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Elena Preis: Retrospective and Recent Works (2013)

The Ignatius Gallery in Amsterdam organised a Preis retrospective as part of the Netherlands-Russia Year 2013 earlier this year. It was a premiere of her oeuvre in the Netherlands, in which the artist made a clear statement. In September 2013 another major exhibition opened in the Otten Kunst Raum, where recent paper reliefs -and sculptures by Preis will be shown along works of her sculptor-friend Vasily Pavlovksy. The exhibition can be seen until 5 December in Hohenems (A).

Elena Preis was born in Stalinist Russia in 1937. In this period of time, both religion and abstract art were ridiculed and banned. Unsurprisingly considering the circumstances, Preis first learned that she was a relative of the ‘formalist’ Vasily Kandinsky during her studies at the Mendeleev Institute in 1962. It was a well-kept secret and her family insisted it remain so. After an inspiring meeting with the renowned artist Vladimir Yakovlev (1934-1998), she took up painting. Preis mastered graphic techniques under master printmaker Valeri Orlov (1946) and soon moved in the unofficial art circuit. She became acquainted with nonconformist artists such as Ilya Kabakov, Michael Grobman and Evgeni Bachurin and she visited exhibitions in private apartments and at other secret locations. Sealed by the Iron Curtain, she was deprived of information on artistic developments in the West. After her first successful solo-exhibition in the Velta Gallery in Moscow in1994, Preis joined the Union of Artists in Moscow, and exhibited regularly at home and abroad. Her work can be seen in the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg, the Puhskin Museum in Moscow and several private collections in the West.

The retrospective at the Ignatius Gallery consisted of carefully selected works of Preis divided in three parts: covering her early series of wood and lino cuts with biblical motifs; abstract collages and lino cuts, and more recent minimalist paper reliefs.

The prints with biblical motifs, first shown at the exhibition in the Velta Gallery, consist of black and white as well as color images, printed on different types of paper of varying sizes. In 1989, a heart surgery restricted her movements and led her to a careful study of the Bible. These health problems occurred in times in the USSR when Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of perestroika and glasnost opened the way for remarkable changes. The Christianization of Russia in 988 was officially commemorated and church services appeared on state television. Housebound due to continued ill health, Preis gave a modern twist to well-known icon themes. The exhibition of these new works in the Velta Gallery was well received, and the technically perfect execution of the prints, the powerful form-language, and her eye for color were widely noted and praised. Valery Orlov wrote enthusiastically: "In the strong, willful hands of the craftsman, the cutting tool strives toward refinement and ornateness; in the hands of the artist, it strives toward simplicity and expressiveness."
Preis used the laborious high pressure printing technique for her biblical series’ from 1989 to 1996. She accurately carved the non-printing parts in the stiff material of wood and inked the parts remaining level with the surface. This technique forced Preis to outline the composition carefully in advance and restricted her freedom in movement and detail. The process made her focus on the essence of the story as well as the intended composition and became a first step towards an abstract way of working. Gradually lino cuts took precedent over wood cuts because this medium enabled Preis to work faster, and create diagonal and curved lines.

After the successful exhibition in 1994, Preis joined the Union of Artists in Moscow, and gradually moved toward working with and on paper solely. This change was decisive. It enabled her to let go of the visual/phenomenal reality of her earlier works  - landscape watercolors - as well as the narrative and symbolic aspects of the Biblical series and to move towards abstraction. The results of this development were seen on the wall of the Ignatius Gallery. Apart from dynamic and multicolored layered abstract lino cuts, a colored paper collage from the 1990s was displayed. 

Balance with large forms, 1995, lino cut and Samurai, paper mobile, as shown in Hohenems at present

Collage had already proved in the 1910s that the imitation of nature did not have to be the only departure point in art. Collage enabled artists in Paris and Moscow to shift their attention from the phenomenal world and traditional fine art to the invisible reality and the endless possibilities of the painterly elements and materials themselves. These discoveries freed Preis to work abstractly. A return to figurative art of the past was unthinkable. In abstract work she could give free rein to her intuition and explore more subtle realities. 

On the third wall of the show, another collage was shown along with three minimalist paper reliefs and a Black square on paper at the Ignatius Gallery. These more recent works as well as the white paper sculptures which Preis makes at present, recall constructivist works of the early 20th century. Preis undoubtedly familiarised herself with the abstract reliefs of Vladimir Tatlin and Lyubov Popova (1915). In these works unusual materials detached themselves in a cubo-futurist way from the wall or flat canvas, into space. Her works on paper corresponded nicely with the Russian neo-avant-garde art scene of the time and is indeed inspired by the very early 20th century Russian avant-garde art.  

