It is said that “art imitates life” but for Ella Kogan art isn’t about trying to emulate the surface constructs of reality. It’s about probing deeper, underneath the façade, and bringing forth the eternal uncertainty and inherent turmoil of the real human predicament of our world today. In other words, Ella Kogan isn’t here to paint us a pretty picture. She sculpts to provoke and inspire. To start a conversation about what is often left unsaid. But while her rebellious authenticity has defined Kogan’s controversial appeal, she has also distinguished her artistry with an extraordinary talent able to capture many faces of humanity in every detail of her sculptures. With her father being renowned painter Leonid Kogan, (whose works are part of Russia’s most esteemed collection of fine art at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg), Ella explains how her upbringing and her own life experience has shaped the unique work she is known for today.
What initially inspired you to become an artist and what made you decide to pursue sculpting as your profession?
I had the great fortune to grow up in a culturally stimulating environment, surrounded by art, music and beautiful objects. My father strongly encouraged my creative side and all forms of cultural exposure. Art and life became inseparably intertwined in my perception. It will not be an exaggeration to say, art is in my blood. In fact, I believe that we are all inherently creative. The issue is to discover this within yourself, to access the source of your individual creativity and the form of creative expression that most resonates with your inner self. This is exactly what I did. Which is why, although I was educated as a classical pianist and singer, I later turned to sculpting and it became my passion.
Frankly speaking, choosing sculpture as my form of artistic expression was not a conscious or deliberate act. I just found it to be the best way to express myself and connect with others. Who knows, perhaps it was sculpting that chose me. It just happened and turned out to be a mutually rewarding relationship. When working on a sculpture, I feel the clay and I trust it. Creating a sculptural piece is by no means easy, it is a long and agonizing process, but in the end the clay always succumbs to my will.
What artists have influenced you most?
I have always been inspired by Rembrandt, his wide range of style and technique, and his intense humanity. I look up to Auguste Rodin – a visionary, a forerunner of sculptural art that speaks to our minds, emotions and imagination. The vitality of his sculptures makes them intensely personal and introspective. Rodin made me comfortable with the idea that there is no right or wrong way to interpret one’s art. I stand in awe before the works of Rodin’s muse and lover, Camille Claudel, a brilliant and largely neglected sculptor. Claudel believed in the need to transmit a fundamental and universal message through her choice of form, something that is very close to my own artistic aspirations.
What distinguishes your work from other sculpture artists?
Expressing the inner essence of a person has always been my main mission in art. There is surely a place for art that is beautiful, decorative and pleasing to the eye. I see myself as a surgeon. I want to cut open and bring out what is inside, to bare the human soul behind the form, to uncover both the good and the bad in it. I want the viewer to see the strengths and limitations of those I am portraying, not to condemn or find fault, but rather to understand how ultimately fragile we all are and at the same time how strong and resilient. I would like my works to awaken positive feelings, to empower and have a healing impact.
You are known for having a vast array of work, each piece different from the next. What inspires you to choose each subject?
Ideas for a new work come to me in mysterious ways, which I can’t exactly define. Choosing a subject presupposes a conscious, perhaps, pragmatic decision. In my case, everything starts with a vague image floating in my mind. I never attempt to implement an idea unless I clearly see its special message, and can feel the soul behind the face. Once I have the affirmation of the subliminal mind, I am ready to work on creating the sculpture.
You are also known for expressing human reality with a more provocative style than most.
Reality is always complex and multilayered. I try to avoid oversimplifying or embellishing it. I believe that the provocative style of my sculptures is in tune with the times. The absence of symmetry has its own balance and harmony, and it gives me greater freedom to explore. I think that to be lifelike today a piece should create the effect of movement, vitality and irregular rhythm. A sculpture should engage the viewer in a dialogue, a conversation, be thought provoking and lead to a higher level of compassion. I aim to challenge the viewer to a discussion, perhaps even a heated debate. In fact, I welcome disagreement. Let people discover different things in my works: what is important is for my sculptures to spark strong emotions and inspire new thinking.
What has been your most controversial and popular works so far?
“Forgotten Woman” has been my most debated sculpture. People identify with its message: the brutal effects of time, the victory of inner strength and fortitude over bitterness, self-pity and disappointment. Whatever the world around may think of her frail body, “Forgotten Woman” elevates her presence and asserts that she exists.
I view controversy as a prelude to a debate, and, from my perspective, it is an utterly positive phenomenon. Popular and controversial are frequently two sides of the same coin. My sculpture “Man in a Red Scarf” has perhaps elicited the most controversy. Maybe it was because some people saw the bold, mocking expression on his face and the large red scarf as a symbol of disregard for prevailing social norms and values. Actually, I never intended anything like a radical “in your face” message. I think that more than anything else this sculpture reveals the inner vulnerability of someone who stands out or looks different. The seemingly “arrogant” demeanor is merely a defensive response to prejudgment or profiling. What prompted me to make this sculpture were ideas of tolerance and acceptance of diversity.
Others connected with “Woman from New Orleans” because this young Afro-American woman projects a strong sense of self-worth and resilience. Many are enchanted by “The Gypsy Girl,” where I used an entirely different visual language, more joyous and tantalizing. “Man in a Straightjacket,” one of my latest works, resonates with its powerful message of perseverance, tenacity, assertion of freedom and hope.
What are you currently working on?
I recently finished a sculpture I called “Anticipation.” As a celebration of life, it captures the very moment, when this young girl’s feet are ready to tear off the ground and her body lurches forward in anticipation of mirth, freedom and happiness. This experience of rebirth is a moment of jubilation, great expectations and, simultaneously, immense relief.
What do you ultimately hope to achieve as an artist?
I have to admit that I am a somewhat reclusive person, but I would like my sculptures to be available for all people to see. To be their home companions, a cure for lonely hearts, a reassuring presence. I would also like my best sculptures to be displayed in a museum setting to inspire and enrich as many people as possible. I want my sculptures to soar off their pedestals and appear alive, dynamic, breathing and reaching out as genuine creatures of flesh and blood. I want them to be like all human beings – a blending of the beautiful with the ugly.
To find out more about Ella Kogan and her collection visit: www.koganart.com