Writing Archive

Reordering the Rainbow: The geographic and stylistic travels of Anya Smolnikova

DigBoston, August 16, 2017 (read there)

Musa Collective is the result of some ambitious graduates of Boston University’s MFA program from the mid-2000s coming together to operate an alternative space in Allston. Open by appointment only, it is significantly less accessible than your typical Harrison Avenue storefront. I have concerns that the casual art-going public thinks that such galleries are only for serious collectors. In fact it is usually that way to keep overhead down. The talent therein is sometimes refreshingly raw. Collectors are obviously welcome, but any sort of viewer is desirable.

The artists in this collective are all figurative painters who take abstraction seriously, abstract painters who take figuration seriously, or painters sailing into the headwinds of art by tacking from one to the other. This last category includes Anya Smolnikova, an exception at Musa for having been a BU undergraduate of such acute talents as to merit being in the company of more advanced practitioners.

Smolnikova, originally from the former Soviet Union, is driven almost entirely by intuition and life experience, hardly at all by logic or program aside from the demands of picture making. There’s a sense of vector in Smolnikova even as she turns. The show has a few earlier canvases, deliberately but not successfully naive landscapes with surreal images and thin paint that don’t come together. Sensing her own need to get a subject back in front of her, she painted landscapes on site at three locations: Key West, the Arnold Arboretum, and her backyard in Boston. The Key West pictures are fine if a bit conventional. The Arboretum ones, focusing on a birch that picks up the colors of dusk against the verdant background, are juicy and confident. The paint in these has a life of its own, meandering in swirls as it forms trees and clouds.

The backyard pictures are yet another step up. Attentively studying the contents of a wheelbarrow filled with bricks and rainwater, she puts down luscious and unexpected colors, closing in on the humble subject and turning it into a grand passage. The second of the series has a striking bit of interpretation, a brick divided in half along the diagonal by pastel line, where the water meets it. The half above reflects the blue of the sky, while the submerged half burns in orange. Lavender-colored debris floats on the surface around it, marking the level of the otherwise-invisible water.

Across the room there’s a 5-foot-high abstraction, Rainbow Bones (Burning the Witch), also painted this year. In it a rainbow, its colors reordered from yellow to green instead of the usual red to violet, bends oddly across the rectangle as spirals of gray and ocher dissolve into smoke and encroach upon it. This seems like an opposing project to the landscapes, but the same attentive handwriting and sense of design animate it. The approaches combine in Home Turf, in which observations of overgrown, weedy grass create a tangle in which a mysterious, invented shape lurks. Smolnikova, still in the first decade of her career, has established an impressive trajectory, however it may zigzag.

Word count: 509

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