On a particularly warm January afternoon, dozens of patrons arrived at Touchstone Gallery to attend the opening of Contemporary Still Life: Candy and Mementos by Anna Katalkina. Friends and strangers, closely examining the uniformly small paintings neatly lined along the white walls, slowly paced across Gallery B. These striking paintings offer no explanations other than a straightforward title, forcing viewers to look deeper in order to find a more complex meaning. The exhibit was small and intimate. Everyone lingered, either to speak with the artist or to cast one last look at the favorite painting they wish had not already been sold.
Katalkina depicts objects that carry enormous personal value and yet are often monetarily worthless. The mementos range from a shell or a leaf to porcelain statues and pillboxes. Katalkina is always on the lookout for objects like these, she mentions on her website. Some of the items she purchases herself; others she finds at a friend’s house or is commissioned to paint. After pairing the objects with pieces of familiar candy to create a unique artistic pairing, she captures the image using a traditional Dutch painting technique known as “the indirect method.” The paintings are created over a long period of time by repeatedly layering tinted glazes. Though the items in Katalkina’s paintings may be viewed as mundane or worthless, her laborious and meticulous process adds a layer of material and sentimental value to them.
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Katalkina grew up surrounded by art. In her biography on her website, she reflects on her childhood, where she remembers being enthralled by the beauty of the palaces, museums, and theaters. Currently based in Washington, D.C., Katalkina seeks to balance “seriousness and humor, detail and simplicity, tradition and modernity” through traditional Dutch painting methods.
The most striking element of this exhibit is the smallness of not only the subjects, but the paintings themselves. Every painting in Contemporary Still Life: Candy and Mementos is created on a 6”x6” panel. The small scale of the painting preserves the quaint charm of a “memento”: a small object that holds a specific personal meaning due to its association with a memory or event. Katalkina adds candy to the memento in order to inject her own artistic flair, turning the paintings themselves into a memento or keepsake, both for the artist and for the collector. The addition of the candy transforms the memento from something personal into a new work of art. While the candy initially has a humorous effect, Katalkina’s classic painting method thoughtfully contrasts with this lighthearted subject. When viewed as a collection, the beauty of the solo pieces becomes a striking exploration of sentiment and the definition of worth.
The concept of pairing playful candies with items that often carry strong emotional memories seems like an unusual combination of subjects; however, the end result is elegant. Katalkina tactfully adds candy to introduce a new element and perspective to the image. One notable example of this is “Baby Bacchus Porcelain Perfume Bottle, Nerd Candy.” In this painting Katalkina pairs the memento with small purple Nerds candies positioned to look like grapes that have fallen from the bunches on the perfume bottle. In a commissioned piece “Metal Elephant on Red JawBreaker,” the elephant figurine is positioned on top of the jawbreaker, alluding to popular circus imagery. “Gummy Smurf Surfing” depicts a small blue smurf gummy on top of a shell, with the candy and memento positioned so the smurf appears to be riding a wave. Katalkina does not impose a narrative on her paintings with long descriptions or fancy titles. She instead leaves room for the viewer to create their own story from the painting which parallels the memories the owners attach to the mementos they treasure.
The success of this exhibit is largely due to the choice in art style. Katalkina’s continuous layering of glazes over a monochromatic underpainting allows her to create luminosity and depth that cannot be achieved with traditional oil paints. The final product is soft, with diffused colors and lines. Katalkina specializes in this painting technique because it allows her to “slow down amidst the societal racing and to pay tribute to craftsmanship that is disappearing from our factory-ruled world,” as she explains on her website.
Her art collection creates this same effect for viewers. The paintings cannot be properly appreciated at a distance or in passing. The beauty of it is not immediate, but instead grows the longer you study the strange subjects. Forced by the small size of the canvas to slow down and step closer, the viewer becomes immersed in her work. Photographs of the subjects would not have the same impact as Katalkina’s paintings. This method of painting allows Katalkina to give equal attention to both the memento and the piece of candy. The subjects are united through their equally luminous and soft depiction, making it seem as if they are the same material. She represents the beauty of the mundane in a way that is not immediately obvious. The juxtaposition of a complex, detailed painting process to capture a humorous subject makes the exhibit entertaining and thought-provoking.
Candy and Mementos captures the attachment people feel towards certain objects in elegantly small paintings. The labor required by “the indirect method” as well as the unusually small canvas adds explicit value to the art, allowing every person to experience the sentimental charm of a meaningful trinket. Candy and Mementos is a slightly quirky collection that explores the worth we give to seemingly meaningless objects by transforming them into these works of art.
Contemporary Still Life: Candy and Mementos is at Touchstone Gallery in D.C. It runs until Sunday, February 2, 2020.