Archive for the ‘Alla Parsons Art Criticism’ Category

I am going to publish a story about each painting that means a lot to me. Self-Portrait in the Red Turban is probably number one in this category.

Self-Portrait in a Red Turban

Self-Portrait in the Red Turban

I always wanted to be an artist.  My grandmother gave me a book from which I taught myself to draw when I was five.  Then at the age of thirteen I enrolled in a four-year course of study at an Art School which held classes after the regular secondary school day ended.  There is a great system of art and music schools that still exists in Russia.  After the end of my regular school I would run to my second – art – school every day to study art history, painting, drawing, sculpture and composition.  I was unaware that in the rest of the world Abstract Expressionism was the mainstream. In my world the mainstream was Rembrandt, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, all the “Old Masters”.

I can say that I had a classical training in art.  The “Old Masters” were considered to be “gods of the past”, however, the present day “masters” had to create in the style of “social realism” to be approved by the ruling Communist Party. That was not too exciting. In addition, one day someone said to me that “there had never been any great women artists”.

At first, I tried to argue but I had no facts to prove the opposite.  During that time in Russia no one knew about Artemisia Gentileschi, Georgia O’Keefe, or Lee Miller.  In the meanwhile Linda Nochlin’s 1971 article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”was published in the United States.  It is ironic that the same words that empowered women artists in the United States made me give up my dream of becoming an artist in the USSR. As I observed that all “great artists” of both present and the past were men, especially those who chose to join the Communist Party, I also heard negative remarks about “women’s art” which was often considered unimportant and limited to flowers and such. That was very discouraging for me as a young person and the desire to become a professional artist was suppressed by the time to apply to college.

Drawing always remained my way to express my emotions and feelings.  I drew to express myself and it made my life more bearable.  But I gave up on the idea of becoming a “professional” artist because I did not want to be a mediocre artist.  Mediocrity as an artist seemed to be predetermined just by the fact that I was a female.  I became a “shadow artist”.

I learned the term “shadow artist” much later, while living in the US and reading Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way.  “Shadow Artist”, according to Cameron, is a person whose “inner artist” or “artist within” was suppressed for a number of reasons. Such people do not believe they can be “real artists”.  They love art, try to be around artists, sometimes they become models, muses, or supporters of artists.  Sometimes they marry artists. Cameron did not go so far in her book as to state that being a “shadow artist” is much more typical for women than for men, but that seems to be the case.

When I moved to the US in 2001 my life changed. I was greatly encouraged and supported by my loving husband and started becoming a “professional artist”, getting my degree in art, coming out of a “shadow”. The more I learned about female artists the more interested I became in “women issues” in art. One of my favorite artists, Katherine Ace, once said that as a woman she should be careful about what she chooses to paint.  She said: “painting flowers is politically dangerous for a female artist, playing right into cultural stereotypes. It sets you up to be dismissed“.  But she painted flowers anyway, as well as other subjects.

Self-representation, like painting flowers, risks being stereotyped as “feminine.”  Many of my works are based on some form of self-representation.  Even if use models, I still often identify myself with the models, their life stories and feelings. I believe, that engaging with self-representation places me within the mainstream of contemporary female artists who took themselves as subjects.

In her study of female surrealist artists W. Chadwick characterized them with: “the affinity for the structures of fabulist narrative, and a tendency towards the phantasmic and oneiric.” Other qualities shared by female surrealist artists, according to Chadwick, include embrace of doubling, masking, and masquerade as defenses against fears of non-identity. Chadwick pointed out the following representational strategies that continue to resonate in the works of female surrealists:

  • Self as Other;
  • Self as Body;
  • Self as Masquerade or Absence.

Many women adopted practices of “self-othering” – identifying with moments prior to historical time and/or outside the civilized cultural spaces identified with patriarchy.  Chadwick sees these categories as broad frames “within which it is possible to enact dialogs between contemporary women artists and Surrealism.” You can see fabulist narrative, phantasmic and oneiric qualities in some of my work. One example is identifying myself with Van Eyck in Self-Portrait in the Red Turban.

