As Above, So Below: Recent Works by Scherer & Ouporov

by Dennis Harper

Suzanne Scherer, a native New Yorker reared in Florida, earned a Bachelors degree in art at Florida State University and Master of Fine Arts at Brooklyn College in New York before traveling to Moscow under the aegis of the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) as the first American visual artist accepted into the academy during the Soviet period. Her keen interest in representational art had led her back to New York after completion of her undergraduate degree to study at Brooklyn College with Philip Pearlstein1, who as a visiting artist in Florida admired her earlier figurative work and encouraged Scherer to pursue more traditional training. While working towards her MFA in the 1980s, she encountered an exhibition from the Russian Academy of Arts whose participants displayed a technical virtuosity that impressed her greatly. Largely a result of their intensive training, the Soviet artists possessed skills that Scherer wanted to master. Thus she looked for the opportunity to train as they had. After taking her graduate degree Scherer won both a visual artists grant from IREX and admittance to the Surikov Art Institute for post-graduate studies.
Russian-born Pavel Ouporov showed talent in drawing at an early age and was steered to the Moscow Academic Art Lyceum, a specialized school for gifted children. Leaving his family and home at Sverdlovsk2 in the Ural Mountains, Ouporov began formal studies in art at age twelve in the Russian capital. Following completion of a six-year course of instruction, he submitted to compulsory Soviet military service. Fortuitously, he was shifted into management of propaganda graphics after he demonstrated his proficiency in art by volunteering to paint a portrait of a relative of one of the officers and thereby skirted likely combat duty in Afghanistan. Instead, he produced posters, slogans, billboards, and architectural designs for the city of Pechi, near Minsk in Belarus. After his release from the military Ouporov enrolled at the Surikov academy where he completed a Masters degree in the art of graphic design and posters.
Interestingly, Scherer and Ouporov met as they were following somewhat opposing paths in the development of their individual art. With years of rigorous academic training behind him, Ouporov had begun to rebel against official artistic conventions and at one point was barred from use of the printmaking studio as a consequence of his unconventional response to a class assignment at copying. He had made an etching that duplicated the same image of a housefly in a grid of hundreds. Scherer, on the other hand, was brought up in an American university system that to a large degree eschewed formal or technical considerations while emphasizing concept, context, and free expression. As an undergraduate at Florida State, she was nearly alone among her classmates with an interest in rendering the figure realistically. While Ouporov envied her "freedom," Scherer admired his "control."
In Moscow, the two artists quickly were drawn to one another, despite their initial inability to communicate fully. Although Scherer had taken an immersive crash course in Russian language before departing the United States, which prepared her for basic transactions abroad, nuanced exchanges and complex dialogues on art eluded the couple, as her Russian skills were at that time still rudimentary and Ouporov spoke no English at all. Instead of making a point verbally while critiquing the other's art, Ouporov would make his own marks on Scherer's paintings and drawings. In a real sense, their collaboration as artists began at that point. Not long thereafter, in 1991, they held their first joint exhibition at the Central House of Artists New Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. That same year they relocated to New York and wed, while the Soviet Union collapsed.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Scherer & Ouporov's work is their intensely intimate process of artistic collaboration. Each partner engages equally and interchangeably at every step in the creation of an object. Although they maintain separate workrooms in their studio, they share tasks and exchange ideas on individual works as though they were truly one artist. In painting, one picks up a brush where the other had left off, with negligible variance in technique or style. Frequently, when photographing reference imagery in the landscape, they later discover they had made precisely the same photographs as the other, with different cameras—so in tune are they with one another's deliberations and choices. Their language barrier no longer exists after roughly two decades together, so that now, like many life partners, they read the same books and finish each other's sentences, albeit in their case both in English and Russian.

