Otherwise: The Art of Ola Timer Kravchenko
by Roy Brand
What makes a work of art different? For it cannot be a veil of innovative charm or pretense to uniqueness, which, after a century of modern avant-garde, has become the norm. Indeed, with its ‘ethos of individualism’ and rhetoric of the new, every contemporary work of art strives to be different—unique, original, unparalleled. ‘Being different’ carries a high value in Western culture, so much so that today, everyone seems different in quite similar ways. However, observing the paintings of Ola K. evokes a distinct quality of otherness. Under the guise of a classic or genre painting, the same undefined quality permeates, returning a sinister gaze and confronting our pre-judgments. But what is this concept - otherness? Or, rather, what conjures this sense of otherness?
Let's briefly return to the notion of ‘the other’ - a layered and complex concept that developed along with modernity - and to various representations of ‘the other’ in art history. This retrospect will allow us to return to Ola K's works in the second part so we can ask: What place does otherness have in contemporary culture? And focusing on fine art, in what ways are we exposed to art outside the mainstream, and how can we contain and experience otherness?
Following World War II, French artist Jean Dubuffet coined the term ‘art brut’ (literally, ‘raw art,’ also known as ‘outsider art’) to describe works made away or at the margins of established culture. Although Dubuffet came from a bourgeois background and began an artistic career only at 41, he presented an "anti-cultural" stance and promoted values of "instinct, passion, mood, violence, and madness." Together with the surrealist poet André Breton and the writer Jean Paulhan, Dubuffet founded the Art Brut Movement and acquired works for the first collection of art created by children, prisoners, and psychiatric patients. We can trace the foundations for these ideas in the romantic approach of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who criticized in his writings the artificiality of human (European) culture and praised the emotional and moral purity of the ‘natural state.’ That same year, in Emile, Or Treatise on Education, Rousseau expanded the term ‘noble savage’ to denote a sense of natural human dignity that was not corrupted by Western civilization. This notion had a significant influence on the discourse of art and the romantic tendency to prefer authenticity over refinement. Although such claims seem suspicious today, they have been formative to modern art and are still prevalent in contemporary circles. Artists such as Paul Gauguin, Wassily Kandinsky, and Pablo Picasso looked admirably at untrained creators and were inspired by the discovery of folk art from Asia, Oceania, and Africa. From dada to Jackson Pollock and from Yayoi Kusama to Jonathan Meese, modern and contemporary artists aspire to the uncritical and uncultivated state of creativity achieved by children, folk artists, mental patients, and "naïve" or "bad" painters.
While Europeans linked savagery and nobility, Americans preferred terms such as ‘outsider art’ or ‘self-taught artists’ to emphasize the radical individualism and ingenuity of amateur artists who were not part of the institutionalized artistic milieu. Thus, the American ‘noble savage’ became a defiant and independent cultural hero that ranges outdoors from the wide-open spaces of the Wild West, through the urban poetry of Walt Whitman and Alan Ginsburg, to graffiti art and rap of the black ghetto. Despite many differences, in both centers of the Western world, a sensitivity for otherness was developing, while the initial attraction the distant other gave way to a deeper engagement with the other within.
In his groundbreaking book Outsider Art (1972), British art historian Roger Cardinal argued that art created outside the mainstream is characterized by an "attitude of internal alienation." This sensation builds up when one's inner world becomes considerably farther from shared reality. In fact, this same experience is common to many, even though it finds a sharpened and extreme expression in outsider art. In other words, "not feeling (like) oneself" has become a central feature of the modern structure of the self. And we can find various representation of the figure of the 'stranger within' in popular culture, and social media. We are fascinated with alienation and with social misfits since it has become so prevalent. This sentiment was already at play at the inaugural edition of New York's Outsider art Fair in 1993, which attracted the usual suspects of the art world, such as museum curators and prominent collectors, and the curious public alike. However, at the art fair, otherness became identified with artists' lives more than with the quality of their work. Stanford Smith, the founder of the fair, summed up the prevailing atmosphere/mood by saying that "People bought the story in addition to the object."
