Art Space Talk: Evguenia Men
Evguenia Men is interested in the reaction of the human soul as it experiences both grief and joy. Evguenia views the human soul as an enormous secret world that becomes visible through perceiving and painting the essence of visible objects. She interprets human emotions by juxtaposing colors of her subjects. When in desperation she may see red as black, yellow as grey, or blue as brown. Objects are distorted, sugar is bitter, and peaches are tasteless. For example, Evguenia paints grief turning to joy by showing an open red and black mouth screaming out white pearls.
Brian Sherwin: Evguenia, you were born in St. Petersburg, Russia. Can you tell us about your youth and your early experiences with art?
Evguenia Men: I grew up in a very artistic city. Every weekend my parents used to take me to see a theater play, or a ballet, or an exhibition at Hermitage or other museums. At home I had a huge collection of art books and literature of various genres, so I literally lived in an imaginary world. I didn’t like being outside, partially because weather in Saint Petersburg is usually quite miserable, so I can say I preferred living "inside".
BS: Evguenia, where did you study art? Can you tell us about your academic experience? Who were your mentors?
EM: I graduated from Junior Art School in Saint Petersburg when I was sixteen (I studied there for four years). At that time there were many special schools for gifted children, they all were almost free of charge but one needed to pass entry exams to be accepted by a particular college. Our teachers were from the famous Saint- Petersburg Academy of Arts, and the education was very "classical", i.e. traditional and academic. Back then I didn’t like those strict rules and "boring" subjects we had to draw and paint. I hated those still-life sets with dusty bottles and pieces of grey clothes surrounding them. We were not allowed to express ourselves artistically freely. Let’s say, I could not paint my bright "fantasy world" I was living in. Now looking back though, I am really grateful to my teachers for the strictness, because all those "classical" rules now live in my blood and my consciousness, and technically it helps enormously. Also we spent a lot of time in museums studying art history, observing and discussing paintings which I liked very much.
Later after graduating from the University I spent three years studying cinematography as a student of the Department of Film Directing (St. Petersburg Institute of Cinema and Television). I’ve written several screenplays, shot a few short films as a director but finally decided that the film industry requires too much discipline and organization, and if one is not a natural ‘crew organizer’ it can just kill one’s creativity.
BS: You have a master degree in chemistry from St. Petersburg State University. How did the study of chemistry influence your work? Do you use any of your knowledge of chemistry while working with art materials?
EM: At first, when I switched completely to arts and painting I had thoughts that I wasted my time studying chemistry. Later, after realizing that different paints I use for my pieces are based on a wide variety of solvents, I discovered virtually limitless possibilities for experimenting with physical qualities of paint.
All my mixed-media works are based on chemical experiments. I use mixtures of acrylics, watercolors, enamel and oil to make rich backgrounds of my works. Sometimes I use thick mixture, sometimes go with more "creamy" texture. It always depends on the mood of painting I am working on.
It’s very important to know which solvent evaporates faster or slower, because this process has a great influence on a final product. Every time I find something new to apply on a canvas surface, it’s quite amazing and often unexpected, but clearly has a component of practical chemistry.
BS: You have lived in the US and Australia. I understand that you enjoy traveling. How have those experiences influenced you as an artist?
EM: I used to travel a lot. I’ve visited many countries in Europe, lived in the States for three years and also in Japan. Now living in subtropical Brisbane in Australia allows me to paint outdoors all year long because of perfect climate conditions, and I travel much less now. Actually, to me all this travel experience has opened one simple but deep mystery-- that the human soul is always the human soul, and one has to deal with the same "myself being" with the same inner problems and joys everywhere regardless of outside cultural diversity.
BS: Evguenia, your art deals with themes of love, jealousy, hatred, desperation, passion and joy-- you have mentioned that you paint the human soul --can you go into further detail about your work and the message that you strive to convey?
EM: What I meant by this expression is that I cry, laugh or feel a joy through my art. I can give you an example. I painted ‘Pearls Are Running Free’ (image above) when I was having a terrible depression and pain. My painting process was the only remedy to escape suffering. So I got into the world of images and squeezed my feelings into oil.
Pearls are beautiful things, but they also represent a mysterious act of painful creation by a living creature. When a grain of sand gets inserted into a shell, the mollusk suffers and tries to get rid of pain by surrounding it with layers of nacre. The result of suffering is beauty. The difference between the words "pain" and "paint" is just a single letter.
BS: When you say that you paint the 'human soul' are you referring to the spiritual side of life? Is there a degree of spirituality to your work?
EM: The spiritual world is an invisible but very real place to me. In other words, it’s something you know existence of, but can’t see, touch or even explain. How can one explain the process of creating? I think music is another good example. It’s a mysterious complex of thoughts, intuition, feelings of images and sounds. It is always something uncertain that nobody can explain by verbal means. What is really fascinating about art is uncertainty and mystery.
BS: Evguenia, you use a lot of symbolism within the context of your work. Can you tell us about this symbology? Perhaps you could explain the meaning behind certain colors that you use?
EM: I use symbolic meanings of colors that come from Orthodox Christian iconography: red represents suffering; blue – Heaven, sky; dark blue and purple – mystery; gold – Royalty, nobleness etc…I add some contemporary and personal interpretations as well, like for example red in my works represents blood and passions; black – the unknown, mystical; blue – happiness and so on.
BS: So would you say that the essence of your work is about conflict-- about how two opposing forces can mesh together to form a whole? Are you trying to create a sense of stability in the unstable, so to speak?
EM: I don’t try to create a sense of stability. What stability could there possibly be if there is a constant struggle between good and evil inside a human heart? It is always dynamic. On the contrary, I try to show how strong this battle inside our hearts is, and how constant this struggle is.
BS: You mention that art is a confession... are you trying to redeem yourself through your work? Can you go into further detail about this?
EM: It’s very simple. I paint what I feel, what I am thinking about at this very moment, and what I am fighting within myself.
BS: In your opinion, what does art need to have an authentic voice? What does a painting need to be truthful-- and if needed --honest in its brutality?
EM: In my opinion, an artist has to be honest with himself. Never try to imitate someone or to be popular, or to be someone else. I think one’s honesty to oneself is the way to be authentic. About brutality…? If someone paints an ocean of blood it might look too straightforward and even kitschy (in a bad sense). A strong message about death may not look brutal at all, at least at first sight. I mean, you don’t have to copy horrible images of everyday reality to deliver a strong message.
A good example is Picasso’s "Guernica ". I’ve never seen any other painting which describes horrors of war so deeply and strongly. But in order to paint something like this you have to be as talented and profound as him. So finally everything comes to the possession of talent, which nobody can define or describe. You can only feel its presence. And again it is what links oneself to the invisible.
BS: Tell us more about the philosophy behind your work...
EM: The fact that I often paint plain everyday objects is kind of my life philosophy. I find that every humdrum object may have a mysterious meaning. It’s like ancient Greeks described the ‘human-animal-plant-stone-earth’ ladder as a set of interconnected steps. It’s similar to subjects chosen by H. C. Andersen for his fairy tales. If you can find meaningfulness in simple and ordinary things which you can see and touch every day, you can be a truly happy person, because then you live in a fairy tale each day of your life.
BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art?
EM: First and foremost, painting makes me happy and gives a clear definition of what is really important in my life and what is not.