A Painter Kicking Her Bad Opioid Addiction, Inspired by Her Love for Art

Asya Lukin’s paintings depicts Israel’s hospitals with incisive accuracy and empathy. She speaks just as frankly about her own illness, stereotypes about Russians and how Israeli art school teachers don’t know how to paint

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Asya Lukin at her home in Ramat Gan.
Asya Lukin at her home in Ramat Gan.
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky

Asya Lukin is quite pleased with her new apartment in Ramat Gan. The apartment itself is by no means new, nor fully renovated, but it’s spacious enough to hold her books, her paintings, and the table upon which she is shooting her new animated film. Compared to some of her previous apartments, which were unfit for human habitation under modern standards, this is nothing short of a mansion.

In early December, when Lukin uploaded images of several dozen new paintings to Facebook, one commenter wrote: “Now they’ll talk about you.” That is precisely what I thought upon seeing her new series, painted at hospitals throughout Israel. Amid a global pandemic that has continued unabated for two years and is likely to fashion our lives for years to come, it’s hard to imagine a more apt subject for art than illness. But Lukin was not trying to catch the zeitgeist; with her, everything is personal.

For years, Lukin had been a part of New Barbizon – a group of five Russian-speaking female artists, who were raised on the academic Russian-Soviet school of art and have caused quite a stir in the Israeli art world over the past decade. They aimed to bring back a painting practice rooted in observation of reality, drawing much attention thanks to the combination of acclaimed Russian technique and the choice to address divisive social and political issues.

Compared to the group’s other members – Natalia Zourobova, Anna Lukashevsky, Olga Kundina and particularly, the group’s unofficial leader, Zoya Cherkassky – Lukin’s paintings always seemed restrained to me, perhaps even subdued and gloomy in their palettes, outlines and subject matter alike.

A painting from the series. Lukin was not trying to capture the zeitgeist; for her, it's always personal.

Sitting by a low table in her new apartment, we leaf through two albums of her paintings. Could one say that the new series has opened up something new in her? I ask hesitantly and she affirms the sentiment. “I’ve done a lot of works and series about people. When I was painting in the United States, what drew me in wasn’t the skyscrapers, but the homeless people. It’s the same with my films. But during this break, something good happened. When you’ve got a lot of exhibitions and other things going on, you forget what matters. You want to paint a pretty picture that will look nice on a wall. I mean, of course, you’re painting for yourself too. You’re not faking it, but here, suddenly, I felt like talking about what really matters most.”

The break Lukin references was forced upon her by illness. Her health deteriorated amid the dying and death of a close friend, combined with difficult personal circumstances. In the middle of 2018 she was diagnosed with an orthopedic condition that caused intense pain in the pelvic area and severely limited her movement – she could barely stand.

You were a healthy person and suddenly you were disabled.

“Not just a healthy person. A very happy person. That was the year we opened New Barbizon Academy – a real art academy. We were completely immersed in it. We painted backdrops, we made the stools and boards by hand. I proudly told everyone that I’m in the academy now and it’s all good. It was clear that we had a lot of exhibitions ahead of us, we had just returned from painting together in the States. In short, it happened in the middle of a very busy life. I started feeling pain from hell and couldn’t even teach. I finished the semester on pills, because that was my livelihood, and then it was all cut off.”

"I didn't need to gather my strength to paint. It's the most important dialogue there is."

It wasn’t only Lukin’s professional activity that was severed, but also her connection to New Barbizon. She says she has parted ways with the group since falling ill. For some two and a half years, Lukin struggled with intolerable pain, surgeries (the first of which only made things worse), and powerful painkillers that damaged her soul and clouded her thinking.

“When you’re dependent on that kind of drug, you lose your memory. You find it hard to read serious books or ones with small fonts. They don’t really help with the pain, but they make you indifferent and give you hallucinations. The worst part is that, at a certain point, you really want them. I got addicted very quickly – after a year and a half I found it hard to kick the habit, even though I’ve never liked drugs at all, not even weed. On morphine you dive into an indifferent acceptance of life. Then I understood what a junky’s jones is like – your entire body turns inside-out. They recommended that I check into rehab. Eventually I managed to get clean alone, but it took a long time and I gained a lot of weight. And I still want them sometimes.”

One thing that Lukin didn’t give up during this dark period was painting. “It’s not that I had to gather the strength to paint. It’s the most important dialogue there is. The most important conversation.” She completed most of her paintings while reclining, meaning that most of the paintings are very small. All the works that originated in the hospital – some from observation and some from observation-based imagination – are 23 by 31 centimeters, tempera and acrylic on cardboard.

Lukin captured the sights and the people mainly in the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, and to some extent in the Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem in Jerusalem. The paintings depict the experience of being in one of these Israeli institutions with incisive accuracy. They showcase the painfully familiar types during intimate moments that, for lack of any other option, are on open display. Each painting is a vignette of hospital life that almost always makes the viewer smile a little. At the same time, our hearts go out to the people depicted.

