Suzanne Scherer and Pavel Ouporov

Scherer & Ouporov Marisol’s Dream, 2005 Courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery, New York CityNew Yorker Suzanne Scherer and Moscow-born Pavel Ouporov met at the Surikov Institute of the Russian Art Academy in 1989. Their collaborative art draws on a variety of influences, including icon painting, nineteenth-century Romanticism and Symbolism, and contemporary realism. Now professors at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, where they teach printmaking, they employ different mediums in their own art—egg tempera, silverpoint, gold leaf, photography and video. In fall 2007 an exhibition of their multi-faceted work, “One Voice,” appeared at the Coral Springs Museum of Art in Florida. At a time when many figurative artists are wary of tackling mythic subjects, Scherer and Ouporov are committed to exploring archetypal iconography. What gives their work its contemporary edge is their interest in the technical possibilities of mixed media—they use Mylar and glass as supports as well as poplar—and sophisticated manipulations of different registers of representation. 

Their central image is the tree, in both its local and universal manifestations. Photographs of the century-old banyan trees near the artists’ Florida home were featured in the recent exhibition, alongside more stylized trees that recall the Garden of Eden, the Hesperides of Greco-Roman myth and Ygdrasil, the enchanted ash of northern legend, whose roots and branches extend throughout the universe. Schematic trees have long been used to organize information ranging from family genealogy to the kabala. Gustav Klimt’s flat gold trees with spiral motifs, as seen in the murals of Josef Hoffman’s Palais Stoclet in Brussels (1905–11), are clearly a model, although Klimt’s own inspiration can be traced back to medieval mosaics in the apse of San Clemente in Rome. Scherer and Ouporov’s installation Tree of Life (2006) presents a perfectly flat, decorative gold tree starred with half a dozen rondels of child angels. Despite their rainbow wings, the children have a contemporary naturalness. Talking Tree (2006) more effectively integrates an illusionistically three-dimensional figure with richly patterned decorative elements. A blonde child, completely relaxed yet alert, lies at the foot of a massive gold spiral-branched tree that fills the upper two-thirds of the image. The rondels in the branches were inspired by their son Nicolas’s invention of a story about a talking-animal tree. The child in the painting lies on red earth completely covered with block letters in gold. The artists describe the gilding process in alchemical terms: “The act of gilding itself symbolizes the breath of life because when we apply the gold, we must breathe deeply from within onto the clay bole for it to adhere. The moisture from one’s breath wets and creates a tacky surface, allowing a perfect bond. The clay and the gold together represent man’s dual cosmic and earthly nature, material and spiritual sides.”

Texts are an important component of their images, both as thematic elements and as decorative texture. Newborn (2006) combines a realistic portrait of an infant lying on rainbow wings with surrounding texts from a Seminole poem, “Song for Bringing a Child into the World,” and William Blake’s “A Cradle Song.” But the incantational power of words comes through even when the text remains indecipherable. Scherer and Ouporov employ different languages and alphabets—English, Russian, Latin and Hebrew. The studied Fra Angelico when they were working on the transparent drapery for Newborn, as well as for the technique of combining gold leaf with glazes. But another model for their images of children is the German Romantic painter Philipp Otto Runge, especially in his allegories of nature Four Times of Day (1803). Runge’s pantheistic visions are full of infant genii as nature spirits. In a poem he wrote to accompany Four Times of Day, Runge characterized Evening as “the boundless annihilation of existence into the origin of the universe.” This is the mysterious state Scherer and Ouporov evoke in Twilight (2004). A naked child sleeps in a crumpled nest of drapery nearly indistinguishable from the roots of the giant banyan tree that fills the frame, its branches starred with tiny lights like fireflies. The warm flesh tones of the blonde child contrast with overall blue tonality of the dusk. The corporeal particularity of these artists’ figures marks them as flesh and blood, creating an intriguing register-shift from the flat decorativeness of the spaces that surround them. In Celestial Tree (2006) a little girl twists playfully in a carved chair, smiling, her eyes closed—as if she were dreaming the gilded tree full of birds and the horse-drawn chariot in the tapestry behind her. While children, who come into the world, in Wordsworth’s phrase “trailing clouds of glory,” are particularly apt embodiments of human nature at its most receptive to magic, Scherer and Ouporov occasionally use adult figures. In Marisol’s Dream (2005) the naked young woman with prayerfully folded hands, her curly dark hair spread out like a halo, sleeps upside down. Illusionistically three-dimensional, she seems to have grown into the trunk of a diagrammatic world tree constructed from lines of text and flat but naturalistically veined gold leaves. The dream state gives her access to the hieroglyphics of nature, a secret language of revelation. The tree form here is more idea than representation, but it remains a conduit between heaven and earth. The careful realism of the figures grounds these works and keeps them from drifting into sentimentality. And there is an acknowledgment of dark subconscious forces in Tree Whisperer (2005), in which a tiny prone figure seems lost in an engulfing forest of twisted roots. The mythic regions, the artists seem to suggest, are not for the timid. Coral Springs Museum of Art, 2855 Coral Springs Drive, Coral Springs, Florida 33065. Telephone (954) 340-500. On the web at Scherer and Ouporov’s work also appeared in the group show “Art of Psyche: The Freudian Legacy” at CDS Gallery and at the Neue Galerie’s Gustav Klimt exhibition (through June 30, 2008), both in New York City.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2008, Volume 25, Number 1