Aug. 1 2013 12:00 AM

Alina Poroshina's art backstrokes through disaster

Uneasy immersion into a dangerous world: That’s the theme of a deeply personal exhibition of oil paintings on display at the Lansing Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame through July 27. Lansing artist Alina Poroshina steeps the large-scale “water paintings” of her exhibit, “Of Fears and Memory,” in lush and dire imagery. 

In “Beneath the Surface,” a woman (modeled after the artist’s hairdresser) floats among vaguely threatening coral polyps. She seems to be cooing with affection at the indifferent tentacles.

“Her husband, the father of her kids, threw a knife at her,” Poroshina explained. “I’m sure she loved him at some point.” 

Women float serenely as they brush past monstrous eels, needle coral or obscenely gaping ornamental goldfish. Their eyes are closed, but it’s not clear whether they are experiencing ecstasy or fear. 

“The point of this body of work is to be a woman who hasn’t quite found her footing in this world, like me,” Poroshina said. “She’s floating. Maybe she’s enjoying it, maybe there are hidden dangers.”

The “water” series draws from a deep well of symbolism, including the phallic variety, but Poroshina feels it’s time for her to move on. The exhibit finds her at a turning point in both subject matter and style, which she describes as “expressive realism.”

The show devotes one wall to the first three paintings of Poroshina’s next large project, a set of 12 canvases that will mark the 100th anniversary of the Turkish slaughter of Armenians in 1915.

Poroshina, 31, was born in Moscow to an Armenian mother and Russian father. In the late 1980s, as the Soviet regime collapsed, life got ugly for the Armenian minority in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. The Soviet implosion, like the breakup of Yugoslavia, unleashed ethnic hatred that had percolated for centuries.

As a child, Poroshina thought it was fun to have 10 or 15 relatives crammed into her family’s two-bedroom Moscow apartment. “It was great playing with my cousins, but little did I know that they were escaping with their lives,” Poroshina said.

Her family came to Lansing in 1991, placed here by a refugee service. An early painting, “Manhattan Backwash,” is set in the bowels of a steamship, perhaps bound for Ellis Island. Although Poroshina hates rats, she painted herself cradling a large rodent in her arms in a deliberate Madonna-and-child pose.

“The rats are the unsavory kind, the unwelcomed,” she said.

Contrary to the symbolism of “Manhattan Backwash,” Poroshina said she likes Lansing and feels welcome here. She got her undergraduate and graduate degrees at Kendall College in Grand Rapids and moved back to Lansing two years ago after a less than happy stint in New York.

“I stayed almost four years — a little too long,” she said. “I was seduced.” She found it “impossible to compete” with artists she had learned about in art school, like Chuck Close (known for grotesquely banal realism) and Wolfgang Laib (high-concept art made of pollen). Poroshina’s rich colors, dark symbolism and realistic approach — not to mention her passionate empathy with her subjects — don’t exactly scream “New York art scene.” 

Alina Poroshina’s art backstrokes through disaster

Now that she has settled back in Lansing, working in a DeWitt studio upstairs from a glassblower’s shop, she has begun to confront her people’s history head-on.

In 1915, hundreds of thousands of Armenians were massacred in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, marking the 20th century’s first mass horror. The word genocide was coined based on the event. Many sources estimate that 1. 5 million were killed, and the Turkish government’s refusal to acknowledge the killings is still a gaping political and spiritual wound for Armenians around the world. 

“People started to do cruel and unusual things,” Poroshina said. “Decapitating Christian girls, braiding their hair together and displaying them as garlands on city walls and the homes of Armenians.”

“Seraph,” in Poroshina’s show, sublimates this horror into a strange and beautiful image of three smiling female faces — heads, to be blunt.

“They’re forever tied at the braid,” she lamented, before adding a dash of black humor: “I’m sure it’s awkward for these angels to fly around.”

Forget about generic angel wings — Poroshina can’t pass up a chance to add texture to a canvas, literally or symbolically. One seraph has pigeon wings, symbolizing the city, and another has rooster plumage. 

“I love roosters,” she said. “Chagall used them. It’s a Christian symbol.” The third seraph has stylized red wings, also adapted from Christian iconography.

In another painting from the same series, a wide-eyed woman frantically tries to finish a tapestry depicting the genocide, looking over her shoulder at the door, before she herself is murdered.

Despite the relative safety of Lansing, the parallel to the artist’s new project is unmistakable.

“I find it very strange when people say, ‘Get over it, it’s 100 years ago, why are you doing this?’” Poroshina said. 

When the Lansing show is over, all three genocide paintings are going to Grand Rapids Community College’s Collins Gallery. They have also been accepted into the 2013 ArtPrize exhibiton.

Poroshina doesn’t read much or watch TV.

“It’s time lost from the studio,” she explained.

Like the weaver in her painting, she seems to be looking over her shoulder nervously as she works. There’s no genocide in sight in the American Midwest, but a vision of impending disaster, when it’s least expected, seems to drive her on. She recently returned “Vita,” a very large canvas now hanging at the Lansing show, from an exhibit at Dominguez Hills State University in California, but the painting almost didn’t make the trip.

She strapped it to the top of her van, like a mattress, but it got loose, turned into a mainsail on the interstate and ripped away from the straps.

“In the rearview mirror I see my painting slowly fly away from me in the wind,” Poroshina said. “Luckily, it got on the side of the highway so no cars were damaged.” (That’s how big it is.)

The incident was most unnerving because “Vita” is one of Poroshina’s embedded self-portraits. “Seeing yourself in the ditch — I didn’t like that association one bit,” she said.