Priestess by the Fire (The Art of Elena Kambina)

Issue #3 • 1157

Ideas are like fish.
If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water.
But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper.
Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure.
They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.
David Lynch


It may be trivial to mention that Elena Kambina had been a student of mine for a long time, as we are now dealing with an accomplished master; yet this gives me an opportunity to be biased rather than detached, when speaking about her. At the start of her career she did not need a teacher as much as she needed an artistic environment to help her grow. And she did find it in my milieu – a strong one. The experimental studio was then attended by D. Akhunbabaev, I. Kulagina, A. Ivanova, E. Lee, D. Kaipova, et al. Kambina wears many hats not only as artist; her ideas and finds are also very mobile and grand. The range and scope of styles and trends she embraces make it a failed effort to define her art at this stage; it still evolves, and very dynamically. It seems that “tasting” artistic personality as complex as Elena Kambina will require highly qualified art critics, while the mission to interpret her art entrusted to me by the artist has been prompted by her hope for understanding from a colleague and teacher.

Kambina is a born artist, devoting all her time, mental and emotional energy to art that has become the meaning of her life. She might have created her world already in childhood, or, rather it was born with her; over the years the world expanded, absorbing everything essential to it and leading to its “kingdom”.

Innovation, aesthetics and refinement of her works go back to the good old times of the great Picasso, Matisse, Klee, and Mondrian. Skilfully navigating through the canvas-reefs of these giants, she, like Odysseus, steered to the home shores in her art.

Today, Kambina gravitates more to strict rational abstraction, yet without rejecting plastic form. This, however, is not eclecticism. Her shapes “flow” into a canvas very sparingly and unobtrusively, unlike those of her icon Kazimir Malevich, ambitious and futurism-oriented Supprematist, master of pure form. She inserts figures of humans and fishes into flat geometrized spots of her canvases as some kind of keys from the secret corners of her coded inner world. These schematized figures lend mystery to her canvases, making them spiritually saturated (“Legend of the Big Fish” triptych, 2000).

The art of recent years, especially Western, is all about self-expression, and everyone who takes to painting is a creative individual. However, looking closely at this stream of total individualism, one can see that even if there is a break-up from illusion and emotionally true way of portraying reality, it is not particularly noticeable, and the origins of conventional associative searching for form and colour, as well as icons, lie on the surface and are easy to recognize. Truly deep innovators are few, and Elena Kambina it certainly one of them. Surprisingly quickly she adapted to modern trends, living in them like a big white fish in her drawings. Art is making gigantic strides towards what may be either its finale, or a new evolutionary spin, breaking the usual frame of classical representation, creating many new paths and trails: Kambina follows them, receptive to everything new. Essentially, her art is one great fairytale she is telling to herself. She is like a child carried away by a play, for whom no other world exists, except its own – magical.

Kambina’s career as a big time artist began with “Tam-Tam” she painted in 1996. “Tam-Tam” shown at an exhibition in Tashkent in the same year appealed to me very much with its barbaric spontaneity and dynamism, its unusual plasticity and emotional charge. With this painting Kambina introduced new shapes, perfect in their wildness, almost frog-like angular figures carried away by the unconstrained dance and ecstatic body language. The dancing figures are sculpture-polished, still keeping their inner and outer expressiveness. Moving in a wild dance, the figures compositionally resemble Matisse’s “Dance” from the Morozov collection. Later on, after my introduction to the art of the great German expressionist Emil Nolde, I realized where the caveman sensuality of the Kambina’s dancers came from. Having seen sculptures by leading German expressionists, fashioned as ancient stone and wooden idols, I guessed about another source of her inspiration. The Kambina’s canvas is already so harmoniously fused, and all her messages and influences are so seamless that the painting looks like a real masterpiece.

Canvases of the young artist reflect her rapidly growing skill and almost zero apprenticeship (1994-1997). Straight away she strode into the XX century with its warped shapes, conventional and conceptual colour, and its decorativeness. It would suffice to analyze her “In White Room” (1996) – a composition with two figures, communicating the mystery of consuming food. Figures intertwined in a Moore-like style are statuary, with a through space. The painting’s twilight colouring conveys tension in the air. What is amazing about the canvas is the anthropomorphic perception of the world and the equally animated humans and chairs. The device is clearly an influence of Chaim Soutine who discovered its ultimate expressiveness. During that period Kambina intuitively draws from an inexhaustible art treasury, and it is hard to determine what comes from where, if there is a point is doing it at all, as she fuses it all wholesomely and harmoniously.

Specific mention should be made of a series she painted during our visits to Sukok in the mountains. These canvases are like an epic tale of love of nature and unity with it.

Composition II (1994) is a dense block of green, with a plane maintained. The arrow-shaped trees are possibly developed and prompted by my own trees-verticals; the colour palette is green-purple. Circumferences of stones are ornamentally calculated to match the tree verticals. Stretching upwards are the green “belts” and verified circumference-lines of warm-green strokes that intertwine and intersect. This is not just a decorative blot, but an easel painting with a powerfully accentuated centre.

