Zek Week: Russia Prison Art

I have just by chance come across the work of a young Russian-American artist named Yana Payusova who recently had an exhibition titled “Russian Prison Series.” Payusova’s work shows a high level of interest in the imprisonment of minors in Russia – although I have had trouble finding extensive information about her work. Here is the introduction from the curator Angelica Semmelbauer, Mimi Ferzt Gallery, with some accompanying images of her work. RUSSIAN PRISON SERIES by Angelica Semmelbauer, Mimi Ferzt Gallery The artwork of Yana Payusova can not be viewed simply on a visceral level without being asked to see the social commentary and to decipher numerous embedded symbolic elements. This particular body of work was inspired by Payusova’s experience of studying and listening to personal stories of incarcerated teenagers (14-21 year-old boys) at Lebedeva and Kolpino prisons in St. Petersburg. Many of them became the victims of the economic chaos that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union. Searching for an answer to a profound question of “What is a society’s role in labeling these young men as criminals, convicts, felons and sinners?” is the philosophical underpinning of Payusova’s work. payusova_prison11.jpg In order to answer this question, she constructs a visual language where the traditional black and white photographic imagery is mixed with the iconographic and symbolic elements of Russian Christian Orthodox culture from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries. Combining the realistic quality of digital imagery (young mens’ faces) with a visionary quality of painting (the overall imagery) allows the intricate and quintessentially Russian elements to assume an avant-garde design. She strives to unite the traditional and nonconformist to transform the one-dimensional meaning into a purely modern composition. Every painting becomes a poetic invitation into the subjects’ life, thoughts, pain and sufferings.


Payusova’s work, with its strong imagery, the play of consciousness and her unique juxtaposition of images, immediately brings the viewer into the world of these young men. Through the codified symbols of the Russian society, Russian Orthodox Church and the prison rhetoric, Payusova combines this heavy symbology with direct representation of the young mens’ faces to remind us of a complexity of life. It is this juxtaposition between their personal narrative and society’s reaction to them that allows one to search for an answer to this fundamental question of society’s judgments of saints, sinners and martyrs. In her own words: “What we fail to see are the reasons, the incentives for those kids to commit the crimes.” payusova_prison5.jpg Narrating the personal story of these teenagers, Payusova manages to deliver this complex sociological notion in an intimate and personal style. In the end, she presents us with the world that is not only filled with pain and loneliness, but also with poetry and lyricism. It is this melding of the symbolism and reality that carry with it greater power and deeper meaning. In her own words: “To shock or to insult the viewer is not my intention. I want them to consider what is more important – an icon or: a human life”. payusova_prison6.jpg