Arts / Galleries

One of Houstons Most Imaginative Artists Gets a Well-Deserved Moment — Nestor Topchy Is Featured In Two Exhibits

Ukrainian Influences and Ties Give Extra Power to These Works

BY // 10.27.23

To say artist Nestor Topchy has a big imagination would be a major understatement. His unorthodox approach challenges not only the status quo, but conventional ideas about art making.

Running concurrently in Houston at Josh Pazda Hiram Butler gallery and The Menil Collection are two exhibits providing different perspectives on Topchy’s artistic genius and vision. The solo exhibit “Stuffthemouthofheavenwithallyoukanteat,” on view through this Saturday, October 28 at Pazda Butler, features four large scale circular paintings. And “The Iconic Portrait Strand by Nestor Topchy,” which features 124 Byzantine-style gilded portraits, remains on view through January 21 at The Menil.

Topchy’s exhibition at Pazda Butler features four large scale circular paintings. These works evoke Italian Renaissance-era tondo art. The two smaller paintings are only slightly larger than Michelangelo’s iconic Doni Tondo (circa 1507) tempera and oil panel painting.

In recent times, contemporary artists disinterested in rectangular canvases have revived circular painting. Nick Cave, Damien Hirst, Pamela Jorden, KAWS and the late Sol LeWitt all made the jump to circular art. Jackson Pollock’s Circle (circa 1938 to 41), gifted to the Museum of Modern Art by his partner and abstract expressionist pioneer Lee Krasner, resembles a tondo painted on a white square background. During the early 1970s, even Pop Art icon Roy Lichtenstein’s Mirror series evoked circular paintings popularized centuries earlier.

Topchy creates a different statement with his circular paintings. With these artworks, he shows an interest in nature and geometry while honoring his Ukrainian heritage.

Nestor Topchy's<em> Wheelofsacredrevolution</em>, 2023. (Courtesy Josh Pazda Hiram Butler Gallery)
Nestor Topchy’s Wheelofsacredrevolution, 2023. (Courtesy Josh Pazda Hiram Butler Gallery)

The Role of Sacred Geometry

Discussing the idea behind the round paintings in the unconventional “Stuffthemouthofheavenwithallyoukanteat,” Topchy first references the obvious.

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“At first glance, you might associate it with a pepperoni pizza. . . unless you’re a vegetarian,” he says, facetiously.

Topchy appreciates the multifaceted aspect of geometry. He discusses how geometry is used in Islam “for designing the tiles and tessellated abstraction in mosques,” and “in algorithms and to describe the patterns of growth in nature.”

“There’s a confluence of geometry and materials,” Topchy continues. “Sacred geometry is what you’d normally describe as pan-cultural geometry. And different aspects of it are emphasized according to the need of the individual artist or the culture.”

The impressive scale of the circular paintings, each one taking up its own wall, makes it easier to see details up close. The symmetry, gilded detail and rich, earthy colors of more abstract Byzantine painting stand out.

Topchy was also inspired by living things in his studio. One painting, entitled fertilecircleanthropocenesupreme (2023), was made with preserved insects, amphibians and other creatures that wandered into the studio and dried up, which Topchy cast in bronze.

The painting makes a beautiful yet profound statement about how nature and art can intersect and balance each other.

Pysanky: Ukrainian Easter Eggs

Topchy also sees a connection between his circular paintings and his Ukrainian heritage.

“There’s a cross reference to the Ukrainian Easter egg, known as pysanka (plural pysanky), which I have decorated and which we have as Ukrainians in our tradition that goes back to Neolithic times,” he says. “A lot of the circular paintings and larger work definitely relate to that a priori artwork. The egg itself.”

For years, Topchy has conducted pysanky-decorating workshops in Houston and also in Baltimore. Like artist Sofika Zielyk, he incorporates this colorful symbol of Ukrainian culture into his artistic practice.

As Topchy explains, the pysanky-decorating tradition is handed down matrilineally through grandmother to mother to daughter for thousands and thousands of years.

“It’s a beautiful tradition, because there’s a mythology that goes with it,” he notes. “As strong as the vitality of the tradition is, there’s a monster that’s chained. And if we don’t maintain our tradition of making these eggs, then this monster will run amok and destroy the world.

“It’s a metaphor for humanity and what we do as artists and creators. We build things. We make things, and we do it for the good. If we forget that, we lose our humanity and we have chaos — an apocalypse.”

Pictured here are Ukrainian Easter eggs known as pysanky (singular: pysanka), which artist Nestor Topchy has conducted decorating workshops on in the past. Topchy's ethnic background includes Ukrainian heritage. His father, Viktor Topchy, was from Ukraine.<br />(Courtesy Nestor Topchy)
Pictured here are Ukrainian Easter eggs known as pysanky (singular: pysanka), which artist Nestor Topchy has conducted decorating workshops on in the past. Topchy’s ethnic background includes Ukrainian heritage. His father, Viktor Topchy, was from Ukraine.
(Courtesy Nestor Topchy)

Topchy’s Inspirations

Inspired partially by nouveau réalisme co-founder Yves Klein’s color International Klein Blue, Topchy once created a performance entitled “A Geometry of Painting” (2012). Performers’ white clothes were splattered with blue paint. Topchy made the connection between painting objects blue à la Klein and painting pysanky.

