Essay by Robin Saikia
Victoria Bilogan was born in Odessa and graduated in Odessa at the Conservatory. Since 1994 she has lived and worked in Melbourne, Australia. She also holds a postgraduate degree in piano from the University of Melbourne. Aside from music, her other passion since early childhood has been drawing, which eventually resulted in her taking two further degrees, in Fine Art and Engraving.
Bilogan’s engravings and graphics are informed by potent emotional engagement, depicting for the most part faces ? – repeated in different versions, with dry and defined lines and analysed with potent intensity. Strong contrasts of light and shadow sharpen the expressions, creating a dark and haunting ambience. Her figures seem to be denizens of the concentration camp, hard faces that mark the passage of time and offer an unrelenting vision of destruction. The technique of engraving reveals these dark and cataclysmic effects through the deployment of engraved signs and the use of dark inks – the stark monochrome works appear to “shout” their unignorable message. The “audible” quality of her work is inextricably with and informed by her parallel career as a musician, and therefore it is true to say that many of her pieces constitute a fusion of the aural and visual experience. In these striking works, a certain heaviness and disharmony is tempered by a fresh and explosive rendition of the faces. As to historical influences, while the artist declares expressionism as a primary inspiration, there are also perceptible echoes of the Japanese masters.
A single and memorable component of Bilogan’s work is her Gasmask series, a continuing meditation on oppression and liberation, and on resilience in the face of adversity. The gasmask as an emblem of suffering and atrocity has a long and honourable tradition in modern and contemporary art, from Horace Narbeth’s 1932 Gasmask Crucifixion to recent works by Banksy. The gasmask is an ambivalent and paradoxical emblem, since it is simultaneously a beautiful if sinister example of modern design and construction, as well as being a potent reminder of the horrors of chemical warfare from the first world war to the present day. On the popular front, it is no accident that this duality of beauty and horror has made the gasmask a central icon in the art of tattooists. Few images speak so clearly of oppression and physical pain – and the act of putting on the mask is itself a disturbing example of the suppression or obliteration of personal identity. Bilogan’s cycle of work explores these resonances in depth. Sometimes the face is chillingly concealed by the mask. At other times one sees a robust, even mischievous self-portrait of the artist, a triumphant affirmation of personal resilience in the face of adversity. Some viewers, struck by the dramatic effect of seeing only the artist’s eyes peeling out from above the mask, have drawn comparisons between the gasmask and the hijab, according to many a no less toxic symbol of oppression. Bilogan’s assured deployment of the complex manière noir technique confers an inky, velvety, luxurious quality on the images that speaks powerfully to the senses, alternately unsettling and uplifting.
Three-dimensional mixed media
Among the most notable examples of 3D/mixed media pieces are The Interiors and Private Life of Mr Mac Chico, a series, and the single piece, Rondo Venezia. In “Chico”, Bilogan creates a series of whimsical interiors in which the central character, a toy chick, is seen in a domestic setting, either sleeping or going about his daily business as we all do – surfing the web in search of products, hotels or events or (in one piece) trying on a pair of delightfully oversized boots. The series offers a cheerful and upbeat counterpoint to the darker aspects of Bilogan’s graphic output, a playful meditation on the continuity of day-to-day life, come what may. The more one looks, the more one sees in these faux-naive tableaux; for example, one gains some insight into Chico’s literary tastes as represented in the miniature library; the legend of Robin Hood, alongside fantasy authors Deborah Chester and Mark Charan Newton. Is Chico a reprehensible escapist, or he no worse than any of us? At all events, the redemptive presence of a piano in his bed-sitting-room, on its matchstick legs, will endear him to most viewers.
