Written for the exhibition at U+I Architects gallery, London, September-October 2016
“I live in my own prison, in an isolation cell. Through the window I see a strip of blue sky, a whitewashed wall made of concrete blocks, with a slanted shadow of bars on it. This innocent landscape is full of beauty and harmony. Life is a combination of absurdity, pain, lack of meaning, afflictions, obnoxiousness, beauty – and in its own special way it is also harmonious. From components which at first glance cannot be combined, and are at times unpleasant, I attempt to create a harmony, a harmony of dissonances.”
The above statement vocalises the essence of Okun’s art. An art of contradictions, an art of dissonances, of beauty and ugliness, of good and bad, of appropriate and inappropriate, of consensus and non-consensus. This is what makes his art so fascinating and so unique.
Okun’s art is that of an outsider: he felt so in Leningrad, his hometown, and continues to feel so in Jerusalem today, where he has lived since the late 1970s. This feeling is essential to understanding his perspective on life. Being the outsider, the dissident and the non-conformist, has enabled him to retain his independence from any dictation both by teachers at an early age or by art professionals today.
Okun presents himself as a craftsman, not as an artist. The essence of the work he sets for himself is of the highest possible standard of achievement either in drawing or in painting and not, as he declares, of concept: “I am forced to admit that I have no message at all.” This statement is only partly true, since Okun is a keen observer and witness to the human condition surrounding him. By painting he reveals the basic concepts of our time, fashioned in his contemporary works in what seems a classical approach.
When one looks at Okun’s current paintings, it is hard to believe that his early works began with nature morte. Since the beginning of his career, both his subject matters and the format of his presentation have changed. From small scale paintings in the 1970s he moved to large scale installations in the 1980s, followed by classical oil painting on wood in contemporary works. His evolving choice of media for his art is a manifestation of the constant search conducted by Okun. This study is of the various manifestations of the mundanity which devises man’s everyday life. These so called ‘simple manifestations’ are transformed by Okun into a set of highly elaborate works of art bearing a covert sophisticated philosophy. The onlooker needs to unearth the simple images and search for the greater narrative. This narrative is disguised in metaphors as well as in the complexity of craftsmanship: “I mix colors in an attempt to find meaning,” says Okun. So simple, yet so complex.
In the work “Tribute to Childhood (Thanks Comrade Stalin for Our Happy Childhood)”, 1983, Okun incorporates a set of toy-like images of 6 essential products in one wooden form resembling an altarpiece with three main arches and smaller vignettes surrounded by painted field crops. The inner images are of basic food products next to a surprising compilation of a toy tram and a bus. This is Okun’s tribute to the childhood of Soviet life made into a sanctified manifestation of sparse products. This is a sarcastic perspective on life and art. The appearance is simple – the meaning complex and multi-layered.
Ten years later in 1994 Okun exhibited two large conceptual exhibitions at the Janco Dada Museum and the Ein Harod Museum, both in Israel. The exhibitions were a manifest to the broad spectrum of creativity and knowledge of the artist. Both exhibitions addressed the modes of spirituality in contemporary life. Okun tells the stories of communities which are struggling to understand the position of ritual and order in a chaotic world and existence. These conflicts are part of an artistic assemblage which combines basic food essentials such as milk and eggs with the holy structures of Gothic cathedrals and images of gods: The God of Art, the God of Government, etc. The nine meter high cathedral is made of the simplest of re-used materials, a make believe structure using humor to deal with what many consider the most sacred. Okun challenges the way society perceives its most sacred convictions.
Following his quest to understand the human condition in a wider community, Okun inwardly examined the conditions encountered by the human body. The final years of the 20th C. and early 21st C. saw Okun’s oeuvres change into physical and corporal painting which seems to be nothing but conceptual in nature. However, once the undercurrents are established and acknowledged, the only change is in the format and medium rather than a change in concept.
The new format of human body paintings expands on the perception of the body as a home for the emotions and contemplations that form everyday existence. The external flesh is simply a depiction of the challenges the art of painting addresses in its quest for the truth.
Okun accentuates the contradictions in the notions of high and low in art: he elevates the lowest tiers and minimizes the higher ones. The ideal body of youth and classical perfection is transformed into a deteriorated physique and the soul is exposed in all its hideous absurdity and empty pursuit of the unattainable glory of life.
However, this condition is not a pessimistic one. Okun finds in the human condition an indicator for compassion: human love is just a small miracle if you can find a way to love the common and the ordinary, with all his or her complexities. “The act of being human is in itself a courageous one,” says Okun.
