In her thought-provoking show at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center Ellina Chetverikova, who immigrated to the United States from Ukraine to continue her study of art, offers sixteen self-portraits. The largest is 10X12; many are much smaller. The considerable power of the show derives from the cumulative effect of a woman looking at herself repeatedly, unflinchingly, unapologetically, the way we all look at ourselves when we are alone with a mirror. Because the self is the only context of these paintings, the subject appears to be looking inward as much as at her external features. The same woman appears in each painting, but Chetverikova’s skill at depicting the complexity of her inner life makes each self-portrait unique.
In her technique, Chetverikova is a minimalist. She views her face straight on—“as in the mirror.” With one exception, background is limited to an abstract rendering of muted colors. Clothing is non-descript. Hair, when it is emphasized, mostly just frames the face. There is no jewelry. All of this gives these painting a timeless quality. Two related works in graphite, “Saturnine” and “Cold Self-portrait,” resemble 19th century black-and-white photographs of young refugees bundled against the cold, fleeing hardship, a look of endurance on their faces.
Two paintings, hanging across from each other in the gallery, demonstrate Chetverikova’s stylistic virtuosity. “Stoic,” one of the larger and more dramatic works in the show, could be an expressionistic oil from the early 20th century. Brush strokes are noticeable in the thickly applied paint. The woman’s deep blue eyes are set off by a slightly green tint to her skin. The focus of the painting is on the woman’s defiantly pouting mouth. Her exaggerated lips are painted a vivid red, as though she were mocking the glamorous look of heavy lipstick once imposed on fashionable women. “Inspired,” another larger work in pastel, has the look of an ancient fresco, fading with age. The woman’s hair is pulled back severely, emphasizing the noble shape of her head, which tilts slightly upward. Light is cast on her forehead; the lower face is in shadow. A glint of light appears in each eye. As with “Stoic,” the woman’s lips are red, but here the set of the mouth suggests composure and serenity rather than defiance. In the simplicity of its coloration and composition, “Inspired” is one of the most beautiful works in the show.
One way or another, all these paintings depict the strength of a self-possessed woman. By painting her image over and over, Chetverikova is not seeking our approval of her appearance, something women have traditionally been taught to do throughout history. Rather, she is allowing us to see her as she sees herself. No work demonstrates this purpose better than “Studying,” a wonderfully composed watercolor. The face looks straight at the viewer, anchored firmly by a long lock of hair on the left. On the right, the hair hangs behind the head so we see the neck and one shoulder. The upwardly tilted chin is strong; the lips, pressed firmly together, resolute. The blue eyes are partly closed, as though guarding their inner vision. Notably, the painting lacks any hint of the erotic. There is nothing androgynous about Chetverikova’s self-portraits, but she does not portray, as traditional portraiture might, the sexual allure of the female face and body. That is not part of her purpose in these works.
The most realistic portrait in As in the Mirror is also one of the more experimental. In “Looking Into,” an oil on panel, an almost photographically realistic face peers at the viewer through smears of paint that might have been painted on the mirror in which the artist captured her own image. The eyes are in shadow, but a tiny glint of light shines in each. The focus of the painting is on the mouth, Chetverikova’s most characteristic facial feature. The mouth is stoic, silent. Only the painting itself, represented by both the face and the pigment smears, speaks for the artist. “Looking Into” is the one self-portrait in which we see Chetverikova engaged in an activity—painting. This reference to her own art may point to a new direction in her portraiture work.
In her artist’s statement, Ellina Chetverikova writes that doing this series of paintings, all but one of which were painted between 2016 and 2018, helped her cope with issues many women face from an early age concerning their physical appearance and self-acceptance. By studying herself closely and painting, over time, what she saw, she was able to cast off oppressive societal expectations. Her show at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center, which ran through March 17, is particularly timely. Chetverikova, especially in her portraits, an art form returning to prominence with the attention generated by the recently unveiled official portraits of Barak and Michelle Obama, is an artist worth following. It would be good to see her work in portraiture on a larger scale, something that would help her gain the attention she deserves.
As in the Mirror ran from February 9 through March 17 at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center
–Daniel A. Burr