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Leonid Balaklav – Peeking Through

Past Exhibition

01.09.2022 - 31.10.2022

Peeking Through – Balaklav & Velazquez
article by Matar Engel

Leonid Balaklav has always identified himself with classical and modern masters like Rembrandt, Serov & Levitan. He calls them his teachers, who taught him how to use a critical eye and light in order to create colors and tones into reality on the canvas.

In 1990 Leonid Balakav immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union (Moldovia), where he had a promising art career. Like many European artists arriving in Israel, Balaklav was “illuminated” by this new light, he began studying it thoroughly, mostly using a constant subject always at hand – his own face. Those early self portraits are up-close and personal, and rather flat in their colors but still contrasted with light. as time moved on and Balaklav’s deep study continued, the light itself became more and more the real subject of the paintings.
Zooming out from the close-ups and still painting self-portraits, Balaklav would often use a mirror and paint his reflection in it, as well as the mirror itself “floating” in the studio like an interdimensional portal. Usually, Balaklav would capture himself peeking into the mirror between brush strokes on the canvas, looking intently at the viewer (and himself) half his face and body concealed beyond the edges of the mirror.

Another subject that Balaklav often takes to his paintings is his family. This too developed along the years as his family grew. When his children were born, Balaklav started dedicating many of his works to the subject of motherhood. Painting his beloved wife holding their children on a wooden board as an Icon, the style of Maria holding Jesus. The documentation of his family grew with them. As his son arrives at the Jewish age of manhood Balaklav created Bar Mitzva series. Them too on elongated wood planks, as Balaklav find the wooden medium to be close to his heart. As Balaklav tells it – his father was a carpenter (not unlike the famous messiah’s) and when he paints on wood he is closest to him and his history.
In those icon-like paintings Balaklav yet again stands along side the painting and peeks through – though he himself is not physically in the painting, his brings his family, yet again a part of himself, a limb of his being, into the front.

Balaklav won the Shiff Award for Figurative-Realist Art in 2014, and in 2015, as part of the reward, he received solo exhibition in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The exhibition is curated by Dr. Doron Lurie, and when the two talk and start to plan the exhibition they ponder which of the paintings should be the centerpiece of the show. Dr. Lurie suggests that Balaklav make a painting especially for the exhibition, one that is large. Furthermore he thinks it should be a painting of his family. That is how Balaklav starts to create the unique painting that is The Artist’s Family – which can be seen in the exhibition. Balaklav finished the painting on the museum’s wall, and while the viewers toured the exhibition the paint was still wet.

This monumental painting of Balaklav reminds us of another master who created a similar painting – Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas. Velazquez painted Las Meninas in 1656, one of Velazquez’s last paintings, and thought of by many as his magnum opus. By then Velazquez was a court painter for many years and even palace chamberlain for the king of Spain.
In Las Meninas Velazquez captures a seemingly ordinary and mundane moment taking place in the artists studio in the palace. The painting depicts King Phillip the IV’s daughter, Princess Margaret Theresa, surrounded by court people and the artist himself, is “peeking through” next to a canvas. behind him in a mirror is the reflection of the king & queen. This Metatextual painting force the eye to dart from one subject to another, the painting can be divided into many couples in the composition, all of which create a vortex for the eye to follow into the center of the work (the princess). At the same time challenging the viewer (who might as well be the royal couple) who is the real focal point of the masterpiece. Is it the princess? Is it the official surrounded with light? or is it the knightly painter?
In The Artist’s Family we start to see the similarities. Both paintings are capturing a seemingly spontaneous moment. The abundance of couples can also be seen, around the table – Balaklav’s wife and her mother, his two sons- and on the windowsill the two cats, black and white. The artist himself standing to the side peeking into the scene, inserting himself while still being apart. And here again we ask- who is the subject? Is it Balaklav’s eldest son, imitating his father as he looks at the viewer? Is it his daughter which is placed at the pinnacle of the composition? Is it the mother, towering above the family in her householding? Is it the artist who acts as both a participant and the viewer? Or is it the light, bright and large in the window, bouncing on the table and painting the family with reality and truth?

Balaklav’s glance beyond the canvas can be seen in all the works featured in the exhibition, as he ponders the light and creates his reality. Whether it is self-portrait, a drawing of passengers on the bus or an old car on a hill. The glimpse he takes at his reflection pass the confines of the painting and finds us, as if the light of his study window paints us with its colors.