Giant, pink-skinned naked women appear as goddess-like figures amid lush, mythical scenes. These are the works of Ukrainian artist Iryna Maksymova who mixes visions from her imagination with art historical references to create wildly inventive compositions. While her works explore a myriad of themes that blur temporal and geographical boundaries, her practice is deeply rooted in a connection to place and cultural identity. Kalyna, the title of her first solo exhibition with Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, makes reference to a flowering tree native to Ukraine, which produces vivid red berries. These berries appear throughout the paintings, hanging from leaves or gathered around her figures' necks, as a symbol of the ongoing war and the bloodshed but also of the strength and vibrancy of the Ukrainian people. Her richly textured surfaces are bursting with movement and vitality while her figures appear powerful, proud and jubilant.
Maksymova works occupy a curious space between the ancient and the new, the real and the fantastical, the secular and the spiritual. The full, fleshy shape of her figures evokes the sturdiness and monumentality of ancient statues. Some, such as the women in Angry baby and Peace Please, appear with halos of golden light around their heads, suggesting a saintly status. In the former painting the woman is cradling a leopard into her chest, while Peace Please evokes a seemingly traditional epic scene: the figure is brandishing a sword astride a horse while a leopard bites into its neck. However, it is also an image full of humour and unexpected detail: there's gothic style text sprayed onto the background, the leopard has 'googly eyes', the horse is shedding a single fat blue tear and the 'saint' figure is visibly wearing thong with a star like tattoo around her nipple and hairy legs. Meanwhile, the surface of the canvas appears scratched and scribbled over, with drips of paint leaking over the edges. In this way, Maksymova subverts the historic glorification and sanitization of war as a masculine, heroic space.
The paintings Leda and the swans and Three of us make direct reference to a Greek myth in which the god Zeus, in the form of a swan, seduces or rapes the princess Leda. There have been many depictions of the story throughout art history in which Leda typically appears with her eyes downcast as if in shame. In Maksymova's paintings, however, Leda is defiant in her sexuality. In Leda and the swans, she sits casually exposed with one leg up and two swans, playfully suggestive of a threesome, draped over her neck. Her gaze is direct and challenging as if she is daring the viewer to pass judgement.
Elsewhere, there is a playful slippage between gender roles. The painting Boys, for example, depicts three men standing naked with their arms around each other's shoulders. Their bodies appear softly curvaceous while their heads are slightly tilted in a coy, flirtatious manner. The figure in My V, meanwhile, wears a necklace of red jewels - or berries - around their neck and has small blues wings sprouting from their back. A series of small-scale portraits titled Theymakes a more direct reference to this fluidity by employing the non-binary pronoun. The faces are almost childlike in appearance, filled with colour and movement: they appear to dance before the gaze. In the colossal 50 Portrait Grid, this dynamism translates into a loud, riotous crowd. It is a fiesta: a celebration of life.
In the face of difficult global crises, Maksymova's bright, rambunctious scenes remind us that there is strength in subversion and power in joy.