All these complex paintings spring out of the simplest of drawings: the first ideas are formed on a small sheet of paper with just a few rapidly drawn lines or gestures. These preliminary ideas will be the cornerstones of the final panel painting. Drawing follows drawing and gradually the composition and the main characters are designed. Gradually the simple forms are transformed into a human figure in an unexpected pose one next to another: “It is enough to raise the genre one centimeter above the ground to discover what marvels are concealed in it, what an enchanted light radiates from the various faces of the everyday, the ordinary, the banal.”
Okun is determined to retain the position of the craftsman artist: “I engage in painting in a period when painting is dead.” In doing so, he studies his subjects in a particular manner, searching underneath their skin and beyond their anatomy. He studies the works of master painters of the past: Ingres, Mantegna, Tintoretto and Michelangelo – then he forgets whatever they have taught him and sets out to find his own innovation, in the hope of finding the truth and his singular artistic idiom. In a world where technical innovation is the zenith of achievement, Okun is eager to find true innovation based on past precedent, hoping to ascertain relevance to the present. “Art changes and develops constantly,” says Okun, “Classical art is contemporary, since it continues to be relevant to this day. Were it not relevant, it would not have been considered classical.”
Okun has painted dozens of figurative paintings depicting human figures in all shapes and conditions. From babies to elderly people, both men and women, in various situations. Each and every painting depicts the human figure in an unconventional manner. In fact, Okun reaches out beyond the unconventional to depictions that no-one else could have imagined. Thus he broadens our world of thoughts and sweeps us to new realms of bodily conditions and circumstances.
Okus’s study of the human form and body begins with the depiction of newborns. These newborns are not the regular cute babies common to ritual art. Okun’s newborn’s body is that of a baby in his early days, all crumbled and deformed, but with the face of an elderly man. The proportions of the various limbs, the head and the mid-body are distorted in a depressive way. They seem to be floating against the backdrop of an abstract environment devoid of any context. They are disconnected from any real conventional world, their future unknown.
The disconnection of the figures is also evident in the depictions of elderly men. One example is the Butterfly Catcher. An old naked man, with a sagging body , runs with a butterfly net in his hand, on a desert surface. Of course, there are no butterflies to be seen in such an environment and there is no one else around. Again, the depiction is an irregular one; the posture not a running posture, the body distorted to the extreme, the light and shadow do not correspond and the general atmosphere is unclear.
In addition to newborns and elderly figures, Okun created a series of paintings which depict elderly nude couples, with both the man and the woman. These couples are portrayed in different postures and environments; they are grotesque and hideous, always combining a sense of humor with social critique.
One example is the Women Riders triptych. Each panel depicts a different naked elderly couple where the woman rides upon the man’s shoulders. Their bodies are sagging, and they are situated on some unclear surface where the background is a vast panorama of cloudy sky. The style of the clouds corresponds to the style of the bodies which integrates with all the painterly components. Two of the three men have severed limbs. The scenes are grotesque, humoristic and pathetic. While the style is realistic, the situation is unrealistic. It looks as if Okun is creating a new scene with a complex assemblage of meanings and possible interpretations. The paintings comprise many layers, providing additional interpretations with each observation.
The painterly style of Okun is classical in nature, however, the critical interpretation is a contemporary one. The contemporary nature of the paintings is based on the changes introduced by Okun in the positioning and the general interpretation of the relationships between the protagonists.
Okun’s art is not art for pleasure. It is a contemplative conceptual highly complex art, providing an opportunity to step out of our comfort zone. As an outsider, Okun is a sharp onlooker who does not bow to convention and niceties. He looks at the human condition from a philosophical perspective, and presents it in an intriguing and puzzling manner.
About Sasha Okun
Born in Leningrad in 1949, as a young boy Okun began to study one of the many art courses for young artists with Solomon Levin at the Pioneer Palace Studio. He graduated from the Mukhina Higher Industrial Institute of Art in Leningrad after which he worked as a sculptor and taught children’s art workshops.
In the mid-1970s he was part of a group of young artists exhibiting in non-conformist art exhibitions in public parks and alternative spaces in Leningrad, today’s St. Petersburg. Okun and other friends were arrested and threatened with imprisonment. Although his paintings at the time were of still life, the style did not conform with the government directives at that time. After losing several odd jobs, he traveled for a few months throughout the Soviet Union, just to get away from his home town.
Group portrait before the opening of the first non-conformist show, Leningrad, 1974. Sasha Okun at the center of the group.
Upon his return Okun and his family applied to emigrate and left the Soviet Union for Rome where he spent some months touring and studying Classical and Renaissance art. At the time the family considered the possibility of emigrating to the United States like many Russian dissidents, but finally decided on Israel where they have lived since 1979. Okun has been teaching at the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem since 1986. He has exhibited throughout Israel, Europe and America.