One of Ukraine’s leading young artists in the 1970s and 1980s, Mykola Zalevsky was nonetheless known only to a handful of people, as the painter’s hyper-realistic style forced him to go underground with his works. Having immigrated to America in the early 1990s, Zalevsky was invited by Collection Gallery to Kyiv to open his ‘I Remember’ personal exhibition in Kyiv, the first time his works have been displayed officially in the Ukrainian capital.
Though Kyiv born and breed, Mykola Zalevsky’s current exhibition at Collection gallery is the first time his works have been officially displayed in the Ukrainian capital. One of Ukraine’s rising talents in the 1970s, Zalevsky was forced to showcase his paintings in private apartments, his surreal and subversive works being the very antithesis of the state sanctioned Socialist Realism. Back in the USSR bucking established artistic trends had little to do with the acts of the preening poseurs who make up today’s avant-garde; it was a serious and at times dangerous business, as Zalevsky explains; “There were cases of ‘home exhibitions’ in Moscow and St. Petersburg being raided by the KGB, with the artists being arrested. Because of this our circle made the conscious decision not to exhibit works which were overtly anti-Soviet or pornographic. Even still, the fear of arrest was very real.”
Having studied graphic design at Lviv Polytechnic University, Zalevsky moved back to Kyiv to continue his education and begin his artistic career. He began as a book illustrator, which included the obligatory Soviet propaganda publications which the painter now describes as ‘shameful.’ Able only to exhibit in the underground art scene, Zalevsky jumped at the opportunity to move to America when his brother called him up from the States and invited him over. It was the late 1980s and it wasn’t until 1992 that Mykola had acquired all the right documents to make the jump West. Before setting up his own business in the fabulously wealthy West Hartford, Connecticut, which allows him to spend at least a couple of months per year in his native Kyiv, Zalevsky earned money anyway he could, working as an artist’s model and a cleaner. In many respects Zalevsky is something of a dilettante; the artist was never a dissident for being a dissident’s sake; he simply wanted to explore hyper-realism and other genres consider decadent by the regime, there were no such ambitions to bring communism crashing down through his paintings. Unlike many Ukrainian and Russian artists who couldn’t wait to get out of the USSR only to immediately cash-in for the craze in Soviet and Russian iconography which swept the West in the 1990s, Zalevsky has stayed true to the genres which have always fascinated him, working under the idea of ‘art for arts sake.’ “Each piece takes between one to two years to complete. I don’t really want to sell my works in the US, and worry about what will happen to them when they pass into the hands of other people, but that that’s all part of the game when you exhibit in a gallery” explains Zalevsky.
Aspects of the motherland can be detected in many of Zalevsky’s works, even if they do not deal exclusively with Kyiv. Look closely, and one can find a courtyard here and a stairwell there, the details of which are quintessentially Kyiv. Symbolism is a core component of the former underground artist’s works; an example of this is his take on Dutch still life, which includes a bottle of Heineken and perhaps, in a nod to his homeland, a potato. A severed thumb on the sideboard provides the touch of menacing oddness which Dali or Breton would have been proud off. Despite having opposed its stance on art, the Soviet UNI0N can be detected in the works of Zalevsky by those who know how to look for it, and when he talks of Kyiv, it is obvious that the artist is reminiscing about those daredevil days of the 1970s, when the avant-garde was truly worthy of that name.
WATS’ON, November 2006, article by Yulia Volfovska