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From Chernihiv to Prague:

Onishenko’s New Impressionism Finds Its Place

by Jane Mitchell

Alexandr Onishenko spent hours of his early childhood perched in the window of his family’s flat in Chernihiv, observing the comings and goings of street life. His father, whose own artistic aspirations had been curtailed by the Great Patriotic War, paid for drawing lessons Alexandr took from neighbor and mentor Fyodor Konstantinovich Gorbach. Under Gorbach’s tutelage, Onishenko’s observations developed into sketches and his artistic inclination evolved into passion. Before long, Onishenko was himself part of the early morning traffic, scuttling through the streets with a box of pencils and oils braced tightly under his arm.
From the perceptive eyes of his youth, he held a fascination with what lay “just around the corner.” He looked to the implied, the fleeting.

“I have always been excited by the back stage, the doors for employees, the world without logic,” he says. That excitement is reflected in his paintings, which invite us to savor subtle, incidental, and otherwise incommunicable personal moments. These are flickers of memory where beauty is caught by chance – coincidences, moods, leisure, sun – moments that exist in all our memories, when the everyday charges us with energy.

After training in Kyiv, Onishenko returned to Chernihiv where, in one of the “just at the right moment” shifts that have punctuated his life, an inspired local official deemed it necessary for the town to develop an artistic community. Unused space at the Yeletsky monastery was made available, and a core of artists soon swelled around the center, which absorbed most of their waking lives. This was a time of all-night painting sessions, challenging experimentation, romance, new ideas and a heady mix of wine and revelry. For both its lively environment and the quality of its artists, the center soon drew attention from further afield.

Onishenko won a competition that resulted in a trip to Yugoslavia, a place he described as “a world beyond the information barrier.” There, he thrust himself into his painting and new experiences.

Upon returning home, an extraordinary opportunity presented itself: He and six others were asked to travel to the small Siberian town of Tevriz, on the edge of over 700 kilometers of taiga. Though this was completely foreign territory to Onishenko and his compatriots, they welcomed the opportunity to transform a timbered school into a historical museum – a project that was completely theirs to research, design and make a reality. In the same town where exiled folk hero Yerinak died without hope, Onishenko was to spend the next six years. It was “completely voluntary,” he adds.

Following Siberia, he was invited to the Bulgarian seaside with fellow artist Michael Slutsker, where the two became immersed in days and nights of passionate, frenzied and competitive painting. Challenged and inspired, the trip brought about two important changes in Onishenko’s style. He abandoned brushwork in favor of the almost exclusive use of the palette knife, painting in thick solid slathers of color. Black also entered his paintings, as he used black to prime his canvases. This has become recognized as a trademark in Onishenko paintings today.
Despite enduring financial difficulties, the artist sought the richness of experience travel afforded. In the early 1990s, with little more than a suitcase of possessions, he took a train to Prague; bursting into a city he proclaimed “a chiaroscuro engraving come to life.” At the time, the city’s art scene was abuzz with energy akin to that of pre-war Paris. Amongst the cacophony of languages, the push of the crowds and click of tourist cameras, he set up a modest stall alongside other artists on the city’s Charles Bridge. Despite financial and communication difficulties, and the isolation of being a little-known artist in a foreign country, bridge life had a vibrancy and camaraderie that was engaging. Fans and fellow artists became drawn to his work, and he submitted willfully to being dragged him from rooftop to rooftop to paint from his preferred “perspective of pigeons and chimney sweeps.” That perspective has been locally dubbed “Onisheque.”

Crouched at his stall one morning in the crisp autumn air, he entered into discussion with a customer who was so taken by his work that he invited him to exhibit in Greece. The customer, as it turns out, was from the Greek embassy, and Onishenko’s trip to Athens was pivotal in changing his career. His horizons broadened to encompass knowledge of arranging exhibitions and setting up and operating galleries. He was anxious to make the full transition from bridge to gallery life. Back in Prague, he worked with Serge Vakulenko to create their first combined exhibition. Since, he has been invited to exhibit in Germany, England and the United States, but has made Prague his permanent home, exhibiting from a gallery on one of the meandering cobblestone streets of Old Town.

Onishenko calls himself a New Impressionist, and has won acclaim for bringing about “the rebirth of the forgotten honorable craft of the painter.” His choices of subject matter and ‘snapshot’ compositions are typically Impressionist – the straw broom propped up against a wall, the shadowy figure passing, the splash of morning light, and the whisper of smoke above terracotta rooftops. Yet rather than painting impressions of light upon the retina, his are the emotional impressions of solitary moments, when life reveals a certain gentleness and serenity, tinged with a distant sense of yearning, awe and wonder. In viewing an Onishenko painting, you hold your breath for a moment, exhale slowly, your expression softens into a faint smile before tilting your head, wondering too what lies “just around the corner.”

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