The wife-and-husband gallerists Julia and Max Voloshyn had planned to return to Kyiv last week to open a new show at their space there. But with commercial air traffic halted as Russian troops invaded Ukraine, their stay in Miami — and the run of their pop-up exhibition there — was extended.
The show, titled “The Memory on Her Face,” features socially charged work by five Ukrainian artists. After arriving in Miami in November to run booths at two of the satellite art fairs held concurrently with Art Basel Miami Beach — NADA and Untitled Art — the Voloshyns contracted Covid, postponing their return for a month. By mid-January, with several prominent Ukrainian art collectors coming to Miami in February, they mounted this impromptu show inside a small warehouse in the Allapattah neighborhood, with Untitled’s Omar Lopez-Chahoud as the curator.
“It’s a documentation of what has been happening in Ukraine for the last few years,” explained Julia Voloshyn by phone from the Miami rental, where she, her husband and their small child are staying.
One of Kadan’s pieces features a silk-screened photo of a building in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine, partially turned to rubble after Russian forces invaded the area in 2014 and continue to support separatists there. The silk-screen is loosely attached to a metal shield, so “when the air moves it, it captures the fragility of our country, and of our lives,” Voloshyn continued. “Now we see the same thing in Kyiv.”
Khomenko’s portraits depict ordinary working-class people buffeted by social forces, their bodies straining against the boundaries of the canvases.
A large painting by Sai, from his “Bombed” series, may at first appear to be merely a geographic abstraction. But it features a recent satellite image of battle-ravaged areas of the Donbas, overlaid on one of Sai’s earlier paintings on aluminum, then attacked with a metal grinder to simulate the craters left behind.
Still, Voloshyn’s mind remained focused on her gallery back in Kyiv. Used as a bomb shelter during World War II when the German army besieged the city, it sits beneath a seven-story apartment building. The Voloshyns had transformed it into a chic space, complete with wood flooring and tasteful lighting. Now it was once again a bomb shelter, and Voloshyn had urged her gallery’s artists to take refuge there.
On Saturday evening Kadan was hunkered inside the Kyiv gallery with a small group, preparing for the city-ordered, weekend-long curfew. His initial response to the Russian invasion on Thursday had been stoicism. “I stayed in my apartment and watched old films by Ingmar Bergman,” he quipped over Zoom. By Friday evening nearby explosions had become too loud to ignore, and he’d moved to the gallery.
“I have so many historical images in my head that I keep thinking about: Sarajevo in the ’90s, Leningrad during World War II,” he said. “Sure, now it will be different. War is always contemporary, always different. But it’s also always bloody. Already, there is plenty of blood.” He fixated on the small children holed up in adjoining subterranean bunkers. “Every time we go out for a cigarette, we see this empty baby stroller,” he added grimly.
For Kadan, the role of an artist in this situation was clear: “To be witnesses.” But he also knew, as Russian troops bore down on Kyiv, that many artists were swapping their pens and brushes for bottles to fashion Molotov cocktails. “Emotionally, I’m ready. But technically, to be honest, I’m not,” he explained. “I’ve dealt with the reality of war in my art, but I’ve never held a real weapon in my hands. Maybe I’ll throw an empty champagne bottle at the tanks. I don’t know.”
Khomenko and her family had also initially taken shelter at the Voloshyn Gallery. An activist during Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan revolution, she had been thrilled to see both the military and civilians rally together to resist the current invasion. But Kadan had implored Khomenko to think of her 11-year-old daughter and leave for safer terrain to the west.
There was an hour of tense discussion — and a heated argument with Khomenko’s grandmother, who had lived through Germany’s 1941 assault on Kyiv, and absolutely refused to leave the city now. Finally on Friday, before the Ukrainian military began defensively blowing up the city’s bridges, Khomenko, her daughter, husband, sister and mother, the mother’s cat and Khomenko’s dog, all crammed into her aging Czech-built Skoda and sped off to a friend’s home in the small western city of Ivano-Frankivsk.
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“I’ve been driving for more than 24 hours,” a visibly exhausted Khomenko said via Zoom on Saturday night. To avoid any combat, “we tried to stay off the main roads between villages, but those back roads are very bad, so it’s stressful. It’s completely dark, very rough.”
Left behind were the series of sprawling canvases she’d been working on for the past five years — intended to be unveiled in June at a Kyiv history museum. She’d originally been inspired by her grandfather’s sketches of the 1941 German invasion: “I wanted to compare the real experience of war with the socialist-realist propaganda from the period.” Except that the comparison had suddenly taken on an all-too-real update. Her mind was already racing as she mused aloud on Russia’s recent digital propaganda and the war scenes she’d just seen — and felt — firsthand.
“Painting has its own language with a deep tradition. I want to work with that tradition, to mix socialist realism with internet images, to layer it together and construct a new image,” she continued before catching herself. She paused and shook her head: “It’s so crazy. We were living so normally, and then we became meat just trying to escape.”
The Memory On Her Face
Through March 28 at 676 NW 23rd St. in Miami. To schedule a free visit, email: [email protected]