Monday, April 19, 2010
The photograph had pulled at me from the moment I turned the corner and saw it, at an auction a few months back. I had laughed immediately on spying it, kept going back, enjoyed watching others look at it with laughter, shock, pure surprise. After a bit, I wrote my bid and circled back often to make sure I was still the highest bidder. I was. There were not too many bids that night, starving artists far outnumbering business types who might be able to place even a reasonable bid. I went home with my photograph of the large man, naked on a seesaw, laughing, laughing at death.
In the time since, the photograph has turned into a bell-weather of sorts to help me determine the different ways people deal with the idea of mortality. My six-year-old at first refused to be in the same room with the photograph, crying in fear. I had to hide it behind the curtain in my room for a bit. He had to know where it was. But he has come a long way, now pointing at it in its place of honor in the living room, well lit with a spotlight, and laughing at it with his friends. I felt a little bad at first but now I am pleased as punch. It is a lesson well learned early, I believe, that of being able to face one’s eventual demise straight in the face and guffaw. What else can we do but laugh?
It is a lesson the wonderful photographer did in fact himself learn early. I went with my friend to meet Arturo Toulinov in his small studio in a converted warehouse building filled with artists right off the Hudson one day a few weeks ago, snuck in to shake his hand and that of his partner, Carol, while they were in the midst of a shoot of a man in a robe with a sickle and a skull. I gave them gold stars for taking the photo that so aptly captured facing fear in such a funny joyous way. Shortly afterward, the two invited me to return for longer to chat and see a variety of other photographs Art has taken exploring the not-easy topics of death and religion. I took them up on their offer last week with my mother in tow.
The gold stars I’d given them were on the front door. We were like old friends, sitting drinking sweet tea in their studio, the spring air flooding through their window as we explored how Art had come to this place, to creating this amazing inspirational art.
His subject matter was explained early on: he had had a twin brother who passed away as an infant, forcing Art to think long and hard on the subject from a tender age. He is not regretful of the experience, quite the opposite, which is why he plays with it in his photography.
“To live aware of your death makes you live better…” he said. “When we walk, every step we get, we get closer.” He finds beauty in facing that head on in a way, it seems, few people do. He captures the idea so magically in his current series, which follows in the ancient artistic tradition of Memento Mori, or Remember Your Death. Other images include that of a muscle-bound Mormon missionary, also naked, bending low behind a wagon wheel, just behind the skeleton, conveying again, he said, that “death is just one step ahead of us.”
Art’s broad smile and sparkly eyes belie the seeming difficulty of his subject matter. He is well versed in difficulty. After emigrating from Russia, where he was a lawyer, he began his career as a photographer in 1993 shooting models and actors, then went the full opposite route, spending 5 ½ years photographing the homeless.
“They have so much humility, they are so humble, they don’t have masks,” he said, shaking his head in memory at his subjects, the casualties of capitalism gone awry. “You play classical music and they listen, they talk about their childhood, their grandmothers. I would be forced to remember, they had lives before this, they recognized Bach.”
Art has a piece in the Brooklyn Museum and relationships with gallery owners for whom, he said, “I’m like a strange pet in the zoo.” He laughed. “Really, though, they’re nice. They pet me and encourage me…”
The issue for him, like so many bright talented artists in New York and beyond, is that, he said, “marketing means nothing to me. All I need are cigarettes, a six pack and $20 to invite you to coffee.”
I laughed and asked him to repeat himself.
“How much for coffee?” I asked.
He smiled. “$20. You might want a Machiatto…”
More than marketing himself or making it big, Art is sincere, Carol his muse and sincere supporter, strong in her own right as a writer. He is staunch in his stance that “Every day, I just have to justify the day for my Mom, for my brother, for my kids who live away from me, in Russia, and ask why did I emigrate?" How does he justify his days?
“I have the right to express my feelings,” he said. And he does, pushing people with his photographs not to be afraid, not to play it too safe, to question the status quo. Sometimes, he says, he will take a picture that is particularly charged with political or religious messages, something people don’t feel is right, people like his mother, may she rest in peace, and he will just put it away, in a drawer. He showed me some of those images. They shouldn’t be in a drawer.
“Remember?” I suggest, “9-11, Never Forget?” Too often, people want to forget. His images of swastikas and slaves and Jews and Palestinians as the same maybe will break through, maybe will save some people from such travesties happening again, happening still. One can only hope.
Art’s body of work is fabulously fearless, an inspiration to all of us to face things head on. I, for one, an owner of one of these great works, am appreciative he has put aside the pursuit of the law for making art. I gave him and Carol both big gold stars they could add to their door. They are, indeed, four-star worthy. Actually, they’re worth much much more.