A painting from Lukin's new series. 'The people in the hospitals really did arouse my empathy'

There is one notable absence in the paintings: The feeling of anger or bitterness that most of us experience when forced to remain in those corridors and crowded rooms alongside our fellow sufferers for extended periods of time.

“An experience of pain makes you more empathetic,” Lukin says simply. “I don’t want to say I learned to be compassionate, but I did learn to be a little more compassionate. And besides, sometimes sorrow looks very funny. That’s why I’m surprised when people tell me that the paintings make them sad, because that wasn’t my intention.”

“The people in the hospitals really did arouse my empathy. I don’t think I treated them any differently in real life than I did in my paintings. There were tough moments, for example, when they put me in a room with an old woman who screamed at the top of her lungs all night long. I wasn’t feeling well myself and so I lost consciousness. But the people around me piqued my interest. When you paint people in a cafe, in the street or when they sit for a portrait, they’re wearing a mask. They’re usually very well protected. And there, in the hospital, the people are completely exposed.”

“I remember hearing people’s conversations as I was painting them. A father explained to his daughter that he wanted to die. She cried and said, ‘How can you leave me?’ And when he replied, ‘You’ll be with Mom,’ she said, ‘But you know what kind of relationship Mom and I have.’ And I’m sitting there, like an idiot, painting all that.”

A painting from the series.

Constant search

Lukin’s story and creative journey seem borrowed from another era (late 19th-century Paris comes to mind). An uncompromising artist, she is always searching. Her talent has paved the way, but also pushed her into poverty and despair.

Lukin immigrated to Israel in 1990 at the age of 15. She had already completed the Leningrad Secondary Art School near the Repin Academy of Arts in Leningrad (today the St. Petersburg Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design in St. Petersburg) – one of the most prestigious art institutions in the Soviet Union, and now in Russia. As she filled sketchbook after sketchbook, her parents urged her to study academic drawing. She dove into learning technique, but soon felt disgusted. “I realized that the school was creating people who all drew alike.”

She didn’t abandon her studies, but rather began studying with the subversive artist Solomon Rusin in parallel. “It was the total opposite. At the school they taught us all kinds of nonsense such as [the classical Russian artists] Serov, Repin and Savrasov. He showed us Picasso and explained the joy in distortion. Imagine, at the age of 11 or 12, you’ve been drawing plaster casts and cross-hatching landscapes from the Summer Garden in St. Petersburg from morning to night and then you learn about Picasso and Expressionism. My strongest memory is when he took us, as children, to paint in an insane asylum. He took us to paint abandoned places, alcoholics who burned bottles. It opened an entirely different world for me.”

"I realized they were trying to train artists who all drew alike"

When she and her parents arrived in Jerusalem, she planned to study in the Jerusalem High School for the Arts, but “panicked” when she came to the conclusion that “nobody there knows how to paint, including the teachers.” In hindsight, she says, that may have been a mistake. She attended a regular school and then served in the army, where she mainly tried “not to lose my marbles and to keep painting.” All the while she continued studying art under the painter Alexander (Sasha) Okun, who continued supporting her later in her career. After being discharged from the army in 1995, she was accepted to the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem.

“One of the teachers told me secretly: ‘You know, we usually try not to accept Russians because you all paint the same way, but we accepted you for your abstract works,” says Lukin. Later on, her ambivalence toward this statement becomes clear. “On the one hand, it’s true. I’ve seen it for myself, I don’t need anyone to tell me. On the other hand, you have no idea how many stereotypes about Russians I was fed at Bezalel. They reject you in advance. I was also in the minority there – now, I believe, many Russians study there. But then, in the mid-1990s, it was really the beginning and there were very few Russians, particularly in the art department. And there were many stereotypes.”

She chuckles and adds: “And occasionally you met Russians who really did fit the stereotypes, what can I say. There was a Russian guy who walked around with an American baseball cap, an American jacket, chewed gum and painted like in the arts schools. He bragged about his professionalism and amazed all the teachers because, to tell you the truth, they don’t know how to paint either. Even the good artists among them, their painting is nothing special.”

At first, Lukin soaked up all the institution had to offer. “At Bezalel there was always a push toward innovation, modernism. All that really interested me. I started working with installations and super-modern abstract sculpture. But then they shot themselves in the foot – in the third year they sent me on an exchange program to Paris, to the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Because I studied sculpture, I went to study with the sculptors whose names we had learned in class and whose work all the Bezalel teachers imitated.”

A self-portrait from Lukin's time at Bezalel. 'They became very unhappy with me because I wasn't making "contemporary" art anymore.'

“And then two of the French sculptors told me: ‘Why not go draw some copies in the Louvre?’ That blew my mind. I realized that what was going on at Bezalel, all those installations, was built on soap bubbles. I started to study painting again from square one. Not the way they taught me in the Soviet Union, God forbid. But yes – starting again from the beginning.”

What’s the difference between the way they taught in the Soviet Union and what you were learning at that point?