The multi-media installation Rondo Venezia is the fullest representation, perhaps, of Bilogan’s dual trajectory as both artist and musician. As with the previously-mentioned graphics, this is a highly tactile and “audible” installation, the central component being a highly decorated music roll on which the classic perforations of the traditional pianola are superimposed by deliciously evocative images of the Serenissima, seen executed in a delicate and understated palette that perfectly recreates the constantly-changing light of the ethereal city. There are, perhaps, some Japanese elements underlying too, particularly in the scroll-like and calligraphic qualities that the music roll seems to possess when viewed in a certain light. Again, as with Chico, the viewer is invited to embrace a positive and enriching view of the world that supersedes and overcomes the darker themes explored elsewhere in Bilogan’s oeuvre. It should also be said that Rondo Venezia is just one of the components of Bilogan’s continuing engagement with Venice. Of particular note are her Venetian pastels, which perfectly redeploy the attenuated blues, eau-de-nils and ochres of the Venetian school of painting, and her Venetian monotypes, which range from powerful topographical views of the Grand Canal to moodier and more private explorations of the alleys and backwaters of the city. Perhaps the most striking and colourful of Bilogan’s Venetian visions is a riotous celebration of the Piazza San Marco, in which the familiar forms of the Basilica and the surrounding colonnades of the square are reduced to energised patches of form and colour, deconstructing what has become an over-familiar view and giving it an entirely new life and spirit. Bilogan does a triumphant job of reinventing and “re-seeing” this much overpainted city. Her views are executed with vigour and urgency, rather than being informed by sentimentality, and thus recall the old fighting spirit of the long-dead Republic. Some of the darker views combine the topographical with the fantastical. In one, close inspection reveals a palazzo facade comprised of writhing figures, and in the foreground an assembly of phantasmagoric figures, undulating beneath an elaborately balustraded bridge in the dim waters of a narrow canal.
Two fully representative examples of Bilogan’s painting are, perhaps, the series Bottles off the Shore, and Persimmons: to the Core. In Bottles, Bilogan explores the innate beauty and serenity of ordinary and usually unconsidered objects, an approach firmly grounded in the best traditions of still life painting. An obvious influence here is the work of Giorgio Morandi – and Bilogan’s objects possess the same tranquillity and meditational quality of the Italian master. The preoccupation with glass is reprised in a single work in pastel, a collection of gently distorted ink bottles made of frosty green glass with a gentle eau-de-nil tint. Bilogan’s natural exuberance often impels her to add dashes of vibrant colour in the backgrounds of these pieces, a compelling invitation to the viewer to embrace and share the delight the artist so clearly takes in these deceptively simple subjects. The same sense of uplift and exuberance is sustained in the Persimmon series, in which the luxuriantly coloured spherical fruit is shown and celebrated at the full moment of ripeness. These powerfully tactile images exude a palpable sense of ripeness, fecundity and regeneration, an example of the compelling and seductive sensuality that is a dominant leitmotiv in Bilogan’s work.
Among the most notable of Bilogan’s free but masterfully controlled pen and wash drawings is a series of scenes of St Kilda, the now bohemian suburb of Melbourne renowned for its civic and ecclesiastical architecture and for the palatial mansions built in St Kilda’s heyday as an upmarket resort. As well as being a valuable topographical record of the immaculate-preserved suburb as it is today, Bilogan’s vision also triggers a sense of nostalgia for its glamorous colonial past. Of particular note is a compelling night scene, with marvellous splashes of ivory, indigo and black, a composite drawing comprising various architectural elements, but dominated by the spire of the Sacred Heart Church. Also of note is a view from the promenade with a robust and energy-filled palm tree triumphantly dominating the composition, and in a corner of the folio some assured lightning sketches of the local police horses exercising on the esplanade. A third St Kilda drawing of considerable charm shows Christ Church, the local Anglican church. Finally, there is a terrific depiction of the much-loved Catani Memorial Clocktower on the esplanade. The spontaneity that characterises these works is also evident in Bilogan’s numerous charcoal and pencil sketches, all executed with great elan, and a touch as sure as it is swift. Bilogan is clearly in her element here, as witnessed by her own remarks on the tremendous sense of satisfaction she enjoys when capturing a scene, an object, or a feeling: “Those are my favourite moments, performance moments where you make fast decisions and often the most powerful ones.” The reference to “performance” is, of course, a revealing insight into Bilogan’s method of work – the musician’s spirit can clearly be felt in the handiwork of the artist!
