This interview was conducted with Moscow-based artist Olga Chernysheva on the occasion of her solo exhibition Vague Accent at The Drawing Center in New York (October 7 – December 18, 2016). It featured a series of new drawings made after a month-long residency at the Drawing Center in 2015. Combining images and texts, her drawings “show things that are already visible... things not asking to be looked at,” gleaned from everyday life in the urban landscape of New York, a city Chernysheva lived in as a foreigner. This interview discusses the drawings in the exhibition as well as their connections to the artist’s earlier works, which spans in addition to drawings, photography, film and object-based mediums. Chernysheva’s recent exhibitions include a solo presentation Cactus Sellars & Others at DIEHL and DiehlCUBE in Berlin (January 28 – March 25, 2017), and the group show Toward the Source at the Garage Museum of Contemproary Art in Moscow (February 1–April 16, 2017). Her work will be included in the group exhibition Revolution Every Day at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago (September 14, 2017 – January 14, 2018), organized for the centenary of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Ksenia Nouril: In your exhibition Vague Accent you presented new drawings made after a month-long residency at The Drawing Center in New York. What were your motivations behind the exhibition?
Olga Chernysheva: It’s quite difficult for me to step outside of myself and describe the exhibition. It was about relations. Life consists of resonances. The works in the exhibition talked to one another, sometimes in ways I never imagined. I wanted the exhibition to look ordinary—to compare it to a casual conversation or even a whisper. I did not want the viewer to enter with any predisposed notions. I simply wanted to show what makes me happy, what I call “miracles”—small discoveries that make me stop and marvel. The works included are about humanity and the ability of a person to be open to these miracles that occur when things shift. Things—people, places, objects—are alive and pulsate. This is the miracle that I try to capture in my drawings. Ideally, I want people to see this pulsation, the living system. It’s interesting for me to think about what sounds these pulsating things make, and what other forms they take within my drawings. These miracles or little discoveries are both seen and unseen. I wanted the exhibition to create for the viewer a sensation of familiar and unfamiliar objects.
KN: This idea of miracles threads throughout your practice. Is this a reference to your earlier series Waiting for the Miracle (2000)? What is the relationship between these new drawings and your earlier works?
OC: People often ask me about the series Waiting for the Miracle. What do I mean by “miracle”? The women in these images are photographed from the back wearing winter hats; they look like flowers or butterflies. For me, the miracle is how these hats look like flowers and vice versa. It’s how an image, something simple and so straightforward, can look different when viewed from another perspective. I want to know, what is the miracle that will change our lives?
KN: While a visual artist, you are also very interested in language. What is the meaning of the exhibition’s title, Vague Accent?
OC: I thought of the title because I still felt like a guest in New York, when I was there on residency. I felt like I understood the language and the culture but found I could only come to terms with certain things within the context of my art. When I look at the drawings, they look different, as if they were made by someone of a different background—not by someone from New York. There is an accent to them, like I have an accent when I speak English. Vague Accent is connected to the works, to how you can combine language with image. When I am working, I am thinking of how to approach an image. I try to reduce everything, but in the end, nothing would be understandable without a slight accent.
KN: This is not the first time texts have appeared with images in your works. You combined text and image in your previous drawings as well as your earlier series Clippings and Screens, which pairs photographs or videos with extended texts that read like diary entries. What is the relationship between text and image in these particular drawings? For example, some texts like “First self-portrait after passport control” are very straightforward and descriptive. Others, like “Roads have a beginning and an end, but mental tracks often narrow, disappearing into nowhere...,” are more open ended, metaphorical.
OC: Sometimes the texts came before the images, sometimes after. I wrote the texts that accompany the images while still in Moscow, then translated them with the exhibition’s curator, Nova Benway. After that, there was a lot of editing back and forth. I liked this approach because these texts are one more filter I can apply to the works to claim that they are not reality but pictures. For someone educated in the Socialist Realist school of painting in the Soviet Union, the distance between image and reality is shorter than in the American school of art.
KN: Why did you translate them? Why not leave them in the original Russian?
OC: Because then it wouldn’t have a vague accent. It would be a totally foreign language.
KN: It sounds like your residency in New York was short but very intense. Could you describe your work process?
OC: While in New York, I just made the sketches. I did not complete any drawings. I decided which subjects I liked and which subjects I’d develop further. When working, I like to hang onto one subject for a while and work it over, producing multiple drawings. However, I did not include many of these multiples in this exhibition. I like to find situations that embody a kind of internal quietness. I always listen to the silence. All my drawings are connected to the floating condition of my life. They are very close to the things they depict, like cartoons. I was trained as a cartoonist while a student in film school,, which allows me to mix things up. This is how I like to work. When I am working, what I usually do is imagine what is small as big, or as both big and small—as opposites; it always brings me to an understanding of how to draw the subject. It’s important to add the contrary or supplemental image. If you draw an interior, think about an exterior, then your drawing will have character. The mind is constructed in this way: if you concentrate on something, one’s mind becomes accustomed to this subject. It’s difficult for the brain to stay sharp. Usually you just concentrate on what is shown to you. When I was in New York, I was looking for something that your memory can catch—strange things that can be the focus of your attention.
