In 1991, just after the Soviet Union dissolved, the Borey Art Center was established around the corner from the bustling Nevsky Prospect in the basement of an old building on Liteiny Prospect. Around this time, two Russian artists were approaching important moments in their respective artistic lives. Irina Federova was attending her first art school and Gafur Mendagaliev was starting to tour Europe and the United States with a solo exhibition. Though Gafur Mendagaliev is a treasure of St. Petersburg, he is not especially well-known. Irina Federova from Saratov, a city south of Moscow, is just beginning to exhibit her works in St. Petersburg. The Borey Art Center is unique in that it strives to support new and under-represented artists in Russia. Though very different, these two artists work from similar internal inspirations that create unique visual art. For the month of March, they are both exhibiting in two of the Borey Art Center’s galleries.
Unassuming at first, the Borey Art Center has a lot to offer: 4 galleries, a bookstore, a video library, a café, as well as a few studios and a publishing house. Just inside the entrance is a small store with ceramic figurines for purchase, mainly cats. To the left of this store is the small gallery, where Irina Federova is exhibiting “Self-Will of Lines,” a graphic collection of drawings based on different themes from Alice in Wonderland to Greek myths. Working under the pseudonym “Amnephis,” she has spent the last 13 years creating about 2,500 graphic pieces that reflect on history, literature, and her personal life. . Her drawings are done with simple ink and watercolor, but her skill is refined. Using ornamental design, she combines humans with botanical and geometrical shapes to form a sense of metamorphosis or transcendence of reality in every portrait. In her artist statement for the exhibition she describes her work as a “way of reflecting on reality” and “a spiritual quest.” There is a bit of the fantastical to every piece and the whimsical movement created by the fluid strokes leads the eye all around the portraits as if on a quest of their own.
The café and video library can be found through two low-bearing doorways from the small gallery. If you go back towards the entrance and to the right of the small store, there is something that looks like a cavernous tunnel that leads to the large gallery. It has been ten years since the last time Gafur Mendagaliev exhibited works in the Borey Art Center. Seventy pieces are on display for “St. Petersburg Visions.” Each painting’s theme centers on the urban landscape of St. Petersburg from the city’s recognizable Sphinx, located on the Neva River, to the Peter and Paul Fortress to St. Isaac’s Cathedral.
An avant-garde artist of Leningrad, Mendagaliev’s style is naïve. Vibrant colors and thick, heavy strokes form simple scenes that feel more symbolic than real.In each painting, there are repeated motifs: a table, a chimera, women, a bird, a fish. There appears to be a story begging to be told about the city he has lived in for so long, and, perhaps, a painful one. In the paintings, faces of people look in different directions, they pull from each other, guiding the viewer’s eyes into a chaos as the sphinx overlooks it all with a sense of doom. Then, there are portraits of chimeras and demons stalking individuals on the metro, women tormented next to a table or underwater beneath a fish in flight. They have a sinister tone to them. Fantastical, but simple, Mendagaliev’s works linger in the mind and resurface in the memory of St. Petersburg as a city.
Irina Federova and Gafur Mendagaliev both strive to push past the limits of reality in their art in different styles that reflect the diversity of the avant-garde style. Reoccurring themes and motifs reveal their desire to explore the depth of their ideas to its core. They both extensively practice their craft and it shows in the bulk of their production. Open to the public and free of charge, the Borey Art Center has a lot to offer for the month of March and beyond. The art is thought-provoking and profound in its capacity to surprise the viewer. On the way out, grab a drink from the cozy café or check out one of the interesting self-published titles in the center’s bookstore. Most of all, just be sure to explore this St. Petersburg treasure.
Details: The Borey Art Center is open Tuesday-Saturday from 12pm-8pm. Free of charge! Please see website for contact information and a map.