E u g e n e   Y e l c h i n

 section five | reenactments | sleepwalking | ghosts | heads | jewish luck | interiors 

"Yelchin gets down to the business of psychological and physical self-exploration. His subject is reduced to faces alone, some with more distinct features then others. By applying the paint with his hands, he literally pushes his fingers into the skin of the canvas, molds textures from that skin, and seemingly tears the skin away as if to get at interior states of mind - his, yours, mine. The title, Section Five, refers to the fifth section of the Soviet Union passport, which states the holder's ethnicity. Yelchin was not Russian but Jewish. Neither he nor other Jews could pass as Russians once the passport was viewed. Obviously, this provoked constant anxiety, fear, and, ultimately, self-loathing, qualities revealed to greater or lesser degree in each of these paintings. Each work seems to ask: "Who am I? What is my value? How do I regard myself? How am I perceived? What can I call myself?" The answers might be complicated and, more to the point, excruciating, embarrassing, and humiliating in that, given the title of the series, one has no control of one's own destiny. Given a label by an impersonal bureaucracy, one cannot appeal its mode of identification whatever one's feelings might be. There are no choices in the matter. Nor are there answers to the questions how or even whether Yelchin can end the series, memory being an uncontrollable factor in everybody's life. As a result, these paintings are among the most tragic portraits of our time - not writ large as a grandiose, abstract, existential exercise in pitting, say, a solitary individual against a modern society, but on the most personal, intimate and ultimately irrational level of being a victim of official Soviet anti-Semitism."

-Matthew Baigell, Emeritus Professor of Art History at Rutgers University.


"Eugene Yelchin represents the fragility of the human figure and the uncertainty of representation. His project, "Section Five ("Your Passport, Citizen)," engages directly with one of the main genres of Gulag painting-portraiture. Gulag portraits often idealize, or rescue rather, the humanity of the dehumanized ZEK through the dignity of the genre. Yelchin works intensely in the opposite direction: he disfigures the painterly surface with his fingers as if to handle the raw material of fear itself. There is urgency to this process of desperate serialization of faces and metamorphosis of emotion. "When I painted this I tried to forget irony," says the artist. Why such a disclaimer? What do we see in these portraits? An individual face or a tragicomic mask? A man hiding from the ubiquitous gaze of surveillance, or a man revealing himself on the verge of self-discovery? Are these images of an imprisoned self or of a painful self-liberation? From his childhood Yelchin remembers one "archeological" artifact of the Stalin era: an honorary certificate stating that his stepgrandfather received a two-piece suit in appreciation for his work with the Gulag orchestra. Continuing the family tradition, Yelchin began his artistic career as a theater designer working with masks, costumes, and imaginary sets. He was educated in the Leningrad Theater Institute that to some extent continued in the line of the modernist theatrical experimentation and St. Petersburg commedia dell' arte that was interrupted in the 1920s. Modernist versions of commedia dell' arte were never about unmasking, but rather about playful doublefacedness, liberating potentials of theatrical illusion. The mask can both conceal the face and reveal the inner self, playing a game of hide-and-seek and speaking honestly through humor and indirection.

In Yelchin's youth the traumatic past lived side by side with Soviet everyday life, omnipresent but never confronted. Speaking about it was a violation of the unwritten social contract with power. The artist remembers his father taking him regularly to the Hermitage Museum, eager to speak about art but always refraining from discussing history, especially when his son asked him about Russia's war defeats or ambivalent victories in the past.

Yelchin grew up in the era of Brezhnev stagnation when the authoritarian regime entered its "decadent" stage; revolutionary idealism and hope for the thaw of Khrushchev's era were over. Oppression was internalized, and both official and unofficial culture relied on humor and "anecdote"-the party officials who used such rhetoric hoped to domesticate ideology and make it more palpable, while others just wanted to survive and to laugh within permissible limits. Non-conformist art pushed the limit of irony to its more vertiginous dimension but the everyday hip style of the time was that of safe joking, something that in Russian received the name stiob, a jocular way of life between collaboration and indifference. For better or for worse, direct speech and direct expression of emotions or political beliefs was seen as suspect from all sides.

