Body language


By Kurt McVey

Miroslava Romanova: BodyLanguage


Sometimes, the greatest commentaries on the always and yet increasingly contentious nature of American culture are generated from outside voices and even more so from those who seem to be doing it from a deeply subconscious, or better yet, an unconscious place. 


The Ukrainian-born artist Miroslava Romanova appears to be approaching her latest body of work, a series of large scale mixed-media paintings, effectively titled BodyLanguage, with a delightful, almost childlike naivety, coupled with a daring indifference to political correctness, especially hot-topic conversations regarding cultural appropriation and self-censorship. Romanova is toeing the line as deftly or brutally as the contemporary divide between figuration and abstraction. It’s exactly this uncertainty of intention (her own or ours?) that makes her work challenging and therefore interesting, as opposed to the politically didactic work of artists who insist on presenting their own personal avatars in a clear state of stagnant historical victimhood. 


On a superficial level, Romanova’s work seems to be interested in jumping on this bandwagon and why wouldn’t it, as much of her paintings feature bold, gestural figures; mostly nude, physically formidable African women caught in some dimensional fissure between ecstatic tribal dancing and something frighteningly close to the horrors of the auction block. Like a lot of young painters in the early 21stcentury, Romanova’s work utilizes raw strokes that recall Basquiat and Matisse, who both pulled aesthetic notes from African tribal art. There are elements of Goya, Klimt, Bacon, Warhol and Yves Klein and the occasional splash of bedazzled bad taste ala Damien Hirst. There are inky elements reminiscent of Picasso’s “Bullfight” series from 1960, which was executed in the château of Vauvenargues, near Aix-en-Provence, where he and his partner Jacqueline Roque had moved in 1958. This is notable only in that Picasso might have been commenting on the taming (or manipulation) of his own infamous masculinity at the potent and seductive hand of Roque. Romanova, if only in her lofty approach, is superseding both Picasso and his partner, claiming raw authority over her own creations, independent of any modern scene, trend, man, nation-state or socio-political agenda. 


So why can’t artists, regardless of intention, make “problematic” art? Art in America has never been safer and because of this, it’s often painfully boring. It’s exactly this reason that people are still talking about the merits of Dana Schutz’ Open Casket, (2016), a painting of Emmit Till which rocked the 2017 Whitney Biennial, inciting protests and endless debate, in person and in the press. Do people remember or care about anything else from that lackluster, institutional group offering? They don’t and they shouldn’t. 


There’s something fascinating about Romanova (born: 1990), a brand new mother with a small, out of place corner studio several floors up in some non-descript building in Manhattan’s diamond district (she and her husband run a jewelry company), bestowed with all the privileges that come with fierce Russian beauty and snowy porcelain whiteness, rendering these jet-black (in outline, not volume), naked, fetishized female bodies with stout legs, bare natural breasts and firm asses placed front and center along with ripe lips and wide, exotic, almond eyes, inviting both the envy and empathy of the collective privileged. This strange, at times confusing thematic nexus, much like Schutz’s multilayered commentary on what is artistically “permissive” and what is “abstraction” (especially if the chosen subject has already been abstracted), elevates Romanova’s work beyond a derivative or sophomoric take on the works of the considerably more famous artists mentioned above. 


Most interesting perhaps, is Romanova’s timely exploration and eventual deconstruction of the nature of “cultural violence,” which she seems to be attacking with a sort of playful Pussy Riot anarchism. In BodyLanguage, Romanova isn’t conspicuously sparring with the patriarchy, or Putin, or Trump (yawn) as much as she’s rebuking the equally suffocating cloud of cultural and artistic prohibitions, and all with a defiant yet somehow loving, Ukrainian, Mona Lisa smile. 


In speaking with the artist, it becomes clear Romanova genuinely admires the body, strength, struggle and spirit of the African woman. Her female figures are articulations of  “Scientific Eve,” the archetypal fountainhead of overall womanhood. She knows even exploring this notion alone, let alone illustrating it, is problematic. She knows, inherently, like life itself, that it’s a great place to start. From a long-form cosmic-meets-evolutionary perspective, Romanova is closer to this “Eve” archetype than one might assume. We all are. “How did we become so removed?” she’s asking. How did we become so fractured?


The bio on Romanova’s website more than hints at the artist’s punk-rock history. She was kicked out of school as a teenager for splattering and scratching unsanctioned graffiti all over its walls during off hours. This didn’t stop her from growing up into a responsible student. She eventually achieved an MFA in Monumental Art at The Saint Petersburg Academy of Art in 2015 after receiving a full presidential scholarship. Thankfully, shenever fully abandoned her punk rock ethos or elements of her early “Goth” interests, which she absorbed in the medical library of her doctor uncle-death, pathology, anthropology, disease, human anatomy, depression, nihilism-which she’s still transferring from her own matured physical and spiritual persona onto the intimidating white canvas. Not content with her present skills or knowledge and humbly interested in chasing down the mostly deceased male artists she very much admires, she’s pursuing a second MFA at the New York Academy of Art. She is currently in her second year. 


If Romanova admittedly struggles with intention and a clear premeditated vision for the completed work (this is fine), she thrives in erecting a strong foundational composition; perhaps an expression of her time spent working with major development companies in the architecture and interior design worlds back in Ukraine. For BodyLanguage, Romanova’s process is more akin to completing several simultaneous puzzles, but without having any of the illustrated box covers to serve as a luxurious reference point. Once more, the fact that black bodies have served as the capitalistic foundation for many Western societies is by no means lost on Romanova. She’s simply maintaining the right to engage and take some ownership in this difficult conversation. Likewise, there’s no trendy contemporary aesthetic she’s interested in hijacking, like repurposed collage or assemblage as a complex expression of race and gender intersectionality, for instance. With painting as a medium, she owns her privilege while criticizing it openly and with little American millennial irony. There’s something incredible earnest about these works. 


Despite the obvious figuration and starkly bare themes, you’re still left with a cryptic painterly puzzle in need of deciphering. What you get from Romanova’s happily isolated approach, is a unique, almost extraterrestrial expression of a very personal, diamond in the rough perspective on sexuality, motherhood, religion, life, capitalism and race within the matrix of an absurdly complex and perhaps self-destructive American culture, but without the cliché, branded symbolism. Romanova’s work is further bound by a strong B.D.S.M through line, which could be applied to all strata of relationships: husband and wife, parent and child, men and women, employer and employee, nations, races, and lovers. What are the “culture wars” if not an exploration of who has power and why? Who’s the “Dom” and who’s the “Sub?” How are these roles performed in public versus behind closed doors? Who is willing to relinquish their power and why should they? 


Miroslava Romanova is not asking for your permission to play ball in the volatile and globally intriguing American cultural conversation. She is, however, asking you to join her in putting this disjointed, fractal puzzle, made of 7.5 billion little pieces and climbing, back together to form one glorious, unified image. She’s asking us not to waste time reconstructing the failed Tower of Babel-which could never truly boast to having true structural or intentional integrity-but to instead pursue something greater, a universal body language, built upon the greatest foundation of all: our shared humanity.