Playing with irrationality

Self, Valerii Klymchuk

Self, Valerii Klymchuk

In the current solo show at Viridian Artists, you can get a sample of work from one of our youngest members, who immigrated from Russia only a few years ago: Valerii Klymchuk. Many of his images make me wonder if he believes, as Heraclitus did, that the world is made of fire, and his sense of color is intense, personal and lyrical. He’s a brilliant young man, who got into a program at Columbia University to study big data, but couldn’t afford the tuition. He has the look of a young man out of a Dostoevsky novel, or one of those contemporary Russian Orthodox monks in the book Everyday Saints. Maybe if he sells one or two paintings, at the prices he’s asking, which have always made me smile, he can get his coursework done at Columbia. He has a bit of that Warhol impishness about him: half the time, I can’t tell if he’s putting us on or if he’s dead serious, but in these answers there’s very little irony. He hasn’t been painting long, but he has a kind of courage to do anything that occurs to him, in his work, that would rarely occur to a career-minded painter as an option these days. I sent him a few questions, and rather than try to filter his thinking, I’m passing most of it along as he sent it to me. He sounds Russian, even in his writing:

You took up painting without studying it in school right?

I just started doing art without any previous studying. It happened spontaneously, during one of the hardest periods of my life when I was desperate to find meaning in my life, struggling to find my own place in this world. I was introduced to painting by a friend in New Jersey.  He hosts painting sessions at his house, where he and his friends sit down on the floor painting.

Before that day, I never considered myself an artist, and I never thought I had artistic talent. Just the opposite—I thought that I had no talent in painting whatsoever. My sister could paint, and I knew that I was good in mathematics and sciences, but I thought that painting was something absolutely foreign to me. I never had any tendencies to express myself in painting before.

Only when I painted for the first time at my friend’s house . . . was I surprised to find out that painting came out much better than I expected. I feel as if it’s where I can fully express myself without following any rules I don’t understand or cannot adopt.

With my first painting session, I understood that I can be sincere in painting; I can fully express my soul, thoughts, feelings in abstract forms on my canvas. I felt so happy about making that discovery that I haven’t stopped painting ever since. I was extremely satisfied with the results and it gave me confidence to show my art to others.

Again, I did not have any training at all and tend to discover painting slowly by trying it on my own without indoctrinating myself into a set of rules and theories.

What was your educational background in Russia?

Seven years ago, in 2007, in Ukraine, I graduated with a master’s degree in System Analysis and control, which is a multidisciplinary area of mathematics and IT, covering data analysis, machine learning, system analysis and optimization techniques. Ever since then, I’ve been unable to find a job, both there and in the U.S.

In Ukraine my family lives in Artemovsk and is very poor. None of them ever had a degree, and they worked only on farms and factories. Nobody in my family had connections to scientists or teachers. It was truly a great luck that I was accepted and successfully graduated from a university without bribing professors. That isn’t typical in my country. Unfortunately the only way to get hired over there is through paying a bribe or knowing the right people. After slamming around and showing everyone my fresh diploma and being all bright and passionate about being a scientist, I realized that people looked at me as something of a weirdo. It is simply not real to get a job in my home country unless you already have money.

I was working at a state-owned Research institute in Kharkov as a researcher during my last year of University and was paid $100/month for being a full time scientist.

That is why I decided to emigrate to the U.S. I felt my dreams and my freedom are much more important to me. I used half of my family savings, from selling our three-bedroom apartment in Artemovsk, to buy my first airplane ticket to USA. This was first time I ever saw an airplane.

I came to the United States alone, without knowing anyone here, speaking very little English and I started working at restaurants and supermarkets for between $7 and $10 per hour which seemed to be SOOO MUCH HIGHER WAGE than the $100 per month I could make at home as a scientist.

Then, while working in a restaurants and supermarkets I realized that that it is not the knowledge or skill that gives you a job. It is mostly how well you lie on your resume. No hiring manager here in the US could possibly understand why a bright mathematician is working at a restaurant.

Even when I was the first one to solve all the test challenges, was competent in what they do, but yet the stigma of a broken career path means much more to hiring people than any other facts about a job candidate.

I always wanted to study in one of top universities of the world. I was a good student and saw my future in learning new things. I applied at Columbia University first time on July 2013. I hoped that having any degree from them, even in the field that I already familiar with, would let me convince people to hire me. Columbia University just opened a certification program this year that teaches exactly what I studied back in Kharkov.

My savings have never exceeded $1000, and I knew that I could not possibly pay for my tuition, but I was assured that I could use Federal Loans instead. It was not true. After I enrolled and started attending classes, I was trying to secure finances. I was totally dependent on a $25,000 federal loan, because I could not borrow money from a private bank. There is no bank which would lend money to a person with a low credit score and who has no saving and is jobless . . .

At the same time, the financial aid office at Columbia were telling me that I was not eligible for federal loans for a variety of reasons, including my immigration status. Finally I was told the program I was admitted to was never registered with the Federal Agency to make it eligible for me to use financial aid… It is a brand new program and they hadn’t registered it fully.