I represent myself in this painting as “Other” and as a male.  This is my way of reflecting on my role as a woman artist in contemporary art world which still treats women artists differently than male.

The crows included in this work are connected with my childhood memories and experience with my mother’s pet crow. It combines my feelings of bitterness of rejection. Once at the age 4 while being rejected by a crow (see the full story in this post), and then again, at the age 14 being rejected by the Art World when I was told “there had never been great women artists.”  The images of the crows in this work symbolize great artists whom I admired and wanted to belong to their world but was not allowed. This work is a statement that I do belong to the Art World.  I state this by wearing Van Eyck’s famous red turban and the coat with crow’s feathers.  This connects me to the Art World as well as to the Crows’ World.

This painting is very important to me, so when it was sold after my MFA thesis show, I felt that I had to make another one. That is why there are two version of it:

2011   DSCN1479

and 2013:

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With what is going on the political scene right now it is especially important to hear voices of such artists as Deborah Rockman. Her drawings “refer to a cultural linguistic practice that objectifies and dehumanizes women by selectively positioning them in the animal realm, over which man considers himself to have authority. Women are reduced to isolated fragments of the self and filtered through a misogynistic male gaze. Women are critiqued, labeled and deemed sexually desirable or not based on their body type, their genitalia, their facial proportions, their scent, their leg length, their passivity or assertiveness, all of which are crudely paralleled, through language, with animals.”

See Deborah Rockman’s website here.

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This article just appeared on Artsy.net and I would like to share. It is an interesting collection of facts, including a note by John Baldessari that “conceptual art wasn’t about art that had a concept, but about interrogating the concept of art”. Apparently that is what J.B. does himself – interrogates the concept of art. Here is the article link: If-you-don-t-understand-conceptual-art-it-s-not-your-fault.

Isaac Kaplan is the author of this article. I do not quite understand why he says: “Conceptual art—…—emerged in the 1960s as a reaction to Clement Greenberg’s militant commitment to formalism”. In my opinion, Conceptual art emerged with Marcel Duchamp’s concepts and ideas and his urinal “The Fountain” in 1917. Not necessarily my favorite type of art, but I just like more certainty with dates and facts, probably the result of my first career path in history.

I am personally bored when I see that type of art in museums… But, anyway, it is worth putting a bookmark on this article and reading it later, especially if you are trying to figure out what is wrong with our Art World.

Screenshot 2016-08-28 10.47.21.png

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When I was in grad school I had to study my own art and artistic process and write a thesis about it. It was then that I discovered the niche where my art belongs in the Art World – a style called Magic Realism.

The term “Magic Realism” was first used by Franz Roh in his book, Nach-expressionismus (Post-Expressionism) written in 1925.  He later used the same term in 1968 in his new book German Art in the 20th Century.  He also called this new development in art “The New Objectivity” (F. Roh, German Art in the 20th Century. Greenwich: New York Graphic Society, 1968, 112.) By using the term Magic Realism Roh is referring to Post-Expressionistic artwork in which some mystery or secret seems to be hidden within the subject matter.  As opposed to Expressionism, “Magic Realism emphasizes the object and the everyday life in new and unfamiliar ways.  Juxtapositions of sharply rendered and detailed elements, both in the foreground and back ground, are used to develop an air of mystery or ambiguity.  They remind us that there are still many mysteries in life.”  http://www.tendreams.org/magic-art.htm

Roh used the following dichotomies to highlight the differences between Expressionism and Magic Realism:

Expressionism: Magic Realism:
Ecstatic subjects
Close-up view
Thick color texture
Emphasis on the visibility of the
painting process
Expressive deformation
Sober objects
Puristically severe
Close and far view
Thin paint surface
Effacement of the
painting process
External purification of the object
(Roch. 113)

I found more similarities with my artwork among the attributes of Magic Realism than Expressionism.  I believe that my style developed more towards representational, quiet, static images in painting, turning daily life into eerie form, with a thin paint surface, although I experimented with the opposite qualities as well, never finding much satisfaction in them. Some of my works are more surrealistic (Caged and If I Could Have Opened My Heart), while others (In the Room With Memories or In the Room With the Magic Ball) can be referred to as Magic Realism.

