Artist Alexander Stolin still has a pretty strong eastern European accent, although he’s spent the past 30 years living on the north shore. Back in 1992, when he was 29, he emigrated from Ukraine, where he was born.
It would be easy to interpret his solo exhibition at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery as a reaction to the Russian war in his former homeland. The black-and-white paintings are shadowy, claustrophobic and grim. Stolin said he based his current style on film noir detective movies and such. The sun never quite shines in the world he invented. The vibe is uniformly melancholy.
Stolin’s paintings certainly seem to reflect the helplessness and grief he’s experiencing as he watches events in Ukraine unfold on cable television news.
But it’s not that simple. Most of these paintings were finished in 2020 and 2021, before the war started. They’re not a reaction to the Russian invasion; they’re a pessimistic premonition.
Stolin, 59, carved out a place for himself in the New Orleans art scene in the early 2000s. He was represented by the Julia Street gallery, and was gaining a following of fans.
Then he seemed to disappear. Nothing dramatic had happened; it was just that fatherhood and his day job, as a scenic artist in the movie industry, kept him too busy for a second career as a painter.
“I got wrapped up in the real world,” he said.
Just a question of when
But over the past few years, he’s returned to his brushes. Middle age was a time for nostalgia and evaluation. It was time to reconcile his two selves: the Louisianan and the Ukrainian underneath.
Being Ukrainian, Stolin said, can be complicated. His father was Jewish and his mother was Eastern Orthodox, he said, but during the Soviet era, when Ukraine and Russia were part of the USSR, it wasn’t easy to express either faith. Stolin said his family endured the deprivations of communism, World War II, the Cold War and then the confusion and insecurity after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Russian invasion of Ukraine this year, he said, was no surprise. No surprise at all. Russia has been a constant threat for years.
Being Ukrainian, he said, is to anticipate profound disruption. Stolin said he was raised with the credo: “It’s not a question of if; it’s just a question of when.”
And that’s what Stolin’s new exhibit, “Memories Project,” is all about. In one painting, young boys build sand castles on the beach as aircraft carriers lurk in the ocean behind them. In another, a family consults a crystal ball, while seated beneath a painting of a test house that was built to determine the power of an atomic bomb. The sun rises in one painting, but the sky remains smoky gray, as a squadron of silver fighter planes drone overhead. The only smiles seen in the whole exhibit are on the masks of the children dressed as goblins or clowns in the painting “Halloween.”
Living the dream
If there’s any escape from this mirthless world, it might be represented by the 48-star flag of the United States, used from 1912 to 1959, in the background of Stolin’s painting of an elementary school class picture titled “Say Cheese.” Perhaps escape is the answer?
Stolin said he was always aware that he had distant family living in the United States. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, as communist power wavered, he took the opportunity to join them. He first traveled to San Francisco, then almost immediately to Hattiesburg Mississippi, where long-lost cousins lived. His cousins encouraged him to stay in the region. He met a woman. His American life had begun.
Of course, Stolin said, he’s full of rage, regret and disbelief about the current war on the other side of the world. “I live and breathe it,” he said.
To understand his feelings, he asks us to imagine if the place we grew up were steadily being destroyed before our eyes. Yet he also asks us not to consider him a victim. Having telephone conversations with old friends in Ukraine who are holding out in bomb shelters has made him acutely aware of his own safety and comfort in Madisonville.
“I’m living the dream,” he said, without irony.
A few months back, Stolin visited Jonathan Ferrara Gallery to see an exhibit by an old friend. Ferrara asked him if he was still making art. Stolin said that, in fact, he was. But he told Ferrara, “It’s really dark. I don’t know who would want it.”
Ferrara gambled that we would. Take a break from the festivities during Saturday’s White Linen Night block party to visit Stolin’s bittersweet return to the fine art scene and momentarily allow yourself to be wrapped up in the real world.
Jonathan Ferrara Gallery is located at 400A Julia Street. “Memories Project” continues through Aug. 27. For more information, visit the gallery website.
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