Marth von Loeb & Alexey Shifman in Chrysalid Gallery, 2022, potography: Riccardo de Vecchi
In ‘The gallery of’ section, we talk to a selection of gallery owners from the Netherlands and Belgium about when and how they started their gallery, what has changed in the art world since then, what their profile is, what they personally collect and how the pandemic has impacted their gallery. In this edition: gallery director Alexey Shifman (A) and gallery curator Marth von Loeben (M), who run Chrysalid Gallery with visual designer Anton Yermolov.
Were you exposed to art growing up?
A: I was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia. My parents are passionate book collectors, opera fans and devout museum goers. So, art, music and literature have been part of my life since early childhood. My birth coincided with the best time in Russian history, probably the best the country has ever experienced: the Soviet Union had just fallen, a democratic government had come to power and the Putin dictatorship was still in the far distance. Being part of the Jewish community in the late Soviet period means tremendous restrictions on everyday life, with limited access to education or free movement. When that vanished – all doors opened – my parents provided us with the best they could.
As a child, I attended evening art school at the Hermitage Museum, learning art history from the best teachers. Later in life, I had a wonderful chance to meet a person who has become my guru of art and art critics: Vsevolod Semenovich. It was he who planted the seed that awakened the gallerist in me
M: In Italy, you do not have the option to be isolated from art. Even if you live as a hermit in the woods, the closest church to your house is bound to be historical, with frescos on the walls and probably a highly-ornated marble altar that makes you reconsider the pledge of the Catholic church to be compassionate and help the poor.
My parents were very art-driven and always took me to museums to see exhibitions or to the theatre to listen to classical music, or simply to children plays that would involve the public (we kids) directly in the scenes.
In secondary school, I did not need any encouragement and I would go to the theatre almost weekly to see plays or even operas (the advantage of speaking Italian is that you understand most of the lyrics, no matter whether you’re listening to Rossini, Mozart or Verdi) and art permeated more courses than only art history, so you had a chance to study art in the Roman era, in the medieval period and in the late 19th century all in one week.
Contemporary art somehow always seemed to fall short, though – thanks to years of distance and maturity – I think it was more due to the highly critical aspect at its basis that no one really wanted to address: a cactus just a tiny bit too prickly for everyone’s taste.
Duo exhibition "Reticulum" with Jake Kelly and Miroslav Cukovic, photography: Riccardo ve Vecchi, March 2021
How did you get involved in the art world?
A: I still remember the moment when contemporary art entered my life. It was in Paris during my university studies. Musée d’Orsay had curated a retrospective exhibition on Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It was a eureka moment – I was totally submerged into his world and could understand and feel his pain through his artworks. It gave me goosebumps. Contemporary art talked to me and that changed everything. That was the moment I decided to create my own contemporary art gallery.
M: My personal push towards the art world started with my studies. In 2012, I moved from Italy to Rotterdam to do a Bachelor’s in photography at the Willem de Kooning Academy and I was so delighted to discover how the highest expression of that practice was not to shoot pictures at weddings or do purely commercial assignments, but to use your specific visual language to develop a project that can be exhibited in a museum or be made into a book, and consequently change someone’s perspective on the world around them. I was completely blown away by the power of the photographs my teachers showed us in class.
Chrysalid Gallery & Neon foundation curated show Counterbodies opening, de Achtertuin, June 2021, photography: Jan Arsenovic
What was your first job at a gallery? Or did you immediately start your own gallery?
A: After moving to Rotterdam, I decided to volunteer during the second edition of Unseen. I was doing everything from selling magazines to checking tickets, so I ultimately felt that I belonged to the world of galleries.
During Unseen, I came across the Rotterdam-based gallery Cinnnamon, which was founded by Pieter Dobbelsteen. We had a nice conversation and he let me volunteer in his gallery a few days a week.
In early 2016, Russia experienced and new financial shock and many Russian artists were left without government support. So, I decided to make a charity exhibition at my home in Rotterdam and try to raise money to support them. That was my way of starting a gallery.
Thanks to the Cinnnamon gallery, I met Marth von Loeben. We had a great time together, became good friends and she ultimately became the beating heart of Chrysalid Gallery.
M: As Alexey mentioned, we met at Cinnnamon Gallery in 2016 when I was working there as an intern. It was during my third year of studies and I already knew that I didn’t want to continue my career in the arts as a creator, but as someone who gave artists the opportunity to showcase their work and contribute actively to their practice. So, I deliberately chose to follow a gallerist around instead of an artist.
Those six months were absolutely incredible. I assisted artists in preparing for their exhibition and asked them questions about their practice, I participated in art fairs (my first internship week was spent at Art Rotterdam 2016) and side projects, I had the possibility to travel and understand art that was so diametrically opposed to what I had experienced so far. About a year after I graduated, Alexey asked me to be part of (what at the time was) his gallery and curate its artistic selection.
Anton Yermolov during Counterbodies exhbition opening, June 2021, de Achtertuin
How would you describe your gallery’s profile?