In Art History, Magic Realism acted as a portal to Surrealism, and many artists shifted back and forth from one to another, especially Magritte (Roch, 138).  When I discovered the website ww.tendreams.org  I found a few artists there who I knew before and considered them as influences, but did not realize that they belonged to the Magic Realism group, among them Andrew Wyeth, George Tooker and Charles Scheeler. These artists sometimes crossed the boundaries between Surrealism, Symbolism and Magic Realism. My work also shifts back and forth across the boundaries of Surrealism and Magic Realism, while a large number of other works as you can see on my website www.allaparsons.com are just studies from life: Figure, Still Life and Landscape. I feel the need to work on these Life Studies and I am constantly working to improve my skills in observational drawing and painting. However I consider Magic Realism my major work which takes a longer time to go through the process in my mind, before ripening and appearing, first on sketchbook pages and then on canvas.

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I just stumbled upon an interesting article about William Cummings. He expressed ideas similar to mine: Bill Cumming. 1960s.

“There is only art. Every single human being is born containing an artist, and this being invents art for itself at around the age of three when, without any teaching or coaching or indoctrination, it invents shape.”

He believed firmly that training in “so-called commercial art” is superior to university art schools because students develop skills that allow them to survive in the world, to understand how the art world operates, and to handle the financial end of working as an artist. “Fine art is a war,” he said. “I hate fine art with all its fuss and crap. Fine art students are brought up in a spirit of contempt for people. Of course I paint for the market. So did Rembrandt. So did Titian. It’s high time we quit compartmentalizing art, and leave graduating students thinking they need a grant to make a living.”

William Cumming My Dog

William Cumming My Dog

He taught his students, “You have a right to make money out of art. To make money out of art, you have to create art which someone wants to buy. It’s okay if your drawing is crude. That’s how nature meant it to be. The question is how do you turn crude into a marketable commodity.”

This is something that I would say to my students too. I wanted to share this with you. See the entire article at: http://www.historylink.org

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The image in the center is a watercolor painting made from a photo of my mother I took when we visited the University of Virginia in 2004. After that the idea was born to use this portrait for a bigger painting and add small scenes on the edges. This idea was influenced by the structure of Russian icons where the main image of a Saint is in the center and the smaller images “klejma” are located on the sides, illustrating the Saint’s life.  So, in “My Mother’s Life” her portrait is surrounded by the most important scenes of her life. I conducted a series of interviews with my mother clarifying which events in her life she considered the most important. Some of the events she considered the most important I used in the painting. For example, one is “the birth of her first child, the son” (let me note that it was not me). Some of the events I had to add by myself based on my understanding of what was important in her life. Some of the small images are based on real life photos and some are “invented”  – based on my imagination, but also based on real facts of my mother’s life.

First in the series of small images (top, left) is the detail of a real photograph. My mother is sitting on a chair, she is maybe 2 or 3 years old and her face looks angry. My mother told me she felt angry and unhappy when they took her photo, because she had to pose in an old coat. She inherited that coat from her older brother, as he did from somebody else. She felt that the coat was very old and ugly and she felt terrible that she had her photo taken in such an ugly coat. She later told me about her  thought process: <<Why did we always say in school “Thank you to the Comrade Stalin for our happy childhood!” while in fact I am not that happy – I have such an old coat?>>. That moment I depicted in this first image and that’s why there is a text there in Russian, translated as “Thank you to the Comrade Stalin for our happy childhood!”