After emigrating to the United States in 1983, Yelchin says that for a long time he painted heads without faces-like DeChirico or late Malevich-exploring the figure and defacing it at once. When Yelchin began his portrait project he didn't know exactly what it was about. He was drawn to the process of self-discovery and confrontation with history. At that moment he was working on films and book illustrations and painted in his spare time almost like an old-fashioned Leningrad underground artist (only now his "underground" is up in the mountains in the Topanga Canyon near Los Angeles) exploring the archeology of his own fear and the trauma that was beyond his individual biography.

In 1998 Yelchin began an experiment, the meaning of which he discovered only in its process. His wife took a passport-like photograph of him and he began painting his portraits from the photograph without using a brush, handling the paint with his own fingers. He set himself to the task of painting each portrait in one sitting-working as long as he could but never retouching a face after the oil paint had dried. The project is not merely a series of paintings, but a serial performance in the border-zone between personal and collective space. Each portrait is "time-sensitive"; it is as if the artist is "ambushed" by time and tries to make and unmake the surface of the self with great urgency. He captures and reproduces that moment of embarrassment, anxiety, and powerlessness that a citizen of the authoritarian state experiences upon hearing the trivial bureaucratic utterance: "Your passport, please." In fact, some of the last surviving photographs from the camps are these kinds of document photos used at once for documentation and exploitation, identification and cancellation of identity. Yelchin works through the material as if to touch the surface of trauma itself to break through the process of mediation, to penetrate underneath to the flesh of meaning, to answer the questions, "Who am I? Where do I come from? What am I afraid of?"

In the process of painting, any physical likeness to the artist virtually disappears. Each portrait is a limit case between a face and a mask, the erasure and recovery of a body, abstraction and figuration. The portraits are not celebrations of painterly self-expression. They represent an encounter with one's visible and hidden masks, with cultural and historical images of identity.

"Section Five" is the infamous "nationality line" in the Soviet passport. In Yelchin's case, the nationality was "Jewish." It is a little-known fact that in the Soviet Union, since the reinstitution of the passport system in the 1930s, "Jew" was an ethnic or racial identity (like Kazakh, Chechen, Ukranian, etc.) not connected with religion (which was virtually banned for ordinary citizens). It was an identity shaped by the state and then redefined against the official version. For a Soviet citizen of Jewish background (identified through last names, patronymics, facial features) Jewishness was not a religion but rather an official label as well as a multilayered cultural and historical memory, often partially mythologized and repressed. It was a memory of not-too distant history: of the Holocaust, of executions on the Eastern front (not publicized or widely discussed in the Soviet history books) and of Stalinist campaigns against "rootless cosmopolitans" from 1949 to 1953 that left behind a residual anti-semitism in the Soviet government institutions. For Soviet Jews it was also a secular or literary memory; one remembered the books one had read involving Jewish characters with whom one identified and about whom one fantasized.

All Yelchin's artistic projects are haunted by memories of the museums. In his childhood, the museum was an alternative universe of other stories, figurations and disfigurations. The minimal palette of colors in his work appears like an afterimage from visiting all the semi-dark rooms in the Hermitage filled with the works of the Italian and Spanish masters of chiaroscuro which allowed one to dream and reinvent oneself. In this respect, Jewishness even in the dark moments of Soviet oppression wasn't a merely negative identity, but rather, a mysterious one. To some extent, at the core of Yelchin's exploration of the boundary between figuration and abstraction is a Jewish preoccupation. It involves not only the taboo on the image, but also a mystery of identity that is both specific and universal.

Visitors to the gallery are invited to look at the paintings from two perspectives. At close range we see tortured traces of the artist's fingers searching their way out through paint. If we step away, we begin to discern the elusive features of the portraits that share one striking feature: they all evade our gaze. The faces are passionate hieroglyphs; they do not compose a plot or a single story. Catharsis in this case is not instantaneous; it takes time. At the end, Yelchin's series do not offer a revelation or unmasking, but confronts modes of self-deception and self-loathing. This is an attempt to break the double bind of trauma and its collective forgetting, to disrupt the transmission of unreflected fear that haunted generation after generation. All of Yelchin's works offer a flickering figuration, a memory of terror, a hope of art.

-Svetlana Boym, Curt Hugo Reisinger Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University.


