Between the Shores

(a biographical essay by Dan Gibbons)

        There is a kind of reflective movement in both Albert Fayngold’s art and his life: a dual impulse of staying and returning. Places, people, styles and themes are left behind only to be missed, rediscovered or reinvented. Certain interior motifs – a bedroom scene, a portraitee’s gesture, a particular facial expression that dominate his early, relatively realistic pieces – are also replayed in later, expressionistic canvasses; a particular Old World city scene – a street corner on Kiev, Prague, Amsterdam or Rome – may reference each other but also, paradoxically, anticipate something that will be only painted a decade later in, say, New York. The result is close, emotionally, to that retro-prospective flux we associate with Proust; and stylistically, to the alchemy of Whistler. But its particular appeal is not limited to the nostalgic clichés of the past or the clichés of the post-modern “exile”: informed as it may be by the exilic contexts – post-Glasnost, post-Berlin Wall, post-colonial – what it ultimately follows is its own private course that begins, inevitably, with the artist’s creative origins.

        One would expect an expatriate like Fayngold to be either reticent or, on the contrary, indulgent towards the past; to either muffle it through silence or to embellish it through myth. Even among his earliest idols, such posturings are fairly common. Whistler, after all, was the one who lived mostly in London, Paris and Venice but took his family’s stays in Saint Petersburg, Russia so much to heart that he claimed to have been born there instead of in Lowall, Massachusets. Not so for Fayngold. There seems to be a kind of urgency in his manifest need to confront the past head-on, to authenticate, through writing or speech, the “bare bones” of facts surrounding the wellsprings of his art. He was born, he says, in 1971, in Kiev, the capital of a then Soviet Ukraine; the faded birth certificate testifies to this fact in hand-written Cyrillic. Both of his parents are Russian-speaking Jews. His mother Sophia, an industrial engineer, was born in Gorky, Russia, in 1941, just a few months after her father had been pronounced missing in action during World War II. The artist’s father, Moses Fayngold, was born in Samarkand, Uzbekistan where he had once dreamed of becoming a painter himself but ended up graduating in physics, marrying, and moving to Kiev. The life the young couple led in a cramped two bedroom apartment, together with Sophia’s mother and their two children (Albert and his younger brother, Vadim), was a typical life of Soviet intelligentsia, full of daily grind of jobs, chores and schoolwork but also of daily miracles such as art and music. As a little boy, Albert often spent full days with his father who used to supplement theoretical research by giving astronomy lectures in the city’s old catholic cathedral remodeled into a Planetarium; and it may well have been while gazing up its starry dome or waiting in his father’s office that Albert drew inspiration for his early drawings. Returning from the auditorium lecture, his father would often find his office desk filled with color chalk and watercolor pictures. He would treat them gingerly and proudly, as records of his son’s precocious gift. Frequently, he would comment on them, using the same analytical rigor as when describing them motions of heavenly bodies to his science students. Albert remembers these lessons as invaluable: “I don’t know how much of his language – chiaroscuro, composition, perspective – I actually understood just then; what I grasped intuitively, if non-verbally, was the Promethean and Faustian spirit of creation – both artistic and scientific, belied by the awareness of elegance and harmony and order in things. A thrill ran through me – one that has never really left me since”.

        Some quarter of a century later, as a mature painter and writer, Fayngold will make repeated pilgrimages to those days. Thus, one of his English language poems recalls a place where “all the Muses/ lived at once in dusty draws.” Oddly eclectic, mysterious, a bit humorous and a bit surreal, the atmosphere the line invokes is telling in more ways than one. It ties in with the artist’s fondness for old architecture, theatrical artifacts, palimpsest surfaces; with his deliberately blurry color effects and his cross-referencing of times and places. At the same time, it assigns a special significance to the place of vocation itself. Increasingly, from early on, these places begin to assume a quasi-religious or nearly mystical cast. Apart from the Planetarium, an important place in this respect is an art studio headed by Naum Ostashinsky where Fayngold studied from the ages of six to thirteen. A stern but charismatic teacher, Ostashinsky could be as discerning and demanding in matters of art, as he was autocratic in matters of politics and ideology. Although Albert quickly became a favorite student, he eventually had to wrestle himself away from what had become a “temple and prison in one”. While this was clearly an act of rebellion, it was only the first of the series of leavings the artist would take in defining his creative path.