Composition With Stones (1994) is a traditional study of a stream, with water plane and structured tree verticals. Warm foreground versus cold trees. Dots and lines dominate. Colour tension is activated by interspersed warm and cold shades. The painting is dry in terms of colour, but the artist sophisticatedly and decoratively intertwines the colour spots of trees and stones.

Green tunnel (1994) amazed me when I first saw it in the making. Open in colour, very generalized and holistic, it resembled laconic studies of Martiros Saryan from 1910s he brought from the East – generalized and terse. Kambina gave a keen characteristic of the stream we were staying around; she found the sensation of the mysterious green tunnel made of exquisitely intertwined tree branches.

Waterfall (1995). The painting’s plane is decorative and dynamic in manner – the battle of overlapping spots. A large boulder in the centre at the top of the waterfall holds the flat, warm surrounding with its coldness, as if tearing it apart, while the main cold line of water, like tight bowstring between rocks, is breaking through and streaming down, without losing its aesthetic sophistication. The canvas has the temperament and expressivity of youth, which would eventually become obscured, growing into a philosophical contemplation with a touch of tragedy.

One of the programmatic canvases of that period is, certainly, “The Blind on The Island” (1996). What we see is a frieze; a kind of a forest saga. Kambina intuitively portrayed universal blindness, and the island is the earth we live on.  One gets an impression that trees found freedom and started walking the earth, but they are the blind who are lost. This brings the memory of icon painters blinded in the woods from the Tarkovsky film Andrei Rublev – the tragic sentiment is just as intense. Conventionally interpreted background adds to the sensation of vast expanses; confused faces and arms are tragic. Hypertrophied flattened hands, like fan-fins, are rushing on us, anxious and helpless. Roots, like stilts, seem to be crying out for us, like druids. Colouring is soft and unimposing; the palette muted; pyramidal composition is carefully thought through. From the heights of the XXI century, Kambina the philosopher, metaphorically and effectively using the language of art, has posed the eternal philosophical question of who we are, where we come from and where we are going. Layered background is generalized beautifully and organically, alternating ribbed planes with cosmic ovals of suns, bringing the human march towards us and elevating it to the rank of universal events. Trees and humans are symbolic, three-dimensional and decorative to a measure; relief is shallow. Many other artist’s canvases are also rendered in this key. One gets a glimpse into the master’s manner, the magic of brushstrokes and paint application that suggests complete meditative dedication to canvas as the object of creation. Soft and subtle is the touch of brush on the canvas, with no outward expression.

“Inauguration” (1998) is quite interesting. It was probably influenced by the plastic experience of Matisse’s “The Moroccans” and the twilight atmosphere of “The Kings’ Feast” by P. Filonov with its tragic sentiment and elongated royal chairs. However, Kambina’s chairs are empty as there is no one to crown; only an expectation of the arrival of someone worthy of the coronation. Beautiful robes of the saints are associated with images in ancient Buddhist temples. A peculiar silence in the picture is the silence of reverent anticipation.

A poem about love, searching and inconstancy of the soul is a series of six lyrical paintings called “Apologue About Shadows” (1999). The entire series is in dull-green, with inserts of ochre-pink bodies. The idea is that people love each other at night, while all their secret thoughts are realized in the shadows. Shadows represent their subconscious, which is more important than their pinkish earthly bodies. The symbol of the night is the cats walking in the background, creating a night-time mood. The night-time world of the two characters is materialized, as well as their metamorphoses, and, most importantly, their conflicting and ambiguous behaviour, the secrets of their desires. The artist could have continued the series, but she probably left it to us.

Elena Kambina is a priestess, meditating with the world alone. She is unpredictable in her inquiry, sometimes instructive. She revels in the process of creation just as Bella Akhmadulina did when she read her own poetry.

Looking at Kambina’s artistic career that spans a little more than a decade, I should mention only her key series, for this great mass of ideas and concepts is hard to embrace and cover in an article due to its high intellectual saturation and diversity.

Kambina’s art is interesting in all periods. Apparently, her Pisces Age started with “The White Fish” painting (1997), complex in composition and beautiful in colour. It is hard to tell what these people are carrying in a fabulous, Rublev-style, blue forest: a fish, or a white cloud – the embodiment of sky. The ghostly fish is carried in a sacrificial zeal by priests and priestesses of Egypt and all the land – to be buried or eaten – there is no telling. Three years of Kambina’s life as an artist (1997-2000) equal three decades: she shows remarkable growth, and different, more refined, colour ethos; her ideas are more ambitious, and colour generalizations are simpler and grander.

…“Fish” keep rushing through the ocean of her art. For Kambina, her exquisitely coloured triptych “The Legend of the Big Fish” (2000) with a parable theme has become an opportunity for the most interesting form solutions in silver-brown shades. Contrasting geometrized colour spots create a sense of a boundless ocean, where the big fish swims. Schematized human silhouettes on colour planes are all that is left of the legend. The canvas rhythm, the alternation of volumes and voids and their dimension transform the small field of the painting into a huge mass of silver ocean; in it, a subtle hint to the fish outline is looming. The canvas seems to make the dream of Malevich come true: the dream of making art of the future, and of masters who will follow his way and go further.

