This interview was originally published on May 4, 2011 for Winking At A Girl In The Dark.
This week for the Spotlight, we are so pleased to bring you our interview with artist Vladimir Ginzburg. Mr. Ginzburg was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and is now based in New York City.
CM: How would you rate NYC winters as compared to those of your home city of St. Petersburg (Leningrad then, no?):
VG: I would say the winters in Leningrad had more snow and lower temperatures. So, if in New York the snow stays on the ground, on average, about two weeks during the winter, then in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) it lingers about three months. The other thing that is missing in New York in the winters are the icicles on the end of the rooftops. In St. Petersburg, in March, when the weather would become warmer, the icicles would slowly melt, and the falling drops of water from the roofs would create a kind of music when they hit the asphalt or puddles on the ground.
CM: You were blessed to share the city with The Hermitage, one of the oldest and largest museums in the world. What are some of your earliest memories of visiting its buildings and collections?
VG: I think the first time that I was there I was six or seven. I remember a lot of light, a lot of space, huge columns, a lot of people. I think at that time I did not perceive it as a museum, but more like a palace, with all of these things in their glass boxes and the paintings on the walls, which were part of life there.
CM: When did you first realize that you were an “artist?”
VG: If you consider an artist to be the kind of person who likes to create (painting, music, poetry, photographs), then I think I was always this kind of person.
CM You started taking photographs as a child. Was this medium your “first love?”
VG: The thing is, when I was in school, we almost didn’t have art lessons. I think the school’s administration considered art instruction something unimportant, and they would substitute those lessons with math or grammar, telling the students that that they didn’t have an art teacher to teach us.
I had done some drawing and painting at home, but when I would compare what I did with the drawings of kids my own age, those who had learned how to draw in special art schools (very realistic drawings with the right perspective, structure etc.), I got the impression that I was hopelessly lacking in any ability to draw or to paint. But I liked to create images, so I got a camera, and started shooting everything around me.
CM: So you bought your first camera?
VG: Yes, I bought my first camera when I was 12 years old with money I had saved. My parents gave me the money to buy an enlarger and other stuff to develop and print the photographs. I built a makeshift darkroom in the bathroom, which I would use when it would not interfere with the wishes of other inhabitants of the apartment to use it. So you can imagine I had to print really fast, and of course the quality of my pictures was quite poor, but, anyway, it was a great time for me then.
CM: Do you remember the first photograph you developed?
VG: I think it was a photograph of the street, with buildings, trees, and people walking. I remember the moment when the image started to appear on the paper. It really looked like something magical.
CM: I know you left Russia for Israel in 1979. What prompted that move?
VG: In 1979, we were part of the Soviet Union, and were not permitted to leave the country, even to be a tourist in a communist country, without special permission from regional party bosses and KGB. And they would never grant me such a permission, a Jew with relatives living abroad. I think they assumed that I would not come back and they would be in trouble. So I started feeling as though I was locked in and eventually it started bothering me a lot. I decided to immigrate to Israel. At that time, if you were permitted to immigrate, your Soviet citizenship would automatically be taken away from you. You were considered a sort of traitor, and were never allowed to go back.
CM: What was that like for you? Understanding those realities and, yet, still moving forward?
VG: It was a very difficult decision. I think I knew that I would not be able to return, but I didn’t quite believe it. It’s the same as a young person who, of course, knows that one day they will die, but who doesn’t really believe yet in their own mortality. I realized it completely only a few months after I emigrated to Israel, and it was quite hard.
I have never returned to Leningrad. I think, in a way, it is impossible to return, at least to return to the world of your childhood and youth; even the name ‘Leningrad’ does not exist anymore. The best way for me to return is to close my eyes and see the streets, the people, and to hear that music of the melting icicles in spring.
CM: Tell us about what you loved about Israel.
VG: The first impression I got when I left the building at the airport was that of heavy, humid air, saturated with a very strong aroma, which, I later learned was the scent of blossoming orange trees. It was night, with a black southern sky and strange, unknown sounds. Birds? Cicadas?
One aspect I loved about Israel was its Middle Eastern elements, and the contrast between the serenity and lack of strong colors on empty streets in the heat of summertime, and the energy of different colors, and the beautiful loud Arabic music in the market places.
CM: It was in Israel that you became reacquainted with the medium of painting. What prompted the transition from photography to painting?
VG: Two things. First, when I left Leningrad, I did not take my camera and other developing/printing equipment with me, hoping to upgrade everything in Israel. However, the cameras and equipment in Israel were too expensive for me to buy, so I could not continue to make pictures in the same way that I had been making them in Russia.
Secondly, I was exposed to such different kinds of art in Israel. I saw in the galleries all kinds of art: abstract art, primitive art, and I started thinking that I wasn’t too old to start painting myself. So, I started to paint.
CM: Had you had any formal art training to that point?
VG: No, I did not have any formal art training.
CM: What was it like, holding your first completed painting in your hands? Do you remember what emotions that painting evoked in you?
VG: I took my first course in painting in a local Matnas, a kind of cultural center. We painted rolls of paper towels. My first painting? Hmm, it was not great at all. The emotions I had were those of disappointment, and I thought that I had a long way to go to be able to create a decent painting.
