Volodymyr Radko

New Paintings

In Volodymyr Radko’s artistic pantheon, the faces of his figures often turn just slightly to the side, and their eyes appear to make intense contact with each passerby’s casual gaze. The pale but powerful visage of Boy with Green Tie appears drawn to the observer, much like the moon responds to the gently rotating Earth, apparently indifferent yet tightly locked in place by natural law.

With a similar insinuation, and persuasive visual force, his image of Flora seems only distantly aware of any realities beyond the all-absorbing interior life of a charmed, reclusive. His carefully wrought, delicate images seem to consciously allude to a magical past, and more precisely to Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. Unlike the Van Eyck Gabriel, however, Flora’s lilies are both white and passionately red, and the figure is nude and obviously female in a clear salute to antique conventions.

On a more ominous note so subtle that it merely adds depth to Flora's image, the distinctively non-classical proportions present viewers with a head clearly too small for its lush, velvet-textured torso, and columnar arms whose implied strength contradict the extreme delicacy of elongated, exquisitely articulated fingers. Flora, like the similarly distorted but disturbingly, indeed ravishingly refined Woman with Oranges, expresses a persona that blends Northern Renaissance artistic conventions with the buoyant, dreamlike world of Marc Chagall, the Russian modernist, and Radko’s own perspective.

All that makes for a rich pictorial and emotional synthesis.Yet in the Ukrainian artist’s skillful hands, the emotional impact is understated and highly stylized. Thus his paintings are somehow imbued with an enigmatic quality that reflects both his life in a country long submerged by the former Soviet Union, and a life clearly steeped in art. Born in 1951 in the village of Mezhyrych, not far from Kiev, Radko was trained in the Ukrainian Republic School of Art in Kiev and the State School of Art in Odessa, and he later graduated from the Kiev State Academy of Art, with a specialty in book illustration. 

Until the early nineties, Radko exhibited his oil paintings throughout the Soviet Union and won awards for his work on Maxim Gorky’s Mother and Boris Oleynik’s Seven among his major publications. By 1993 he had extended his ambitions and successes, with his 1993 exhibitions in Vienna. Shortly thereafter he exhibited his works in the United States, as Radko’s paintings began to appear on a wider stage. His remarkable synthesis of veiled but tart references to current political events, allusive imagery and his polished technique played to an audience struck by his works’ unusual, and highly original, strange and resonant beauty, with qyixotic and paradoxical hints of multiple, overlapping and elusive significance.

Like a postmodern Botticelli, Woman with Oranges holds her ruddy attributes to her bosom, with her spider-like fingers emphasizing the stability of her Renaissance pose and the slyly sensual overtones in the placement of the two spherical fruits. Her expression is itself a quite remarkable combination of the bland and the secretive; she seems to have literally closed her wide, bee-stung lips over a suppressed giggle at the variety of meanings the pose and attitude impishly imply. There is the amusing play on carnal associations, of course, but far more seems to lurk beneath the surface. 

Far more disturbing are suggestions of Ukraine’s recent national elections, and the choice of Viktor Yuschenko as Ukraine’s president after he was poisoned and the first, flawed election was overturned. The poison that nearly killed Yuschenko, its sources still unknown, can perhaps be associated with the patches of thick paint Radko adds to the burnished surfaces of his oil paintings. The painterly patches can be viewed as a reminder of the roughness, man-made disorder and the harsh realities that disturb or even physically mar the idealism or merely well-intentioned forms and actions of his countrymen. A similar sense of superficial grace and underlying complexity add depth to the classicizing subject matter in Stealing Europe, with its blank-eyed bull and apparently weightless Europa, hovering nude above the bull’s back and holding the palm frond of a pilgrim near the broad drip of yellow pigment that shatters the illusion of space and serenity evoked by Radko’s superb painterly technique. And the dimpled pears in Small Dutch Still Life, like the breast-shaped spheres in Girl with Oranges, cast some doubt on his canvas’s pictorial integrity, quite deliberately.

What are we looking at, and what are we really seeing, the Ukrainian master seems to ask of us, in his luminous, initially harmonious visual statements. What is contemporary reality, and what dark forces reside beneath the shimmering surface of his canvases, where other truths reside? Radko seems to be creating a symbolist truth with a singular overlay of impasted patches, or weeping drips of paint. Perhaps he is alluding to an accomplished and gloriously ornamented icon of an alternative reality; like traditional Russian icons, deeply imbedded from his historical past. Radko presents us with an observable reality taken from life, yet tinged with the artist’s point of view, and numerous historical allusions. With their soft, insinuating veils of color and multiple psychological overtones, his enchanting, somewhat uncanny images hint and whisper at complex meanings and supporting historical allusions. These images may appear somewhat startling at first in the context of the contemporary art gallery, but they remain absolutely haunting and compelling in memory.

By Dr. Sam Hunter, Emeritus Professor of Art History, Princeton University