Elena Drozdova (aka. Lena Khaisman): I was born in 1957 in Moscow, the capital of the world’s first communist state, a city jammed with imperial and pre-imperial Russian history, its religious and civic relics.
I was trained in architectural design and academic drawing at МАРХИ (mar-hee), an architectural college only a couple blocks from the Kremlin. The school was located on a picturesque estate, a somewhat unique sample of Russian classicism. The school was linked to the newer building both spiritually and stylistically, and was rooted in the Russian avant guard. Back in the 1920s, it housed the ВХУТЕМАС (v-hu-te-mas), the cradle of revolutionary constructivism. In the late seventies, it was still hallucinating the glory of strong aesthetics.
When, in 1989, I immigrated to the USA together with my husband, Mark Khaisman, I experienced shock. Despite the steady “A” in English through all my school years, the only word I could discern from American conversation was “no.”
Mark and I raised our three children, Anna, Phil, and Neal, at our home in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. Between 1998 and 2006, working in our family stained glass studio, I painted portraits and figures of saints and divinities, and taught a private art class for children.
In 2006, I fully shifted my focus to fine art.
Today, I paint at the CAVE, my art studio, and run pARTners, the art workshop at Peaceful Living, where I lead a group of people with intellectual disabilities, working on collective fine art projects.
Glenn Wallis: I am talking to the artist Elena Drozdova in her studio, The Cave. It is located in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. (Gurgling of pouring wine.) Why do you call it “The Cave”?
(Click any picture for gallery and captions.)
Elena Drozdova: My husband and I [the artist Mark Khaisman] used to work in the same space, and it was very uncomfortable. It wasn’t just uncomfortable space-wise. Different wavelengths were interfering. It wasn’t working very well. So, and some point, I…
GW: …what do you mean by “different wavelengths”?
ED: I think it involves a very different approach to art. And I think that [slowly and hesitantly] I am [pause] more open to Mark’s wavelengths than he is to mine.
GW: Do you mean that you have different routines, or have different kinds of materials lying around? Is it something mental, psychological, this wavelength?
ED: No, no, yes. When you work with your piece, you are in your–what’s it called–your mental state. And, as you work, this certainly somehow radiates around you. For some people it might be a very positive or encouraging wave; for some people it might be destructive. And I felt that Mark was hostile to my work. I felt that that was difficult for him to see, and I was offended by that. Later I read in Carl Jung about his personality types, and I [soft laugh] recognized mine and Mark’s [full laughter], and I realized that this explained the problem. Mark’s type isn’t open. Mine is “introverted-intuitive.” His is “extroverted-sensitive.” He just blocks intuition. Intuition destroys his sensitivity. He’s a sensitive type. [In sharing work space] he has to be sensitive to the borderlines of my definitions of taste. The idea of good taste/bad taste is very real, it is a physical and emotional reality.
Let me say more. Mark is a very important figure for me. But there is a dichotomy here that is very important to my story. I was trying to be around Mark even before we got married, even before we had any romantic relationship, because I saw this structure of an artist, and someone who knows what he’s doing, who has a chartered territory, he knows it, and he knows how to orient himself there, how to move there, how to work hard, how to achieve. He knows how to set himself a goal and what to do and he also has this impeccable critical mechanism, like judgment, what’s right and what’s wrong. And to me, just being in this environment, just helping him and his work, architectural design work, just being there, and helping him was [pause] magic. I felt like I was not lost. And so we worked for a while in one studio. And then it became suffocating for both of us. And that is an interesting thing because I was trying to come to terms with it and understand. The way I can formulate it now is that we basically represent the artistic universe as a whole, being opposites. And he is the classical, rational, conceptual, clear cut, clear understanding of taste and direction. So I can call him an Acropolis, an Agora, Acropolis, the height of thought and the clearness of thought. And I am the dump [laughing], I am a pleb. I am that dark, romantic entity, which is just feeding from the very low, low elements of life, and I wanted to be, I envied this Agora glory and light and I wanted to be there, and I never quite could make it. It took me time to realize that I have to turn away from the Agora. The tragedy here is that it’s funny and interesting because he works with this light, right now with light in his work. So he is the light I can see from my darkness. And he cannot see me in the dark because of the light. This is how the light works: you can see the bright light from the dark place, and you can’t see what’s in the dark from the bright light, and this is why, if you are intrigued by the dark things, you have to switch off the light of what you already know, and sometimes the light of a rational thought itself. His structure practically doesn’t allow him to see the elements which are so vital for me. And this is kind of like the unsolved, unresolved tragedy of our relationship, which we are working on, but I think it is so interesting and so productive to live in this dichotomy of artistic poles. So I call myself a romanticist and him a classicist. The romanticist admires the classicist and that the classicist despises the romanticist [chuckle]. I also need Mark, I needed him in the beginning, and I keep needing him, because he is a raft in my dark seas, and despite myself, I am afraid of this darkness. I am looking for it, but I am afraid of it and despite myself now and then I just grab to this raft, like take me out of it!
