Zhenya Gershman

From Russia With Grotesquerie


Shutters on the Beach
1 Pico Boulevard
Santa Monica, C.A.

The Tab

(1) pomegranate martini
(1) rosé
$32.78 + tip
Gershman's Tip for the Road: "If you see a stop sign on the road, STOP. If you see it in a work of art, GO!"

The phrase “Soviet artist” makes me think of dissidents and deprivation–bearded men writing masterpieces in small, cold apartments crammed with one-too-many generations of family, subsisting on crusts of bread and the occasional bowl of borscht.

I knew the painter Zhenya Gershman wouldn’t have a beard, and when she suggested we meet for a drink in the posh lobby of Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, I should have known she’d upend a lot of my deeply held clichés. And to be fair to Gershman, who’s accessorized today with blue eye shadow and chunky gold jewelry, she considers herself as much a Southern California artist as a Soviet one, having landed in Los Angeles from Moscow in 1991, at age 15. Having lived half her life in Russia and half in the U.S. has been like having “at least a double life,” she tells me. “It’s this split personality, and you never really feel like you belong anywhere.”

Perhaps that’s one reason Gershman’s art doesn’t really belong anywhere, either. I first became aware of it through a work colleague, and when I viewed her paintings online they immediately made me curious. They didn’t delight me. In fact, I almost felt that I was being dared to feel repulsed. Gershman’s subjects are Lucian-Freud-esque fat women and naked men (Gershman tells me she doesn’t like the word “nude”) with misshapen noses and sad eyes. This artist, it was obvious to me, wasn’t pursuing conventional beauty. So what was she pursuing?

But now that we’re having drinks–she has ordered a pomegranate martini, and I’m having a glass of rosé–Gershman wants to begin at the beginning. That’s in Moscow, where her family was part of the city’s intelligentsia. Zhenya, an only child and aspiring artist, was exposed to both art and medicine from an early age. Her grandfather was a renowned songwriter (“Moscow Nights”) and a poet, and her aunt was an art historian. “I grew up with famous people around me; that was just sort of normal,” she says. But the greatest influence was her mother, an acupuncturist who saw in her daughter one more artist in the family despite the fact that Gershman was a slow learner and an average student.

Just as Gershman’s Soviet past wasn’t as rough as I’d imagined, her defection story wasn’t so dramatic, either. Glasnost had been in effect for years when Gershman’s father–a gastroenterologist–was invited to America by UCLA and emigrated from the USSR with his wife and daughter in 1991.

But talking about her art brings us back to her Moscow days. Gershman recalls that her first artistic breakthrough came at age 10, when the film Mephisto–about an actor who sells his soul to the Nazis–inspired her with a sudden, extreme urge to draw a picture of the devil. It was “like a miracle,” she says. The film filled her with so much emotion that if she didn’t express herself on paper, “I thought I was going to explode and die.” Gershman was hooked on art by the experience–“the feeling of that explosion and completion and satisfaction”–and by her mother’s effusive praise for the drawing. “That’s kind of the two stages of the artist–you create, then you need to exhibit and share,” she says. “It was so contagious that I had to do it over again.”

Gershman pinpoints that day as the moment she became an artist–one who creates work that others will look upon and feel, too. She said she never feels blocked or unconfident. “Somebody will pick up the phone,” she says. For every piece of artwork she paints, “I know that there will be a day or a moment, or even one person who will be moved, and it will be as life-changing for them as it was for me. It’s an innate feeling.”

But for all her self-assurance–or perhaps because of it–Gershman doesn’t paint what she thinks people want to see. Instead, she paints whatever will give her as much satisfaction as that picture of the devil she did when she was 10. One major influence are Russian icons which, like her figures, stare straight back out of the frame. “My friends laugh at me because I love the aesthetics of orthodox Russian art, but I come from a Jewish family,” she says. If she has one lodestar, it is Rembrandt, whom she calls my greatest teacher” and “the love of my life.”

