The Spiritual on Canvas

 Dr. Barbara J. Scheuermann

The Spiritual on Canvas


“Being Between Two Worlds” is the title of Yury Kharchenko’s series of small-format oil paintings on canvas from the years 2006/7, which may quite rightly be considered Yury Kharchenko’s first important group of works. Since then much has changed in his work; in the paintings of recent years he has clearly continued down the artistic path upon which he embarked with this series: the palette has become darker, the formats have increased in size several times over, and his painting style has become more confident.


But the young artist still considers himself to be between two worlds and the viewer, too, finds himself caught unawares between two worlds upon seeing the painting, or rather, perhaps, the viewer is time and again wavering between two poles – those of the spiritual and the material, of abstraction and figuration, of spirituality and the world of the living. These are art’s foremost themes and Yury Kharchenko does not shy from tackling them in his paintings.


When talking about his work, the artist constantly comes back to the term “spirit” and to the question at the heart of the matter, which is how the immaterial spirit per se lends itself to being expressed in the physically experienceable medium of painting. In Hegel’s sense of the word – and Kharchenko’s view is very similar – the spiritual is the capacity to reflect upon the self and this in turn is perceived as the ultimate essence of what it is to be human. It is present as the “absolute spirit” in art, religion and philosophy. Whereas the absolute is thought in philosophy, it is presented in religion and brought to be looked upon in art. Recognition and truth are hidden within the sensory nature of painting and it is the job of the painter to reveal them.


In order to accomplish this task Yury Kharchenko placed himself in the limbo world of dreams and the disorientating state between wakefulness and sleep. Nowadays he has liberated himself from these nameable states and moves more freely “between the worlds”.


However, it is vital that the artist, in his emphasis of the importance of the spirit, has a fundamental interest in the nature and meaning of the material – colour, canvas, brushstroke. Truly a child of his time, Kharchenko also sees himself as a “picture maker”. Finding the correct art term is not his priority.


In each painting it is noticeable that Kharchenko deliberates over different painting techniques and applies them with precision. Studying the paintings up close, it becomes clear how complex the brushed, dotted, blurred, run-together layers of paint are and how much care and awareness have been employed in terms of their material properties. However Kharchenko does not strive to bring the actual process of painting to the fore. Giving form to the spiritual in the sensory world is the challenge with which Yury Kharchenko is confronted.


The actual painting process remains hidden and consequently seems transcendental in nature, with the artist as the central figure: painter, alchemist, craftsman and medium. The palette is as broad as ever, encompassing, notably, sober and fragmented colours: bottle green, ochre, earth brown, blue black, rusty red, watery blue, dark grey and violet, yet this palette is time and again interspersed with golden yellow, light red and bright green.


Whereas in his earlier works the paintstrokes bore the form of architectural structures and created stage-like open spaces, in his new works the paint is applied more liberally, creating complex, impenetrable layers of paint which grant access to the viewer only begrudgingly at times. In general the organisation of the pictures has become less concerned with space and more concerned with the surface. Only rarely do recognisable figures emerge from within the paintings. 

But the paintings do not completely free themselves from physical points of reference. So it is for example with the – quite rudimentary – shape of the house which we encounter again and again in the new pictures. It lends structure to the formidable landscape of the large canvas and offers not only the viewer but also the painter a foothold and a sense of orientation in the complex colour composition.


With the house Yury Kharchenko has found an image which serves him as much in composition as it does in symbolism: it shows the inside and outside, the front and back, the top and bottom and, at the same time, it forms a connection to our everyday world. But it doesn’t open any narrative or meaningful dimensions – the house functions perhaps as a roof, under which Yury Kharchenko can carry out his research into the subject of matter and spirit.


In the last years the teachings of Jewish belief and the study of the Talmud have become increasingly important to Yury Kharchenko. So the form of the house not only fulfils the aforementioned role of aid to composition and reference to the world in which we live, but is beyond that a reference to the spiritual foundations, upon which the artist moves, not only in his work but also in his daily life: the series with the houses, which still remains unfinished at this time, has been conceived as a presentation of the Twelve Tribes of Israel: Ruben, Juda, Levi, Joseph, Benjamin, Dan, Simeon, Issaschar, Sebulon, Gad, Aser, Naphtali. Specific attributes are assigned to each tribe, which serve Kharchenko more or less as signposts in the picture during the painting process. (See also the texts in this volume, which the artist includes in accompaniment to each painting.)


