Over the course of five decades, Peter Liashkov has produced a significant body of works that he calls “Sidelife,” a term appropriated from a collection of poems by the Romanian-born poet Paul Celan. Comprised of paintings and drawings of the human figure, the series posits one of the most basic questions about human existence: What happens when we die?
Inspired by the ruminations on death in Celan’s poetry, as well as by the funerary sculpture from the Church of St. Denis in Paris and ancient Egyptian sarcophagi, Liashkov ‘s depictions of prone figures are shown somewhat as we might see them in an open coffin, when we could conceive of them as transitioning from the known world of the material to the spiritual or metaphysical realms that we can only imagine.
Right: Artist, Peter Laishkov at Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion, Orange Coast College, with Sidelife #5 (2009), acrylic, polyblend, powdered pigment on synskin, 36 x 84”., Courtesy of the artist Photo: shimabukuro © 2012
Although Liashkov received a traditional religious upbringing in a Russian Orthodox Church, the artist came of age during the 1960s, a decade when organized religion was frequently challenged and alternative explanations of spirituality and existence were gaining favor. Accordingly, Liashkov’s quest for spiritual understanding has always taken a secular and philosophical approach. Rather than ask questions such as “How will God judge us?”, Liashkov simply speculates “What happens when we physically cease to exist?”
Left: Sidelife (2009), acrylic, ashes, powdered pigment on synskin, 24 x 84”, Courtesy of the artist
Liashkov’s earliest artistic entry into the discussion of the nature of post-life consciousness was created for his MFA exhibition at the Otis Art Institute in 1967. Entitled Shall, in reference to the idea of the inevitability that the artist (and all human beings) eventually “shall transition,” the imagery was directly inspired by the gisants, the funerary sculptures that Liashkov witnessed firsthand on the sarcophagi at St. Denis, which he visited in 1962. In Liashkov’s painting, the idea of transitioning is expressed through the presence of a mystical light that swirls energetically within the tomb’s interior, while enveloping the corpse above it like a supernatural aura.
In the early 1980s, Liashkov received considerable recognition for his paintings on glass, in which the glass functions metaphorically as transparent skin. In portraits of friends, Liashkov sought to capture each subject’s inner psyche by applying thick gestures in oil paint to an irregularly shaped pane of glass, and sealing it with another one, such that the paint is sandwiched in the middle. In his glass torsos, he employed cruciform poses in reference to human struggle while, in standing figures shown without heads or arms, he examined psychological aging as reflected in our bodies. During the same period, Liashkov discovered synskin, another transparent yet durable material, and began drawing on it in charcoal. In one example, the artist returned to depicting a figure in a reclining pose. Shown flat on his back with arms reaching upward, the headless male nude in Prone Man seems to be connecting with the cosmos at large, represented by the open atmospheric space of the transparent synskin.
Below: Sidelife (F), 2009, acrylic, earth, powdered pigment, crushed glass, on synskin, 29 x 78”, Courtesy of the artist
For more than three decades, Liashkov divided his time between his studio practice and a full-time teaching position at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. Upon retiring from the latter in 2006, he found the freedom to become more focused on his art, and he became increasingly self-reflective. Accepting his status as an elder, he renewed his philosophical inquiry into questions about existence and mortality.
In the year 2009 alone, Liashkov produced five mixed media works on large sheets of synskin, with images of prone figures painted on the reverse side and embellished on the front with mediums such as earth and ashes, materials associated with physical life and its aftermath. In Sidelife and Sidelife #5, Liashkov dissected his compositions in into two parts, referring to life and death respectively. In the former work, mirror images of a single figure are positioned laterally facing one another, with the lower figure submerged below a horizon line in a pale blue mass suggestive of water, a reference to the womb and birth, and the upper figure shown like the familiar gisants, transitioning post-death.
Right: Lazarus (2011), acrylic, earth, print transfer on nylon on synskin, 24 x 72”, Courtesy of the artist
In the latter, Liashkov refers to the division between life and death by cutting the synskin into two sheets. With the figure split between them and separated by visible wall space, its lower section appears still earthbound, immersed in an atmospheric haze within a coffin that is clearly delineated with black outlines. The upper half, by contrast, floats as if levitating, as if the corpse’s spirit has begun its departure from the physical world. In other works from 2009, including Sidelife (M), Sidelife (F), and Shall #2, Liashkov introduced a new iconographic symbol associated a death, a funnel representing the draining of human blood. His inspiration for this image can be found in the Mithraic mythology of ancient Rome, which tells of the ritual of draining the blood from bulls sacrificed to Zeus.
In more recent works, Liashkov has grappled with the cyclical nature of life and death, expressing a strong sensitivity to the fragility of being alive, while revealing a continued stoic acceptance of what he acknowledged at the start of his career, that our time in the physical world is temporary. In Lazarus, a corpse partially buried in earth is constructed of nylon, a malleable material that alludes metaphorically to the delicate nature of human flesh. Above the figure, a row of printed images of children serves as a simple reminder that, just as people are always dying, infants are always being born and, thus, the cycle continues.
Left: Deathwait (2012), acrylic, powdered pigment on synskin, 22 x 33”, Courtesy of the artist
Perhaps the most personal work in the “Sidelife” series, Deathwait shows a prone headless male figure, whose fleshiness suggests that he is still among the living. Looming above him, is an inscription in the Cyrillic alphabet of the word for ‘death’, which is pronounced ‘smert’. In creating this composition, Liashkov rubbed the surface with gravel that emerges as visible specs throughout while also causing small holes in the synskin. By introducing these tiny particles into the composition, Liashkov has set himself up for a new line of questioning about matter, interconnectivity, and the relationship between the physical and the metaphysical, while reminding us of the still poetic Biblical concept that we evolve as “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
By David S. Rubin, Contributing Writer
Born of Russian parents in France in 1939, and raised in Argentina, Liashkov immigrated to Los Angeles in 1955 where he studied Slavic languages at the University of California and completed his MFA at Otis Art Institute in 1967. Since then Liashkov has been a practicing artist in the Los Angeles area. He is Professor Emeritus at Art Center College of Design where he has taught since 1975. He continues to teach in the Los Angeles area.