"At first glance, the paintings appear to be out-of-focus Rembrandts or Goyas or works by other Baroque masters, and Yelchin does reference various artists in some of the titles, including the remarkable roundel "Mirror After Rembrandt" and the mural-like "Donde va Mama? After Goya." But Zalkind also points out that the Yelchins appear to be a cross between the work of Francis Bacon and that of Chaim Soutine. His point is well taken: Similar to Bacon's, Yelchin's figures appear to be melting before our eyes, and in line with Soutine, his brushwork is aggressive, featuring slashes of color used to sketch out the subjects. Some of the most recent pieces here are a group of small portraits from the "Section Five" series in which the men's features were reduced to smears of dark color. Though the large paintings have a majestic character that recalls palace decorations, these small "Section Five" daubs just might be the best things included.

-EUGENE YELCHIN: A Thousand Casualties by Michael Paglia, Denver Westworld, September 2006


"As if breathing toxic fumes, Russian artists incorporated the gulag's buried terrors into their vision of Soviet life.

Eugene Yelchin twists daubs of paint into tormented self-portraits. He picks at personal and national memory like a scab. Born in Leningrad in 1956, he's showing a series of haunting self-portraits he calls "Your passport, Citizen" or "Section Five". The last phrase refers to a Russian government code for Jews which was stamped in their passports.

A slim, sharp-featured man, Yelchin paints his self-portraits without a brush, shaping thick smears of oil on canvas, finishing each in a single sitting. "I want to work as close to the medium as possible. My face, my hands, my feelings. Each painting recalls a certain emotion," he said.

As if glimpsed in a nightmare variety of fun house mirrors, his face screams and smirks, broods and leers.

More then a decade after immigrating to the United Stetes, the L.A.-based Yelchin said, "You can never shake the fear" born of life in a repressive Soviet state.

Observing several distorted images of himself, he said growing up in a totalitarian society engendered a "certain self-hatred that might be part of the Russian character".

"When everyone is up to their necks in despair," Yelchin said, "only the completely depressed get close to the truth".

-Back in the U.S.S.R.: Contemporary artists confront their country's past in "Territories of Terror" by Chris Bergeron, MetroWest Daily News, November 2006


"Eugene Yelchin painted his "Section Five" series using his fingers instead of brushes. In the earthy, orangy-brown tones and thick, rounded strokes of paint, the faces he painted emerge blurred somewhat with the background, as if the artist didn't want them to be seen clearly.

Yelchin, a Russian Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1983, says the series refers to the Section Five part of his passport, where his ethnicity was written. On Yelchin's passport, it read "Yevrei" - Jew, branding him as a "presumed traitor or security risk".

"As a result, Section Five burned like a suddenly revealed secret," Yelchin writes on the artist's statement accompanying his paintings. "It caused shame and fear. It branded one for life. (The) paintings are infused with those emotions - fear of exposure, shame, anger and sadness. The paintings' diminutive size recalls passport photos, while the faces are the faces of Jews whose self-identities are formed not by pride but by Anti-Semitism."

Four of Yelchin's "Secion Five" series are on display at the Bell Gallery at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles in a new exhibit called, "Too Jewish-Not Jewish Enough." The exhibit explores the myriad ways that Jewish identity is manifested, as well as the emergence of that identity from people who might not feel as connected to their Judaism."

-How Jewish is "Too Jewish"? by Gaby Wenig, Jewish Journal, October 2004


Eugene Yelchin's paintings form a powerful group. For "Your Passport, Citizen," also titled "Section Five," Yelchin made self-portraits in oil, painting only with his fingers. They're tortured works; ghostly figures coalesce from slicks of paint in ocher and black. None have eyes, and some have mouths agape. The titles tell more. The first evokes the fear struck in an ordinary citizen at a Soviet checkpoint when asked for identification. The second refers to the line on the passport that identifies ethnic heritage; Yelchin's said "Jewish," which, in the Soviet Union, was defined as an ethnicity, not a religion, whose observance was, Boym states, "virtually banned for ordinary citizens." This officially wiped away an important part of many Jew's identities."

-Complex reflections on opression by Cate McQuaid, Boston Globe, January 2007

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