“Portrait—do one of a man who looks like Mr. So and-So,” Pierre Bonnard instructed himself in his diary, anticipating Elena Zolotnitsky’s “imaginary portraits” of young women and men who seem to be urging themselves into existence. The sequence aptly titled “Breathing Lessons,” for example, recalls the spirit photography that flourished in the 19th century, photographs of ectoplasm shaping itself into human form, hovering above the heads of the living who desired contact with their dead. The canvas retains its presence in these pieces—“you can see pores of paper behind the skin of paint,” the artist has noted—and the subject in #1 remains androgynous, ghost-like, the closed eyes suggesting not sleep or death but patience as the transition from one state to another takes place. “The seat of the soul is there,” wrote Novalis, “where the outer and inner worlds meet.” The figure, an angel, perhaps, whose wings have diminished to the tips of a shirt collar, has been caught in the precise moment of becoming, and if we stare long enough, it seems, the eyes may open to survey their new estate.

In “Breathing Lessons” #2, the canvas assumes verticality, especially as its texture blossoms through eye and mouth, so the face seems elongated, again plasmatic, emerging slowly from the green drab of mold and muck. The face functions as primordial reflection, here and not-here, the mouth beginning to open in hunger or, more likely, toward speech.

The oval of the face of the female in “Breathing Lessons #3” is almost Cycladic, its pure form broken by the sweep of reddish-brown hair insisting upon its presence in this portrait, so that the face becomes almost mask-like, “a face to meet the faces that you meet,” as T.S. Eliot phrased it. The rouged cheeks and lipsticked mouth, coupled with flared nostrils and the direct gaze, suggest a girl assuming authority and asserting independence. The bold green background has also emerged from the earlier murk, thick strokes supporting the head and keeping the gaze level. This young woman is fully alive, self-possessed, accomplished.

“Daughter of Fortune” also makes use of Cycladic elements, such as the long, slender nose, and the face appears as a mosaic still visible, after centuries of sun and wind and rain, on a wall in the excavated ruins of Akrotiri. The formalities of the high collar and precisely parted hair are undercut and humanized by the tentative expression: the young woman’s left eye wandering slightly, as if distracted by thought, and the lips self-consciously pursed, as though she were weary and ready, finally, to fade into stone. There’s an elegiac quality to this portrait, as if we might have known this young woman, and still suffer her loss.

This same young woman returns, very much in the present, in “Primavera I,” “Nice Girl,” and “Noel,” nude, unself-conscious now, and assured. She dominates “Primavera I,” leaning forward slightly, to her right, the jutting collar bones and neck muscles supporting a head grown heavy
with its tight, black helmet of hair (even more pronounced on another young woman in “La Menina.”). Here the lips seem purposeful, and the gaze knowing. The slight, narrow, small- breasted torso takes strength from her knowledge. She is called “Nice Girl” by the artist both as a term of endearment and as a charm to ward off the experience already evident in the girl’s gaze.

A strong right arm supports her pose in “Noel,” and her torso, fleshy now, holds back the encroaching darkness. The low horizontal band raises the platform, either grass or rug, upon which she reclines, and her left knee, already shrouded, juts upward below a column that supports, or once supported, the edifice—perhaps a temple—around her. She is like a caryatid stepped down, become human. “Female nudes... are the beginning of everything,” Zolotnitsky has written, “they remind me of Song of Songs.”
My dove in the clefts of the rock, In the shadow of the cliff, Let me see you, all of you! Let me hear your voice,
Your delicious song. I love to look at you.
(translated from the Hebrew by Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch) The eroticism of the Old Testament and Balthus—the latter especially evident in “In the
Bathroom”—informs these pieces, as do the lyrical fragments of Sappho: “But stand before me, if you are my friend, / and spread the grace that’s in your eyes” (translated from the Greek by Jim Powell). These young women, like those of Balthus, remain “so vital and full of energy,” and are often “unaware of their own power,” Zolotnitsky has written.

That power is especially evident in “Middlesex,” in which the classical features of the face appear chiseled, the young androgyne iconic now in her/his musings, as though such musings have brought this creature (the subject of the earlier “Not About a Boy”) more fully into being. The ochre panel suggests an open, wooden triptych, its central panel devoted to the exquisite harmony of the face, while the gold and red brushstrokes blossoming below indicate the fragility of beauty and the impossibility of perfection. The painting simultaneously composes and decomposes itself, reminding the artist that though her task is not incumbent upon her, nor is she free to desist from it.

Her still lifes—“Color Study,” “Rose #1,” and “Folding Table”—bring to mind Paul Rosenfeld’s remark about Alfred Steiglitz’s photographs: “The humblest objects appear to be, for him, instinct with marvelous life.” Her roses revel in light and air, the white rose stretching westward along the desk to follow the sun. Urge and urge and urge, yawped Walt Whitman. The dead wood contrasts with the still-living and phallic flower, holding it in place. Close up, the blocks of color offset the breathing rose, making it more luminous, its petals more fragile. The red rose, suspended against its Rothko-like background, leans from both the glass of water in the painting and from the paper upon which it is painted, assuming additional color. “So much depends / upon // the red wheel / barrow // glazed with rain / water // beside the white / chickens,” wrote William Carlos Williams, and, like the poem, the painting depends upon the composition of its
objects—flower, glass, water, wall—for its existence.

Adam Zagajewski acknowledges the community of artists who prod each other through their work: “Poems from poems, songs / from songs, paintings from paintings, / always this friendly impregnation.” Elena Zolotnitsky’s work is full of such impregnations, yet aspects of her personality have been brought to bear upon her art in such a way that she reveals a vast, interior life filled with aesthetic seductions and enigmatic warmth. Her paintings are companionable, each a small struggle, in subject and craft, against isolation, and evoke what Mario Rossi termed “the great interests of man: air and light, the joy of having a body, the voluptuousness of looking.”

Michael Waters
Professor, Monmouth University Fullbright Scholar in American Studies 2007