GW: Like a guiding star.
ED: Right, which I would hate, right? I would say, no, no, no it’s not my direction it’s not the way I am going. But I am constantly getting weak and scared and lost and I am just like, honestly, just cannot take it anymore. I need this raft to save me from myself, or from [pause] my dark lover, the bull [laughs].
GW: To keep the light metaphor, you need some sort of light, because things can get too dark and you just get lost in the elements? You can’t even differentiate yourself from the darkness?
ED: Right. This is where, when you are charting new territory, or just getting lost in new territory, this is a very big question, which I cannot and I do not answer. What are the criteria? How do I decide what I am doing? Sometimes I do something, like my bull series of intuitive paintings. I like them, my initial… or I am scared, or I think it’s nothing, or I just don’t understand what it is, and then the time passes and then in a year or two I see it totally. I know what it means, and I understand. But at the very moment I am kind of at a loss. And so always trusting this source of your imagery is scary, and it doesn’t always work. And then I also often feel ashamed of the judgment of the public. I am afraid.
GW: The non-art public too?
ED: Right, any public. Because I am afraid, I feel like I expose myself too thoroughly, too shamelessly, too indecently. I should say a little more about being exposed to the public and being honest with myself. There are two things there. There is a concern when you are thinking about the field, the idea of a professional field. You have to conform yourself to the field, you have to look at the field, see where the flows are, see where it goes and pick a flow for yourself and kind of get yourself streaming there, right? But my reaction is that you get lost in the flow, I mean you lose yourself, your real self. You are at risk, at least, at risk of losing it because you are constantly comparing yourself with others, how you’re doing, like am I on the right path? Am I following the right direction, you know? Am I within the chartered land?…
GW: …the territory of art.
ED: Yeah. Am I charting something that the field is interested in? And then you see people who take a different route, and you choose to really listen to yourself, to where your muse, or whatever, is leading you. You are very much at risk of being lost–and never found. And this is where anxieties are coming from, you know? And this is a crazy anxiety I have all the time about being lost. I basically honestly almost imagine (laughing) that I don’t exist (laughing), you know, that no one sees or hears me, like I am invisible. That’s my feeling, because I am not existing in any of this.
GW: In “this”? In the field, the territory–where people are looking at each other? Where they form a community, form connections to others?
GW: Are you saying that you can find a flow within the field that might lead you outside of the field? Or do the territorial flows just circulate around and around, within this field?
ED: I am talking about my personal experience, and, that didn’t happen to me. I mean I kind of do a very naïve thing, I know that it is a naïve thing to expect that the field will find me. But I was trying to kind of step on the train, and it just didn’t work.
GW: Looking back now are you happy that it didn’t work because you found this new way for yourself?
ED: This series of portraits that I’m working on was my way to finally be noticed. I’m finally in communication with these people who are coming here and they see me the way I see them, so this encounter where we are exposed to each other is very important to me, existentially, because I am being noticed. I feel again that I have connection with people and with the world. But these people are not a part of the field. But here you can go through different justifications. I think the first thing which comes to mind is that art is supposed to be an intuitive field, and it’s not supposed to be prescribed; so if you are falling into certain existing flows of the field, you are already a follower, you are already compromising yourself.
GW: And you’re saying an artist is someone who doesn’t do that, who doesn’t compromise that way? Someone who’s always finding new ways, new flows?
ED: Well, let me put it this way: this is my personal feeling, and I do believe in deepening, widening themes. And I think it’s very important. I am not an innovator or anything. I am a part of a certain circle of artists who have their roots in the older art. I am a painter, and I know that I am talking in this language, I am working on these themes, it’s just that the field the way I see it now through the eyes of the closest artist to me, Mark Khaisman, the field is iconoclastic and conceptual predominantly, I mean the hierarchy there is that conceptual art is superior, that painting is inferior to conceptual art. Representational art is inferior to conceptual art.
GW: We are talking about the current art scene?