        The longed-for “temple” materialized soon; not as one in fact, but as an entire panoply of academic environments. First it was the loft of the so-called “Leipzig” building at the corner of Vladimirskaya and Yaroslaviv Val (Alebrt would depict it frequently) where he spent several years learning craft from such painters as Yuriy Yurovsky and Mikhail Gleizer. Then there were the spacious studios of the National School of Fine Arts (named, appropriately, after the Ukrainean poet and artist Taras Shevchenko) where he thrived under the instruction of Alexander Zhivotkov and Zoya Lerman. Afterwards, following graduation, there was the beautiful Vienna-style National Opera Theatre where he worked as a scene painter before finally enrolling in the National Academy of Architecture and Fine Arts. Throughout these formative years, he was able to not only hone his already formidable skills of draftsmanship and apply them to a variety of media, but also to work out a kind of unique sensibility – lyrical, interiorized, both densely detailed and densely evocative. It is hard to summarize the elusive appeal of these early pieces, especially portraits. The reclining young woman of The Girl with a Guitar could have easily sprung from the native tradition of mysterious femininity – Kramskoi’s “Stranger’, Borisov-Musatov’s “Lake” and Vrubel’s “Girl against the Persian Rug”; but it seems to be equally clad in the bohemian, vaguely illicit, heady atmosphere of Modigliani’s portraits. The formal achievement here is the harmonization of two disparate languages: on the one hand – the decorative pictorial surface with brilliant color; on the other – the atmospheric and the tonal effects characteristic of realistic painting. At other times, such as in the pieces from the “Memory” series, the balance shifts in favor of abstract and expressionist elements. Although still figurative in style and lyrical in tone, the painting here seems more anxious and restless. The figures appear elongated and gestures sharp as struggling not only to embrace the pat but also to anticipate the future. Drawing on a pool of private meanings, the artist taps into the mood of what he might not have known then to be his last years in his homeland.

        The year of 1992 is the year of two important changes for the artist: the departure for New York and the increasing involvement in literary studies abroad. The exact motivation behind both is unclear. To be sure, in both cases there is a number of contributing factors. In the case of exile, it is the chaos of the Post-Perestroika life, with its hand-to-mouth existence, the marginalization of the status of art, while in the second case it is the growing disillusionment with the increasingly commercial and trendy art scene of New York. But ultimately, both events become interwoven into a larger complex. According to the artist himself, it is the need for renewal as a creative stimulus. More specifically, exchanging Kiev for New York or brush for a pen are not modes of leaving but of returning; they are, in the artist’s own words, “provisional absences”. Speaking of his birthplace, he quotes Bernard Malamud, in whose short story Kiev is described as a “hilly and green city, with colors of subdued Rome”. For a painter to see the native town through the eyes of an American writer who, in turn, sees it through the lens of antiquity, is to do more than simply indulge in nostalgia; it is to engage us in a kind of metaphorical relay justified solely by the poetic license. But is ultimately at work here is the estrangement that is signature Fayngold: a practice of “de-familiarizing” the place – be it Kiev, Prague, or New York – until it is only accessible, if at all, through auras, echoes, or memories of their doubles and counterparts.

        The cumulative effect of this chain of reminiscences is comparable to what the surrealists like Max Ernst called “controlled resonance”. The subjects all seem to partake of the same trans-cultural, trans-temporal quality which is rooted, invariably, in the past: not necessarily personal or even historical past but simply one touched with the aura of being slightly out-of-date, recent but receding, with patina and the nostalgia of years. The very choice of urban architecture collaborates in this process: the New York we see is not the postcard, Technicolor, spic-and-span, ultramodern midtown but the elegant, self-consciously old-fashioned, quaint corners of Greenwich Village, Soho, Upper West Side, Brooklyn – the turreted, corniced, gargoyled, balconied silhouettes that, especially from afar and on a rainy day, could almost pass for their old-world counterparts – the churches and rooftops of Prague, the brownstones of Amsterdam, the fountains of Kiev. We may have seen something like this in Steiglitz’s early photographs of New York: the sense that, thanks to the mist enveloping the corners of buildings and the sepia-toned grain of a print, things begin to merge, quaver, dissolve; or in the urbanscapes by American Impressionists such as Hassam. Hassam himself thought this effect “more beautiful than many of the old castles in Europe, especially if viewed in the early evening when just a few flickering lights are seen here and there and the city is a magical evocation of blended strength and mystery.”

        It is this unlikely niche in modern cityscape that Fayngold shared with the American impressionists: apart from Hassam, it is Weir, Metcalf, and especially Twachtman. Indeed, what he seems to share with them is a sensibility, the nocturnal, the elegiac, the evocative. It is the kind of painting that treasures the fleeting caprice of the moment. The weather, the hour. And above all, depth. Ambiguous as they appear, Whistlerian vistas and Twachtman’s elegies still reference the deep space: the clues such as imaginary grid or receding lines, the linear and atmospheric perspective guide the viewer to the frame as the window. The painting is still “notational”: it does not as much cancel as recalls the sculptural, sensate reflection. Fayngold’s canvasses move beyond deep space: his densely saturated, heavily textured, often flat surfaces often remind us less of Impressionists than of the Fauves; when suffused with even, subtly modulated color they approach abstract expressionists – Americans such as Rothko or Europeans such as Nolde. But ultimately, his art transcends influences quicker than it absorbs them. More than simply a homage, his style is confidently original even as it remains responsive and mutable. Just as the American Impressionists he admires who, instead of merely recreating European painting on their native turf, went on to actually reinvent it, so his canvasses take the best in this amalgam and transform it in a delightful vertigo of individual discovery.