A focus on communication, so crucial to their early partnership, informs much of Scherer & Ouporov's art and manifests itself in many ways. Firstly, one must consider the basic format of their tempera paintings, the icon, which acts dually as a sacred and a didactic object. Nearly every element of the icon structure carries symbolic communicative intent. The painting's wooden panel incorporates a recessed central plane termed kovcheg by Russian icon painters, meaning "ark." For Scherer & Ouporov, as perhaps with early iconographers, the ark's hollowed form symbolizes the womb, highlighting the source and vulnerability of human existence. In a very literal sense the kovcheg represents a vessel that encompasses all the Earth's living creatures, exemplified by the Biblical ark of Noah. Likewise, the wood itself composing the panel is more than figuratively a part of "the tree of life"3 and demonstrates renewal that arises within the life-and-death cycle. Further, as the sum of materials used to create the painting incorporates animal, vegetal, and mineral substances—from the underlying hide glue-and-calcium gesso, to mineral pigments bound in egg yolk, and gold leaf over earthen clay bole—the result is viewed as an integrated part of the world rather than a discrete object. No mere coincidental occurrences, these material usages are deliberate choices by Scherer & Ouporov to instill multiple levels of meaning to reinforce their message
The artists' interest in the mechanics of communication intensified after the birth of their son in 2002. His nascent vocalizations led the couple into research of both primal language and the Celestial Alphabet, the latter a mystical scheme described by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa in the 16th century. A variant of Hebrew script, Celestial letters were derived from constellations of stars and said to be the original language of Eden as well as the means to communicate with angels. In paintings such as Messenger (2004, cat. 2) and Emmerson (2004–6, cat. 5) and a more recent photograph from 2008 (Celestial Alphabet, cat. 25), Scherer & Ouporov employ a version of the alphabet4 as key elements. Certainly, the Celestial Alphabet suggests a direct link between humanity and the cosmos. To modern eyes the letters resemble another form of transmitting information, chromosomal genetic sequences, an allusion the artists exploit to posit deep, innate connections within nature and across generations.
Arising from similarly linguistic roots, Tree Rain (cat. 15), a video Scherer & Ouporov produced in 2006–07, developed out of realizations they made as parents following their child's early attempts at language, when they recognized common first utterances among infants from varying cultures. Tree Rain's shower of typescript words includes mama, womb, home, om, dom (Russian: home), yom (Hebrew: day), and Mutter (German: mother). The video and other related installations reflect additional influence from a work by Russian Symbolist writer Andrei Bely, Glossolalia: Poem About Sound (1922), the title of which refers to the phenomenon of "speaking in tongues." Often accompanying an ecstatic state, the occurrence of glossolalia is characterized by some as discourse in a holy language, or an instance of xenoglossy—fluent knowledge of a language one has not learned. While the looping video's soundtrack transmits only the continuous patter of falling rain, viewers are gently compelled to intone the words as they appear and sink in a cascading script, thus joining in a meditative experience.
The massive banyan tree that fills Tree Rain's frame is a recurrent element in Scherer & Ouporov's art. Colonies of these impressive living structures grow near the artists' home in Florida and make appearances in their work in every medium. Assuming multiple conceptual roles in their art, distinctive examples of this invasive species, at once insidious and beautiful, serve not only as cathedral-like settings for the artists' compositions, the trees' morphology evinces the natural cycle of regeneration with aerial roots descending from limbs to form new growth; their interstitial cavities evoke the nurturing space of cocoon or womb; and, ultimately, they reflect the Edenic world in which original knowledge (and ancestral sin) were wrought.
Dreams and folk tales constitute another frequent motif in Scherer & Ouporov's work, representing a different mode of communication as well as the means to connect to other realms. Across cultures the dreaming state is recognized as a conduit to insight, both in a psychoanalytic and shamanistic sense. Through examination of one's unconscious visions,
the dreamer seeks to extract revelatory messages from the id or from "the other side." During a wakeful state, folk tales operate similarly as vehicles to make sense of complex issues and expose hidden truths. In both cases the fantastic is presented as a distillate of ordinary reality. Scherer & Ouporov's The Dream of the White Peacock (2007, cat. 20), Crystallization (2009, cat. 28), and Vision: Night (2010, cat. 34) each depict the nestled figure of a dozing child amid a supernatural environment. The compositions may be construed as visual projections of the children's imaginative lives impressed upon their "actual" surroundings. They may also suggest a kind of astral projection. The settings' bejeweled labyrinth of detail confounds the distinction between flat and volumetric space, and reinforces the sense of entering a dreamscape or alternate reality. As with dreams and fairy tales, one must willingly suspend reliance on the logic of the everyday to be receptive to their message. Among the artists' most recent paintings, Language of the Birds (2009, cat. 30) clearly reveals their interest in numinous communication. In resonance with a Russian folk tale of the same title5 that conveys the importance of hearkening to nature, Scherer & Ouporov's painting further delves into the "lore of gemstones and the quest to understand the hidden language of birds, animals, and natural phenomena," as the artists explain. The painting's fantastical imagery, as with Pathfinder (2009, cat. 26) and Onorina and Silvershod (2009, cat. 27), seems to depict a transcendental experience and portend the return to a state of blissful innocence.
The young children in these paintings—friends and family members who modeled for the artists—indeed stand for innocence in their comfortable nakedness (and near-nudity.) Scherer & Ouporov's depictions of adults are often somewhat less incorrupt. Three related paintings, As Above, So Below (2004, cat. 7), Umbilical Tree (2004, cat. 8) and Tree Whisperer (2005, cat. 9), position mature nude figures within the confines of towering banyans. Notably, their poses are constricted and seemingly at odds with or overwhelmed by the complexities of the world around them. The traditional kovchek has been reduced to minute proportions. Barely able to contain even a lone figure, the arks in these instances serve to isolate humanity from his environment. Here are paintings that deal with a yearning for lost innocence. Simultaneously, they offer harsh comment on man's increasing disregard for the ecosystem and the abuse that contemporary human activity inflicts on the planet.
Scherer & Ouporov offer ultimately a positive outlook for mankind, made clear in other representations of the tree and man. Talking Tree (2006, cat. 13) depicts a child literally connected to the natural world. Inspired by a dream recounted to them by their son, the painting offers a magical tree, inhabited by animals, that takes root within the child itself and grows sinuously outward. A related work from the same year, their mural-scaled Tree of Life (2006, cat. 14) carries the scheme further, combining machine-cut adhesive vinyl with interchangeable tempera roundels depicting cherubic youths. As in the smaller panel, Scherer & Ouporov modeled the tree's curling branches on a tree-of-life design by Gustav Klimt, created for an Art Nouveau architectural frieze.6 The tightly coiled branches and roots, resembling unfurling fiddlehead fronds, connote both latent and continual growth. Quotations, literally seeds of thought, from William Blake, Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Lao-Tse encircle the angelic creatures that are borne as the tree's fruit. The effect is at once exuberant and uplifting.
Of course, the spiral form is found in structures as small as DNA's double helix and as large as a galaxy. A symbol of both expansion and convergence, the spiral diagrams the cyclical unification of opposites, perhaps best recognized in the Taoist symbol of yin-yang.7 The spiral represents, as well, the process of dialectic—that is, a search for truth through the consideration of opposing points of view. Requiring simultaneous focus on apparent contradictions, the dialectic process often reveals integral relationships hidden in plain view. "As above, so below" describes an outlook that negates polarities. As such, it is an apt emblem for the art of Scherer & Ouporov. In the Russian Orthodox tradition a wall of icons, called an iconostasis, is mounted between the nave and the sanctuary of the church. This delineating structure, in a liturgical or symbolic sense, does not separate the holy altar from the main body of the church and its congregants. Rather, the iconostasis is viewed as a conduit that enables passage to the sacred. It connects the two realms. The icons' images act as windows or bridges into heaven. So too, with Scherer & Ouporov we find a potency in making connections and achieving wholeness. Their visual creations dissolve boundaries—between media, cultures, and conventions. That defining characteristic is expressed in resplendent fashion in their art and is embodied in their remarkable collaborative process. Together, as one, Scherer & Ouporov probe dreams, visions, language, and not-so-disparate realms in the hope of revealing man's place in the cosmos.

