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Material Language: Ara Ko and Elena Kovylyaeva at C. Grimaldis Gallery

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The storied and long-running C. Grimaldis Gallery is a welcome respite from the sometimes chaotic nature of its Mt. Vernon neighborhood. Sitting at the intersection of Centre and Charles Streets, the gallery exists at a crossroads of the many different worlds within Baltimore. With Peabody student life, commuter traffic, and small throngs of amateur springtime photographers, the scene can be bustling.

During my visit, the gallery’s large picture window acted as a showcase for the Charles Street tableau, and the ambient light of budding street tree flowers paired nicely with the engrossing scale and tenor of the work in Echoes, the gallery’s conversational new two-person exhibition. With its gritty textures, lyrically rhythmic compositions, and hints of cherry-blossom pink popping up among an otherwise muted palette, it’s the perfect spring show for its context. 

Echoes concentrates on the idea of repetition and expansiveness within the work of artists Ara Ko and Elena Kovylyaeva. Whether it is the forest of mark making of Ko or the encompassing confrontation of Kovylyaeva, the artists recall the work of Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, and at times Lee Bontecou, among many others. Yet in their overwhelming fields of visual language, there is also a space wholly their own with the nuance of each artist’s character.

Lauded in the gallery literature as two artists who “tell tales of material sensibility,” in this debut, the artists occupy opposite poles of an unconsciously related and serendipitous spectrum. Like all well curated shows, there is a conversation happening within the space.

 

details from works by Ara Ko and Elena Kovylyaeva
Ara Ko, "Clouds," 2022, color pencil on paper
Elena Kovylyaeva, "Untitled (clam)," 2022, ink, acrylic, oil, paper, plaster on mosquito net
Kovylyaeva’s pieces become more structural, conjuring humanity with its human absence. It’s a feat at which “ruin porn” often fails, and Kovylyaeva’s work is successful in that it arrives at that point in a less perfunctory and voyeuristic way—a tribute rather than a melodrama.
Quentin Gibeau

Adjacent to the door, Ara Ko’s pencil drawing “Clouds” is enveloping. Reminiscent of a mountainous landscape as well as some unseen secret divulged by an electron microscope, it has the feeling of a mind at work, perhaps unintentionally flirting with detail to the point of synthesizing representational recognition. The work has the look of some of the earlier AI visual sequencing that entered our cultural lexicon the past several years, like a machine dreaming with the prompts “Albrecht Durer illustrating the floating mountains of Zhangjiajie” or “satellite map in sumi ink”. This piece is probably the most surreal in the show, acting as a counter to the neighbor on the opposite wall by Kovylyaeva, “Untitled (clam).”

“Untitled (clam),” while related in scale, departs from Ko’s mostly monochromatic experience in its use of warm neutral tones. Mural-like in grandeur, the mixed-media wall hanging feels simultaneously like a blanket, as well as an unwitting excavation into the many layers of wall paper and construction material of a derelict structure. 

Kovylyaeva’s work is religiously detailed in its own way, with materials added and subtracted, giving the 2D piece a sculptural feel with negative space and even some delicate gossamer moments. What is actually a mosquito net comes across as sheer tulle. In this work, as well as in her pieces “Map” and “Scroll,” there is the ephemera of a lived-in space. The assemblage feels like things pulled from houses, elements recycled. Oddly, with these works as a viewer I was thinking of the people who occupy the spaces these visual elements would be derived from. Because of this almost “third man” phenomena, Kovylyaeva’s pieces become more structural, conjuring humanity with its human absence. It’s a feat at which “ruin porn” often fails, and Kovylyaeva’s work is successful in that it arrives at that point in a less perfunctory and voyeuristic way—a tribute rather than a melodrama. 

This early exchange between the two largest pieces—Ko’s drawing referencing something almost natural or a deconstruction of language, and Kovylyaeva’s near-sculptural mime work—feels like something of a main event for the exhibition, especially as many of the other works by both artists feel like stepping stones on the way to this interaction, playing out the same narrative with variation of the artists’ technique. Yet if these two pieces were not shown in concert first to the viewer, the exhibition might not be as successful. 

