Arts & Entertainment

From Russia with Passion

A Russian-born mother-daughter team have brought some powerful art and a cultural sensibility to a gallery in Mercato.

BY January 5, 2015


Regardless of your geopolitical leanings, it’s safe to say Russia has produced some of the world’s finest art. Whether it be music or literature, theater or dance, the former Soviet Union has been a hotbed of creative energy for centuries.

And that’s just as true with art on canvas. From Chagall to Kandinsky, Russia has a tradition of creating masterpieces. And even though the French masters tend to be where one’s mind lands when thinking about art for above the couch, Russia is finding new appreciation locally thanks to the Russian-born mother-daughter team of Olga and Leeza Arkhangelskaya of Gallery on Fifth in Mercato (9115 Strada Place, Suite 5130). The art gallery highlights Russian and Soviet bloc artists (as seen on these pages) to the delight of area residents looking to add something different to their collections.

“It’s masculine, strong art. Almost exotic,” says Olga, a stylish redhead with close-cropped hair who founded the Russian-American Cultural Club at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., while living there. “French impressionism is feminine. (But) Russian impressionism is very masculine. It’s a celebration of life, of strength—both physical and spiritual—which you don’t see in French paintings. … It reflects the perseverance of the human spirit and its ability to find goodness and beauty in an often meaningless, violent and materialistic world.”


Stanislav Plutenko, Into the Fire59 x 39     Plutenko is a hyper-realist whose paintings are luminous, beautiful and thought-provoking. His meticulous, detail-oriented paintings are masterfully executed using his signature combination of oil, acrylic, egg tempera and glazing techniques. This highly symbolic painting provokes the viewer to question why various currencies are being burned.


Since her arrival in Naples in 2000, Olga has been diligent about fostering appreciation for the power and unique- ness that come from what was once
the Iron Curtain. In fact, a brief visit to the gallery feels like a crash course in Russian art history interspersed with excerpts from the personal diaries of the artists on display. It’s experiential passion tempered by the restraint of foreign-born social etiquette.

Ironically, she opened the first gallery on Fifth Avenue South with
a partner who specialized in French art. Not surprisingly, that partnership didn’t last and the Gallery on Fifth refocused itself on more Russian-specific works. Mirroring what was happening back in the homeland, capitalism was good—for a while.

Olga added two more galleries to her stable: one in Bayfront and another in the Miromar Design Center in Estero. Not bad for a woman who worked at the Academy of Science (in Moscow) as an economist before moving Stateside in 1994 with Leeza and just two suitcases. Then came 2008. What appeared to be good business decisions turned sour. Next, her lease on Fifth Avenue South wasn’t renewed in order for her landlord to rebuild the property. Things looked bleak in Southwest Florida. “Art needs walls,” Leeza says. “If the economy is poor and no one is building new walls, no one is buying art.” After a short stint on Ninth Street South, the gallery moved to its current location in 2012 and hasn’t looked back.

That’s when Leeza joined the business, leaving her career in Washington, D.C., at the United States Agency for International Development. The duo reaffirmed their focus on Russian art, “meaning that the artists, whether Ukrainian, Bulgarian or Russian, have been taught in the Russian classical tradition,” says Olga, who earned a degree from Harvard University, and completed both a Pew Fellowship from Georgetown University and a Certificate in Art History from George Washington University. Most of the works you see when browsing the gallery are non-commercial.

“(The artists) work directly with governments, museums, private collectors and on orders for public spaces,” Olga says. “Few sell their works through galleries and often create cohesive collections and do not sacrifice the integrity of their art just to make a sale.” That was certainly the case for Kemal (Fazildjan Mirzoyev), a Uzbekistan-born painter who walked into Gallery on Fifth with a few of his paintings. He was living in Naples painting—houses. The Arkhangelskayas immediately hung some of the pieces and he was officially discovered. He is now in London painting (on canvas) for clients.

It’s the level of artists that they’ve been dealing with that inspired them to create the new Russian-American Museum of Art currently housed within the gallery.

“We seek to unite these two very diverse cultures,” Leeza says “and show the similarities between the American and Russian people. We all want economic stability, security, peace, happiness for ourselves and for our families. These are uniting themes.”

For now the works they’ve collected as part of the museum hang on a wall in the back of the gallery, but they hope that someday the museum is a self-sufficient entity, one that finds support from the community. They plan to bring in only the best academically trained artists from across the United States and Russia.

In fact, the gallery’s December exhibit We the People: Everyday Life in Soviet Ukraine and Contemporary Southwest Florida, was a perfect melding of the concept. Featuring three of this area’s most respected contemporary artists (Marcus Jansen, Juan Diaz and Daniel Venditti), the exhibit was counter-balanced by 20 historical paintings from the Collection of Jurii Maniichuk and Rose Brady*, which includes portraits, still lifes, landscapes, World War II-era images and scenes from daily life created by artists living and working in Soviet Ukraine from the 1950s through the 1980s. Maniichuk acquired the 140 paintings of the collection from leading institutions, artists and heirs while living and working in Kiev in the mid-1990s. They represent the absolute finest of the period and complement the balance of American social realism with full-on socialism.

*Rose Brady, former Moscow Bureau chief of Business Week, at press time was senior editor of Gulfshore Business magazine, our sister publication.


Julia Kostsova, Ivan Kupala Night Fortune Telling, 35 x 37 
    Kostsova created a bold collection of paintings dedicated to ancient Russian traditions. A native of Siberia, she traveled to the far northeast interviewing villagers and researching old rites that were largely forgotten and forbidden during the time of the Soviet Union. Here, unmarried girls attempt
to interpret their relationship fortunes from the way their flower wreaths float on the water during Ivan Kupala, a pre-Christian Holiday celebrated in Eastern Europe. Young men watch closely, attempting to influence the path of the flowers and to capture the interest of the girl who floated the wreath.


Mikhail Shapovalenko, Summer Sanctuary, 25 x 50
     Shapovalenko is a leading contemporary Ukrainian impressionist living in Kiev. Here he lovingly depicts his young wife, sunbathing on the bank of the river near their summer home, or dacha. The artist skillfully uses the translucency of the fabric of the chaise-lounge to outline her graceful torso, placing her hands, like a crown, on top of her head.


Andrey Shishkin, Yulia, 13.5 x 12
     Shishkin is a remarkable Russian realist artist specializing in historical subjects. This is a portrait of a 17th century Russian princess wearing a traditional headpiece (a “kokoshnik”) richly decorated with pearls and gems. The artist tries to lead us into the mind of the noble girl of that epoch—powerful and vulnerable at the same time; her unusual captivating facial expression reflects modesty and dignity.


Konstantin Suhopluyev, Smoke in the Night, 24 x 16     Incredibly confident for being just 20 years old, Suhopluyev is inspired by Russian impressionists. “Impression leads and guides the brushstroke,” he says, “but it is the light that gives the emotional response and does the magic.” He likes to paint the streets of his beloved St. Petersburg and portraits of his friends—in edgy, energetic style. This particular work is a self-portrait, although seemingly of his future, more mature self.


Plutenko, Tree-Cloud, 47 x 35     
In this surreal world a young girl be- gins her journey alone, bravely entering a mystical town above the clouds. So much of this world is unexplained. The girl’s race and nationality are not obvious; the architecture of the town is a mixture of gothic, Roman, Islamic and orthodox styles; and the clothing of the other villagers leaves their nationalities a mystery. The painting represents the courage and desire for adventure that we all have inside.


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