ED: Yes, in the art market and art scene today. In its philosophy and its theory, that’s how it is.
GW: It’s interesting that you do feel connected to other artists, it’s just that they might not be living artists, they might be artists from another time, or living artists who are also not doing what the contemporary art field is valuing.
ED: Well, a few of them are very big names, a very big presence. I can name some of them: Marlene Dumas, Chantal Joffe. Alice Neel, Klodin Erb, Elizabeth Payton.
GW: Are these artists who are working somehow against the grain of what the contemporary scene is valuing?
ED: Well, they have a very high standing and are very highly represented.
GW: These people you’re talking about?
ED: Yes. They are the ones who made it and the ones who keep this going.
GW: “This” being representational art?
ED: Representational, and because I am very interested in portraits, most of those artists are doing portraits. The way art is divided now is between the conceptual and the representational. The conceptual being a pure thought. And so my way of doing art is totally against that because I am not a pure thought at all. I am just this visceral being, and my art is all about experience, and it’s all about getting lost in the darkness. And this is not only when I work as an artist. It’s also about how I live. It’s what I have needed in my life since I was a child. As a child, I loved to get lost in the woods. I was doing it repeatedly I was taking myself to the woods and got lost there. Because then you experience this panic, you know, that you are nowhere and you become so aware of everything and you are again really turning to your intuition, trying to find a way, you hear, start hearing the signs of nature, and you hear and smell and feel it with your skin.
GW: Your senses are heightened because of being lost, in a way?
ED: Yes, and you become part of it. And those are the high points. And so my metaphor always was in the woods, in the woods, lost in the woods, outside the woods. I don’t like being on a pathway. I always want to get off the pathway, in real life and in my work. And so that’s connected to me making this gift for myself, making this room in the basement of our house, kind of hidden far away, of leaving the studio where I worked with Mark, who, like I said, is a very important figure for me.
GW: Can we come back to–what did you call it–definitions of taste?
ED: Yeah. Good taste/bad taste.
GW: Where are these definitions coming from? Were they coming from you? Were they coming from him?
ED: It’s related to training. Mark and I were trained in the same school in Moscow. The school always imposed ideas of taste on you. And so I was trained in taste, in a certain taste. We shared it. I admired Mark’s work. I learned a lot about his, ahh [pause, searching for words] intellectual work with taste.
GW: In Lines of Flight, I’m interested in this relationship between participation and identity, on the one side, and idiosyncrasy and optimal freedom, on the other. We get formed–as artist or people or whatever–in institutions, such as an art school. Our ideas are very much determined by what we’re taught there. A line of flight involves breaking out of the confinement of these received notions and conventions…
ED: …yes, I was probably slowed down by this school. In certain ways, I certainly was developed–in certain ways…
GW: ..because it taught you technique and the history of art and..
ED: …yeah, discipline, technique. Actually, constructive thinking. It taught me constructive thinking, because it was an architecture school. It was a lot of designed, hierarchical thinking. It’s so great. So great. I use it in my art. I do. But it’s very much, umm, very much, how do you say it [pause, chuckle] personalized, or, how do you say it…
ED: ..I, I had to overcome it, but then–I’m kind of a mess, lot’s of chaos when I work. But I trust now my, my–the impulses that I have, I trust them.
GW: So, by “hierarchical” do you mean that you were taught to do things in a certain order or sequence or?…
ED: …yeah, yeah. But then I realized that I still use this hierarchical approach, that I…
GW: …what would an example be of a “hierarchical approach”?
ED: [Pause]. Hm. Well. It’s very difficult to, ah. Okay. For example, you go from general to particular…
GW: …are you talking about in an architectural rendition or a painting or…
ED: …or thought…
GW: …in thought, even? From the general to the particular?
ED: Yes. You are not allowing yourself to dwell on details too much. And actually, oftentimes you just keep them off, because you don’t need that detail. Actually, you prefer more obscure, and, ah, ah, I would call it “intuitive,” an open-ended image or whatever, a thought, whatever.
GW: So, the general, keeping it open-ended, allows for many possibilities?
ED: It is also that it allows for more ways of understanding. If you are a viewer, for instance, or a reader, it allows you to fill in blanks. So, it’s a collaborative work, then. It is then very deep, because it is not that I am catering to you as a viewer, but you as a viewer co-exist in my world because I am open to you. I am open to everyone. I am open to people. If I were not open, I would just put down on paper the meaning from A to Z is…, the details of everything I want to say. I despise this.
