The current exhibition, Lydia Bodnar-Balahutrak: Nevermore, explores historical socio-political and environmental interests through the artist’s personal search for identity, in light of the recent and prevailing political climate in Ukraine. Curated by Dr. Walter Hoydysh, this is the artist’s first solo exhibition at The Ukrainian Institute of America.
On the occasion of Ms. Bodnar-Balahutrak’s exhibition, which runs through June 21, the Houston-based artist graciously answered selected questions presented by Andrew Horodysky. We are pleased to share this exchange with our friends and wider audience.
AH: Your exhibition currently installed at The Ukrainian Institute of America includes artworks from different series of the past twenty years, or so. Would you consider this a mini-survey? What is integral to the underlining idea(s)?
LBB: With the inclusion of some works available from earlier series, the exhibition did provide an overview from the early 2000’s to the present. The most recent pieces from my ongoing Hide and Seek series are featured in the large room at UIA, while the other room, foyer, and stairwell show earlier works lent from a private NYC collection alongside current works. The entire installation is an opportunity for the viewing public and for me to compare and contrast the artworks and note recurring themes, processes, and media. At the heart of all my work is a discourse about the nature of being, of connection, of home – and the lack thereof.
Ukrainian history, especially of past tragic and recent socio-political concerns, is a recurring thematic concern that runs parallel to the artworks on display. How do you separate the objective from the personal?
I don’t see a separation. Each person experiences life from his or her own particular frame of reference, and expresses that as part of a larger whole. From the particular, we extract the universal, and vice versa. At the core, history – with all its socio-political manifestations – resonates with timeless narrative, archetypal metaphors, and relevant meanings. Ukrainian history, just like the history of other nations, taps into the human condition.
What research do you undertake?
My research is not that of a scholar. I read and collect news reports, commentaries and essays about past and current events that I find interesting and relevant. I investigate the written word as well as the general nature of disseminated information. I review the content of saved articles in chronological order and see discrepancies, data changes, omissions, and I question the authenticity and power of the media to wholly inform us. What is truth? What is “truthiness”? What is disinformation? What is propaganda? Who decides what is circulated and what is suppressed?
Text-based art was an idea-based vehicle for the 20th century avant-garde, and continues to be explored by contemporary artists, worldwide. What is the role of this course in your work, both conceptually and formally?
Text, in the form of newspaper clippings, wordplay, or poems embedded in my work, plays a primary role in my process. I firmly believe in the power of language – that a single word has physical presence, has weight, and can affect tremendous change. In my artwork, print material, symbolic mementoes and cultural artifacts are collaged onto canvas or board in a sort of self-perpetuating dialogue. The process of selectively obliterating and/or highlighting the words and images with paint, chalk or wax, reflects our experiences of events – they submerge, resurface, and unravel over time. Some elements remain visible, others are obscured, mimicking the way truth about anything and everything is “hidden and sought.”
Nature is depicted not solely as a political and environmental undertaking, but also embraces the spiritual realm. Describe that relation in your artworks.
My 1996 visit to the Chornobyl Zone left a lasting impression. I was struck by nature’s power of reclamation and regeneration. Vines were growing over the dust and decay; tree roots were breaking through concrete. Though at times nature, with its cycles and patterns, can become rampant, invasive and destructive, that visual metaphor evoking renewal, healing and hope has stayed with me. While the verdant blades of grass shroud the Holodomor in Will the Grass Grow Over It?, the words of Vassily Grossman implore us to remember, acknowledge, and commemorate this historic tragedy and not let the grass “grow over it.”
How has your work changed or evolved in the last twenty years? Early in your career, you worked with traditional materials – applying oil to canvas and pencil to paper. Gradually, you began collecting and applying objects into your artworks, experimenting with media, and creating multi-layered matter.