A few words need to be said about her fundamental triptych “The Tale of the Big Water” (2001). At play are the light- and deep-blue colours of the sea. First comes the canvas of two colour spots, deep-blue and brown, closely fitted to one another – the entrance and key to the entire series. Then comes an ornamented blue: the artist let into its labyrinths the shoals of fish, though painted in subtle hints, yet passionately and caringly. There is also a touch of a woman’s hand, weaving the ornament. Then comes the third vertical sheet: a scheme of a big fish painted with linear outlines – a rock art totem on the water surface.

Finally, triptych-related programmatic canvas showing an inverted pyramid filled with fish silhouettes, wedge-crashing into a light-blue field on which humans are painted. The planet divided into two worlds – Human and Piscean – everything frieze-overflows. Humans and fish are the indivisible whole. In the canvases of 2000s they pass through as a silhouette or a hint – like a caveman’s cutter on the rock of time. They get eventually replaced by anthropomorphic apples coming out in series and diptychs – a miracle wrought by Kambina’s hardworking and talented hands. Dozens of colour variations and symphonies of green, and each of the hundreds of the littlemen-apples is lovingly painted and warmed by the hands of Elena Kambina, the universal story-teller, and seems to be carefully placed in the appropriate country-box. There is anguish and hope in these eye-holes, looking pleadingly up. The texture of the apple canvases is treated in a complex and varied fashion; gold leaf is introduced very naturally; and the artist’s palette, however reserved, is more nuanced and complex in terms of colour.

Standing separate are Kambina’s drawings and paintings commonly titled “Parallels” (about 10 canvases), where she takes on a next to impossible task, trying to encode a country, a continent, into a single compressed logo, and find a pictorial equivalent to the undepictable.

Every true artist finds a stratum of culture that becomes the foundation of his art. This was the case of Henry Moore who turned to the art of the ancient Incas and Aztecs, and of Mikhail Vrubel who discovered the Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna. Elena Kambina dived into Egypt of two thousand years ago, despite the changing fashion – either for the sake of contradiction, or following the call of her soul. At first it was almost direct analogies, as in “Mourners”, especially in a composition; but this is not just a relief anymore, but also modern painting. What appeals to Kambina in these funerary tombs of the Pharaohs? Certainly, neither a tyranny cult, nor the techniques of keeping up the rulers’ majesty in another world; but the flavour of life coming out of these painted reliefs and murals. Pharaoh was to take with him all the wonders of earthly existence, and gifted masters, forgoing the canons, made these paintings full of joys of everyday life, working decorative wonders. These paintings feature graceful lines, and poeticized image of a woman; and all this is sung in ritual songs and a hymn to the Sun – the giver of life on earth.

The tale flows and continues; Elena Kambina moves in time, gaining experience from Matisse and Picasso, absorbing the spirit of wonderful European tapestries, while remaining true to herself, wanting to part neither with frontal silhouettes and their grandeur, nor with the colour simplicity of her original sources – the Egyptians (“March of the Victors” (1997), “In a Boat” (1997), “Ask and You Shall Receive” (1998), “Dialogue” (1998), etc.).

“Dialogue” (1998) deserves a specific mention. It shows a “conversation” between two quasi-abstract shapes of different sexes, as if some extraterrestrial beings communicate – only through telepathy, rather than conversation. Communication of the two sages against disquieting mahogany background… Bold contours introduce something Egyptian, which makes the shapes resemble royal insects. A modern interpretation of an intimate conversation between Akhenaten and Nefertiti, although everything is but a subtle suggestion – an ultimate generalization. It may well be that the artist reflected upon Moore’s King and Queen sculpture that, too, depicts a sad conversation between two people – intimately related and initiated.

The art of Elena Kambina is filled with passion and pungent empathy for every living thing, and all human actions become a ritual. A picked flower, a caught a fish – everything is contemplated and regarded through a very sensitive membrane of the master’s soul – the soul which is tender, mysterious, if not to say twilight. Looking at her canvas one can feel that this world is fragile, yet enchantingly beautiful. This was particularly manifest in her early painting, “The City of Dwarfs” (1997). The painting is a dream, hence the ephemeral blue-grey environment, and the desire to give the destitute and the crippled a chance to become independent in their city. The artist created a tragic effect of a collapsing composition, with playing destiny-cards falling down.

A journey and a long stay in Ukraine (2009) revealed a paradox in the artist’s biography. She comes from the East and has an affinity with it, however enormous may be its span and range to comprehend, or its boundaries to embrace; but the West, according to her aspirations, is less associative and metaphorical.

Artist Elena Kambina is making her journey in art, but the future of a talented individual is almost impossible to predict. Yet whatever she will do will be art that delights and prompts deeper experiences and contemplation.

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