CM: What allowed you to push past that initial sense of disappointment?
VG: I liked the process. I liked the smell of oil paint and turpentine and, also, I hadn’t expected to paint a masterpiece the first time.
CM: When did you make the move to NYC?
VG: I moved to NY in 1989.
CM: Did you have trouble adjusting to an artist’s life in New York? What were some of the everyday things, if any, that you had to “get used to?”
VG: After 10 years in Israel, New York looked very familiar, almost like Leningrad: big buildings, grey and green colors, a lot of people on the streets, relatively cold winter … but it was a first and a very deceiving impression. I learned very quickly that I was not back in Leningrad and that this was New York.
I think the most important adjustment was learning the ways in which people were interacting here. It was different from Leningrad in 1979 and from Israel in 1989. I think it felt more formal in terms of personal interaction (at least it felt that way to an outsider like me at the time). I understand now it has a positive side, but back then it was strange to me.
CM: Tell us about what you love to paint. It seems there is a pull toward cityscapes.
VG: You are right, I like painting cityscapes, probably because I like to look at the street. I remember in Leningrad that I would sometimes skip school, buy a ticket to the tram, and sit looking out the widows onto unknown streets, buildings, people, dogs, and everything else. It was like traveling to a fantasy place. Sometimes the adventure would take 2-3 hours, as trams were very slow, and Leningrad is a big city.
CM: Dolls are often featured in your work. What first drew you to them?
VG: I first starting using dolls as models, instead of people. If you compare humans and dolls, they are quite alike – head, face, hair, body, arms, legs – everything is a bit different, of course, but aren’t all people different? Of course dolls are not alive like people, but if it is not the goal of the artist to make the painting look alive, it makes no difference what he paints.
I started to collect dolls, buying them at flea markets. One, in particular, featured in my painting “Katerina,” I found on the ocean shore. Others, I bought at garage sales. I like older dolls more. They seem to have experience, wisdom. It is the same with drawing older people; they have much more interesting faces than those that are younger.
CM: Your art has been featured in books and in film. Do you ever allow yourself to feel proud at all you’ve accomplished?
VG: When I am in a really bad mood, I tell myself that I have to be proud of what I have accomplished. Fortunately, that does not happen often.
CM: What is something that constantly challenges you as an artist?
VG: I think it is the understanding of my inability to make a painting where I would say to myself, “That’s it! This is the way you should do all of your paintings. This is the end of the search.”
On the other hand, I think it is good thing that I cannot say this, in that, it allows me to feel that I can do something differently, and maybe better. This ambivalence is very annoying sometimes.
CM: You’re very busy these days. Your most recent group exhibition, a show at TNC Gallery in New York, “Painter x 10,” just came to an end yesterday, May 2. The tag line I saw read, “a shared experience of having pushed paint around.” Can you speak to that experience, and to being able to share that experience with other artists at this stage in your career?
VG: To be an artist is quite a solitary profession, with a lot of rejections along the way. I have come to the conclusion that I must look at what I am doing as a lifelong learning process, a kind of meditation with paint and canvas.
CM: Your solo show, “Novosibirsk to New Jersey: Old and New World Synagogue Images,” is presently up at the Jewish Museum of New Jersey, and is running until May 8th. How do you perceive those changes, in the old and the new?
VG: Some of the synagogues in Eastern Europe that I painted are quite old, about 600 years old, whereas the synagogues in New Jersey are relatively new. Most were built in the twentieth century. I look at them as though they were trees, where the trunks and the main branches are older than the new branches, but in spite of the difference, they are the same tree.
CM: Which do you prefer?
VG: I prefer the older ones. It is the same as painting an old face. It is more interesting than a young one.
CM: What comes after these two shows?
VG: I have started to work on two series of paintings. One will feature street scenes from NYC. You can find an example of the style in my painting, ‘Midtown.’ The other series will be paintings about life in general. You can see an example in my painting, ‘Looking Out.’
CM: Do you still take photographs?
VG: Yes, I do take photographs, but mostly as images to use for the painting. I usually use part of the image, changing it in a way that is influenced by the mood of the painting. Painting, first and foremost, is about emotion, and then it gets dressed in a kind of reality fabrics, but they are not supposed to hide the emotion, rather they are meant to emphasize it. It is possible to do this with photography alone, but for me, it is easier to do with paint. Or to put it a different way, you have to take maybe 20-100 photographs to get one that shows the mood I am speaking about, while with a painting it is almost immediate.
CM: What tends to catch your eye these days?
VG: Paradoxes and inconsistencies in the world. For example, why people keep killing each other in spite of all this progress.
CM: What, above all else, would you say you are trying to capture in your paintings?
VG: The wonder of what I see. That which is behind the forms, shapes, lines, colors, that something hidden. It is like when you read a good detective story and you cannot stop reading, you’re missing your stop on the train, or not hearing the questions somebody is asking you because you are so engrossed in what is happening in your book. So I sometimes look at something and cannot stop looking, almost forgetting about everything else. This feeling is the one I would like to be able to capture in my paintings, the feeling that even though a painting is made of dead materials, it is, in fact, a living creature.
For more information on Vladimir Ginzburg, his work, and his upcoming shows, please visit his official website at http://www.vladimirginzburg.com.