We all evolve and change over our lifetimes. At first, the human figure was my primary subject matter, but my first trip to my ancestral homeland of Ukraine in 1991 was a turning point in my creative work and my world view. In the spring of 1991, I received a grant from IREX to travel to Ukraine for the first time. This trip opened my eyes and soul to a land beautiful but ravaged by the Soviet system. After that first trip, I began reading and photocopying texts, and bringing together material about little-known historic events of Ukraine, among these the Holodomor. My art-making expanded to include seemingly disparate processes of gold-leafing, torching, scoring, tearing, layering, collaging fragments of text and photo images, incorporating liturgical conceits, treasured mementoes and handmade items, and melding organic and inert materials. I broke with traditional notions of drawing and painting and explored identity and cultural ties through mixing media and combining text, narrative, and figuration. Each subsequent trip to Ukraine deepened my interest in the nature of communication and history.
As a visual and tactile experience, how does the multi-media process simplify or complicate your thinking of the artwork at hand?
The visual and tactile are inseparable. They are born of improvisation and an integration of materials, processes and time. Images evolve from the mark-making of drawing, painting, scraping, and veiling with paints, inks, chalks, resins, and wax. The grounds are pieced together narratives made of text and images, and bits of ephemera – embroidery, money, correspondences, stamps, maps – that viscerally evoke the human presence. All had been made by hand, or had been passed through many hands.
What do you think about the participatory role of your audience? Do you have an ideal viewer of your work?
With each artwork I initiate a discourse, not only with myself and my materials, but with the audience. I invite the viewer to be open, to engage with the work, to take it in from afar and then close-up, to allow the image built up from layers to coalesce at a distance, then to be drawn in for close reading of the many parts that make up the whole. The ideal viewer approaches the work with no preconceived notions and surrenders to the play of “hide and seek.”
How did you decide to be an artist in the first place? What was the impetus?
I don’t ever remember a time of consciously making a decision to be an artist. I’ve just always been enchanted by the magic of making marks and conjuring up images and forms that had not existed before, and took on lives of their own. Early on, I was fascinated by people’s reactions to my work. It was a way of learning about the world and my place in it. From the outset, it seems, art-making was a means of continual discourse.
What is the strongest memory of your childhood? Did your upbringing influence your work?
I’m a child of post-World War II immigrants. I grew up in a multi-generation Ukrainian community in Ohio and was fortunate to have all four grandparents during my formative childhood years. I was immersed in their storytelling, remembrances, and their yearning for Ukraine, which seemed like a mythical faraway place to me. In my family, not a day went by without engaging in some measure of creative work – embroidery, sewing, baking, singing, reciting poetry, planting gardens… The joyful artfulness of it all never escaped me; I embraced it. The profound aesthetic underpinnings I came to appreciate much later, when I embarked on a formal study of art.
Your grandfather was a Ukrainian Catholic priest. How did he influence your work, as spirituality is reflected throughout?
My paternal grandfather was a Uniate priest. Throughout my childhood I participated in liturgical and traditional rituals steeped in deep spirituality, reverence, and awe. I remember accompanying my grandfather to church, and watching him put on his vestments in preparation for Liturgy. At those moments he was wondrously transformed, yet he was still my grandfather. There have been so many of those kinds of sacramental moments. I’m inclined to see the world as reverential.
What are you working on now, and what are your plans for the future?
I’m continuing with my ongoing Hide and Seek, Nests, and poem text series. This fall through spring 2016, an exhibit of my work will travel to three college venues as part of the Deliberative Dialogs project addressing socio-political issues and citizens’ awareness and responsibility, organized by Lone Star College in Texas. Translating poems from Ukrainian to English has recently become an additional task I set for myself. Words – their visual shapes, patterns and rhythms, have become the content of much of my work. At first, the letter forms as abstract marks and graphic design alone sufficed. But now, I am compelled to also communicate the language, the grouped words’ meanings. It’s quite a challenge.
During your recent stay in New York, did you see any exhibitions of particular interest to you?
During this trip’s visit to galleries and museums, I took particular note of the remarkable presence of language in so much wonderful artwork. I encountered thoughtful work that pulls the viewer in to probe and contemplate the issues of our time – art that stimulates a deeper discourse rather than daily superficial hyped-up sound-bites. It was inspiring.
Lydia Bodnar-Balahutrak: Nevermore was on view through June 21, 2015 at The Ukrainian Institute of America, 2 East 79th Street, New York, NY.