In the current climate of political correctness, such attitudes of "othering," the processes by which otherness is discursively produced, communicated, and interpreted, are generally frowned upon. Putting a label on an artist, checking their biographical details to decide on their quality and market value, or in any sense bifurcating art to professionals and non-professionals seems anachronistic and unethical. There is a growing recognition that the dominant narrative itself is limiting and needs to be shattered from within to include many artists from different racial and cultural backgrounds, gender, sexual preferences, and mental and physical disabilities. Whereas some would like to remove all barriers between artists formed within the mainstream art field and other creative practitioners, others want to hold on to some separation if only to credit and honor the efforts of those coming from outside the usual circles.
This dilemma was clearly at play in the masterful exhibition, The Encyclopaedic Palace, curated by Masssimilaino Gioni at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Gioni’s brilliantly brought together conventional and non-conventional creators under themed headings such as supernatural visions, taxonomies, archives, invented worlds, works with handwriting, and more. The boundaries between inside and outside were blurred, but, even so, paradoxically, the exhibition instantiated the very difference it wanted to erase.
Otherness is now less rigidly identified with biography, attitude, or style. However, it is still instructive and can be detected throughout different cultures and times. Otherness cannot, therefore, be one thing. However, there are similarities between works of art that are not part of mainstream art. Perhaps the most striking characteristic they share involves expressing a strong desire to communicate at all costs and by all means. It is as if the work wants to shout the artist's cry, the yell of the unheard, and it does not care how. Here, the yearning is for recognition as a unique human being, equal but different, and not for artistic abilities. And it is all the more resounding since, at least in the visual arts, it is a silent shout, recalling Edvard Munch’s iconic Scream.
In other cases, and quite in the opposite direction, the work seems hermetic or autistic, seemingly uninterested in the viewer. These are resigned works, expressing the loss of faith that communication is at all possible. Many of the works exhibit repetitiveness verging on the obsessive, like Yayoi Kusama’s polka dots that multiply ad infinitum in her installations. In different ways, all such works communicate an otherness yearning for recognition: ‘I am one among many, equal and unrepeatable’. However, at the same time, they insist on the primordial, the everlasting, and the universal. Perhaps because this very tension between uniqueness and universality is at the very basis of art making, many of the works arch back to cave paintings, hieroglyphics, Babylonian script, and medieval frescos.
In other words, ‘other’ works (or the work of otherness) exist along the long continuum of art and life, outside the modern ideology of ‘art for art's sake.’ Sometimes, they seem to be unfamiliar with the very notion of ‘art’ — like children or indigenous people who create with no actual connection to the art world. Yet, modern and contemporary art is manifestly an art that claims itself as such. Without the designation—‘this is art’—usually bestowed by institutions or insiders it cannot be distinguished from everyday objects or non-art. Therefore, an outsider’s work, when presented in a modern or contemporary context, becomes simultaneously art and non-art — it is art because it is not art — the very paradox found at the root of modern art is carried here to its extreme end.
With Ola K, the universal theme that is at the same time peculiar and inimitable is self-portraiture. Looking at oneself is, of course, as old as mythology itself. From narcissus to the selfie, we are trapped in our image, trying to understand the perceived figure, which is both foreign and familiar. In his famous article, "The Mirror Stage," psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan describes the infant's encounter with his reflection in the mirror as an essential developmental stage that shapes the structure of desire. The attempt to match the inner world with the outer figure, connect the way I experience myself from the inside with the way I look in the other's eyes is not just an early developmental experience but an originary conflict that will shape my relationship with myself and others.