Further Prints, Woodcuts and Etchings
In addition to the iconic Gasmask series, Bilogan has produced a significant cycle of works on paper touching on a variety of themes. Of particular note is The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a quasi-surreal image in which an innumerable array of pierced cubes are seen lying in a distant landscape, beneath a dark and swirling sky – the work is a meditation on Milan Kundera’s novel of that name, the central premise of which is a challenge to Nietzsche’s proposal that life is a ‘heavy’ cycle of infinitely recurrent events: it is, instead, a ‘light’ affair, in which every joy sorrow or opportunity occurs just once. This is not to say that “lightness” of being is any less distressing than the “heavy” burdens proposed by Nietzsche. As Kundera says of his own heroine, Sabina, “Her drama was a drama not of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her lot was not the burden, but the unbearable lightness of being.” This, perhaps, is the melancholy essence of Bilogan’s hollowed out, and therefore feather-light cubes, arranged beneath a forbidding sky as far as the eye can see. Other notable works are Do Not Stop, an aquatint depicting a coral-like form that seems to be in the process of infinite self-replication; Thought is an aquatint that at first sight appears to be a study of the human brain viewed from above, but which on closer inspection gradually reveals that the cortices are composed of crouching or foetally curled-up figures, intertwined to form the overall familiar structure – and in the background, a pair of moody but welcoming eyes invite the viewer into this strange but comforting meditation on the psyche. Bilogan also frequently returns to topographical work, a notable example being a nocturnal view of Binghai Bay, the sky energised by a criss-cross aurora of shimmering light. Some scenes are totally imaginary landscapes, such as New Beginnings, an unsettling work depicting figures on the point of traversing an enormous gully of shimmering water, stretching in sharp perspective towards a skyline of forbidding buildings – putting the viewer in mind, perhaps, of the challenges we face when a major life decision impels us to strike out on a lonely and unpredictable path to a new life. As to figure studies, Bilogan frequently reprises her series of nudes in stark woodcut, the monumental forms seeming to be carved out of opaque basalt or granite, delineated by flashes of silvery line and lively cross-hatching. The works possess a glowing internal luminosity that at times is reminiscent of William Blake. Though small in scale, the unique treatment of light and form confers a weighty, substantial and monumental quality to the figures. Also of note is the Tango series of etchings (It Takes Two), which taken as a whole presents an intimate and tenderly-observed picture of a loving relationship, albeit tinged at times with a passing melancholy. Some depictions in the series are lively, like the eponymous dance itself. Others appear to be static, a couple in a quiet embrace, but on closer inspection one gains a tangible sense of internal passion and fire.
Bilogan regularly experiments with the manipulation of photography in order to enhance and celebrate natural forms such as flora, rock and water, invariably prompting the viewer to reconsider his visual preconceptions of form and texture. Elsewhere, we see a wilful and exciting distortion of architecture in a series of post-Vorticist topographical photographs of Burano in Venice, and Amsterdam. The famously pretty rows of brightly painted houses in Burano are distorted into a vertiginous riot of crazy angles and bold juxtapositions of competing form and colour. Amsterdam is given a similar makeover, alternately iconoclastic and affectionate, causing us to see the city with a fresh eye. There is a joyous and wholly affectionate sense of time and place in these works, the distortion serving to focus on the inherent but fugitive beauty of the scene rather than detract from it – again, the viewer very clearly senses the duality of humour and pathos that informs and energises so much of Bilogan’s work, the desire to capture and preserve the fleeting moment, to mark it indelibly on the viewer’s mind by means of striking interpretation and innovation.
In 2006, Victoria Bilogan’s works were selected to represent VCA Australia in a collective exhibition in Tokyo, Japan, during an exchange between the two largest art schools in Japan and Australia. Her recent works have been acquired by the Yukyung Museum of Contemporary Art, the Sophia National Art Museum, Bulgaria, and the Dunhuang National Museum. She participated in the Guanlan Printmaking Biennale, at the Lingshi Printmaking International Biennale, China. She was selected to participate in a show inaugurated by the Silk Road International Exchange project, China. She was awarded a grant to participate in the Binhai Printmaking Interntional Exchange Project, Tianjin, China. She also exhibited in the National Museum and Biennale, Macedonia. Victoria exhibited in 2017 and 2018 at the International Graphic School of Venice. Finally, thanks to a contemporary art gallery in Assisi and the Atelier 3 + 10 Graphic Prize, she was also able to exhibit in galleries in Venice.