Madame Oktopus is both the name of Maryna Baranovska’s solo exhibition at AJL Art in Berlin and her folk-alter-ego. The title painting looms large over the exhibition space on Potsdamerstr. and alludes to the entire show’s genesis; a collection of paintings birthed with thick impasto confidence. Like a lot of Baranovska’s works, Madame Oktopus, occupies the strange and cool split between narrative construction and painterly process. This character, both mother and artist, looks like a sensual witch, tripping out of the picture plane, and exposing a fourth wall from behind a curtain-cum-painterly-construct.
Baranovska’s larger paintings operate on a modernist plane of ambition and graphics, aspiring to German Expressionist grandeur; a fever-pitch of scale and gusto achieved by Anselm Kiefer among others. Her more modest endeavors, in contrast, are awkwardly haunting and idiosyncratic, like bright, frothy companions to the drawings of Alfred Kubin.
The smaller paintings have a folkloric quality that is strong and clear. The characters, in contrast, are often less defined. They are engorged in tufts of painted smoke, or air, creatures with variable dimensions. There are allusions to mice, peacocks and Eastern tigers, but these remain enigmatic and obscured, allowing viewers to fully engage in a prognostication of form.
To compare someone to Chagall these days is an affront to more refined aesthetic sensibilities. Chagall is the default sophomore-dorm-room poster; more Russian regionalist than avant-garde. This Chagall-backlash derives in part from a certain earnest sentimentality, imbued with a childish spirit. Like Chagall, Baranovska is invested in Eastern European Jewish folklore, and attempts the difficult, if not impossible, task of documenting mysticism through painting.
Her paintings celebrate supernatural ambiguity, and call to mind a central figure in Slavic folklore: Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga is an old woman who lives in a hut built on chicken bones and is able to shift and morph into a number of forms and elements (wind, for instance). An animal called the “Firebird,” features prominently in the Baba Yaga stories, and one can imagine Baranovska’s grandmother (who lives in the forested regions around Kiev) cultivating her interest in otherworldliness.
Although this bit of biography is not irrelevant, Baranovska is an artist equally invested in painterly innovation. In the strongest works her two impulses exist together, leaving the viewer to sort through form, myth and authorship.