HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO
Bushwick artist Nikita Shoshensky looks to John Wayne to save the contemporary art scene. Dash Snow need not apply.
“First off, the museum is a failing institution,” confides Nikita Shoshensky. “It’s been failing.” Shoshensky, an artist with a still new degree from Cooper Union, sounds almost happy to be hailing the end
of an institution instrumental to his craft. “The Whitney Biennial was horrible,” he says cheerfully. “I don’t care about other people’s fantasies.”
At 24, Shoshensky, who has a lithe frame and an impressive mass of black curls, possesses the cynicism of a much older man, or if not cynicism – Shoshensky seems quite pleased with his life – the ability to recognize bullshit from a mile, at least, away. His take on the much-lauded New Museum, recently dropped smack in the middle of the Bowery?
“I have no issue with what’s in it, per se,” he begins diplomatically. “It’s what it says with what’s in it.” Diplomacy ends. “[It’s a] dogmatic, unemotional, and falsely rigorous assessment of the city and creative practice.” Or, in layman’s terms: “Bad ideas done badly.” Ouch. So who is Shoshensky – an art school grad with a few group shows under his belt – to talk about the establishment like this? In celebrity-driven art world terms, nobody. Which is just fine with him.
Born in Moscow, Shoshensky and his family left Russia and headed for the Bronx when the Soviet Union collapsed. Shoshensky was nine, and his English consisted of the basics: “cat, bat, hat,” he recalls. Partial credit is due to the New York Public School system for preparing him for the phrases and words like “archeology of violence,” “methodology,” and “numerati” that crop up in his speech now, but it’s clear Shoshenksy is a quick study. After graduating from Cooper last spring he moved to Bushwick where he lives and works in one of those great, big, carved-into loft spaces that make Manhattan real estate seem like such a joke.
“It’s a funny place to grow up,” Shoshensky says of Russia, where trying Coca-Cola for the first time qualified as an event. “Places like that don’t exist anymore. You can go to maybe Cuba or North Korea to get a sense of that space.” Despite having been back to Russia several times, Shoshensky’s sense of national identity is as loose as his artistic opinions are fixed. “I don’t feel Russian because I spent most of my life here [in the US],” he says. “But I don’t feel American. I have no nationality.”
While Shoshensky may eschew his American identity, he is happy to embrace the country’s cultural artifacts. After completing a series of paintings based on Bonnie and Clyde and the Barrow Gang, his latest project takes on Westerns in general. He has logged countless hours in front of his computer capturing stills from Rio Bravo, The Magnificent Seven, and The Wild Bunch, watching upwards of four films a day. The result is a series of delicate and impressively done pen and ink sketches of heroes and sidekicks. John Wayne fills the page with his chaps and swagger; only his face is missing. “I decontextualized them by taking away their one recognizable feature, which is their portrait,” Shoshensky explains. “And I sized them down and put them into this isolated space.”
Villains get the star treatment in Shoshensky’s work. The medium changes from ink to acrylic and the canvasses increase in size. “I’m doing basically an encyclopedic cataloguing of all the tertiary villains from Westerns,” he says, less interested in the primary evildoers than those reckoned as disposable plot devices. “At the peak of their bravado or confidence they’re sacrificed for this construct of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood,” Shoshensky says of his subjects, drawing a parallel between their deaths and the deaths of Iraqis in the current war, offered up for the sake of American ideals. “I’m trying to engage the archeology of violence in our culture,” he explains. “This work is about cinema as a gateway to dissecting that history.”
While the war in Iraq was an obvious jumping off point for the project, Shoshensky would prefer not to classify himself as a political artist. “I despise political art,” Shoshensky says with his trademark conviction. “I think it’s preachy and oversimplifies issues.” His view of an artist’s job is slightly more nuanced. “I never want to smack someone over the head with ideas,” he says. “My job is to program the genetics. If somebody is interested in discovering them they can look at the work and find out more because I put it there.”
This might sound like a lot of big talk – bluster from a cocky gunslinger – but Shoshensky’s work is assured, technically sound, and intelligent. Chalk it up to his work ethic, which sees him painting or drawing until ten or eleven o’clock at night. “It’s a stoic workaholic life,” he acknowledges. “It’s not like I get a couple of prostitutes to come in here and…” He trails off, grinning.
The call girl lifestyle runs counter to Shoshensky’s idea of what an artist should be. “If you want good art you’re not going to get it out of Dash Snow or Dan Coleman, you’re going to get bullshit.” (Not that we’re saying these two particular artists pay to get laid, it’s just that they’ve been known to party.) “There’s a lot of thinking that has to happen,” Shoshensky says of his process. “It’s your job as a thinker to present a question.”
Luckily, Shoshensky’s girlfriend, Alexa Adams – who makes up half of the design team behind the Vogue-vetted label Ohne Titel – shares his proclivity for late nights. “She’s doing exactly what she was designed to do,” he says of Adams. As for himself, when it comes to making art he can’t imagine doing anything else with his life, either. “It’s like that or the gutter.”
Shoshensky expects to be finished with the Western series by this spring. He doesn’t know where it will be shown, but based on his projections for the project, it’s bound to be a success. Who knows, if he plays his cards right, maybe he’ll be invited to show at the next Whitney Biennial.
To see Nikita’s work, visit his website: www.nikitashoshensky.com.