At first glance, Peripheral Visions, the solo exhibition of works by internationally acclaimed Moscow-based artist Olga Chernysheva, now on at GRAD London, looks rather…grey. On entering the show, however, our first impression of monochromatic dullness was completely reversed. The walls of this relatively new Russian art gallery, opened in 2013, have been painted a bright clinical white, and a series of faux walls made from exposed steel beams and grey sheets of plasterboard demarcate smaller spaces within the room. The structure of the show and the works on display complement each other and are completely absorbing. From the first black-and-white drawing, we were sucked in.
A member of the last generation of artists to come of age in the Soviet Union, Chernysheva occupies a unique place in the history of contemporary art. She studied animation at the Russian State University of Cinematography in Moscow, graduating in 1986 just as Mikhail Gorbachev was implementing Perestroika across the Soviet Union. Within four years, the entire political system and social structure of her childhood would be turned on its head. The social anomalies caused by this rapid change have remained a central theme in Chernysheva’s work. For example, Waiting in the Registry Office, one of the drawings on display in Peripheral Visions, recalls Soviet realist art on similar themes, though the happy, robust young figures of Soviet era paintings have been replaced by a world-weary older couple. Chernysheva’s work is not limited to the post-Soviet context, however. She was, after all, the first Russian artist to study at the Rijksakademie in the mid-1990s, and she has an illustrious exhibition history that includes shows in Hong Kong, New York, Berlin, and Sydney, as well as representing Russia at the 2001 and 2015 Venice Biennales. The present exhibition is a special project in conjunction with the Sixth Annual Moscow Biennial.
Peripheral Visions includes drawings, photographs, and video works, all of which represent Chernysheva’s unique perspective on contemporary Russian life, focussing particularly on the forgotten people and spaces of Moscow. She captures moments of stillness from her urban context: a cloakroom attendant waiting for a customer (Untitled, From a series Cactus Seller, 2009), an empty museum guard’s chair (Untitled, from a series Moscow Central Armed Forces Museum, 2011), the eerie isolation of commuters queuing on a metro escalator (Untitled [Escalator with added space above], 2015). Contrary to our first impression, the monochromatic tones of these works actually heighten their sense of silence and stillness, an effect that is heightened by the little alcoves and hidden corners created by the unusual exhibition design.
Her drawings, and especially her photographic barite prints, share a fuzzy, out of focus quality, as if they were indeed something in one’s peripheral vision, which Chernysheva has managed to capture and present for our inspection. The intentional resistance to sharp focus also encourages the viewer to see these scenes as timeless, like a vintage postcard or an old photograph. These scenes are both familiar and foreign and Chernysheva cleverly draws out the humour in many of the works with wry caption taped onto them.
Chernysheva approaches the world around her like a social anthropologist: she observes, documents, and analyses people and their actions. Her work, ranging from drawing and painting to film and photography, shows her fascination with the everyday. She is a creator and bystander: a wanderer who compulsively seeks art in the everyday. Chernysheva draws inspiration from the urban environment around her, collecting moments of humour, absurdity, and beauty that reveal a quieter aesthetic underneath the usual buzz of city life. Peripheral Visions presents an excellent introduction to Chernysheva’s work and the staging of this exhibition creates the ideal intimate atmosphere in which to examine her contemplative art works.
By Helena Anderson
Peripheral Visions: A Solo Exhibition of Olga Chernysheva, until 30 November 2015
GRAD London, 3-4a Little Portland Street, London W1W 7JB