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Alissa Wilkinson

Mikhail Turovsky

The art of the aphorist.

Ukrainian-born artist Mikhail Turovsky works in a variety of media. He's an aphorist as well as a painter—a writer of pithy, Tweet-length proverbs. His book Itch of Wisdom (first published in Russian in 1984 and translated into English in 1986) is influential in its genre in Russia.

This other artistic discipline of Turovsky's helps frame a collection of his works on paper, which recently showed at the National Arts Club in New York City. The works hung on both walls down a long hallway, arranged thematically: first nudes and figures, then trees, then chairs, and then back to people. Many are simply ink; others have bold, imaginative colors that run outside the lines. The drawings are mostly simple and fluid, with strong, thick curves and little in the way of detail. The figures are generally nude, but in most there's only the outline of the form. These are not about the figure or its features: they are about the movement, the gesture that the person is making—leaping, resting, embracing, weeping. Each work is dynamic, a figure caught in motion. Even the trees and chairs seem to be alive with movement.

Neither aphorisms nor small works on paper are meant to be full-sized expositions of a complex theme. They are breaths, quotations, thoughts, and—on the surface—less complex than a complete work. Yet there is something about a small work—a drawing on paper or an aphorism—that makes us stop and think about it. It requires its audience to take it slowly, to chew and digest. What it says on its surface is only the beginning. So when Turovsky writes, "Broken wings fit more easily in standard-size boxes," I cannot quickly pass on. I require a moment to mentally conjure the image, then understand what it really means. (Rabbis are famously good at this genre.)

Similarly, when I was wandering down the hallway of Turovsky's works, piece after piece arrested my attention and demanded contemplation. Yes: this woman is sleeping; these two are embracing; this woman holds a child. Two figures sit across the table from one another, eating. All are going about daily business of some kind. But there is more here.

Some of Turovsky's best-known larger works are found in a cycle of paintings, Holocaust, which has shown at the United Nations and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The paintings echo the sort of pain found in famous works such as Picasso's Guernica, but with a perhaps more full-bodied humanity: we see faces that could be anyone's, bodies with shape and dimension and curve and shadow, all wracked with pain and wrapped around one another. In the statement that accompanies the show, Turovsky says that the Holocaust represents a "universal human affliction," and that "only art, which addresses itself directly to human emotions is able to convey the enormity of this loss."

So here, perhaps, is the core of Turovsky's aphorisms-on-paper. In these works, he captures the universals of mundane human experience in ways that cannot be put directly into words: a mother tenderly holding a child, a couple gently embracing one another, a woman sleeping in peace. In one sense, we can read these as a return to Eden—these people are naked, not ashamed, and engaged in deeply human activity.

This is perhaps most clear in the final works in the series, which have a recurring motif of a figure standing with arms raised to the sky. When I saw them, I stopped and looked at several in a row. Are they stretching? Signaling to someone across the way? Then I looked more closely, and realized that each was standing in the rain. Dancing, it appeared, in the rain—or maybe praying. Hollering at the heavens or shouting in jubilation. I don't know what Turovsky had in mind, but I'd gather that each viewer, looking at the image, must then dig down to find what it might mean.

Alissa Wilkinson edits Comment and teaches English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. Her articles and criticism appear in Christianity Today and other publications.

Mikhail Turovsky's Holocaust cycle: http://www.turovsky-holocaust.org

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