Центральный портрет был написан с фото которое было сделано в Америке, на территории университета Вирджинии, когда мама приезжала в 2004 году.  Я решила использовать это фото для портрета, но потом родилась идея – дополнить портрет сценами из ее жизни, заимствуя идею Русских Икон. В “житийных” иконах в центре всегда стоит большой образ святого, а вокруг – маленькие картинки – “клейма” с изображениями жития святых. Так и в “Жизни Мой Мамы” ее жизнь – наиболее значтельные сцены – по краям в маленьких картинках. С мамой были проведены небольшие интервью, проливающие свет на те части ее жизни, которые она считала наиболее важными. И кое-что было принято во внимание. Так, например, одно из наиболее важных событий в ее жизни было “рождение первого ребенка, сына” (примечание, я не была ни первым ребенком, ни сыном). Но некоторые важные события в жизни были определены мною, по моему собственному усмотрению. Некоторые “картинки из жизни” были прямые заимствования из существующих фотографий, а некоторые – были “изобретенными фотографиями” и я изобразила некоторые моменты просто из воображения.

Первая картинка – это прямое заимствование старой фотографии. Мама маленькая, ей года 2 или 3, она сидит на стуле и лицо ее очень сердитое. По ее словам, она помнит, что была очень недовольна фактом, что ее фотографируют, а она сидит в старом пальто. Пальто ей досталось от старших братьев, а им – еще от кого-то. Она действительно очень страдала от осознания уродливости этого старого пальто, и в те моменты ее маленькую детскую голову пришла мысль – <а почему в школе мы всегда говорим “Спасибо Товарищу Сталину за наше счастливое детство!” ? Когда на самом деле я себя совсем не чувствую счастливой и у меня таkое старое пальто?>. Это я и изобразила. В нижней части – текст  “Спасибо Товарищу Сталину за наше счастливое детство!”


Part 2

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I was going to publish more stories about my paintings and then a friend asked “Why the crow?” So I will start from this one.

In the Room With Memories

In the Room With Memories. Oil and collage on canvas. 48×36.

The crow in the painting “In a Room With Memories”  is a memory from my childhood.  My mother had a pet crow.  The crow just came into the open window one day and stayed to live with us. My mother named her “Vichka” (short for Viktoria). She loved my mother and hated me, probably out of jealousy,  and tried to bite me if I came too close.  I was only 4 years old, I was scared, but fascinated with the crow and was trying to gain her trust.  In doing so, I learned to speak like a crow, but that just seemed to annoy her more.  In this painting I am finally becoming friends with the crow and making peace with my childhood memories.

The image of the crow is also appearing in “Self-Portrait in the Red Turban”. I thought about how the feeling of me being rejected by the crow in my childhood is similar to the feeling of being rejected by the art world. I felt rejected when I heard from someone at about the age 14: “There had never been great women artists.”  At first I tried to argue but I had no facts to prove the opposite.  During the 1970s in the Soviet Union no one knew about Artemisia Gentileschi,  Georgia O’Keefe, or Lee Miller.  It was obvious that all “great artists” of both present and the past were men, especially those who chose to join the Communist Party.  I heard negative remarks about “women’s art” which was often considered unimportant and limited to flowers and such.  At the same time in the United States Linda Nochlin’s 1971 article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” was published.  It is ironic that the same words that empowered women artists in the United States made me give up my dream of becoming an artist in the USSR.

Self-Portrait in a Red Turban

Self-Portrait in a Red Turban. Oil on canvas and paper. Artist-made frame. 

The image of the crows in this work represents great artists whom I admired and wanted to belong but was rejected.  Just like being rejected by the crow in my childhood with whom I wanted to be friends.  There is a statement in this work that I do belong to the art world.  I state this by representing myself in Van Eyck’s famous red turban and by painting crow feathers on my coat.  This connects me to the art world as well as to the crows’ world.