KN: Did you work differently in New York from how you usually work in Moscow? Is there anything about the images inspired by your time in New York that set them apart as quintessentially “New York”?
OC: I was working as if the idea of New York did not exist. Its landscape and landmarks are rather well known. I was on my own the entire time, hanging around, not always feeling very comfortable. Though, I wouldn’t say I found a new way or method of working. For the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, I had an installation of drawings about things you can touch. The subjects were very diverse and not necessarily rooted in one location. In contrast, I wanted the drawings from New York to be happy memories of the city. But in the end, they turned out to be signals, a kind of doubling—how something personal can come out of a public place.
KN: How do you choose your subjects?
OC: The subjects are not meant to be exotic, but they should have potential. When I feel this potential, I can draw it. Before I start, I already have the idea of what size, what proportion. Then I ask how to express it, how to display it. I know what it should look like. Usually, I am searching for the image, and not the reality. It’s a kind of potential reality. For example, I know I don’t need to show how shoes are displayed in a shop window. For this exhibition, I depicted a New York that is always being built and transforming itself. I like this concept of eternal creation. New York itself is unfinished; its details are always changing.
KN: You are well known for your photographs. What role does photography play in these drawings?
OC: I do sketches from direct view, but I also use a lot of photographs, although never directly. When I see something, I try to take a photograph because some details can easily be forgotten. To take a simple picture, I use my iPhone. It has an extremely aggressive lens, but it’s easy and quick to use.
KN: It seems like your work is inflected with an almost filmic vision. For example, some drawings appear to be framed within the frame. Some have an excess of negative space, while others appear as if they could bleed into one another.
OC: You can see the struggle in my works. I like to have a frame and struggle with it, so I build up the frames enough in order to do this. Sometimes you see a line I wanted to cut, but then decided against it. I try hard so that there is no difference between foreground and background in my work.
KN: Is this a holdover from studying animation?
OC: When you are trained as an animator, every picture has the capacity to be made alive. This is how I often feel about the objects I see, about my drawings. This is how I construct them. It’s not documentary exactly. I think about how they should breathe, how they should move and where they should go. They are not stories in one unbroken narrative. I would like them to be like an open net.
KN: Are all of these drawings part of one series?
OC: I don’t want to divide the works based on when and where I exhibited them. I am still thinking about how to make them into a single body of work, just divided by time and space. I am thinking of a name, so they can exist together, but I don’t think this is the most important principle for my work. All of the works are united by their focus on their subjects.
KN: What is your relationship with realism? Do you see yourself as reviving a kind of new realism?
OC: I like realism because it is not about self-expression. But as images, my drawings are not far from other methods, too. These pictures are also totally constructed. They have multiple perspectives: geometrical, aerial. There are so many interesting things around, so it’s not really necessary to make self-expression primary. But also I love Japanese prints, Roman paintings, and many other traditions in art that are not about realism. Any good picture is about how images are constructed.
KN: The drawings are not arranged chronologically but vaguely thematically; yet there is a beginning and end, marked by your self-portraits: from First self-portrait after passport control to Home. View from the window. (Fragment) What made you include self-portraits in this exhibition?
OC: This exhibition is about being somewhere alone, as seen in the images that begin and end this exhibition. They are not traditional self-portraits but reflections of reality or circumstance. They look awkward—they are part of the architecture of the airport, an object that looks like a body. And it’s not such a recognizable portrait. You need it to move in order to recognize it. In the hand dryer in the airport bathroom, there are thousands of reflections. I like the fact that there are thousands of portraits of people replacing each other on the surface of hand dryer. And I fixed one, which was mine.
KN: It seems natural that, in New York, you would be surrounded by other art in galleries and museums. These institutions show up a few times across your drawings. Why?
OC: When I visited the Picasso exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, I was admiring the sculptures, but at the same time I heard a voice singing. First, it seemed like I was hallucinating, but then I heard it again, and so I moved closer and searched for the sound. Then I saw that it was a security guard, a man of Caribbean origin, singing a native song in a very beautiful manner. The acoustics in the museum are very good. I asked if I could record him but he said no, because he was on duty. For me, this was a hidden moment, a treasure, which I thought about when making this work. I was very happy because it seemed to me like this sound was born in this exhibition.
KN: Did these drawings generate any new ideas for the future?
OC: You go to different places, but you see the same thing, so I don’t know if they are new or if they are a part of you. These things are always calling, asking for your attention. For the future, yes, I am hoping to transfer some of the drawings from this show to future exhibitions in different locations. It would be interesting to add drawings from all over the world, but so that the viewer cannot directly recognize them. I have some ideas, at least in theory, of how to do this. I like this because the invitation from The Drawing Center was fresh and unexpected. Nova Benway, the curator, told me to use my mental construction here in New York, just as I would in Moscow. I was very worried, but I like to be provoked.
This interview took place across three meetings in New York during October 2016. It was conducted in English and Russian and has been edited for length and clarity.