The man she paints most often is not only not classically beautiful but also, in certain paintings, ugly and menacing. Mark Snyder is a compact, wiry yet muscular man with chiseled features and a shaved head. Gershman met him over a decade ago, when he modeled for a workshop at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He looked like a neo-Nazi to her, but she felt compelled to paint him. “Mark has more personality in his earlobe” than most people have in their faces, she declares. She eventually came to consider him not just a model but also a collaborator. During a recent two or three year stretch, Gershman painted Snynder exclusively, depicting him in myriad settings and poses.

Gershman seeks to put her models at ease, trying to find the true, un-self-conscious self. It’s a mood Snyder can strike at will, she says. Looking at the paintings of Snyder together, you can see that one man is staring back from the canvas. But that one man is never the same twice. Like the film Mephisto, Gershman’s many Snyders explore the good and evil in one person, the multiplicity within each human being. More recently, Gershman has begun revisiting old paintings of Snyder and layering more paint on top, creating a ghost-like effect of a man aging.

I push Gershman to try to define her paintings in the context of L.A.’s contemporary art scene. “I hate to say that I do portraits,” she says. When pressed, she tells me that at a cocktail party she might call her work “subjective realism.”

At this point, an hour into sipping on our first drinks, we seem to be in a competition over who can imbibe less. But no one gets on our case. The lobby of Shutters on the Beach–a Cape-Cod-fancy room with overstuffed couches, low ceilings, and lots of fireplaces–is designed to make people feel at ease. When a fly lands in my half-drunk glass of wine, the waitress replaces it with a laugh. Gershman says she’s been coming here for years to relax and think. Perhaps that’s a requirement if you’ve spent all day staring at sinister nudes.

So where did Gershman’s curious aesthetic come from, anyway? Part of it has to do with Gershman’s late and independent start. Gershman says she was, at 10, already too old to be able to enroll in art school in the Soviet Union. (There, she says, at 16 you’re already expected to be painting in the manner of Da Vinci.) So her mother enlisted two family friends in the Moscow art world to guide Gershman’s development. This allowed her to continue on an idiosyncratic course.

In the U.S., at the Otis College of Art and Design, Gershman found that her teachers wanted her to cast away everything she had learned. She rejected their advice, but it wound up teaching her what she stood for. She can laugh about it now. “I have gray hairs; they’re called by each advisor’s name,” she jokes.

Art has never paid all the bills for Gershman (she put herself through art school by selling gloves on Melrose), and for 11 years she worked in the education department at the Getty Museum. A few months ago, after having “decided that I will live for my work,” she left. Today, she paints four or five times a week rather than twice a week, and she gets to see more of her family, which includes her parents, who still live in Los Angeles, husband, and four-year-old daughter. (“She’s probably the one person who thinks my paintings are beautiful!”) She’s still planning to do independent scholarship and is working on a book about Rembrandt.

While Gershman is obviously ambitious, she doesn’t seem bothered by the question of fitting in. Although she has exhibited at large national art shows, she says she feels “a real disconnect from the art conversation.” That disconnect has been costly, at times. “When you go to galleries today, almost all gallerists ask, ‘Who is your work like?’” she says. “If you can’t answer, they won’t represent you.”

Still, she finds the crowds she saw at the national shows encouraging. “People still need painting. They might not know what they need, but they still need painting, and that was really inspiring.” And, despite gallery skepticism, she has consistently found representation. Today she exhibits with Timothy Yarger Fine Art, a gallery in Beverly Hills, and on August 17 she’ll be opening her studio in Crestwood Hills to the public for an event sponsored by the Gallerati Society, a local organization that puts on art soirees.

Before we finish our drinks–we’ve stuck to one each, supplemented with free chips and almonds–we look around one more time. The pianist has started playing, and the hotel bar is beginning to pick up.

“Everything individually is really ugly and tacky,” Gershman says, “but taken together, it’s lovely.”

Sarah Rothbard is managing & books editor of Zócalo Public Square.

*Photo by Sarah Rothbard.