Her co-exhibitor in the show in the Otten Kunstraum, Vasily Pavlovsky (1932-2009), was familiar with Russian constructivism of the 1910-20s in particular. His father graduated from the Vkhutemas, the state art and technical school at that time, and Pavlovsky started to work abstractly in 1992, some years before Preis. 
The oeuvre of both Preis and Pavlovsky developed along similar lines, and it is inspiring to see their works together in one show. 
In their simplicity and superior quality, Pavlovsky’s serene white sculptures recall works by the Russian sculptor Archipenko’, the Dutch sculptor Carel Visser and the playful Danish sculptor Robert Jacobsen. Pavlovsky explains: ‘’Chosen simplicity does not make the abstract work poorer, but rather richer.’’                                
Like Pavlovsky’s sculptures, Preis’ paper reliefs are held in one color or non-color, white on white, and are a homage to life. Once the artist discovered paper as a simple and universal medium, her capacity for innovation knew no boundaries. She adheres paper in all shapes and sizes, directions and rhythm on a white board. Illustrative in this respect are the paper reliefs shown as a triptych in Amsterdam: the left relief with large and small rectangular paper planes, the centre part with a vertical band flanked with smaller ‘torned paper’, and the right part with thin diagonal tubes crossed by smaller rectangular paper planes. Preis makes use of the play of light and shadow on paper, as well as the effect of folds and cracks in the paper and never loses sight of the structure and dynamics of the composition as a whole. The white background of the reliefs work like Malevich's Suprematist paintings, as an infinite space where paper flakes float - unhindered by time and gravity - joyfully and freely.

Ignatius Gallery, Amsterdam, May 2013                               Elena Preis, Amsterdam

In the end, Preis succeeded in creating a simple, pure and optimum result with unprecedented minimal resources. Her paper reliefs are original creations and speak for themselves. These works should not be compared to minimalist works made in the West in the 1970s, as some ill-informed contemporary western artists have tended to do. As stated earlier, Preis had no information about artistic developments in the West; difficult circumstances of production dictated the way she thought, lived and worked. Deprived of costly materials and financial support, Preis as well as Pavlovsky, learned to express themselves with the materials at hand. Preis demonstrates that a creative mind doesn’t need much in order to create beautiful works of art. Her works must be read within the context of the contemporary Russian art scene in which artists rediscovered and rehabilitated the astonishing heritage of abstract Russian artists: Kandinsky to whom she was related, and perhaps most of all Tatlin and Malevich.
In an equally provocative manner, much like Malevich in 1915, Preis insisted on showing her black square at the far left corner of the triptych paper reliefs. Although her biblical prints at the Ignatius Gallery, because of their familiar iconography, appealed to many visitors directly, her abstract work clearly has a deeper meaning. This is often not recognized or appreciated in her native country and to a lesser degree in the West. The fact that no familiar story charged with a spiritual message can be read in this work does not mean that it has not been told. Preis refers to a higher reality as witnessed in icons, a reality where love, harmony and balance prevail. Her black square is, as Malevich's equivalent, a modern icon in which the face of the Infinite can be read: the nothing or everything, present but invisible.

In the Otten Kunstraum in Austria only Preis’ recent abstract works will be shown. The artist arrived shortly before the opening and created some specially designed paper sculptures (1,20 m) on site. Her dynamic personality keeps surprising the public, whilst her serene white paper reliefs and sculptures ‘touch the heart of the beholder’. According to her relative, the famous Kandinsky, this is what art is meant to do.

From 11 September until 5 December the exhibition “Transkription. Part II’ with works by Elena Preis, Vasily Pavlovsky and Oleg Kudryashov can be seen in the Otten Kunstraum, Schwefeldbadstrasse 2, in Hohenems, Austria. A beautifully designed catalogue accompanies the exhibition.

1. The artist, Elena Preis, in the Otten Kunst Raum in Hohenems, 5 September 2013 
2. Last Supper, by Elena Preis, 1992. Woodcut, 23.5 x 36 cm. (P.c.) 
3. Balance with large forms, by Elena Preis, 1995, lino cut, 40.8 x 64.4. (Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg) and Samurai, paper mobile, 115 x 70 x 70 cm (as shown in Hohenems at present)
4. Urbanism III, by Pavel Pavlovsky, 1985, 65 x 15.5 x 12.5 cm
5. Sculpture group in paper, by Elena Preis, 2001, paper/cardboard. (Collection of the artist, Moscow)
6. Paper reliefs, by Elena Preis, 1997-2006, as shown during the “Retrospective of Elena Preis” in the Ignatius Gallery, Amsterdam, May-June 2013
7. The artist, Elena Preis, her Black Square (2006) in the background during her opening speech in Amsterdam, 28 April 2013. 
8. Paper sculptures, by Elena Preis, made at Hohenems in September 2013. 

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