EAST HAMPTON STAR 2008 Daria Deshuk and the Importance of Space
BY Jennifer Landes (5/1/2008)

The figurative painter with her work at the studio in Bridgehampton given to her by her late partner, Larry Rivers The space is open and airy with skylights and white walls perfect for the viewing of art. Its current state belies its beginnings as another drab and rundown industrial space on Maple Avenue in Bridgehampton.

It is the atelier, raison d’etre, and bete noire of Daria Deshuk, who has been trying to make the small building her creative and exhibit space since it was given to her in 1998 by the artist Larry Rivers, whom she was living with before they separated around that time. He is also the father of her son, Sam Deshuk Rivers, who is about to graduate from college in Florida. (Mr. Rivers’s early work will be the subject of an exhibit at Guild Hall in August.)

“Just before he died [in 2002], he dropped off my son, gave me a kiss, and said, ‘This building will take care of you,’ ” she recalled recently, standing in the exhibit space in the front room. But it was a long process to get the building to where it needed to be.

First, she needed to envision how she wanted it to look and function in order to devise an architectural design. Then it took a year and a half just to get the necessary permits from the Southampton Town Planning Board, and, after that, some three years of construction.

“It was a challenging, long process,” one that left her without a studio for almost six years. The stress and obstacles she encountered along the way, however, served as a creative catalyst for her art. It was through this process that she also met her current partner, David Kushnir, who managed the construction.

On the walls hang a history of her work — from the early 1980s, when she was painting street scenes in New York’s East Village from candid photographs she had taken, to her latest experiments with digital photography.

She moved to Bridgehampton full time after her son enrolled in college in 2004. While painting in her living room, she became frustrated with the light. Fighting the conditions in her house in order to paint, she said, was reminiscent of trying to make a go of representational painting at Parsons 25 years ago. “They didn’t teach you how to paint. I would be drawing the figure as it appeared and they said, ‘Nobody is doing that anymore.’ The teachers said painting is dead.”

Still, she graduated from Parsons with a B.F.A. and completed an M.F.A. in painting at Hunter College in 1984. She met Mr. Rivers when she was 22. Their relationship lasted 15 years.

While artists like Eric Fischl helped bring the figure back into acceptable art practice, she noted, older artists such as Chuck Close, Alex Katz, and Philip Pearlstein also managed to make it through the 1980s, finding establishment critics who were sympathetic to their conceptual strategies.

Henry Geldzahler chose Ms. Deshuk’s work for a 1982 exhibit he organized at the Tower Gallery in Southampton, but she really came to be noticed on the South Fork through exhibits at Elaine Benson’s gallery and at Guild Hall. In an essay for the “New Narrative” exhibit at Guild Hall, Helen Harrison said of her work, “like voyeurs, impelled by the artist’s insistence, we insinuate ourselves into these anonymous lives, generating scenarios to fit the visual data she presents.”

The artist used this style and mode of expression not only in literal street scenes, but also in paintings of the beach and in more symbolic works featuring self-portraits and other female figures. She continued in this vein through the early years of this decade.

Then, emotionally drained by the renovation process in Bridgehampton, Ms. Deshuk began to focus her attention on her use of paint and took a series of classes on classical technique. When her work space was finally completed, she celebrated by creating a new group of paintings that explored the methods of making them, mixing acrylic and oil to come up with a fresh examination of her environment and then finishing them with glazes.

She painted the cows of the Mecox Dairy and the trees she saw blooming in the spring. “I was reconnecting with my new location and environment,” she said. The difference from her previous work is striking, the mood romantic and playful, the coloration lush and luminous. “It’s modern classical. I try to blend it in a new way.”

At the same time that she was rediscovering painting, the lack of an adequate studio space led her to concentrate on the other medium she had used in her process, photography. “I needed to transform my physical life and work and take it to another level.”

Playing with Photoshop, she discovered a new range of expression with “great accessibility for me. It was beyond what I could have imagined.” Out of this period of challenge and discovery came her latest series, “Meeting Narcissus.”

Inspired by a costume she had designed for a benefit party, she took a model dressed in it to a park in East Hampton and took scores of photographs in different settings. As the model warmed to her role she began to embody the character of Narcissus, which for Ms. Deshuk meant “a symbol of romantic idealism.”

The artist’s intention for this series was to “acknowledge ideas from the Age of Enlightenment and Romanticism, through the iconic fairy image, and also incorporate an essence of spirituality.”

The pictures, which are infused with sepia tones, hot monotones, or simply heightened or saturated colors, recall pre-Raphaelite paintings and Art Nouveau styling. An “unscripted” pause by the subject to take in her reflection from a footbridge gave the series its thematic center.

“It’s Narcissus: not narcissism, but a healthy self-love,” both a reference to classical mythology and an “evolution of the individual soul.” She said the work also refers to “the ability to look back at what it means to be human, to know oneself to the core.”

At the same time, it is about her acceptance of herself and her approach to art. “I’m trying to redefine in my own way how to bring my art back to tradition rather than away from it.”

She said she is still “evolving, learning. It’s my quest as an individual, the process of being here.”

Ms. Deshuk’s photographs will be part of a charity auction, Photography for Medicine, Saturday night at the Arario Gallery in New York City.