A life of color: Boris Chetkov exhibit opens at Vail International Gallery
Special to the Daily
Vail International Gallery is located at 100 East Meadow Drive, No. 17 in Vail. For more information, call 970-476-2525 or visit www.vailgallery.com.
For most of his life, when Boris Chetkov painted he had no hope of an audience. Posthumously, he has found one in Vail. An opening reception at Vail International Gallery on Saturday, Feb. 17, from 4 to 7 p.m. will kick off the exhibition of the artist’s vibrant body of work.
The show is a collaboration between Marc LeVarn and Patrick Cassidy, owners of Vail International Gallery, and Kenneth Pushkin, an American art dealer who discovered Chetkov in 2001.
There are many ways to describe Chetkov’s art: colorful, kinetic, abstract, haunting, vivid, layered — the list goes on and on. Descriptive words fall flat, though, in contrast to the work itself, and the story of the man who created it.
“If you look at Chetkov’s paintings, he looks like someone who lived a carefree life, and that is not the case,” Cassidy said. “He was born in 1926, and his parents were successful peasant farmers. He had an idyllic early childhood, but that came to an end when Stalin collectivized everything.”
Like many others, his family was forced to give up its farm. People — families — were sent to work on collective farms and in factories, to labor for the state. After several difficult years, Chetkov was arrested on a trumped up charge of hooliganism at age 16 and sent to the infamous Gulag Archipelago. Later, he was assigned to a penal battalion on the front lines of World War II with little hope of survival. And yet he did survive, with his spirit seemingly intact. Eventually he won the right to go to art school.
The artist, an individual
“In the Soviet Era after World War II, and the Khrushchev Era of the ’50s and ’60s, if you were an artist, you painted for the state,” Pushkin explained. “They trained their artists academically, rigorously. Chetkov had that training. He could draw like a master.”
But upon graduating from school, he didn’t acquiesce to the state’s hunger for Socialist Realism. There were no canvases of “workers in the field” or “Stalin being benevolent to a child” from Chetkov. Instead, he spent his days working in a glass factory. But at night, he painted privately for himself.
“Schools didn’t train for individuals, searching for an individual voice,” LeVarn said. “So you risked your life when you went outside the norms.”
But that was not a deterrent for Chetkov. Neither was the fact that he had no feedback from his peers, no audience for his work. He kept painting.
“This is part of what attracted me to him, and is the benchmark of a true artist,” Pushkin said. “He painted because he had no choice. He derived his personal satisfaction in life just in painting, living in the moment of painting.”
In his studio
After the Iron Curtain fell, Pushkin began traveling to Russia regularly, seeking out the talented artists that were largely unknown outside of the former Soviet Union. He met Chetkov on one such trip; the painter let him into his little studio, which was filled with stacks of paintings. Pushkin purchased 10 of them, as was his custom. Then another 10, another 15, and finally had to make an arrangement to buy everything — at least 1,200 paintings.
“My understanding of his work evolved,” Pushkin explained. “And when I asked Chetkov, he didn’t attribute any special value to any of his works. It was all just an exercise, a therapy, a channel. So whatever his emotions were, anger, passion, whatever he was feeling would come out in these paintings.”
And what did Chetkov do with a painting when it was finished?
“Nothing,” Pushkin said with a quick laugh. “He would put it away and start a new one. He never thought any piece was greater or lesser than any other.”
Chetkov lived modestly. Neither a smoker nor a drinker — unusual enough anywhere in the world but especially in Russia — he practiced yoga daily.
“He used the least expensive material he could find,” Pushkin said. “House paint, oils, acrylics, he’d experiment, mix them to interesting effect. And when he could get a few coins, he would buy some canvases.”
His colorful, intoxicating paintings don’t adhere to one genre, though there are certainly elements of Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism and Figurative Expressionism in many of them, and abundant spiritual and emotional energy in all of them.
“He never gave up on his vision,” Cassidy said. “He remained an iconoclast until the very end.”
“He is a fantastic example of a humanity,” Pushkin said. “He was a special spirit.”
Vail International Gallery
It’s fitting that Vail International Gallery is hosting the exhibition, as Russian art has been a focus for Cassidy and LeVarn since they opened it.
“We wanted to create a gallery that embraced the world, and the world that comes to Vail,” LeVarn said. “We’ve always had a focus on Russian art. People ask why, and the answer is simple: A, we like it. And B, our clients like it. The story of post-war 20th century is not complete without the Cold War. Culturally, the work is very important. And though they were on the losing side of that empire, the work they created was magnificent. And it will never be duplicated.”
They also represent a variety of other art and artists, from Bates Wilson’s outlandish sculptures to John Taft’s classical landscapes.
“They’re very professional art dealers, which is what’s attractive to me,” Pushkin said. “They’re very ethical and knowledgeable. And they know how to handle art.”
To see it in person, visit Vail International Gallery. For more information, visit http://www.vailgallery.com.
The graduates of Vail Mountain School’s class of 2019 will be off to far-flung destinations next fall, set to enter college in one of 16 different states or explore the world on a gap year. One grad is even attending college in Canada.