Painting Joy at the Deepest Point of Tragedy

LOS ANGELES — As a teenager, Peter Krasnow fled the pogroms in Ukraine to study painting in America. His artwork responded to the times and his environment, from realistic depictions of his glum Jewish immigrant community to forlorn portraits in a post-impressionist style. But after Krasnow relocated to Los Angeles, his work transformed into bright, energetic hard-edge celebrations of life. This is the era celebrated in the exhibition, Peter Krasnow: Breathing Joy and Light at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Krasnow moved to Atwater Village in 1922 and quickly embraced the psychedelic nature of the California desert. His work long predates the Memphis movement, but utilizes many of the same colors and tones, making his art extremely on trend with our current Memphis revival movement. The driving force of Krasnow’s technicolor style, which he practiced until his death in 1979, was the Holocaust. Reports of genocide drove him into despair, but rather than focusing on death and suffering, a clichéd reality in Jewish culture, Krasnow instead wanted to paint vibrant, colorful compositions. Despite his refusal to focus on tragedy, Krasnow still incorporated Jewish symbolism and mysticism into his paintings, showing that he hadn’t waivered in faith, but rather refocused the narrative through art.

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Peter Krasnow, “K.-4-1976” (1976), oil on board

If anything, Judaism is proudly visible in many of his compositions. “K.-4-1976” (1976) unfurls the Hebrew letters of Psalm 19, which translates to, “Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.” The letters drip over a bulbous orange, coral, and magenta background — a brain soaking up wisdom. Yellow and lime lines scrawl behind the letters, over the brain, and crash into the edge of the framed canvas. They’re synapses seeking information from beyond the realm of the painting.

Peter Krasnow, “K.-14-1975 / K.-15-1975 (Pinchas and Shoshana)” (1975) oil on board

Hebrew characters are also the prominent focal point in “K.-14-1975 / K.-15-1975” (1975), a vertical painting that uses its wood frame to strictly divide the canvas into two sections. Abstracted letters, which pop off bright, squiggly lines, coyly spell out Krasnow and his wife, Rose’s, Hebrew names: Pincahs and Shoshana. The characters, not quite depicted in their traditional block form nor the handwritten Hebrew script, double as a love note in plain sight, a secret message that only the two could understand.

Though Jewish symbolism is a critical component in Krasnow’s paintings, he also appears to include sacred imagery from other religions and cultures in his paintings. He sneaks in mandalas, tribal symbols, and mythical creatures. The gridded pattern in “K.-7-1949” (1949) evokes a bright Malaysian songket, a fabric used in royal ceremonies, with high-contrast, organic forms cozying into their quadrants. They curl like worms, stretch out like flames or jaggedly protrude like crystal shards. There are three large circular forms at the bottom of the canvas, prayer circles that contain imaginary landscapes of far-off lands.

In this painting and others, like “K.-6-1951” (1951), animal motifs emerge. One is a human-like figure, a small person with arms outstretched to the heavens. Another prominent creature has a serpentine body and duck-like bill. They bring to mind tricksters — the flute-playing Kokopelli from Hopi and Zuni culture, and the snake from the Old Testament. Their presence could be read in multiple ways. On the dark side, they show that despite Krasnow’s commitment to painting joy, he still harbored fears about suffering. These devious tricksters could throw the universe into havoc at any moment. On the other hand, Kokopelli and the snake also represent fertility, and Krasnow’s paintings could have included them as a hopeful sign of humanity’s rebirth.

Peter Krasnow, “K.-6-1951” (1951), oil on masonite

Intuitively, I’m likely to lean towards the positive messages. One notable thing about Krasnow’s color palette is the absence of black. The darkest colors only move into shades of navy or deep green. Due to his refusal to paint sadness, he abandoned the symbol of absolute darkness. Krasnow’s paintings are only meant to inspire.

To ensure that viewers feel that uplifting spirit, the Skirball commissioned a soundtrack to underscore the viewing experience. Curated by Dublab DJ’s Alejandro Cohen and Mark “Frosty” McNeill, the playlist contains a mix of contemporary songs that channel the spirit of Jewish mysticism, as well as traditional folk music that circles back to Krasnow’s Ukrainian heritage. With these upbeat sounds playing in the gallery, the uplifting environment blocks out any tragic associations with Jewish culture. Be sure to turn up the music and vibrate with Krasnow’s colorful paintings.

Installation view of Peter Krasnow: Breathing Joy and Light at the Skirball Cultural Center

Peter Krasnow: Breathing Joy and Light continues at the Skirball Cultural Center (2701 N Sepulveda Blvd, Los Angeles) through September 3.


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