One of the crows. Oil on gessoed watercolor paper



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In a Golden Room. oil and gold leaf on canvas
Last week I submitted my paintings for a local juried art show. There were supposed to be three paintings and I brought just one first out of my car. I brought this one – which as I thought, was the least “nude” figure. Just a shoulder, an arm and a profile face… It is not even a figure, it’s a portrait!

Two more paintings with much more obviously exposed parts of female bodies were left in a car. At first nobody said anything and I went back to the car to bring my other two paintings after filling my exhibition papers. A minute after I went outside, someone was already running to get me, shouting: “Alla! We cannot exhibit nudity in a bank!” (that’s where the show was).

Fair enough, I thought, and I took this painting back into the car and went home, just to return back again with three perfectly modest landscapes. No nudity.

Next day, at the reception, I was talking to the artists who were receiving submissions the night before. They told me: “Of course, your painting could not be acceptable. It had an exposed, erect penis”…..?????

Imagine my amused face… “Excuse me? What penis? Where?”… “Well, we saw it yesterday”, the ladies told me. Then the discussion unfolded, in which I explained to them that not only I did not paint any penis there, but I was not so completely out of my mind to bring the painting with a penis to a bank if there was one. They were a bit confused, but insisted they saw a penis for sure. Although, as one of the ladies noted, there were also two male artists present at that time, who said they did not see a penis…. “Aha! I said, so it means you saw there something what OTHER people did not see?! What do you think, I said, would Freud said about that?”

Well, my friends, although this is a story from a past, please, take a good look at this painting now. What are you seeing? Please, tell me if you see a penis on it or not.

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kristina's world
Kristina’s World. 2009-2010. oil on canvas. 48″x60″

In the summer of 2009 I spent a week on the Ossabaw Island, It is one of the barrier islands in Southern Georgia with beautiful oak trees, wild donkeys and horses and rich history. I created a series of watercolors and sketches, made some pastel and ink drawings, and took a number of photos with the goal to create a larger image when I am back in my studio. I wanted to create a painting that would reflect powerful and peaceful Nature that I saw on the island as well as all the emotions and thoughts it provoked in me.

I purchased the largest canvas I had ever worked on – 48″x60″ to create an epic image of Ossabaw Island. It was a bit intimidating and at first I was just staring on a white surface. Then I began my work with the process that became quite usual for me – a dance in my studio with brushes in my hands, without a clear idea about what to put on the large canvas. It took a few days of dancing to cover the surface with random marks of paint. After a while I started seeing the image of a lonely woman sitting on the lonely beach of the island looking into the distance. This reminded me of the famous painting by Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World.

Andrew Wyeth. Christina’s World. 1948. tempera on gessoed panel. 32″x47″

Coincidentally I had a classmate, a fellow MFA student, a talented artist, who was going through a romance in her life at that time. She was on the Ossabaw Island with our group, but her lover stayed on the mainland. She was missing him. Her name was Kristina. So, I decided that my painting will be about Kristina, a Woman Artist, and her love story. It was a little different story than one in the Wyeth’s painting. His Christina was a disabled, immobilized woman, she was longing for something, that she could not reach.

My Kristina is peaceful and content. She is confident as a woman and as an artist, and she is holding a brush in her hand. As my dancing progressed, additional figures emerged on the canvas. At Kristina’s feet is standing a nude man, ready to kneel, perhaps posing for her or proposing to her while presenting her with a flower. In the drips and smudges of paint I saw his figure and as he emerged, I painted his face looking at the photos of Andrew Wyeth. I posed for both figures: Kristina’s and Andrew’s, taking photographs of myself with the timer.

