Petrovsky-Shtern, Yohanan

Sho’ah,
2009,
Acrylic on canvas
40 x 30 in
Babylonian Tower, 2012,
Acrylic on canvas
36 x 48 in
After the fall, 2014,
Acrylic on canvas
48 x 36 in
Pied Piper of Hamelin, 2014
Acrylic on canvas
36 x 48 in
Adoration of Magi, 2018
Acrylic on canvas
48 x 48 in
Family, 2012
Acrylic on canvas
24 x 24 in
Mother Ukraine, 2018
Acrylic on canvas
36 x 36 in
Exodus, 2012
Acrylic on canvas
36 x 36 in
Holodomor Ukraine 1932, 2015
Acrylic on canvas
48 x 48 in
Jewish Luck, 2009
Acrylic on canvas
36 x 36 in
Pogrom in a Shtetl, 2008
Acrylic on canvas
24 x 24 in

Biography

My path to art was long but by no means straight. I have had two careers, one as a literary scholar and the other as a historian, before I finally realized: art is my passion.

I defended a PhD in comparative literature in Moscow and another in modern Jewish history in Boston, wrote seven books, published more than 150 articles, competed for a teaching position, earned an endowed chair at one of the best American universities but could neither suppress nor overcome my desire to paint. 

I put on canvas what I cannot convey in words. I begin as an artist where I cannot move on as a scholar and at precisely the place where I end up as a scholar, I begin as an artist. Art allows me to transcend the way I work and think; it helps me challenge any discourse I am part of. 

I use the language of challenge—the European avant-garde—to challenge language, including that of the European avant-garde. I discover fragility in strength, falsehood in stability, deception in redemption. I am using colors as words, seeking the most succinct way to convey a complexity that questions the possibility of being succinct. The idiom of Polish resistance posters and the satirical imagery of the Russian avant-garde, mellowed by the apparent simplicity of Ukrainian folk art, are the center of my endeavors. Acrylic on canvas is my technique.

I question established stereotypes, intellectual pretensions, religious illusions, and political myths. My questioning is sometimes sarcastic, often tragicomic, and always dramatic. I seek not only to undermine universalistic systems of thinking but also to reveal the particular, which I present as vulnerable, unprotected, fragile, and funny.

My hope is to free my characters and myself from the totalitarian pressure of beliefs and myths. Absolute freedom is unattainable, yet it is still possible in the moments when we question our paradigmatic myths. At such moments, which I am trying to capture, we liberate ourselves by rediscovering ourselves as fragile humans, whoever we are ideologically, religiously, politically, socially, and culturally.

Ultimately, I use a succinct palette to convey a complex message. All people are survivors of misfortune of one kind or another, and my art is a constant examination of this deeply embedded apocalyptic sensibility.


Artist statement

Art captured my interest from an early age. If one can believes one’s former classmates, I was making sketches during every lesson at school. When I was ten, I spent a year studying under David Miretsky, Kyiv-based artist who used the language of Breughel and the palette of Vermeer to capture images of the homo sovieticus. However, Miretsky’s arrest during the 1973 antisemitic campaign, followed by his emigration from the Soviet Union, disrupted what I expected to be a long-lasting relationship. It left me without a mentor but not without a way. 

I turned for inspiration to the Russian icon painting of Andrei Rublev, the Ukrainian folk art of Maria Prymachenko, the Japanese xylography of Utagawa Hiroshige, and the Flemish genre painting of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Unlike the paintings of Marc Chagall, outlawed in the Soviet Union, works by these artists were on display in Soviet museums or available in art books. I used India ink on tea-colored paper, imitating Japanese landscapes, and homemade paint applied to wall stucco, emulating Ukrainian folk art. My folk fantasies combined Eastern Christian iconography and Ukrainian folk art. I found myself searching for a universal visual language that would transcend the ethnic and the national. This quest took me from Zen Buddhism to Eastern Orthodoxy to Anglo-Catholicism to Judaism. Through this quest I discovered the visual aspects of diverse religious experiences. My art became one of them, perhaps the first among others.

Google Maps Link.