukrainian art is a worthy brand.''
JV: There are a lot of negative themes and ideas in contemporary art. Your art has a positive energy. Why? OM: ``During the contemporary art boom of the past 15 years I think many artists were lazy. It doesn't require much energy and thought to be negative and destructive. That is easy to do. It takes much more energy and thought to create something beautiful, most important of which is working on oneself, and purifying your soul.'' Below is an interview made via email with Vitaly Chernetsky, president of Zorya Inc., explaining why Zorya Fine Art decided to do an exhibition of Oxana Mas’ art.
JV: Why did you decided to exhibit Oksana Mas?
Vitaly Chernetsky: ``The scope and range of Oxana's work are profoundly different and exhibits a depth of meaning which goes beyond the superficially provocative work exhibited by so many contemporary artists today.''
JV: What is specifically Ukrainian about her art?
VC: ``Like the works of some earlier representatives of the school of Ukrainian painting associated with her home city, Odessa, Mas's paintings are frequently sun-drenched, contemplative representations of a landscape that is intentionally flattened, with similarly abstracted, silhouetted figures.''
JV: What do you think her art can contribute to the international scene? Is she original enough?
VC: ``She is definitely an original and powerful voice. Mas brings to her work a uniquely Odessan—and more broadly—Ukrainian perspective, where warmth of sunlight and of emotion and openness to expansive spaces in landscape work. Yes, indebted in part to the revolution begun by Cezanne but also capitalizing on generations of local artistic tradition and talent. Her sculpture works, conversely, are a witty commentary on post-communist embrace of consumerism and commodity culture that also maintains an Odessan's ironic, bemused perspective and an eye for the campy that someone like Andy Warhol (himself of Ukrainian ethnic background—if from what is now Slovakia) would appreciate.''
JV: In brief, what is the purpose of your gallery? Are you the only Ukrainian art gallery in North America?
VC: ``Zorya Fine Art is the only art gallery in the US that pursues a comprehensive policy of bringing Ukrainian art to the wider general audience and seeks to establish and develop a significant market presence for it. This is what distinguishes it from a handful of museums that specifically focus on preservation of art and historical relic and documents about the Ukrainian community, e.g. the Ukrainian Museum in New York, the Ukrainian Museum, and to a handful of small galleries and exhibition spaces that target specifically the Ukrainian Diaspora in the US.''
JV: Is there a viable market for specifically Ukrainian art, as an entity separate from Russian art?
VC: ``For the broader audience, Ukrainian art was associated for a long time with ethnographic arts and crafts, such as the elaborately painted Easter eggs, as well as embroidery, beadwork, ceramics, wood carvings, etc. The events of the Orange Revolution of 2004, no matter the messy follow-up to them within the country, brought Ukraine unequivocal recognition as a place with culture and aspirations entirely different from Russia. The spike of interest in Ukrainian art by audiences outside Ukraine began at that time, and Sotheby's Ukrainian sale this month is a manifestation of this interest reaching a qualitatively new level, due in large part to the persistent efforts of Zorya Fine Art and its collaboration with Sotheby's, Christie's, and other auction houses, as well as museums and galleries.''