psychoPEDIA: Daily News

Beyond Surrealism
The Mystical World of Artist Yelena Yemchuk

Ukranian-born, Brooklyn-based artist Yelena Yemchuk, one of the fixtures of downtown NYC's "it" girls, is no stranger to the world of fashion, often spotted with her gal pals Sarah Sophie Flicker and Helena Christensen. Yemchuk began her career in the music world, directing videos and taking photographs for bands, most notably Smashing Pumpkins. Today, she shoots fashion campaigns for clients such as Cacharel, Kenzo, and Dries Van Noten; and her editorial contributions include magazines like Italian and Japanese Vogue and V.

Yemchuk’s current exhibition at the Dactyl Foundation displays her uniquely surrealist approach to art with satiric storytelling and undeniable Eastern European influences. psychoPEDIA recently joined the artist for a chat:

How did you develop interests in so many mediums?
My father´s best friend and my uncle weren't professional photographers, but their photography was very artistic and inspired me. Then, I studied graphic design at Parsons, where I also took some fine arts classes, but never saw my talent in painting. It was only in 2002, while on vacation at my friend’s house in Tuscany–- where there was nothing more to do than eat or drink–- that out of boredom, I started to paint. The subject of my first painting was actually based on a newspaper headline: "Brown bear kills Jewish baby". It was so bizarre that I had to paint it, and that´s how it all started!

Are your paintings critical of society?
The world of my paintings is a magical world-– untouched by humankind. I grew up as an only child and created a fairy tale world for myself. Nowadays, there is so much crap going on, it’s hard for an artist not to respond to these issues in their art. But I also express fantasies–- the line between childhood and adult fantasies is often very thin. Dreams, love, sex, obsession...

Why are there violent depictions in your paintings?
It’s more like a sarcastic form of violence, since the amount of violence out there is ridiculously high! But there is also a dark side in me...

Where does this dark side come from?
It´s unconscious; my paintings mirror my feelings, my soul–- sometimes they are very dark. As a kid, I used to play in the deep, dark forests of the Ukraine. It seemed like an underworld to me. Since then, I am fascinated by the subterranean.

Are the animals in your paintings symbolic?
The rabbit, for instance, is a key figure. He’s the guide into this mystical world-– a trouble maker as well. We didn’t have a lot of toys in the Soviet Union, but the few I had were really important to me: an Alice in Wonderland tape, which I listened to a hundred times. It was because Alice followed this rabbit that she got into trouble. The zebra black dagger-like stripes remind me of the Frenchy, the criminal in a movie version of the Master and Marguerite; I associate zebras with knives. The cat represents all evil for me. It´s like our society: self-absorbed and egotistical.

Why do you think surrealism is so popular in Eastern Europe and not in the Western hemisphere?
People here are superficial, and scared of themselves. Everything has to be politically correct. As soon as they can’t explain something, like a rooster suffocating a fox while a cat is committing suicide, the subject of one of my paintings, they oppose it. Surrealism formed in the days of communism in Eastern Europe when there were so many rules, and it was a way for people to make fun of the government. They eventually accepted it as an important art movement, which America never did.

Are you still feeding from memories of childhood in the Ukraine, or is New York equally inspiring?
In the Ukraine, I was surrounded by eccentric people. I just had to walk down the streets to find inspiration. In New York, it needs a little more work. I have to get out of Manhattan´s conformity. Sometimes, I go to Coney Island. There are all sorts of weird characters wandering around that fascinate me. All in all, New York was much more inspirational ten years ago.

What’s changed about it?
Back in the day, New York´s clubs were a melting pot of people that couldn´t have been more different. Transvestites partied next to models, next to rich guys. This gave New York its unique flair. It was a crazy time. Today, everything is so segregated. There is a spot for the wealthy investment bankers, another spot for the people from Jersey, and then for the artists.

Which books or movies have influenced you?
Movies from Fellini, like Roma or Satyricon, with all these fantastic images, as well as Bunuel's Obscure Object of Desire and the The Conformist from Bertolucci. Nowadays, I love David Lynch. My favorite writers are Russians like Dostoevsky and especially Gogol. I also love Murakami's surreal world!

Any favorite artists, photographers, or musicians now?
Jockum Nordström, who exhibits at David Zwirner gallery, has recently blown me away. I also love the Ukranian artists Yri Mazni and Ernesto Caivano. My favorite photographers are Juergen Teller and Ryan McGinley. And I often listen to Vladimir Vysotsky, he is kind of like a Ukranian Bob Dylan.

Do you have any current projects or "life projects" to speak of?
Right now, I am working on a book about an old amusement park in the Ukraine called Gidro Park. It is like an Eastern European version of Coney Island. My lifetime project is to do a film. I don´t know if it´s going to take me 20 films or just one, but one thing I know: this movie will explain some more about the magical world of Yelena Yemchuk.

~Maria-Theresia Eibl

All photos & art by Yelena Yemchuk

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