“There’s a tremendous difference. In school they taught certain tricks. I don’t want to say ‘recipes,’ but specific methods of drawing – the hatching has to be like this and like that. A head is constructed by means of ellipses. But realistic painting from life requires the kind of study that enables you to draw without those methods – as though seeing things for the first time. Though it’s clear that you need a certain amount of skill, in other words, a school of art is somewhat helpful.”

Suddenly isolated

When she returned from Paris, Lukin stopped sculpting, returned to painting and fell out of sync with the institution where she was studying. “I painted portraits in an expressive-realistic style and they became very displeased with me at Bezalel because I had stopped making ‘contemporary art.’ In hindsight I realized that what they considered ‘contemporary’ at Bezalel then – and I agreed with them at the time – was contemporary in the 1960s. But I found myself in serious isolation. Some friends understood what I was doing. Among the teachers, only a few supported me, including Sasha [Okun].”

The conflict reached its peak at the final exhibition. “I don’t like retelling it, because it sounds like I’m flattering myself, but Roee Rosen, who critiqued me, didn’t mean it as a compliment. He said, ‘she brought us Vermeer and Rembrandt, but we’re not in the 17th century anymore, it’s almost the 21st.’ A lot of people backed him up, saying that it wasn’t contemporary. Sasha defended me, saying that they were behaving exactly like the academy they dislike so much: They create a very narrow framework and anyone who dares to step outside of it is expelled from the clique. They gave me the lowest grade in the history of final exhibitions. But when representatives from Sotheby’s came to buy artworks they chose two, and one of them was mine.”

After completing her studies at Bezalel, Lukin returned to St. Petersburg for a while. She hadn’t chosen to move to Israel with her parents. Like many who immigrated as adolescents, she felt she had missed an opportunity and tried to go back to Russia. “I didn’t really have work, but they gave me a roof over my head – the studio of a painter who lived in the United States. It had to be guarded, because it had almost been robbed a little while before.”

“It was a seventh-floor apartment, without heating, hot water or a shower. There was an exit to the attic and crumbling plaster. But it was free. I slept in a fur coat, which was probably from about the time of Catherine the Great, and tattered felt boots.”

Dolls that Lukin is using to create an animated film.

“I had a neighbor who would knock on my door in the morning and say, ‘Bunny rabbit, buy me vodka, otherwise it’s hard for me.’ I would go with that coat and those boots to buy vodka and I think that in the neighborhood they thought I was homeless. I went to a public bathhouse to shower, together with the poor and the homeless. That was an experience I’ll never forget. Unfortunately, I don’t have any works saved from that time because I used to give them away very easily.”

Lukin describes those two years in St. Petersburg as a tough period, but happy and full of creativity. In addition to personal circumstances that brought her back to Israel, there was also an episode that broke her, she says: The same neighbor for whom she used to buy vodka stole her bicycle.

Lukin’s life is full of comic-tragic episodes of duress. When she was studying animation at the Royal College of Art in London from 2005 to 2007, the funding for her studies was cut off, but she received special permission to complete her final project – an animated film dedicated to the absurdist Russian poet Daniil Kharms, who died of hunger in a Soviet prison in the 1940s. She completed the film at night, she says, semi-covertly, working in an alcove behind a curtain in the building of the prestigious university. Occasionally she fell asleep. One night the night watchman “caught her in the act” and when his flashlight woke her, she thought to herself: “If I don’t move, he’ll think I’m a statue.”

Lukin's animated film on the life of Russian poet Daniil Kharms.

Returning to the topic of apartments unfit for human habitation, she recounts the story of an apartment she rented in Yafo in the mid 2010s, which indirectly led her to the theme of hospitals. “It was a ground floor apartment that I shared with Palestinian laborers, who robbed me too in the end. There was an infestation of mice. They were everywhere. You wake up – there’s a mouse on the pillow. You open a pot – see a mouse. Pick up a camera – there’s a mouse. I screamed every time. Their feces was everywhere.”

“I called the exterminator, who put poison and glue traps, where the mice died slowly. When I understood how they worked, I started peeling the mice off the traps. I remember peeling off one mouse, who squeaked and cried the whole time. Just as I finished, it fell out of my hands and got stuck again.”

After the mouse infestation, a sewage overflow that destroyed her studio and damaged her paintings and several other traumatic events, Lukin suffered a nervous breakdown that caused her to lose her hearing temporarily. That’s when she created her first series in Ichilov, composed mainly of sketches. The present series is a more mature continuation.

Now, hoping that her terrible physical pain is behind her, Lukin is continuing to develop the series through large oil paintings and dolls that she will use to create an animated film and later freeze as sculptures. She plans to place the sculptures in a hospital setting. Lukin is totally invested in the subject, with no intention of letting it go, despite the less-than-encouraging reactions she has received from curators and gallery owners. Several of them specifically recommended that she drop the subject because hospital paintings don’t sell.

“It’s not that I don’t want to exhibit. I’m not a reclusive nun. But when you’re using your own voice, loud and clear, somehow that’s more important than an exhibition. There will be an exhibition. I have no doubt. Maybe not in Israel.”

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