words by Chris Sharp

Ella Kruglyanskaya, Monster Bathers, 2013
Courtesy of OKO, New York

The secret to the work of the Latvian-born, New York-based painter Ella Kruglyanskaya is barely a secret. Or better yet, it is an open one. And that secret is tension: raw, mediated, utterly captivating tension. If it is a secret, it is because it so thoroughly roils through every aspect of the work, both on a formal and, let’s say, psychosocial level, that it has a way of disappearing, like a good plot—by which I mean, a plot so well-constructed that it dissolves into the very fabric of the story and keeps you reading without knowing exactly why. This is, in many ways, how Kruglyanskaya’s paintings, for all their apparent lack of subtlety, subtly function. Indeed, it is not wrong to liken what she does to the craft of fiction; she is, after all, something of a storyteller, generally relating tales of psychosocial friction and outright competition between big, brassy broads. Of course, this is not all she tells. But it is a large part. And it is told large.

Ella Kruglyanskaya paints women. Singly, but more often than not, in pairs. Curvaceous, full-figured and consummately embodied, her ladies do anything but conform to contemporary media standards of beauty (which seem to all but deny the body, contriving toward a fey attenuation of the female figure to the point of virtually disembodying it [disclaimer: get a Flaubertian voluptuary to write on Ella Kruglyanskaya, and such involute twiggy twistings are bound to follow]). Her women are basically bombshells—in the most literal sense of the term. The threat to explode they barely contain is apparent as much in the garments they wear as in the canvases that frame them. Their cartoon-like, fifties-style-pinup curves push out at skin-tight skirts, blouses and bikinis with as much apparent élan as they push out at the surface of the canvas and its borders. That explosiveness, what is more, is hardly downplayed by the artist’s riotous deployment of color. What with her penchant for primaries, which are often applied as integers among other colors, her palette has a way of pushing and pulling that would have tickled the master (Hans Hofmann) pink. And to make matters even more tensile, colors don’t just rub up, so to speak, against one another, but also against what they depict. So powerful and adroitly applied are they that the figures they embellish are all but eclipsed, if not submerged by the sheer bombast of pigment that constitutes them, gesturing toward a conflict between form and color, and making it such that these paintings verge on a very literal form of figurative abstraction.

Ella Kruglyanskaya, Untitled, 2012
Courtesy of the artist; and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York. Photo by Thomas Müller

Kruglyanskaya’s women are known to be portrayed in a handful of different scenarios, such as passing by one another and exchanging regards of barely-concealed contempt; sipping from the same drink with two different straws while gazing spitefully into one another’s eyes; and lying next to one another in one-piece bathing suits in a state of water-side relaxation which is belied by their swimwear, whose elaborate design figures, as if in psychological surrogate, two male-looking visages glowering at each other. Indeed, a common motif or, let’s say, aesthetic recourse exploited by Kruglyanskaya consists of either transferring or explicitly magnifying the animus shared between women to their clothes. Take Negative Vibes(2013) for instance, which features one woman walking away from another with imperious and dismissive disdain. Embedded in the former’s skirt, both visually and among her physical contours, is a male mustachioed face (the mouth matching up with her rotund derrière) shouting at the latter, while the latter, who has been scratched out by a big impetuous stroke of paint, looks down in horror at the truculent hyperbole of female anatomy before her.

When not bound by animus in the interior of the painting, Kruglyanskaya’s women have a tendency to shift their enmity outward at the viewer. Indeed, voyeurs are not particularly welcome here. Consider Bathers XII(2012), which features two of the artist’s signature bathers lying next to one another. Were it not for the attractive, vixen-like visage glaring over her shoulder out at the viewer, the latter would be able to admire with perfect impunity the fact that her crescented posterior symmetrically mirrors her companion’s impressive breasts, but that backward glance precludes any such egregious gazing. Looking, this work reminds us, no matter how much unbridled joy it might procure us, is never an innocent activity.

This latter remark brings us to yet another point of tension in the work, which is also maybe its most unresolvable mystery or paradox: form and content. At once perfectly synthesized and totally divided, Kruglyanskaya’s relationship to form and content seems as if it could go one of two ways, if not both ways at the same time. On one hand, she could be read as a feminist with a particular interest in psychosocial tensions among woman (and men, via women), and on the other, a formalist directly engaged with and committed to the history of painting. Of course, this not to say that these two points of interest are mutually exclusive and cannot coexist, as ostensibly they can and do, as proved by Kruglyanskaya’s work.

Ella Kruglyanskaya, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, 2012
Courtesy of the artist; and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York. Photo by Thomas Müller

Nevertheless, there is the sense that certain decisions are made if not for the sake of formal virtuosity, then for a great deal of play and internal contrast. I am thinking for example of the way women dress in her work, which is conspicuously reminiscent of former USSR styles—tacky colors and mismatched patterns. While such fashion seems culturally specific, it is also clearly formally generative. Kruglyanskaya’s voluptuous body types lend themselves to the similar kind of interrogation: is she engaging in a discourse about “unconventional beauty”—which, along with the comic-strip cartoon aesthetic, has, incidentally, led people to characterize her as “nostalgic”—or is she simply exploiting a body type by virtue of the formal latitude it affords her? To put it another way, how would the introduction of, say, Kate Moss’s heroin-chic body type alter these paintings? Would not such a change if not exsanguinate, then attenuate their antic exuberance? In so far as there would just be less surface to play upon…

Exuberant these highly energetic paintings are, which is a final point worth reflecting upon: the way Kruglyanskaya paints. Although cogent, latter-day examples of Hans Hofmann’s push-and-pull theory, Kruglyanskaya’s paintings are satisfying in a way that the German-born, American abstract expressionist could never be (whose meticulous constructed abstractions all but contradict the very nature of the historical movement to which they belonged). And that satisfaction has as much to do with her virtuosity as a colorist as it does with how she paints. Full of broad, brushy strokes, her canvases seem to exist at the threshold of the sketch and the constructed scenario. They are at once structured, as evidenced by the oblique, comic-strip windows in which they are known to take place, and spontaneous, as demonstrated by the visible mark-making of which they are composed. As such they could be said to combine the extempore technique of Warhol’s fashion drawings with a more contained, molecularly speaking, version of the vim of Dekooning’s women. Curiously, to return to the relationship between form and content, there is an almost perfect synthesis between the conviction with which these paintings are painted and the conviction with which the woman who inhabit them fully inhabit their world. Like Kruglyanskaya’s deft strokes of paint, these women seem to come, stay and go as they please.