1 Philip Pearlstein (American, born 1924) is a key figure in the hyper-realist movement and a leader in the revival of American figure painting during the 1960s and 70s.
2 Sverdlovsk was the Soviet-era name for the city of Yekaterinburg, Russia, from 1924–1991, named after the Bolshevik party leader Yakov Sverdlov (1885–1919). Today, Yekaterinburg is Russia's fifth largest city.
3 The concept of a tree of life occurs in the folklore, theology, mythology, arts, and sciences of world cultures. As a schematic rendering of a many-branched tree, it serves to illustrate the interconnectedness of life on the planet and common evolutionary descent.
4 French scholar and astrologer Jacques Gaffarel (1601–1681) included a variation on Agrippa's Celestial Alphabet in a treatise from 1629 titled Curiositez inouyes sur la sculpture talismanique des Persans, horoscope des Patriarches et lecture des estoiles (Unheard-of curiosities concerning talismanical sculpture of the Persians, the horoscope of the patriarchs, and the reading of the stars.) Less angular in its contours than Agrippa's, Gaffarel's version forms the basis for Scherer & Ouporov's Celestial script.
5 In mythology, literature, and occultism, the language of the birds is a concept that describes a divine or magical language used by birds to communicate with persons of special knowledge or circumstance. It occurs in the folklore of many cultures including Estonian, German, Greek, Romany, and Welsh.
6 Gustave Klimt (Austrian, 1862–1918), symbolist painter and prominent member of the Vienna Secession movement. Klimt's monumental frieze, embellished with mosaics in gold and semi-precious jewels, is a masterpiece of Art Nouveau decoration, created for the dining room of the Palais Stoclet in Brussels, a private mansion built in 1905–11 by Viennese architect Josef Hoffmann (1870–1956.)

Dennis Harper


Dennis Harper is curator of collections and exhibitions at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University since 2008, having served previously as curator of exhibitions at the Georgia Museum of Art. He has written on American and Mexican art of the mid-twentieth century while at both institutions and organized exhibitions on contemporary artists Dale Kennington, Art Rosenbaum, David Sandlin, and William Walmsley, among others. A native of Alabama, Harper taught studio classes in printmaking, egg tempera, and historic painting processes at the University of Georgia Lamar Dodd School of Art, at campuses in Georgia and Italy, and was employed for eight years as collections manager at Wildenstein & Co. fine arts gallery in New York. He is presently working on a major exhibition and publication for 2012, Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy, organized by the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art in collaboration with the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art and the Georgia Museum of Art.