In other works, too, the artist refers to passages from the Talmud, as for example in “Bergbild” – ”In the future time, – the Holy One, Blessed is He, will bring the evil inclination and slaughter it in in the presence of the righteous and in the presence of of the wicked. – To the righteous the evil inclination will appear like a high mountain that can hardly be scaled, – and to the wicked it will appear like a strand of hair that can easily be snapped. (The righteous constantly overcome their evil inclination and, as the Gemara teaches later, the defeated evil inclination constantly renews its attacks with increased strength and vigor. Thus their evil inclination develops into a formidable force which they nonetheless overcome. But the wicked succumb to the slightest temptation, and so their evil inclination never develops into anything more than a slight urge, to which they give in nonetheless).

-These will weep and these too will weep. – The righteous will weep and say: ”How were we able to overcome such a high mountain?” (They will be brought to tears by the memory of their lifelong struggle with the evil inclination. Alternatively they will cry at the loss of opportunity to earn further reward for overpowering the evil inclination, once it will have been eradicated.)

– And the wicked will weep and say: ”How were we not able to overcome this strand of hair?” – And so two, the Holy One, Blessed is He, will wonder with them, – Thus said Hashem, Lord of Hosts: As it will be wondrous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days, so will it be wondrous in my eyes.”


The painting is thus charged with spiritual meaning. However it remains important to realise that Kharchenko does not see his works as representations of any particular thing or even as illustrations of his own theological beliefs. Nor does he treat religion as a topic for intellectual debate. The non-corresponding titles simply hint at references to the Talmud which normally elude the viewer.


Kharchenko’s vision of the spirit is indeed closely connected to his personal spirituality yet he understands his works – on a much more universal scale – as images which emerge from the fusion of spirit and matter. The aim is to find a universally valid expression for the spiritual through the medium of painting, because, to return once more to the words of Hegel: “The spiritual alone is the real”.



About yurykharchenko

Kay Heymer, Director of Modern Art Department, Museum Kunstpalast Düsseldorf Yury Kharchenko’s Houses With his twelve wall-sized paintings in the cycle "The 12 tribes of Israel" the artist Yury Kharchenko opens up unchartered terrain to the art of painting and at the same time consciously refers to an heroic tradition of non-representational painting, which originated in the U.S.A. in the 1940s. The painters of that tradition - in particular Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb - wanted to find their specific identity in a sharp separation from European painting, especially Surrealism, as well as in the invention of a visual language which aimed not to portray, but rather to set free form and colour in order to charge their works with spiritual power. They did so with huge aspirations and equally huge formats. This tradition was heroic because it did not allow itself to be discouraged by the disillusionment caused by the social and historical experiences of the 20th Century with its disasters was not discouraged and believed unswervingly in the integrity of a transcendental form of painting which stood for mental and social freedom. Yury Kharchenko’s works can make one forget that such a thing as pop art and post modernism ever existed. His pictures are completely free of cynicism, and there is nothing second-hand about them. His painting is not that of an epigone. They focus on the formal and emotional possibilities of painting. They are both non-representational - pure visual phenomena like sounds – and representational - simple shapes such as the houses, which form the backbone of the cycle, or as the silhouettes of figures hidden in the thickets and scrub of the dark lattice structure of these pictorial spaces. Yury Kharchenko’s paintings are delightful in their texture and their sense of color, stimulating the senses and arousing strong feelings in the viewer. Kharchenko refers to his Jewish roots - particularly the tension between religion and philosophy- in order to give structure to his paintings. His ambivalent attitude towards the subject-matter might explain this, however that is not the key to the success of these works. They already have enough depth and power of conviction as pure forms in their own right. His paintings hold their own even without the viewer having knowledge of the branched and fascinating details of Jewish spiritual history. A decisive quality of these paintings is their individuality, which makes it seem logical that Kharchenko has given them the names of brothers. Their archaic quality shows itself in the reliance on the energy personified in each painting. Kharchenko’s painting relies on a general human spiritual force that has
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