Mount Pleasant art dealer Nailya Alexander provides a home away from home for Russian artists.
The sun shines so rarely in St. Petersburg, Russia, that its citizens give their buildings candy-colored paint jobs to liven things up. Generally speaking, that’s not something D.C. residents concern themselves with. Except, of course, for that anomalous stretch of brightly painted row houses deep in Mount Pleasant. There, behind a sherbet-orange façade, lurks a dim, monochromatic netherworld where Russian art dealer Nailya Alexander quietly guards a spectacular cache of 20th-century black-and-white photography from the former Soviet bloc.
Alexander is a small woman with warm brown eyes and a pixie nose. Her round face and mountainous cheekbones make her look a bit like Björk; her brown hair curls under her ears. She eagerly guides me around her three-story treasury while detailing the vagaries of the art that fills her walls.
The 35-year-old dealer nearly bursts with pride over her Stalin-era collages by Socialist Realist photographer Alexander Zhitomirsky, almost as if she made the propagandist pastiches herself. We stop before a pair of framed works. In one, a mean-looking she-wolf in granny glasses clasps a copy of Collier’s, some bayonets, and a warhead to her breast; a dollar sign secures the folds of her white bonnet. The other is an eerie piece showing some high-living roulette players at “Casino-Pentagon”skulls inserted where their heads should be.
Alexander beams, savoring the disconnect of what she calls the “artificial reality [that] existed parallel to real reality” when state-determined art diktats were in effect, from the mid-1930s through perestroika. “So many things are retouched, you can hardly call it photography,” she laughs. “[These are] perfect tools to manipulate consciousness,” she marvels. “It’s very clever.”
It turns out that the Soviet era produced a fair number of Zhitomirsky acolytesmany of whom haven’t yet attracted the attention of collectors. “I was amazed how many World War II-era Russian photographers were forgotten by the [Russian] public,” says WashingtonPost photographer Lucian Perkins, who’s organized annual photography conferences in Moscow for the past six years. Aside from the odd well-known Russian shutterbug like Alexander Rodchenko, there’s an army of Soviet-era artists who have slipped through the cracks. “They have archives that are sitting there, and no one’s paying attention,” Perkins continues. “Those are people [Alexander] has the potential for exposing.”
But old propagandist apparatchiks aren’t the sum of Alexander’s stable. Thanks to connections forged as far back as her school days, she has networked her way into the darkrooms of some of Russia’s foremost contemporary photographers, and she’s introducing a few of them stateside. What these artists offer is straightforward work without smartass ironythe art that capitalism forgot.
“The work is different than what’s going on in New York or L.A.,” local photographer and Corcoran College of Art and Design instructor Colby Caldwell says. “The [Russians] missed out on the postmodern New York 1980s/early-’90s the-joke-is-on-the-viewer art.”
Alexander knows that there’s a hunger for this kind of stuffespecially since the dawn of New Earnestness in the late ’90s. So she busies herself facilitating visits by her artists to Washington, where they stay at her house. Before their arrival, Alexander books gallery shows, secures appointments with curators, organizes lectures for local art-school students, and arranges jaunts to New York City and other cultural hot spots. By the time her artists walk off the plane at Dulles, she’s all but laid chocolates on the pillows in her spare bedroom.
“She has a way about her that puts people at ease,” says Caldwell, recalling dinners Alexander hosts at her house for the visiting artists, who mingle with local photographers, collectors, and arts professionals. Perkins, too, gushes about “that wonderful Russian hospitality she has. When you walk into her house, you feel warmth.”
For my visit, Alexander had laid hot coffee and cookies on a simple wood table. But the coffee stands cooling as she excitedly opens black box upon black box of photographs, lifting sheets of wax paper to reveal prints by Anton Olshvang and Igor Savchenkotwo young photographers in her stable, both due to arrive shortly from Russia. Every few minutes she rushes away, returning with yet another artist’s biography, statement, or magazine article. My trove of informationand macaroonsgrows by the minute.
“In Russia, we can sit and talk like this for hours,” she says. As for talking about herself, well, Alexander has far fewer words. Precise dates seem difficult for her to conjure. “Time for me is so irrelevant,” she says. Born in the Ukraine, Alexander studied language and literature in college, and later worked various jobs, including some in museums. When she left Russia in 1991 to be with her American husband (who died suddenly two years ago), she says, “It was like being reborn.” She arrived in Washington four years ago, after a stint in New York working at SoHo’s Phyllis Kind Gallery. Once she got to D.C., she decided to deal art on her own.
