“All the technology of my work is built on a natural principle. A work grows— like a tree, like grass, like a flower—the buds of the idea swelling, opening up, throwing away shoot after shoot, branching, exulting in flowering (maybe this is inspiration), finally gaining the completeness of a mature fruit, bearing the seed of a new life, a new plan.”Mila Gokhman, Business Club #1, Kiev, May 1997
Written by Roni Feinstein
Living and working for the past two decades in Stanton, California, 86-year-old Mila Gokhman has created an extended series of meticulously crafted abstract collages of cut and pasted papers. Drawing inspiration from nature, poetry, and music, her compositions radiate life, joy, and movement.
Remarkably, this art that grows “like a tree, like grass, like a flower” had its inception in the bleakest of circumstances—in the Soviet Union of fifty years ago, where independent art, techniques, and spirit were repressed and aroused suspicion. As a self-taught artist and a Jew, Gokhman stood at a remove from the notoriously anti-Semitic state-supported art academies and was rejected from participation in official artistic life. From the moment she began to make art in the mid-1960s, Gokhman blatantly defied the dictates of Socialist Realism and the blandness of Soviet life. Working initially with leather, a scarce, luxury material controlled by the government, she overthrew the traditions and functional uses associated with leather. She pioneered new techniques and directions in leather processing to expressive and aesthetic ends. Her works in leather remain to this day unique in form and workmanship; they bear the “seed of a new life, a new plan,” which emanates from the creative, life-affirming spirit of the artist herself.
During the period of quarantine, Gokhman has produced a series of works and conceived of a photo shoot and video project based on the theme of the natural world. These are to be assembled into a hoped-for exhibition entitled Mila’s Garden. The optimism embraced by this project imbues her artistic enterprise as whole.
Gokhman was born in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, in 1934. At the time, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union (the dissolution occurred in 1991). In 1960, Gokhman earned a certificate in civil engineering, but by 1966 abandoned bridge design to pursue a career in art and design. She began to work in a variety of media, including real and artificial flowers, wood, clay, metal, and fabrics. Then, on January 6, 1967, a day firmly etched in her memory, she says: “When visiting a friend in Tallinn, Estonia, I met her neighbor, an artisan who worked in a leather factory. She gifted me a bag of colored scraps of leather and a bottle of latex glue. I returned home and began to enthusiastically search and find more and more new properties of this amazing material, the main one of which—plasticity—gave more unexpected and inspiring impulses for creative work.” (Mila Gokhman “Leather Jewelry,” Azbuca #2, Kiev, 1994)
Working with leather scraps on cardboard, Gokhman began to create small, intricately worked, low-relief sculptural panels. In some, she glued the leather down in relatively flat parallel strips, while in others, she variously layered, twisted, wove, and coiled the leather, exploiting its “plasticity.” She altered the color of most of her found scraps using silk and leather dyes, developing a vast color palette from which to work. While most of the pieces are purely abstract, some evoke or more directly represent landscapes, plants, and flowers.
The leather relief Spheres of the early ’70s presents a grid of four panels, each about one foot square. Leather strips in this work offer a dynamic play of arched, circular, and oval forms, the lines defining these geometric shapes never quite lining up from one panel to the next, defying expectation and demanding close looking. The whole features a close-valued palette of yellow, orange, and ochre tones. In contrast, Sunset in Golosievo Forest (1972) offers an improvisation on what is clearly a landscape, the golden light of sunset glimpsed through a dark-toned tangle of undergrowth and trees, its reflection seemingly mirrored in the surface of the forest’s lake. The leather strips in this work spiral, weave, and dance across the piece, many rising above the picture surface. Kiev’s Golosievo Forest was near and dear to Gokhman’s heart. She has called it her “inspiration,” explaining, “The trees were my saviors from vulnerable events of Soviet reality.”
At a time when galleries and museums were filled with paintings of farmers and steelworkers in gilded frames, Gokhman indulged in an art that was abstract, improvisational, and free. Moreover, in the Soviet Union, where it was mandated that all work be in support of the government, Gokhman worked for herself. She maintains that it was sheer luck that kept her from being sent away to a labor camp, as were other artists and writers, many of them her friends.
