Mon. Apr 15th, 2024

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s brutal war on Ukraine has resulted in some 6.5 million refugees, mostly women and children. Millions more have been internally displaced. Then there are the dead, both soldiers and civilians. The accurate number is tough to come by, but it is likely upwards of 80,000. And counting. 

Acclaimed Ukrainian artist Lesia Khomenko — a founding member of the provocative and courageous Revolutionary Experimental Space (R.E.P.) group, established in 2004 during the Orange Revolution — is one of those refugees. After a year-long residency in the Miami area, she is now living in New York with her daughter. Her husband, an artist and musician, is fighting the Russians. 

The 10 acrylic paintings of varying sizes in Khomenko’s thoroughly compelling exhibition Through Waves and Portals meld abstraction, representation, and figuration in their eventful surfaces and vivid yet muted palette. Especially striking is how they incorporate the real-time ways that the war is being recorded by drone, military, and smartphone videos and photographs and revealed on social media and copious websites.

Khomenko utilizes but also transforms these found images: They become multivalent and suggestive, sometimes fanciful. Her paintings don’t traffic in graphic violence, though her sources can indeed be violent. In “The Portal” (2023–24), two Ukrainian soldiers, depicted through vigorous streaks and smears, stand in front of a copse within a curious, circular portal. The circumference of the portal, which seems to be whirling, also consists of ragged slashes, appearing to be at once cohering and breaking apart. This image of stalwart soldiers in a cyclone of sorts succinctly encapsulates the turmoil of war. 

“I’m a Bullet” (2024) is the most overtly abstract painting. Energetic and irregular white marks, largely rendered in robust, horizontal brush strokes, hover in the foreground. They mesh with an all-over array of bars and streaks in various colors: dark blue, light blue, teal, purple, olive, russet, and others. At the top are two blurry, rectangular areas, conjuring out-of-focus videos or photographs. Slightly left of center is a dense, dark shape.

This painting’s source is a video of a Ukrainian drone as it rapidly advances on a cluster of Russian soldiers and ultimately kills them. The foregrounded white marks are Khomenko’s version of the video’s white noise when the drone strikes. The black mass is the Russian soldiers. 

Khomenko’s visual sources are not part of the exhibition. She gave permission to cite them and include links, for one primary reason: Were these paintings to be exhibited in Ukraine, perhaps at Voloshyn Gallery’s original Kyiv location, which is still going strong during wartime, many viewers would already be familiar with her sources. Ukrainians habitually scour the internet for war reports, especially successes, and for good reason. Their country, culture, and lives are at stake.

For most people outside Ukraine, including Americans, the war is remote and easy to ignore, increasingly so in the United States. The Telegram and Instagram accounts, YouTube channels, and websites frequented by Ukrainians are not nearly so popular elsewhere, and often not viewed at all.

“I’m a Bird II” (2023–24) posits a diagonal view from on high — a bird’s-eye drone’s perspective — of a section of woods with three tawny trees and foliage. Several green hunched or crouching figures could be animals in their natural habitat, or maybe mythical and frightening folkloric creatures. In fact, they are Khomenko’s versions of real-life forest monsters: Russian soldiers intent on killing, maiming, raping, and torturing Ukrainians. In the video on which the painting is based, the soldiers are about to be attacked by a drone. 

Even as Khomenko forcefully responds to her homeland at war, invaded by murderous Russians for the latest time in a centuries-long history of subjugation, her complex compositions, lavish and varied brushwork, and avidity for color yield a great deal of retinal pleasure and adventure for viewers. “The Wave I” and “The Wave II” (both 2024), two upright, unframed, half-rolled paintings — perhaps more accurately, paintings-as-sculptures — placed on the floor are downright delightful, even playful. Their imagery and coloration, drawn from a video of a Russian missile strike on a Kharkiv neighborhood, loosely resemble artillery shells, and their undulating shapes evoke a shock wave from a missile’s blast. 

Khomenko’s wartime paintings do not feature big battles, ships being sunk, bombs being dropped, the Kerch Bridge in flames, or Russian missiles smashing into apartment buildings, dramatic images of which are widely available on the internet. Rather, they expand just a couple of seconds — sometimes a split second — of war to whopping effect. 

In the riveting “Explosion in The Hospital. 10 Seconds Video” (2023–24), for instance, a mask-wearing nurse with one upraised hand stands beside a figure engulfed by a bright flash; above are various jutting, aerial forms. It is based on excerpts of a video of a Russian attack on a Pokrovsk hospital during a surgery. While serial liar Dmitry Peskov, press secretary for Putin, natters endlessly about how Russia never, ever attacks Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure, the video, and Khomenko’s painting, attest otherwise. 

In “A Moment of Explosion in the Trench I,” (2023–24), a helmeted Ukrainian soldier, his face partially obscured, leans forward, looking down intently at something. Above and around him is a splay of yellow and white streaks, jagged dark forms, and white and gray ones resembling debris. A related painting of the same scene, “A Moment of Explosion in the Trench II” (2023–24) radically differs. Diagonal brown streaks now occlude the soldier’s face; yellow flashes seem to burst around his head. 

The source for both is a renowned video of a Ukrainian drone operator at his laptop in a trench. A Russian artillery shell explodes just above him, rattling his covert and ripping the overheard tarp. He barely flinches, remaining ultra-focused on his mission. The soldier, explosion, shredded tarp, and trench gear become the partly abstract forms in the painting, which is imbued not just with this soldier’s but also the entire Ukrainian nation’s resistance and resolve. 

Lesia Khomenko: Through Waves and Portals continues at Voloshyn Gallery (802 NW 22nd Street, Miami) through March 30. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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