GW: You say you go from the general to the particular, but does that mean that you also might not–that you are careful not to–provide too much detail even toward the end of a work?
ED: Mind you, I am not hiding them, these details It’s not that I even know them. I actually prefer to go somewhere where I don’t know the details. And then it’s nurtured. I developed a way of seeing and thinking where I just try not to reach for the conventional meaning. The conventional meaning is what we are taught. You are schooled in meaning. It just jumps onto you. What happens is, first as a young artist then as a more experienced artist–especially when I teach art–I see what happens. Someone draws a line, makes a brushstroke, and you already recognize some reference, something that already exists. Not only exists, but points to “successful” art. So you say, “okay, let’s go there.” Instead–and this always happens when I teach–I just bite my tongue and say, “okay, I want to see how the student is going to mess that up, screw it up.”
GW: Is the idea that if you draw such a line, a line with an obvious and existing reference, it determines what the next line will be? Because you’re caught up in the canon of “painting.”?
ED: It’s a banality. If it’s already been done, it becomes a banality. You are trained as an artist to feel good here: “ah, Matisse, Picasso, Corbet!” Yeah. We know them. My line looks like that! So, okay, let’s do this, do that, like they did. We already know all the steps. [Pause] But, you don’t want to go there.
GW: One thing that makes a convention a convention is that most people do choose to go there. What makes you think to yourself, “I’m not going to go there?’ How do you shake yourself free from that predictability, from reflexively reaching toward those kinds of conventions?
ED: Because I see that I have created a banality, it’s already known. It’s known territory. So, step one: you want to go somewhere else, somewhere where no one has gone before.
GW: So you just don’t allow yourself to go where it seems others have already gone?
ED: I don’t allow myself to fall into this track. But, that is difficult. I can’t say I am free of everything, and that I know how to do something unconventional–I don’t think I do.
GW: What is difficult? It’s difficult not to go with convention, to where it wants to take you, to really free yourself from it?
ED: Yes, it’s difficult to free yourself from convention. And it’s also difficult to see what’s there. Difficult to assess, to decide what’s good, what’s bad, what to choose, where to stop. You don’t know. Who tells me now? I am the mastermind here. So, who tells me now where I should stop? What technique I should use? What materials I should use? Am I allowed here or there?
GW: Do you pay a price for stepping out of these set ways of doing things?…
ED: …the price is unease.
GW: …do you pay by being alone in your work?
ED: Yes, well here I am not alone [laughing]. This is the high of it. I am in my, whatever, field. I am not alone. This is a very unlonely experience.
GW: How do you mean that?
ED: Because basically you [pause] are in a love affair at the moment. When you feel it, it is the best thing in life.
GW: Love affair? It’s like being in love? Like it’s exciting? You can’t stop thinking about it–about your work of the moment? Your not happy being separated from it? You can’t wait to get back to it?
ED: The best thing is–I have this portrait. I didn’t even notice how I made it. I was so much into the conversation. [NOTE: When Elena is painting a portrait, she holds a conversation with her subject as she paints. This conversation is an intentional and integral part of her process. Here’s the view from the sitter’s perspective:]
I was looking [at the person sitting], my hands were moving, but I wasn’t there. And this is the best for me, when I see something happening besides me, besides my will, my decisions, you know, my voluntary decisions. I experience pure joy. Then I know that I–I learn the process. I learn the process of giving of giving in.
GW: Can we come back later to this business of “giving in”? The love affair is not so much with the object you’re working on, say, that painting, but with this process…
ED: ..with the muse. I mean, let’s just call it this: the muse. It’s this presence.
GW: How does the muse feel to you? How do you know when it’s present?
ED: Well, first of all, I get very distracted, distracted from everyday life. And then I just feel that something is here. I feel like I am exactly where I should be. I feel that this is what I am. You know, I have to tell you, from very early on I have had visions…
GW: …what are you calling a “vision?”
ED: …I can look at some random object, like this wall
and I see images. I can turn them on and off. There’s an overlap. I can–it’s like flipping a page. I remembered this ability that I had when I was young. Eventually, I learned to let go.
GW: Can you say more about “letting go”? Is it psychological? Is there a particular catalyst for it? Is it a slow process? How does it feel when you let go? Can you recall a particular moment when you let go?
