Upon stepping into the gallery space of Tramway, Glasgow the viewer is thrust into Ella Kruglyanskaya boldly saturated world. Acutely conscious of the representation of women in art, Kruglyanskaya’s practice takes a very tongue-in-cheek approach to confrontational femininity. Born in Latvia in 1978, Kruglyanskaya studied art from a young age. She moved to New York to study at the Cooper Union school, later receiving an MFA from Yale School of Art in 2006.
Drawing upon a wide range of source material, Kruglyanskaya pulls pieces from a long lineage of drawing and gestural mark-making to reinvent the notion of woman as an artistic subject. Her paintings of women are loud, bold, and often confrontational, threatening the boundaries of the canvas. The mark is immediate and aggressive, but the stars of the works are equally forceful. Depicted as curvaceous bombshells, Kruglyanskaya’s women are reminiscent of the 1950s pinup stars. Wearing tight tops and patterned skirts they are bursting out of their garments, while the greater scene is bursting from the edges of the frame. Kruglyanskaya’s style is not subtle, it is very much a shock, yet it is extremely self-aware and thoughtful. The gestural stroke is immediate and forceful, but it carries the weight of an artist who is conscious of the art historical canon that precedes her.
The bright colour palette and sense of action are visually fun to look at, and the cartoony aspect of rendering acts as a playful channel to enter into a greater dialogue about the act of looking. There has been a great deal of literature on the notion of gaze— the male gaze on the female subject, and more recently the reclaiming of the female gaze and subject by the female artist. Many female subjects exist as a projection of their creator, and in that sense Kruglyanskaya seeks to ‘imbue [them] with some agency, making [them] the protagonist’ of the scene. In her world the women aren’t merely pretty things to be gazed upon, but rather capable beings that act. Kruglyanskaya creates a theatrical world in which the paired women engage in gossip, leisure activities, and outward argument, or they stand solo and confront the viewer. In Lemons and Lips (2011) two figures are disagreeing, with the woman on the right scolding her distressed contemporary. The inclusion of lemons over the breasts, coupled with phallic-shaped bananas, and bright red lips on the shirt makes the image sexually charged. In clashing prints and loud colours, the figures are outlined in white and reminiscent of cartoon strips.
The theatricality of the encounters are loaded with cinematic meaning. Kruglyanskaya speaks in a cinematic language, stressing the importance of atmosphere and dialogue. She is very interested in the notion of a close-up, where the face is a platform for expression. The sense of seduction, suspense, and conflict is tied to films of the 1950s and 1960s. Equally important is Kruglyanskaya’s attention to fashion and textiles and her visual reinvention of the sexy film vixen and fashionista. Her women are often layered in flashy patterns or exposed in a suggestive manner. In Bathers (2006) the protagonist scowls over her shoulder. Dressed in a cheeky swimsuit, the attention is drawn to her back and the breasts of her fellow bathers. With a fashionable haircut the figure is depicted as a strong, savvy woman who will confront whoever gazes upon her. With the abundance of women it becomes obvious that men have been placed in the inferior position. With women at the forefront, the only depiction of men is either as a distorted body or a mere silhouette in the corner.
As important as narrative is to Kruglyanskaya’s practice, the physical aspects of painting such as materials, scale, and technique are equally significant. The large size of her canvases make the works confrontational, but they are still approachable. The artist uses a mixture of painterly styles, often working with oil paint which has been a dominant mode for centuries, but also plays around with egg tempura. This medium is often associated with medieval and early renaissance works, and is not an obvious choice for a contemporary artist: it gives the art a shiny lustre and ties her into the context of a wider visual history. Simultaneously fluid and choppy, Kruglyanskaya’s psychological works preface the importance of drawing. As a source material, a note, and a way to work out painterly qualms drawing is instrumental in Kruglyanskaya’s practice. Beginning with gestural marks, if the work has enough substance she will transform it into a painting. Putting drawing higher up on the hierarchy of artistic mediums she often includes drawings into her works. She also alludes to previous sketches through her loose mark and often her works are reminiscent of contour-line drawings. With parallels to German Expressionism and Pop Art, her style is a reinvention of a strong mark that has calculated immediacy.
Ella Kruglyanskaya, 'Gossip Girls', 2010
Exhibition Review by Samantha Ozer, third year History of Art student