In fact, we may never really be able to actually look at ourselves, thoroughly look, deeply observe ourselves, afraid that this may lead to madness. I, for one, usually scan myself in the mirror, avoiding extended eye contact. I look, and I do not look at the same time. However, there are times in which deep introspection is inevitable, even necessary. Thus, for example, when our anchors and set of identifications collapse and we lose ourselves and our sense of reality, those terrifying instances in which we lose our connection to the inner core of our being. In such moments, we must stop to take stock of ourselves, reflect, and provide an account, a portrait, of ourselves.
That is the state Ola K had found herself in through the traumatic upheavals of her life. In 2016, the creators of the documentary series, Shadow of Truth, portrayed her as the murderer of fourteen-year-old Tair Rada. They based their allegations on the testimony of her ex-partner, who claimed she confessed to him about the murder, and exposed her psychiatric condition. The broadcasting of the series led to vehement debates resulting in troubling consequences and a contemporary witch hunt. Finally, after receiving anonymous threats, Ola suffered a nervous breakdown. She fled to Ukraine, her birthplace, to live with her grandmother, piece together the fragments of her life, recover, and paint.
The police did not find a shred of evidence that may incriminate Ola and mentioned this more than once in the media but to no avail. The narrative concocted in the editing room has already set public opinion against her. The devastating repercussions of the series subsided when the affair took another turn in March 2021. The documentary Heavy Shadow presented the sequence of events from Ola's point of view and words. She immigrated to Israel from Ukraine and lived with her mother in Katzrin on the Golan Height. Years later, the lonely girl, who had experienced violence from a young age, joined a cult. There, she entered a violent relationship that lasted about a decade until she mustered the courage to leave, a decision that drew threats and extortion attempts by the spouse. She filed a rape complaint against him. The ex-partner admitted to assaulting her and told investigators that Ola confessed to him she was Rada's killer, an act she allegedly committed under the influence of a violent delusion during an acute psychotic episode.
Both documentaries presented a series of unusual paintings made by the accused or the victim. Depending on the plot the creators sought to promote, the same works were displayed to expose her madness and cruelty and, alternatively, her pain and sensitivity. Since it had been many years since I had watched television, I was unaware of Ola's existence, let alone the demonic dance that surrounded her. However, that changed the day I was exposed to Ola's paintings through the artist Tama Goren. The curiosity I discovered was binding - I recently opened a project space for art and philosophy in Tel Aviv, and Tama's call for an exhibition gained force in my mind as a personal invitation. First, the quality of the works spoke to me, not the story behind them. What I saw was extraordinary, intense, displaced, inquisitive, restless, direct, brave, disturbing, seductive, brutal, and beautiful. Through the works, I felt the power of reality in which suffering constitutes a nodal point between art and life. The paintings had to be displayed. Tama Goren and I started planning together Ola's first solo exhibition.
In addition to the oil paintings, many of them are self-portraits, we also discovered another body of work that seemed very different. Ola K. had written a children's book and added a set of fantastical drawings, naïve, magical, and playful. It was hard to imagine that they were the products of one artist as the subject, style, and tone were diametrically opposed. However, a deeper and longer look wrought several affinities. Primarily, the sense of exhilarating freshness in the making, the complete absorption and surrender to art, and the sense of deep mysterious darkness that connects life and death, oneself and another.
Finally, we return to the self-portraits of Ola K that directly look at us as much as we look at them. We witness an individual woman attempting to recollect herself through the fragments of her life, beyond the string of stories woven into her. Her gaze is suspicious and intimate, critical and compassionate. Their capability to present the foreignness we feel when we look deep into ourselves is of universal significance. The magic of any self-portrait, whether it is Rembrandt, Munch, Lucian Freud, or Tracey Emin, lies in the inability of someone else to occupy a place in the space between one and her reflection in the mirror. However, this is exactly what we see - not the reflection in the mirror, but the way we look at ourselves in the mirror. No matter where I am – an-other appears and comes into being in the impossible space between me and myself.
Edited by Masha Prashkovsky