ED: I will tell you a story. There was a moment, like when a light bulb lit up. I was living with a fellow art student in Moscow. One morning we were in a rush, late to class. He was just sitting there, so lethargic, he could barely move. And he was going, “oh, where are my socks? I can’t find my socks!” And I’m rushing around the room, looking for his socks so we can get to school. I see his socks, two of them. I pick them up and just throw them at him, and say, “here they are!” The two socks fly in different directions. And he just thrusts out his hands and grabs them in mid-flight. How could he? Only because he didn’t have time to think. We stopped at this moment. We talked about what had just happened. “Look what happens when we are not on guard. This is how we should live. So from that point on I can say that I know how to let go, not fully and always, but I kind of know how to let go. But there are so many fucking doubts. Terrible. They just come. You don’t know where from. They come when the muse is not there.
GW: When the muse is present, the doubts don’t interfere?
GW: What are the doubts concerned with?
ED: First of all, why? Why do art at all? Then, where do I fall in the world of art? What school? What style? I have always been an outsider. And this should have freed me. But now and then I get this, like, well, I don’t have any ability to get into that world.
GW: What is that about, that need to work within some accepted school?
ED: Because it’s tied to success. This is successful, that is successful. This sells, that sells. This is cool, that is cool. All quite specific.
GW: But when the muse is present, you don’t care about any of this?
ED: Let’s say you have a child. You don’t care how your child does in school. You just love your child so much. This child is inseparable from you. This is you, it is so yours. But then all of a sudden, it’s like “oh, she’s not doing so well in school.” You know, that other kid got this award, but my child, not. And then you wonder if you fucked up. It’s the same here. You have your child. You have this love. It’s yours. It’s only yours. You have to care for that child. It’s given to you to care for. It’s your obligation.
GW: And if you don’t, she will wither and die.
ED: If you don’t then you have wasted your life. That’s it. I don’t know what might happen to the child, but you, you have wasted your life. Because you had something. And for some stupid reasons you didn’t do it. I forgot myself. I, I–before I knew that I wasted a lot of time.
GW: And the same would be true if you were to give in to the kinds of conventions and ideas of success that you want to avoid, right? I mean, even though you’d still be making art, wouldn’t the child still wither and die?
ED: Yes. You know, whatever you do, you are in a vacuum. No one notices. No one pays attention. Whatever I do doesn’t make a dent. You just live in this vacuum. You know, you have this high moment. You are with the muse, and you are not alone. And then you have this moment when you are so alone and isolated. No one is noticing. Nobody sees you. You just don’t exist. You feel like you don’t exist.
GW: You’re not talking about a need for recognition, are you? Do you feel like what you are describing is a necessary, an unavoidable, part of the process?
ED: [Laughing]. Yes! [Laughing] Maybe!
GW: Can we look at some of your paintings now?
ED: Look at this. It’s from a new series. Tell me, what do you see?
[It takes some prompting for me to make out that it’s a bull and a woman.]
GW: So, you’re painting bulls now?
ED: Actually, the bull is just keeping, keeping–it’s persisting as a theme.
[We spend some time looking at paintings of bulls and women.]
ED: These bull paintings are good examples of intuitive art.
GW: When you say “intuitive,” do you mean that all you know you’re going to do is paint a bull and a woman, and the rest just unfolds from there?
ED: Yeah, I don’t know. Some of them, I just start, and they become an inkblot, and then I see this, this.
GW: What does the bull mean to you?
ED: I think the bull is the lover–in a very big sense. Not just a physical lover. It’s like the muse. My muse is a bull. Look. This is the first time the woman sees the bull.
He just appears. She doesn’t know what to do with it. She wants to touch it, but she’s afraid. She’s very timid. But here, in this one, she has is head. She’s not wearing his head, she has his head. She has no hands of her own because she has to carry the bull’s head, his horns [chuckles].
She’s no longer a woman. She has this very feminine shape, but she’s not a women. A woman has to have hands. For taking care of things, she has to have hands.
GW: If she holds on to the bull, she’s defeminized?
ED: Yes, she’s giving up her own power, completely. Look, her knees are week. She’s not a women any longer. She’s lost her essence, her power. I think that we all have that experience at some point in our lives.
This is like a crucifixion.
GW: She looks happy.
ED: Um. Who doesn’t like to be crucified!? [Big laughter]
GW: What do you mean?
ED: I mean, it’s also her moment, isn’t it? She’s fully exposed. The bull is crying [laughing].
GW: She’s getting a lot of attention, so it’s her moment?
ED: Or maybe she’s just posing like she’s being crucified, to fool the bull. The bull is so confused. She knows what she’s doing [laughing]!