Growing up in a vibrant and diverse émigré community of writers, dissidents, artists, and musicians, much of my own creative work is fueled by the parallel play of two cultures. Russian was my first language, though I was born and raised in the United States. That rich duality, continually fed by anecdotes and yarns, often serves as a doorway to new insights and never-ending observations about life and various tensions in between those worlds. The immigrant and, similarly, outsider stories I picked up along the way, are at the heart of my practice.
My work is the refraction, digestion, and deconstruction of overlapping, if not, competing personal and artistic identities. I’m almost always in-flux, in-process, and fragmented. It’s a method that focuses not on static identity, but on the feeling of an ever-changing, ever-evolving cultural heritage and creative landscape, even as the meaning of contemporary culture shifts almost too quickly to crystalize. My work embraces this tempo, which, in turn, makes me a 21st century American artist. As a result, the ceaseless process of “Americanization” and “Otherness” now define my visual worldview.
My work centers on distortion of ubiquitous mass – flags, oil and gas station logos, fast food signs, and presidential portraiture, among other touchstones. It analyzes the intersection of advertising and ideology as claims masquerading as truths that have so saturated daily life as to be little more than white noise. In protest, I reveal their failings, their exaggerations, misrepresentations, and limits.
For instance, my series “Moscow Made, American Born” explored the duality of my Russian-American identity through the contrast of visual symbols, ciphers, and social systems that defined both cultures and their respective art histories. In so doing, the meanings of what is American and what is Russian take on both familiar and alien characteristics. That body of work has since spawned “Centennial of the Square,” an imagining of the consequences of Kazimir Malevich’s groundbreaking “Black Square” (1915) and his Suprematist manifesto as an advertising icon of the information age that proceeded it a century later. Similarly, my latest series, “Signs and Wonders,” reconciles the everpresent and frequently invisible signage, slogans, representations and jargon of everyday life through modest graphic ‘twists’ that pose as fine art.
My practice thrives in a dance with this irony. Its jarring absurdity endeavors to inspire political and, at times, apolitical interpretations of the mundane. Yet the story within my work is deeply personal; it is an emotional, unconscious narrative that is at once autobiographical and conceptual.
Mark Kelner is a visual artist and arts organizer based in Washington, DC. Since 2006, Mr. Kelner has been actively involved in the sourcing and research of Russian post-War art. As an independent curator, his clients have included major museums and foundations in the United States, Europe, and throughout the former Soviet Union. Prior to the art world, he worked with filmmaker Steven Spielberg, coordinating the production of video testimonies of Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe and Russia for the USC Shoah Foundation Institute. A graduate of George Mason University, where he studied with the esteemed novelist Vasily Aksyonov, his work has appeared in Artenol, The Atlantic, and The Times, which published his humorous essay, “How to Sell Art to Oligarchs.” His debut series, “Moscow Made, American Born,” explores Russian-American duality by means of contrasting and distorting the visual symbols, ciphers, and social systems that define both cultures and their respective art histories. Of note, his visual works have been showcased in various media platforms and his short performance film, “So We Beat On” was recently featured by The Washington Post. Of late, he has been a guest on Charlie Rose and is in active practice on his long running series, “Signs and Wonders.” Additionally, from 2009 to 2017, Mr. Kelner was elected to the Board of Directors of the Hermitage Museum Foundation (USA) where he helped develop the Museum’s “Art from America” and “Art Without Borders” programs, as well as various international contemporary art projects. Mr. Kelner is represented by Galerie Blue Square.