Although she stands at 5-foot-10, the artist Zhenya Gershman is not imposing. Her canvases, on the other hand, are grand, standing up to 7 feet tall, befitting their subjects: actors, musicians and celebrities who very much live up to their billing in the aptly titled new exhibition “Larger Than Life.”
The faces adorning the walls at the Bergamot Station Arts Center’s Building Bridges Art Exchange in Santa Monica should be recognizable, so much so that each portrait carries only a first name. But as intimidating as it might be initially to be stared down by a billboard-sized rendering of Jack (as in Nicholson), Bryan (as in Cranston) or Sting, the artist’s intention is to draw the viewer in, not push him away.
“I have been this height since I was like 12 years old, so I’m very conscious of my body as an artist, and I can only paint big,” the Moscow-born Gershman said during an interview at her home studio in Brentwood. “I always felt comfortable where my body fits into the work of art in a way that I can feel like I can walk into it. I have always wanted people to be able to relate physically to the works of art.”
As is the case with so much of Gershman’s work, the exhibition contains a significant tie to the artist’s family history. One hundred years ago, her great-grandfather operated photography services in Russia that advertised “portraits up to life-size with negatives carefully preserved for re-prints.” To create the “Larger than Life” works, she began not with a living model, but with a photograph. (For the celebrities, Gershman also studied interviews, films and performances. Her research time often took far more time than the actual painting.)
Gershman’s grandfather, Mikhail Lvovich Matusovsky, was a celebrated poet and composer in Russia who wrote — among other things — the well-known song “Moscow Nights.” Because his circle of friends included multiple celebrities, the young Zhenya considered them “just older people, part of my family.”
In her professional life, Gershman has met her share of celebrities, some of whom have commissioned portraits. For the past three years, she has created portraits to honor the Grammy MusiCares Person of the Year. This year’s item, a guitar featuring the eyes of MusiCares honoree Bob Dylan, was signed by all of the performers who participated at the MusiCares gala and then auctioned off. Proceeds benefit people in the music industry who have fallen on hard times.
Whether or not Gershman has met her subject in person, by the time the subjects hit her canvas, Gershman hopes these individuals have become part of her — and her viewer’s — family.
“The idea with these particular iconic faces is to break the ice, break the boundary and make them feel that in some strange ways, they reflect who we are,” Gershman said. “We are learning more about ourselves, so it’s no longer that distance, but what memories and associations come for you. So that face is part of your history.”
Anna Dusi, curator of “Larger than Life” agrees.
“The ‘portrait’ becomes a conceptual device through which the artist also looks at her own self. It is not just the mere picture of a celebrity but a visceral and psychoanalytic interpretation of selfhood,” Dusi wrote in her curator notes.
“In a way, they’re all self-portraits,” Gershman agreed. “Even Clint Eastwood.”
The exhibition’s only two women are not celebrities, but they are certainly larger-than-life figures in their importance to Gershman: the artist’s 7-year-old daughter Nikka and her 97-year old grandmother, Evguenia Matusovskaya, after whom Gershman was named and the subject of a previous Gershman exhibition titled “Baba.”
In the portrait “Secret” in “Larger than Life,” Nikka is whispering in the ear of her great-grandmother. The moment was inspired by an actual encounter that followed Baba’s return from the hospital.
“My daughter was very nervous and so excited for her to come back, and they just reconnected and had this miraculous moment,” Gershman recalled. “I had my iPhone, and I took a quick photo. I witnessed this little secret of these four generations between being passed and I wanted to paint it. I’m really excited to have it in the exhibition.”
Gershman created her first work of art — a portrait –at the age of 10. She took the red, white and black drawing to her mother, who told her daughter, matter-of-factly, “you are an artist.” The family received informal instruction for the girl from a pair of well-known Russian artists, friends of Gershman’s grandfather who were both in their 70s. They looked like “dinosaurs” to the 10-year-old Zhenya, but they reviewed the girl’s work, praising the elements that they admired rather than denigrating the ones they did not.
Gershman had her first solo show at 14. When the family immigrated to the United States, their belongings included a blanket, a set of curtains and a suitcase containing Zhenya’s art. She was not quite 15, and soon became the youngest person ever accepted to the Otis College of Art and Design, according to Gershman. Because she was not yet a citizen, Gershman had to wait for a year to enroll in order to qualify for scholarship funds.
As Gershman became an adult, her career blossomed. She earned an MFA from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and worked for 11 years at the Getty Center. She is also the co-founder and president of the nonprofit Project Aesthetics of Western Esotericism that merges magic and art and that looks to explore new dimensions to understanding and experiencing cultural icons of Western European heritage.
Next up: a spring exhibition at the Los Angeles LGBT Center celebrating Gershman’s more than 10 years collaborating with her longtime muse and model Mark Snyder. The LGBT center also will screen “The Artist’s Model,” a documentary about the Gershman-Snyder collaboration.
Viewers hungry for a sneak preview can see Snyder in the current Bergamot Station exhibition.
“He is to me what a Hollywood star would be to other people,” Gershman said of Snyder. “He is my larger than life.”
“Larger Than Life” continues through March 21 at the Building Bridges Art Exchange in Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave. Santa Monica, (310) 770-1961.