A: We are a conceptual and experimental gallery that works with young artists from around Europe who dare to speak up about contemporary problems such as sexual identity, war trauma and gentrification.
M: That’s right, we work with young artists who create radical art. We gradually veered towards this because we are both fascinated by the stories they have to tell and because we believe everyone should have a chance to hear them and the joy of viewing the high (visual and conceptual) quality of their work.
In short, I jokingly describe our art as weird, critical, somewhat dark and sometimes uncomfortable: all adjectives I consider absolutely positive when it comes to contemporary art production, which is a direct reflection and offspring of our society.
Marth von Loeben & Anton Yermolov at Counterbodies, 2021, photography: Jan Arsenovic
What do you think is the best part about being a gallerist?
A: I really enjoy the anxious expectation before a new show. After weeks and days of anticipation, suddenly the show is alive with visitors, voices and curious eyes.
M: Personally, as a curator, the best part to me is the time I spend working with the artists. This can range from building the new exhibition in the gallery and having coffee together and discussing the development of ongoing projects to brainstorming about new ideas and plans for the future in terms of the size and complexity of installations. Most often, though, it’s the time I get to spend together with them and Alexey, chatting over some wine, beer and good food. The human connections we have had during the years spent in this wicked world of art are absolutely the most rewarding part of all.
Chrysalid Gallery team during Covid November 2021, solo exhibition opening Vladimir Radujkov, photography: Jan Arsenovic
Which national or international galleries do you feel an affinity with?
A & M: We always enjoy the artistic selection at Perrotin Gallery, Gallery Joey Ramone, Gallery Nature Morte Delhi, Metronom Gallery and Durst Britt & Mayhew Gallery.
In an ideal world, which artist would you most like to represent?
A: In an ideal world, I would love to exclusively represent Rembrandt van Rijn. Although he belongs to academic art, I am still always inspired by his drawings and paintings; he is still an artist to discover.
M: The artists we are representing right now, with the possibility to expand the number in the future at our discretion. Personally, this ‘job’ of mine in the art world is not a social climb to represent ‘bigger’ or ‘more important’ names that have already gained fame and are revered and adored by a wide audience. Rather, my task is to offer the space, safety and any means necessary to the artists I already work with (and others in the future if relevant) to freely express themselves and be able to do what their heart desires and everything their imagination produces.
Vladimir Raduijkov solo exhibition opening "Pin Cushions" in Chrysalid Gallery, November 2021, fotografie: Jan Arsenovic
What has changed in the art world since you first embarked on this journey?
A: I see now that the most valuable and important part of an artwork or art exhibition/art fair is how much it is ‘Instagramable’. Sometimes, it feels as if this is the only quality that matters – sharing a picture of a work at an exhibition and being tagged.
M: Personally, I find that we are in such a state of flux that it’s really hard to determine how things were ‘before’ and ‘after’ and to quantify the change itself. I honestly wouldn’t be able to pinpoint those things that have changed over the last few years since we also had to revolutionise our lives so radically during the pandemic.
Summer show 2022, Chrysalid Gallery, July, 2022, photography: Riccardo de Vecchi
What/whose work do you collect personally?
A: I wish I could collect more. Currently, I have works by young artists: Natalia Grezina, Jake Kelly, Babette Klein, Willem Besselink and many more. I am also very proud of my collection of maps and design furniture.
M: Sadly, I do not have the financial means to be an art collector, but I do have some lovely smaller works by a few artists friends: Natalia Grezina, Lizan Freijsen, Samuele Canestrari, Rada Nita Josan andVladimir Radujkov. On the other hand, I collect photography books. They are much more affordable and are often works of art in themselves. I have a variety of publications, from the more classic photographic essays on notable names to tiny booklets from smaller publishers and compact masterpieces that bring together different kinds of paper, experimental publishing, children’s toys and even fabric.
Summer show, 2022, detail. Caio Marcolini & Rada Nita Josan, July 2022, photography: Riccardo de Vecchi
Has the pandemic changed how you view the art world?
A: Yes, absolutely. Obviously, no one was spared from this impact. In addition, I am shocked beyond belief by the war in Ukraine. The combination of a pandemic and a war has influenced the way I view the art world drastically. I have become incredibly pessimistic and it is easy to feel the same sensations at the audience. The art world has become more sombre than ever before.
M: Lately, I have noticed that I have developed a tendency due to the pandemic and which I find deeply saddening. Since most of the art content we consumed during the lockdowns was digital (virtual exhibitions, Instagram lives, social media feeds, masterclasses on Zoom, you name it), I still find myself in this purely digital loop, even now that museums are open for visitors and there are wonderful exhibitions wherever I go. But I promised myself to kick the habit and go visit those exhibitions I’m seeing on Instagram instead of keeping them online. After all, there is nothing more invigorating than real-life art!
Solo Samuele Canestrari "A WANTON EXCHANGE", October 2022 photography: Riccardo de Vecchi