The writer Ludmila Sverskova, one of Gokhman’s closest associates, noted in an article of 1998: “Mila Gokhman’s resistance to the Soviet system was never in any way political…. [She] stood against the system in much more substantial ways than authors of popular brochures and tracts, because she chose opposition of a different level and meaning—a spiritual opposition…. Under the conditions of Soviet life, when the principles of Socialist realism were mandatory, even the names of Mila’s panels—Eye of the Universe, Symphony, Spheres—looked criminal. Choosing philosophical abstraction required courage, daring, and persistence.”
While continuing to make leather reliefs, in the early 1970s Gokhman began to apply her technical wizardry with leather to the creation of a wide variety of leather goods: jewelry, belts, purses, book covers, and the like. From 1972 to the year 2000, when she left for the United States, Gokhman collaborated with the Kiev Fashion House designing meticulously handcrafted, one-of-a-kind leather jewelry and wearable accessories. For this she received little or no pay, being compensated instead with leather that she could use for her own work. These wearable works are highly sensuous, responsive to the curving landscapes of the female form. Gokhman once wrote, “My leather jewelry is not in any way connected with fashion. It is the art of shaping, glorifying the beauty of the human body.”
In 1977, Gokhman further expanded her artistic practice by making collages with colored papers. The translation of her leather reliefs into paper and two dimensions allowed for larger scale and more variegated patterns and textures. Plain and patterned papers were cut into a wide array of shapes that drift, float, overlap, and collide on paper grounds. Many of the paper collages are multipanel, each panel serving as the equivalent of a different movement within a musical score. From chaos to harmony (1977) dedicated to the Ukrainian composer, Valentyn Silvestrov, is a five-panel work, each panel less than 6 x 4 inches in size. As indicated by its title, this piece goes from a density of imagery and movement to sparcity. It illustrates the delicate intricacy of Gokhman’s paper cuts as well as the musicality and high degree of expressive abstraction characteristic of her paper pieces.
As an artist who did not belong to the official academy that dominated Soviet and Ukrainian culture and institutions, Gokhman was an outsider who struggled for recognition. Nevertheless, between 1973 and 2000, she had almost a dozen solo exhibitions in St. Petersburg, Kiev, and Tallinn, some in museums and former palaces. 26 Long Years, a major retrospective of the full range of her artistic production was held at the Taras Shevchenko National Museum in Kiev in 1993. While no installation shots are known to exist, several copiously illustrated articles on her art and design appeared in the Eastern European press between 1994 and 1998.
Gokhman immigrated to the United States with her mother in 2000, hoping that her art would have broader exposure and that she would have a “serious” retrospective of her art and design in America. However, lacking art world connections and gallery representation, Gokhman has had only one exhibition of any significance over the course of the past two decades–a small, two-person show at the Grand Central Art Gallery, University of California, Fullerton, in 2010. She has continued, however, to produce a steady stream of intricately worked collages, made with art papers or wallpaper samples. Since arriving in California, she has also devoted herself to making one-of-a kind beaded necklaces in which she combines and harmonizes varied materials and colors.
Since the emergence of COVID-19, Gokhman has focused her creative energies on the scheme for a wished-for exhibition she calls, Mila’s Garden. This exhibition would consist of paper collages based on themes of nature, such as the poignantly titled, The small corners of my garden (which I don’t possess) of 2019. It would feature as well photographs and perhaps a video of nude models with differing skin tones adorned with gorgeously elaborate crowns of artificial flowers designed by Gokhman and draped in cascades of her beaded jewelry, looking back to a photo shoot of her leather work she directed in Kiev in 1993. One such photo session took place in the studio of Michele Mattei in mid-October. Thus, in her ninth decade of life, with her work long unseen, Gokhman’s ideas for her art are still “swelling, opening up, throwing away shoot after shoot… bearing the seed of a new life, a new plan.”
Roni Feinstein is an independent scholar in Art History based in Southern California whose focus is upon late twentieth century and early twenty-first century art. She received her Ph.D. at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University, where she wrote her dissertation on Robert Rauschenberg. Over the course of the past 4 decades, she has lived in and reported on the art scenes of New York, Miami, Toronto, Sydney, and now Los Angeles, while working as a museum director and curator, university professor, museum educator, independent curator, and arts journalist. She served for many years as Corresponding Editor for Art in America and has written for a host of other publications. She recently served as Co-Chair of ArtTable Southern California and is an Instructor at UCLA Extension. Her website and blog are found at ronifeinstein.com.