Topchy has also found inspiration in Soviet-era icons, especially while making portraits featured in the “Iconic Portrait Strand” exhibit at The Menil Collection.

“There’s other folks that were teachers in a small way, and teachers in a large way throughout all these portraits,” he says. “Like (film director Andrei) Tarkovsky, for instance — I never met him. There were things that I got from (Kazimir) Malevich.

Recounting his family history, Topchy notes: “My father and his family were in Ukraine during the terrible time of World War II. They were in a German concentration camp at the end of World War II.

“They remained in Germany for a while. (My father) started studying philosophy in Bonn. And then they decided they were going to leave, because they were concerned the Russians were going to come back. As displaced persons, they moved to Canada, where my father met my mother.”

Topchy’s father Victor Topchy worked at Bell Labs in New Jersey during the early 1960s, and Nestor Topchy was born in Somerville, New Jersey in 1963. Victor Topchy passed away in 2009. Nestor’s part-Scandinavian, part-Swiss mother Nora Frick Topchy, recently attended the opening of “The Iconic Portrait Strand” at The Menil Collection.

“Ukrainians are freedom-loving people, and that resonates really well,” Topchy says. “It says a lot about our concern for Ukraine staying free and not succumbing to this terrible Russian invasion.”

Viewed through a cinematic lens, Topchy’s personality can be easily explained with three Ukrainian films. The funny, absurdist aspect appears in Viktor Ivanov’s classic comedy Chasing Two Hares (1961). The more experimental side of Topchy brings Feliks Sobolev’s Biosphere! Time to Apprehend (1974) to mind. And the more serious side of Topchy, especially in light of the war, evokes Alexander Dovzhenko’s Ukraine in Flames (1943).

Nestor Topchy's <em>Iconic Portrait Strand (Walter Hopps)</em>, 2008-2023. (Photo by Caroline Philippone. Courtesy Nestor Topchy and The Menil Collection)
Nestor Topchy’s Iconic Portrait Strand (Walter Hopps), 2008-2023. (Photo by Caroline Philippone. Courtesy Nestor Topchy and The Menil Collection)

The Iconic Portrait Strand

For Topchy, the DNA-like social strand captured in his “The Iconic Portrait Strand” exhibit at The Menil Collection has several layers of meaning.

“It’s an honor to be shown in The Menil Collection,” Topchy says. “It’s my favorite museum, and it’s also really special because this is pretty much my hometown. I’ve now lived in Houston for most of my life.”

Curated by senior curator Michelle White, the Menil exhibit is Topchy’s second solo show. His first solo museum exhibit was staged at the Ivan Honchar Museum in Kyiv, Ukraine back in 2011.

Two of Topchy’s teachers, Israel Hershberg and Frank Chiu (also known as Chiu Ching Ping) are featured in the portrait strand. Topchy began learning from Hershberg at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore when he was 18 years old. And here in Houston, he studied with the late Chiu, who taught him Chinese calligraphy and painting. He would sometimes take his daughter Minerva Lemesoff-Topchy to these art lessons.

Topchy gets excited while discussing his portrait of Toby Kamps, former curator of modern and contemporary art at The Menil. He fondly recalls the Kamps and Meredith Goldsmith-curated “No Zoning: Artists Engage Houston” (2009) exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, which included his work. While not featured in the Menil exhibit, the portrait of Kamps is part of the ongoing series.

For the pieces that depict someone who has passed, the Byzantine-style gilded portraits are not unlike a memorial. There is a poignancy to the images of The Art Guys’ Michael Galbreth, Project Row Houses co-founder Bert Long Jr. and artist Wayne Gilbert. This writer viewed Topchy’s portrait of Gilbert wearing a cowboy hat right after attending Gilbert’s Celebration of Life memorial at The Heights Theater recently. Late playwriting genius Edward Albee, a friend of Topchy’s, also appears.

Looking back, Topchy recalls his friend Albee saying: “Those are your rules. You can break them.”

Nestor Topchy's <em>Iconic Portrait Strand (Wayne Gilbert)</em>, 2008-2023. (Photo by Caroline Philippone. Courtesy Nestor Topchy and The Menil Collection)
Nestor Topchy’s Iconic Portrait Strand (Wayne Gilbert), 2008-2023. (Photo by Caroline Philippone. Courtesy Nestor Topchy and The Menil Collection)

Nestor Topchy’s exhibit “Stuffthemouthofheavenwithallyoukanteat” remains on view at Josh Pazda Hiram Butler through this Saturday, October 28. The gallery is located at 4520 Blossom Street. To learn more, go here. The Menil Collection solo exhibit “The Iconic Portrait Strand by Nestor Topchy” remains on view through January 21. To learn more, go here

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