Lika Volk Transforms Discarded Paintings into Socially Engaged Art
Portrait of Lika Volk performing Liquid Labor, 2016 at Torrance Shipman Gallery, New York. Courtesy of Lika Volk.
The Ukrainian artist Lika Volk reclaims displaced objects and histories in her imaginative performance and fashion works. She is best known for her “mobile canvases”—abandoned paintings that she breathes new life into by transforming them into wearable garments. Volk’s interest in fashion comes from the idea that clothes are a means through which we can express ourselves and communicate with a broad audience. “Fashion is a history of feeling awkward,” she said in a recent interview, “and it is so close to art because I believe that artists have to explore feeling awkward.”
Volk’s interest in awkwardness stems from her own experiences of displacement as a Ukrainian growing up in the Soviet Union. This fractured upbringing, during which she felt othered within her homeland, shapes the artist’s social practice today. Working across performance, painting, wearable art, video, and curation, Volk examines how people belong to communities and cultural groups. Her robust, socially engaged practice critically explores Ukrainian history and the hints of imperialism left behind by the Soviet Union. This work has made her a key collaborator in workshops at New York–based institutions like the Brooklyn Rail and the New Arts Dealers Alliance (NADA), in the wake of the February 24th Russian invasion. Less attention has been devoted, however, to her compelling socially engaged art practice in New York and Ukraine.
Installation shot of Lika Volk, “New Economic Policy,” 2015 at Queens Museum. Courtesy of Lika Volk.
Volk (née Volkova) was born in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1978 to artist parents; her youth was split between there and Moscow. “I grew up in an art community somewhat,” Volk said, describing her childhood as strange but artistic. Part of that strangeness was due to how she learned about Ukrainian history in Soviet Union–backed schools, where Ukrainian language and culture were suppressed, considered a folk history.
“My grandfather spoke a hybrid of Ukrainian and Russian in the home,” Volk said, emphasizing how deep the suppression of Ukraine was during her childhood. Her parents’ artistic, nomadic lifestyle led Volk to avoid a formal artistic education; she was drawn to alternative practices. “Growing up, I rejected an idea of fine art because it was not communicating to an [audience],” she said.
Volk moved to New York in 1998 and began making art, upcycling discarded artworks into garments. “There are roughly 100,000 artists in New York and many of them are painters,” she said. “There’s a huge surplus of paintings; some of them are not liked, not good, or have mistakes.” The garments are intentionally excessive in their construction and purposefully exaggerate the body’s proportions, as seen in the felt piece resembling an open can that Volk wore for a performance titled Liquid Labor in 2016.
Portrait of a model wearing SANS (2005-2010). Courtesy of Lika Volk.
Initially, Volk used these garments in everyday performances on New York City streets through which the general public became her audience. “Sometimes people would curse at me, but it was a reaction,” she said. This ultimately led her to create a sustainable fashion line called SANS (2005–11), before she shifted back to her wearable art and performance practice in 2012.
Volk’s “mobile canvases” were integral to the series “New Economic Policy” (2014–20), made in collaboration with New York–based artist Caroline Woolard. The series features conceptual, futuristic performances where Volk’s garments—her own take on the 20th-century jumpsuits associated with factory labor—are activated by performers who take on the role of workers reclaiming deskilled or discarded labor. The title refers to the Soviet Union’s New Economic Policy (NEP), which was in effect from 1921 to 1928 before it was abolished by Joseph Stalin.
“New Economic Policy” has been exhibited at the Museum of Arts and Design (2014) and the Queens Museum (2015), among other institutions. Volk has also integrated her own paintings as the material for these garments. For her Liquid Labor performance at Torrance Shipman Gallery in 2016, Volk created an immersive installation consisting of garments, installations, and poems. The piece satirized business model plans and used language to advocate for “hard leisure” rather than “hard labor” in an imagined future economy.
Left: Installation shot of Lika Volk, “New Economic Policy,” 2015 at Queens Museum, NY. Right: Portrait of artist Caroline Woolard wearing “New Economic Policy,” 2017 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. Courtesy of the artist.
Over the past few years, Volk has taken her imagined alternative realities back to Ukraine. During a 2018 residency in the city of Uzhhorod in western Ukraine, Volk put on a performance work that involved going on local television and radio programs, and saying that the city itself was now a contemporary art museum. The act responded to the lack of contemporary art galleries and museums in Uzhhorod. With the performance, Volk sought to provoke artists to think more expansively about the city’s population as an audience, and proposed that the lack of contemporary art spaces means less competition among artists, as one encounters in cultural capitals like New York.
“I almost felt great there,” Volk said of her time in Uzhhorod. “Finally, I saw no gallerists, no contemporary art museums. But at the same time, artists want [to present their work] and that creates a discrepancy.” With the performance piece, she wanted to see how artists would feel when freed from the traditional infrastructure of the contemporary art world. “I didn’t want to manipulate the situation,” she added. “Some people would think that it was an institutional critique and it had nothing to do with that. So I thought, okay, it will be an institutional mystique.”
Portrait of viewers watching David Young Kim and Amelia Saul, The Desert in the Lagoon, 2020 in Pizza Piennale, 2021 at The Always Fresh, NY. Courtesy of Lika Volk.
In New York, Volk has dedicated time to making space for “misaligned objects and people” through her mobile gallery space, The Always Fresh. The Always Fresh originally operated in a former pizza parlor in the Lower East Side from 2021 to 2022. Volk paused this project following the war and is currently focused on public engagements where she can share her knowledge of Russia’s imperial history in Ukraine.
In this social advocacy work, Volk encourages Russian artists to examine and create work about their country’s role in colonizing Eastern Europe—specifically accomplished through serfdom (slavery)—rather than relying on Ukrainian artists to do this work alone. Of her practice, Volk said, “It comes from being born in different parts of the world and seeing different kinds of art societies, trying to put together different exhibitions that communicate the current time.”