On choosing the artists she represents, she says, “I select what talks to me.” But just because it speaks to Alexander doesn’t mean that folks will buy it. “[Around the time of] perestroika, Russian art and photography was very popular here,” Perkins reports. “Now it’s a more difficult sell….You have to really generate the interest, [and] I think she’s doing that.”
Her way is not the usual hard sell. “Nailya is instrumental in making connections without the typical gallery-agent pretension,” Caldwell says. “She believes strongly in art and the idea of creating a community of sharing ideas….She takes away the whole idea of commerce.”
But there’s no doubt her efforts have been paying off. “It looks like she has been able to move work quite well here,” Caldwell adds. And Alexander has managed to secure shows for her artists both around town and around the country. She’s constantly jetting to art fairs the world over to promote her artists. “She is one of the hardest-working [dealers] I’ve met as far as promoting her artists,” Caldwell remarks. “She’s tireless.”
Earlier this year, Alexander curated a show of Socialist Realist photography at Ohio’s Columbus Museum of Art called “Artificial Reality: Soviet Photography 1930-1987.” That show ran for four months, included a
whopping 63 works, and was sponsored by monied heavies like Ameritech. I ask her how she got such a prestigious show. “I met with a curator and showed the material,” she explains matter-of-factly. “A year later, they called.”
Confidence and persistence figure in somewhere, too. “She gets things done,” says local graphic-design consultant Kelly Doe. “She just calls the Getty in L.A. and gets an appointment.” Doe figures Alexander for a contradiction: “She’s this seemingly delicate, petite thing, but she has incredible strength and perseverance.”
“Truly speaking, I personally do not like attention,” Alexander wrote to me in an e-mail reminding me of the upcoming visit of Olshvang and Savchenko. “Talk to them, not me,” she requests.
I arrive at Alexander’s on a Wednesday morning in mid-September to meet them. Both Olshvang and Savchenko are showing their work locally thanks to Alexander’s effortsat the District of Columbia Arts Center and the Gary Edwards Gallery, respectively. Alexander ushers me to a table laid with croissants, nice porcelain, and tea and coffee pots sitting on trivets. She hands me each show’s announcement, typeset in black, gray, and white on sturdy cards.
Olshvang met Alexander about three-and-a-half years ago, through friends. He describes for me the concept behind his show, “Native Americans: A Russian Lens on Washington,” which features portraits of the residents of D.C.-area retirement homes. Although Olshvang’s English is excellent, Alexander steps in regularly to explicate, and she watches me closely while Olshvang speaks. “In the last century, photographers photographed [American] Indians as people who kept the spirit of the land,” he tells me. “Nowadays, the spirit reproduces itself and is kept now in retirement homes.”
Alexander pipes in. “Here there is a separation of types of people that is like tribes,” she says. You can see it, she says, “even in the different types of homeslike Hebrew and Old Soldiers’ Home.”
Olshvang goes on to tell me how working outside his homeland sharpens his perspective on Russia. “He is coming to another country to create a distance,” Alexander adds. Throughout our interview, Alexander remains tuned inwatchful, ready to elucidate.
Caldwell offers this explanation: “She’s monitoring to see that things don’t get misrepresented,” he says. “For some of these artists, it’s the first time they’ve visited this country. She cares deeply…that artists don’t get taken advantage of. She knows well that information can be skewed in the wrong way.”
But Doe says that Alexander, despite her success, is trying to find ways to continue what she’s doing “without going crazy or broke.” The most likely routes are seeking grants and working with nonprofits.
“[What she does] is very exhausting,” Perkins says. “The [artists] don’t have any money, and she’s providing everything. It’s more than helping these photographers outshe puts them up, she feeds them. I’m amazed how often she does that….She’s been very dedicated.”
Not all the artists know how good they’ve got it. According to Doe, some artists “have high expectations of the art world here.” Alexander makes everything look so easy that few artists realize how tough it is to get a show or to meet with top local curators. “They sometimes take it for granted,” Doe says. “They don’t know how cutthroat the art world is here.”
When I have a chance to speak privately with Savchenko, I ask what he thinks of his hostess. “She is known among all the photographers in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Minsk,” he says. “She has a good reputation as a professional and honest person.”
And of Alexander’s tireless efforts as travel agent, coach, personal assistant, and chef, Savchenko says, “This is not common. This is really special.” CP
“Native Americans: A Russian Lens on Washington,” new work by Anton Olshvang, is on view at the District of Columbia Arts Center to Oct. 8; “Quiet Light,” photographs by Igor Savchenko, is on view at the Gary Edwards Gallery to Oct. 13.