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In sitting and chatting with Audrey Ushenko one is quickly drawn
into a life rich with music, painting, family and friends. Yet as accessible as this 50-ish artist and
IPFW faculty member is, her figurative paintings – currently on view at the FWMA through April 28 –
veil windows on her private world. Parting these veils presents a challenge.
Strictly speaking, six of the eight larger works easily fit within the show’s title, “In Natural Habitat,”
while two large still-lifes and three small portraits seem incongruous, though they do give insight into
her technique. Taken together these narrative, oil on linen works mimic the representational school most
associated with John Sloan and the Ash Can school (or not).
Juxtaposing a bizarre assortment of reptiles, animals and birds, winged children,
Egyptian royalties, their attendants and some flying mummy casings, along with some
self-effacing self-portraits and a gallery of current and former friends, Ushenko attempts
a reality of longing, mourning and celebration. These are subjects Ushenko has depicted
before in her momento mori (literally, “remember to die”) series. These essentially grim
reminders of mortality permeate the history of painting but here the artist defines the
message to include live each moment to its fullest, a “be here now” attitude.
These festive slices of life and peaceable kingdoms are a reflection of
a multi-dimensional world. Sometimes her subjects are contained in a gallery,
a museum (FWMA), a farm house or out of doors in a cemetery. The cast of
characters are captured gesturing in realistic poses but rendered alongside
and within allegorical themes. This model population seem caught in their own
reality, oblivious to our observations, although occasionally one of them may focus directly at us.
Ushenko’s painterly qualities are consistent throughout. She’s found a unique way to render gesture and expression in a most
realistic manner, although it is labor intensive. She admits to spending two or three months on each piece. Her color
choices are from a naturalist’s pallet, rich and earthy, yet she does well with glass and the icy glaze of winter light as well.
So where’s all this going you’re asking? Even your guide has questions.
The artist began in Princeton, New Jersey, the daughter of a university professor, and not long thereafter ended up in Bloomington
when her father accepted a position in the Philosophy department at IU.
Her dad, Andrew, had been an associate of Albert Einstein and was the author of a book,
The Philosophy of Relativity, which examined the metaphysical implications of Einstein’s magnum opus.
He was later to publish The Dynamics of Art, a treatise encompassing his thoughts on ontology and epistemology.
Bear with me, I had to look it up as well. Suffice it to say Ushenko was raised under the cloak of academia.
Her mother nudged her toward mathematics, or rather it’s sister science, music, and she began studies in piano.
By the age of 12 or so she was proficient enough to be handed off to a personal trainer/manager to begin a track toward a
career as a concert pianist. She has retained a pair of lovely hands.
But her privileged upbringing didn’t prepare her for the unexpected death of her father en route to another post in Boston.
Ushenko foundered with the loss and so too did her enthusiasm for the piano.
Fortunately a middle school teacher recognized her disposition toward art, and she rushed to fulfill her finger needs with crayon,
charcoal, etc. Long story short, she ended up taking her undergraduate degree in at IU Bloomington, her Master’s and also her
Doctorate in Art History from Northwestern.
I know, that still doesn’t explain her paintings and their subject matter. But it should clue you into two essential
elements: academics and allegory.
I’ve always maintained that art appreciation requires an ascension. It is there for everyone but it demands of the viewer to step
up to the plate. You can’t look at art over the shoulder or from the couch. You’ve got to meet and greet it head-on.
Some preparation required. Batteries not included.