That is how I had to withdraw in the middle of semester, after a very stressful experience of studying and filling out paperwork about financial aid.

At Columbia University I was trying to go for a Certificate in Data Science, with an intention to continue into a Ph.D. program. Having a certificate from them I saw as a ticket to my first job in the industry.

Back in Ukraine I left the few friends I had. I saw no future living in Ukraine because of economic harshness. Living in Ukraine I saw as a waste of my time and whole life. I did not have money to pay for my way up, I did not have connections either. Unemployment reaches 30% there. I was unable to find a decent job: all that was available for me was a $100 per month job in Kharkiv  as a researcher (renting a 1 bedroom apartment in the outskirts of Kharkiv costs $300/month) or a $100/month job as a County Clerk in Artemovsk where I could live with my parents. My mom is retired and is receiving $150 per month, same with my dad. In my family we save money to pay our electric and gas bill by not buying fish, meat, or butter. A pair of Levis jeans cost four times more in Ukraine than in the US.  I chose to escape from reality into my New York dream. In that dream I was setting myself free from a reality I couldn’t comprehend.

But you didn’t imagine you would begin painting in the U.S. when you came here?

I never thought of being a painter. I always wanted to be a scientist. I randomly discovered this joy of painting and expressing myself. I feel as if I can put the most intimate image symbolically onto my canvas and surprisingly enough I do not feel ashamed for doing it. Usually I tend to keep my emotions to myself and I am usually never open up to others. In painting I discovered a venue where I can truly be comfortable revealing myself to others publicly through painting. I believe that painting brings me into a different state of mind, where I feel honest with myself and others, I can transfer emotions and thoughts into visual images so they can be preserved for others to see and to get inspired. I’ve never experienced anything like that before. It feels as if I can conduct a much greater spiritual truth with my art.

Are you serious about the high prices you put on your work, or is that an ironic commentary on the way art is priced in Chelsea, and elsewhere?

I simply take a pragmatic approach to pricing. I believe that a number cannot represent the value of the work. I chose prices subjectively, based on how much I like my own work. I feel as if each piece I produce is unique both to me and to others. Generally speaking, price is not important to me, what is more important is the future of my art piece. If someone loves my art and needs to own it, while he can not afford it, I will be more than glad to give it to them in exchange for a  guarantee to promote and respect my piece.

There is a little irony behind my pricing. We live in a world of consumerism. Consuming is what drives economy and is the foundation for our global economy. Consumerism is present in art too. The pricing is a commentary on that.

How does your background in mathematics influence your work?

In my painting I tend to challenge my sense of reality by exploring the abstract plane of life.

I believe that what we see with our eyes is only one real side of a complex world represented in math by numbers and what we feel is another, non-rational, part of the same complex number-world. We do not know the nature of our irrationality, but we admit the fact that it exists and we artists should definitely play with it.

I often chose repetitive geometric shapes to build a composition. Repetitive, mechanical brushstrokes help me discover new dimension in my art piece. Sometimes art reminds me of Monte Carlo algorithms. Randomness can help me stay away from dogmas and doctrines while I am painting. Not being distracted by reality I have more freedom in exploring the abstract world. I tend to explore random techniques and approaches trying to map my abstract horizon.

I believe that my early work has a lot in common with optimization algorithms used in applied mathematics. When I work on a piece, I always evaluate my every step trying to understand if this step bring me closer to what I love or takes me away from it.  By evaluating most of the steps, I eventually end up very close to the “extremum” of my art piece. Then suddenly one last brush stroke makes me realize that I found my best visual solution in one particular context, it makes me see a newer, more exciting picture in it. I stop working on a piece when I reach high level of satisfaction with what I see.

I use a subjective criteria to evaluate my own work: my sense of beauty, my taste, my philosophical ideas, the level of my own sincerity.

You often see geometrical shapes in my paintings. Geometrical shapes are abstract by their definition. They only exist in our mind and aren’t found perfectly in nature. People build entire branches of science on them. I play with them in my own way trying to make them shine in unconventional way. I believe that abstract painting can drag your attention not only into visual perspective, but also into perspective of thought, mood and emotion.

I believe that true art is a better tool for discovery than any science. Because art is not limited by rules of our logic, it can easily appeal to irrational spiritual senses in us and has a potential to make us see and comprehend the whole complexity of our universe.

Painting is unlike math for me because it gives me freedom to do something I want to do. It doest not offer me ready to use formulas to deliver my message, art is all about freedom and creativity. Mathematics is like digging a deep opening in the ground which will eventually give you a well filled with some water. In art you can create your own rules and break the ones that you think are wrong, you can create any better rule you want and you can prove much faster that you were right.

What previous work has influenced you?

I tend not to worship other people or ideas. I believe that the only truth is hidden in our own selves. I believe in spirituality and the surreal quality of nature. Some of my favorites range from Leonardo and Raphael to Duchamp. Kandinsky, Van Gogh, and Dali.



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