Studio visit: Yuliya Lanina


When artist Yuliya Lanina was a child in Moscow, her parents sang her a haunting lullaby. Little one, don’t lie near the edge of the bed, the lyrics went, otherwise a wolf will come and snatch you away and carry you off into the deep, dark woods.

“I remember going to sleep and just being terrified of the wolf might get me,” says Lanina. “That lullaby still terrifies me if I hear it.”

Rife with disturbing characters, scenarios and behaviors, folk tales are indeed the stuff of nightmares — at least in their original, non-Disneyfied versions.

Lanina’s artistic oeuvre is often talked about solely through the lens of folk tales and fairy tales. And yes, that is salient to her practice.

But folk stories — present in cultures around the globe — bear potent psychological heft and are themselves a lens to the subconscious at its basest and most uncensored, the symbol-filled stories resonating profoundly in the human psyche. Which raises an inevitable question for Lanina that’s met with a predicted answer. “Yes, psychoanalysts really love my work,” she says.

Yuliya Lanina, “Red Shoes,” acrylic and collage on paper, 2015.

In her studio — a converted one-car garage attached to her home — it is clear just how restless a creator Lanina is, never content to work within just one medium. Even among artists whose practices span media, Lanina’s is particularly expansive. Drawing and painting form the root of her work, but from there Lanina makes animatronic sculpture, animated films, mechanized music boxes and highly original performances that are hybrid animations and solo pantomime.

A thick pile of recent paintings sare tacked on a worktable. The paintings represent a series of portraits of hybrid figures, part animal, part human or perhaps part plant too. Many are charged with a lurid sexuality, others with violence.

From that series Lanina created a 20-minute performance “Within, Above and Beyond,” which she presented at the warehouse arts space Museum of Human Achievement. Using figures from her paintings, Lanina constructed a vivid dream-like animated film. Standing against the screen, wearing all white while the film streamed on her, Lanina enacted an impeccably synchronized movement narrative with her own imaginative characters.

Her zeal to anthropomorphize is profound. One shelf in her holds some of her “mechanical paintings” as she calls them, three-dimensional automatons with flat-painted characters that move on different planes. Nearby are mechanical dolls, creepy and crazy-looking, crafted from reassembled parts and outfitted with sonar sensors and microcontrollers. One sexily-clad female doll punctuates a song by farting. Another’s breasts flash with red lights.

This is unabashedly gaudy and sensationalist and naughty stuff. Also it is very, very humorous.

Detail of “Celebration,” an animatronic sculpture that’s activated by the viewers presence. Photo courtesy the artist.

Lanina prefers not to offer personal psychological analysis about the origins or inspirations of her work.

“I like to challenge traditional mythology,” she says. “I want to engage the viewer, tempt them with the playful aspect of the work and entice them to look deeper at the dark side of human existence. I think a lot of the female figures in my work are (reconsidered) versions of traditional characters. I think my characters are powerful women.”

For one public sculpture presented last year, Lanina dressed a plump girl version of Humpty Dumpy with real fishnet stockings and a red lace skirt. She fitted the sculpture with a hidden motion sensor that, when triggered, played a burst of music by Yevgeniy Sharlat, Lanina’s husband and frequent artistic collaborator.

Humpty Dumpty was a favorite bedtime story of Lanina’s now six-year-old twin girls. And so Lanina wanted to make an unabashedly female and proudly portly Humpty Dumpty. Situated on the grounds of the Elisabet Ney Museum, Lanina’s “Humpty Dumpty” was, she explained in her artist statement a challenge to “the way we perceive gender and body image.”

“Humpty Dumpty” was installed on the grounds of the Elisabet Ney Museum as part of the city’s TEMPO public art initiative. Photo courtesy the artist..

For all the micro-processors and hidden sensors, there’s an immeasurably pleasurable analog and hand-made quality to Lanina’s work, a tactility evident in brass wind-up levers on the music boxes, real garments on the dolls and sculpture, and on everything an mistakable sense of the artist’s hand: her brushstrokes, finessed yet not hidden.

“Sure, surrealism was influence. But not necessarily as an art movement that I consciously look to for inspiration. It was more that (episodes) in my life felt surreal to me,” Lanina says.

Lanina was born in 1975 in Moscow to Jewish parents. Her father was an engineer; her mother a doctor. Long held anti-Semitism in the already anti-religious Soviet Union hardened in the 1970s under Brezhnev. Oppression and prejudice played a major part of the family’s life.

Then in 1991, just 16 and by herself, Lanina managed to come to the United States, courtesy of relatives who lived in the greater New York City area.

She recalls: “I was thrown into a completely new world. I could read English, but I couldn’t really speak it and I couldn’t understand American accents. And everything, everybody, looked so strange and surreal to me. I felt over-saturated. ”

It was at this time that she began to draw and paint. “It was a means to express myself since I couldn’t speak English.”

Lanina stayed in the U.S. for a couple of years, but when the situation with her relatives detiorated she returned to Moscow. Then, together with her parents, she officially immigrated, this time with refugee status, part of a large wave of Russian Jews granted refugee entry to the United State in the 1990s. Lanina enrolled in the art program at the State University of New York at Purchase. Then tragedy struck. Her mother, passed away. Lanina was 20 and again felt adrift.

“In some way I feel like I’m still trying to make sense of that big chunk of my life — when I came to the US and had a horrible experience, then came back, and my mother died. I watched my mother’s years-long battle with cancer and saw all of her anxiety about the disfiguring changes in her body caused by her illness.”

Lanina’s animated film “Mama” finds an adolescent girl on an epic journey to find her mother.

Graduate art school at Hunter College positioned Lanina in New York’s vibrant art scene and by the mid-aughts she was settled in Brooklyn, gaining some exposure for her work. In 2010 she netted a residency at the legendary artists colony Yaddo. Sharlat was in residency at the same time. Their relationship began when Lanina asked Sharlat to compose some music for one of her animations.

“It was a shift leaving New York and moving to Austin, but I got the chance of being a mom that’s wonderful.

Lanina teaches a class called “Gender, Race and Technology” at the University of Texas’ new School of Design and Creative Technologies. (Sharlat is full-time composition faculty in UT’s Butler School of Music).

Also this semester she’s held a week-long artist’s residency at the design school, during which she presented “Herstory,” a human-sizedanimatronic doll vaguely, but deliberately resembling Lanina. Equipped with a motion-activated sound device, the “Herstory” tells awkward anecdotes about gender and femininity, stories meant to unsettle and disconcert.

In her studio, Lanina says the irreverence and dark humor have a fundamental purpose in her work: “It’s all part of our human existence. We’re complicated.”

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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