A peaceful, almost ideal scene is completed with the image of sunset and animals surrounding my figures. I observed and photographed all of these animals on the island: donkeys, armadillos, horses, wild pigs and alligators are all familiar creatures of the South Georgia coast and Ossabaw Island. The big pig in front of the painting was a big wild hog whose name was Paul Mitchell… He was conditioned to visit the house where we lived, and eat from the waste bucket. All the food leftovers were carefully collected and waited for his return.
The owner’s dog, who is also in the painting, was especially dear to me (on the left of the painting). He was almost an exact replica of my beloved dog from my childhood. The dog on Ossabaw Island liked me and followed me around. I believe it was a reincarnation of my childhood friend.

Anonymous photomontage. La Revolution Surrealiste, N15 (December 1929)

All figures in my painting have their eyes closed, even the donkeys. Why? The famous group portrait of the surrealist group – actually a photomontage of a photograph by Man Ray and a painting by Magritte might help to explain.

In this photograph all the members of the surrealist group have their eyes closed. It reflects on the philosophy of surrealism that things are not really what we see with our eyes. To see the real truth we have to turn to our dreams. The figures in my painting have their eyes closed because they are living in their dreams.

Then why the wild boar has opened eyes?

Pigs have often been used as a symbol of evil in paintings by symbolist artists. I wanted to use that symbolism in my painting and express the idea that evil never rests. My reason for doing this is similar to the reason used by Renaissance artists for placing a skull in a still life. Painters during the Renaissance often included skulls, a fly or other symbols of death in their still life paintings. This was intended to remind the viewer of the temporal nature of this world , about the fragility of life and human mortality. The figure of the pig in this painting is a transitional figure between the romanticized world and the Underworld – the world of Life and the world of Death.

After working for about a year on this painting and having all these thoughts running in my mind, I decided to add another panel to the painting that could create a vision of the Underworld. The idea did not come to me all at once. At the beginning, I had thought about incorporating the skull of a pig or some bones in a lower part of the composition of Kristina’s World, but there was not enough space.

Remnants of the Pigs. 2011. oil on canvas. 20″x48″

While walking on Ossabaw island I discovered an area where the ground was covered with partially skinned and boned remains of the pigs. There is a large number of wild pigs on the island and some hunting is allowed. I guess some hunters skinned their kills and left what they did not need leaving a gruesome site. I took photos of that scary scenes.

My initial idea had expanded as I worked on the Kristina’s World painting. While working on this piece, many unfortunate things happened in my life including the deaths of relatives and friends. I recorded these events on the back of the painting as if in a diary. I felt compelled to extend the piece by adding a separate panel under it. In doing this I was following the Renaissance tradition of juxtaposing images of life and death.

Remnants of the Pigs has a long and narrow landscape format, which was inspired by the Renaissance painting by Hans Holbein The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb.

Hans Holbein. The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb.1521, oil on wood,

Combining these two panels: Kristina’s World and Remnants of the Pigs creates a juxtaposition of the dualities of human life.

Finally, Kristina’s World is a reflection on the position of a female artist in a contemporary world. There is a reversal of traditional roles – artist and a model – in this painting. The woman, Kristina, becomes more important, dominant figure and she is represented clothed. In classical tradition showing a clothed man besides a nude woman was a way to portray a man as a more powerful and active figure, a creator, an artist. A classical example of that approach would be a famous painting by Manet The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe).


In the contrast with Manet, in my painting there is a figure of a man, kneeling, nude, presenting a flower to Kristina. His pose is subordinate; he is a secondary character, an object of our gaze in this painting. By doing so I am not trying to make fun of a male figure or make him look submissive or weak. My idea for this painting is a representation of a true Love. When people are in love they become vulnerable…

I am showing an intimate and romantic scene, with a sunset and the animals coming to adore the beauty of the moment. Love is glowing with warm colors as they come out of the man’s chest and brighten the world around him. There is a specific music I was listening while working on it – Mahler, Symphony #5, Part IV Adagietto. To me this music expresses the feeling of true love.

Kristina’s World is my reflection on life and death, beauty and ugliness and how we often see it in our lives side by side.


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