The work currently hanging in Warren Wilson College's Elizabeth Holden Gallery is academic. The subjects are classically oriented and the works are hung in the floor-to-ceiling, everything-in Salon style of 19th-century Paris. All of this makes for an uncommon arrangement for Asheville. While the city’s art scene may not regularly delight in the less-than-hip nature of traditional works, there’s something to be learned through this show. The education and prolific artistic life of Vadim Bora sets a seldom-met standard for the Asheville artist.
Vadim Bora: A Visual Legacy of Expressive Freedom, From Initial Spark to Final Form draws its focus toward the life’s work of the Russian-born artist and Asheville adoptee, who passed away on Jan. 5, 2011 after a severe stroke. If you knew Bora and his work, you’ll know that the show provides a thorough experience. It’s the second such retrospective; the first was curated in 2005 by the artist at the Spartanburg Museum of Art.
Paintings, drawings, sketches and entire sketchbooks accompany sculpture, project mock-ups, rings, bracelets and the tools that Bora used to make them. There are easily more than 100 pieces if you include the jewelry. Most of these works originate after 1993, when the artist immigrated to the U.S. from Vladikavkaz, Russia, an Asheville Sister City.
Bora’s connection to Western North Carolina was established when a local Sister City delegation visited his studio in Vladikavkaz. The delegation later invited him to visit Asheville, and the rest is relocation history.
Constance Richards, Bora’s widow, began collecting pieces in the summer of 2011. More than half the show is on loan, so there was a great deal of re-acquiring works from collectors. That also means a show of this kind will not recur any time soon. With the help of Dusty Benedict, a former WWC professor of art, the duo curated the exhibition to reflect Bora’s work ethic and abundant artistic output.
“He was limited in space and he liked the viewer to be overwhelmed with the work,” Richards told Xpress. The space she’s referring to was Bora’s Battery Park Avenue studio and gallery, a second-floor space now occupied by The Working Girls Studio. While the Salon-style of hanging art seemed to be the best means of covering the full spectrum of his work, it was also one that Bora personally enjoyed.
Richards and Benedict arranged the works in series. The show is largely figurative, containing everything from paintings and sculptures of nudes to an array of portraits that nearly fill an entire wall. The scope of his portraiture includes his closest friends and family, along with strangers that he would likely never see after the initial figure drawing.
The self-portraits may provide the best view of Bora’s evolving figurative style. Self-portraiture often comes across as a vanity practice. But the variety in Bora’s selves, some of them abstractly unidentifiable, quickly negate this idea. Instead, they offer views of the rapid changes that gripped his work.
“S-P White Hat” largely forgoes the face while “S-P With Brush” offers the most polished and refined image in the entire show. The brush has a feather quality that also appears flame-like; Bora wryly sports a stereotypical artist’s beret. Another piece has only an outline. “S-P: Abstract,” a smear of darkened colors, has a solitary teal silhouette line tracing a faint profile.
“For Vadim, it wasn’t what was on the tip of the paintbrush, it was his attitude towards life,” says painter Gully Clark. Bora’s work was informed by the details of his surroundings, regardless of how fine they may have been. Richards even told of Bora snagging people from the sidewalk for quick sketches — all because they may have possessed a particularly interesting feature.
Bora's work shows his connections with his community through portraits and landscapes of people and places, both here and abroad. His paintings pulled from his ethnic background and the classical training he received from the St. Petersburg Acadamy of Art.
Bora’s North Ossetian heritage comes out in the folk imagery. The “Village Allegories” series depicts a series of female figures in folklorish domestic settings. He further blends newfound American folk norms in the “Vanishing Scenes” series, bringing to light elements of life far outside of the city. His painting style changes between these two, adapting to a looser portrayal of mailboxes with bullet holes and dilapidated barns.
In the exhibition catalog, Benedict writes of Bora’s “visual language” that stems from his “deeper need to express an idea.” And with this we find the exhibition's main drama. Benedict joins Richards and Clark in defining Bora’s motive: An investigation and exploration of an idea. It could be a person, a story, a conversation with another artist or a greater social concept, as seen in his long-term series “Origins of the Universe.” Style was the byproduct of Bora’s work.
“There’s nothing that Vadim did that didn’t have his personality in it,” says Asheville painter John Mac Kah. “Vadim was painting in his own language: Vadim Realism.”
The Vadim Bora retrospective is on view through Friday, Nov. 30. A curators’ talk will be held on Sunday, Nov. 11, at 3:00 p.m. For more information, visit http://warren-wilson.edu/blogs/art/elizabeth-holden-gallery.