 

Ara Ko, "Vortex," 2022, color pencil on paper
Elena Kovylyaeva, "Untitled, "2022, paper, acrylic, oil, housepaint, plaster, and wax on fabric

Throughout the rest of the show, we can see Ko working through different versions of their visual ideas. Endless fields of mark making with more modular and tesselating approaches such as in “Vortex” and “Kingdom,” present a different sense of depth.

These pencil drawings, as well as the charcoal-on-panel square composition “Branches and leaves in the windy dark night,” retain their abstraction yet suggest spiral-like hallucinatory qualities. Ko’s “Branches” verges on a sense of distortion that recalls some of Richter’s squeegee paintings, and this is perhaps what is most consistently aesthetically unifying with Kovylyaeva’s work throughout the show, as the warm tones and quilt-like nature of “Untitled” and “Blush” act as bookends and counters. They offer a grounding for the viewer in what would otherwise be a head-spinning enterprise of monochromatic detail. “Blush,” in particular, offers a transit point from the urban decay of the larger “Untitled (clam)” ’to the joyful, Paul Klee-like folklife of the smaller “Untitled.” 

Together, the progressions in Ko’s work recall concepts in the study of prehistoric human cognition, as discussed in David Lewis-William’s book, The Mind In The Cave, which posits that the universality of human neural pathways reproducing similar visual phenomena under mind altering conditions resulted in what we now recognize as religious consciousness. Ko’s work in the exhibition takes us on a similar journey, with “Oriental Cloud” as the piece most related to the delicate poetry of the show’s early focal point “Clouds” while still retaining hints of its progression away from the brute necessity of “Vortex”—a relation similar to that of euphoria to simply being dizzy.

In an exhibition stepped in metaphor for the repetition of language, it is only fitting that at the rear of the gallery we are presented with a replay of the earlier conversation between the two artists, an echo if you will, made more impactful because—with the exception of Kovylyaeva’s mixed-media painting on fabric “Map”—both artists’ work stays on opposite sides of the gallery. 

 

Ara Ko (L), "Path to the place where I want to be," 2022, acrylic and charcoal on panel, 72 x 144 inches and Elena Kovylyaeva, "Blush," 2022, plaster, ink, acrylic, and oil on paper and cheesecloth 82 x 34.5 inches
Elena Kovylyaeva, "Scroll," 2022 ink, acrylic, and oil on paper, plaster on cheesecloth 36 x 173 inches

In this final exchange Kovylyaeva’s mixed-media painting on cheesecloth “Scroll” is placed opposite of Ko’s acrylic and charcoal on panel “Path to the place where I want to be”. Both works are significantly panoramic, with “Path” flexing Ko’s visual language at its most painterly and organic yet distorted, while “Scroll” feels like the most domestic version of Kovylyaeva’s earlier sculptural language, with textures and ephemera that seem the most familiar in the show—with the exception of the wishbone-like found metal forms in her wall-hanging sculpture “Bones.” Recalling quilts and tarps, the negative space in “Scroll” also creates Kovylyaeva’s clearest exercise in space, revealing a depth behind the interpreted foreground, a shard of cosmos for the viewer. 

In tandem, these two artists exemplify, through their own juxtaposition, elements of the following quote by architect Mies van der Rohe: “Architecture is a language, and I think you have to have a grammar in order to have a language. If you are good at that, you speak a wonderful prose, if you are really good, you can be a poet.” We see in most of our environments that communication exists, despite our best efforts to be illogical. And if anything that humans create is a form of language, in this exhibition of conversational abstraction we seem to have the poetry and the grammar. 

 

Echoes was jointly curated by Constantine Grimaldis, Giulia Livi, and Sara Perone. The exhibition is on view until April 15, 2023. 

 

Elena Kovylyaeva at C. Grimaldis Gallery
Elena Kovylyaeva, "Map," 2022, ink, acrylic, oil, paper, plaster, fabric 32 x 51 inches all images courtesy of C. Grimaldis Gallery

Images courtesy of the C. Grimaldis Gallery

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