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Jenny Yurshansky’s family, Jewish refugees from Moldova, share a complicated history with Soviet Jewry from the Pale of Settlement, the artificial borders authorizing where Jews could reside in czarist Russia. Even after the dissolution of these peripheries, being Jewish in the USSR meant never being fully a part of the country in which you lived—forever marked by your ethnicity, an outsider even while inside. Because of decades of hardships and atrocities at the hands of political actors, when the Kremlin started to allow Jews to leave in the late 1960s, many people chose to flee at the expense of leaving their families and old lives behind. The works in A Legacy of Loss: There Were No Roses There, Jenny Yurshansky’s exhibition at the American Jewish University (curated by Rotem Rozental PhD), represent the artist’s attempt to translate just how these choices and schisms live on, and her family’s stories of survival and resilience touch and facilitate each work.
Through a series of mixed-media works that span embroidery, sculpted glass, steel, and wood, Yurshansky teases out these themes of geographical and cultural dislocation, trauma, and succession. The keystone work for the exhibition, A Legacy of Loss (Encounter) (2019), incorporates slide projectors that project onto a wall while a swath of polyester flutters in front of the shifting slide images. Photos of a bright green family grave and Yurshansky and her mother visiting the marker in Moldova quickly flash by like an allegorical homecoming. The grave is in the shape of a tree with no limbs—an impermeable phantom of the past. The fabric, however, waves and interferes with the visibility of the images: Yurshansky plays with the subjectivity of memories, the cloth obstructing a tidy historical narrative of the family.
At first glance, the installation, titled There Were No Roses There (Echo) (2021), could be mistaken for a deliberately smudged chalk drawing—blurred red buds faintly rendered among green petals— but the work is made from textural wool, pierced by vintage nails, on a wall stained by the artist to resemble tobacco residue. The gallery guide identifies the fiber work as a rubbing of a traditional woven Moldovan carpet, the rose pattern a popular decorative motif in the region. In this context, this tapestry is understood through its steadfast absence: it conjures a hastily disrupted domestic space and the tenuous remnants of what it once was.
Yurshansky sewed The Border Will Not Hold (2021)—four delicate, framed needlepoints on transparent silk organza suspended gently from the ceiling—with her mother, using the opportunity to learn about her family’s history—particularly those stories that had previously been too painful to share. The scenes and characters on the fabric come from the artist’s Soviet-era alphabet primers—men in suits, a woman with a baby pram, a grandmother reading to children on her knee—meant to model Soviet ideals. When installed, shadows loom on the wall behind the frames, each nearly identical to the embroidery except for one meaningful difference: though the characters on the fabric are all rendered in a consistent muted color, in the shadow images, the children are more opaque, while the adult figures appear as barely-visible outlines. This shadow play conveys a crucial undertone. Yurshansky’s family lived in Moldova, but as Jews, they were never considered Moldovan. Her ancestors would not have been wearing the folk embroidery or patterns depicted here, nor would they have had access to the same aspects of civic life as their Moldovan neighbors. As Yurshansky explained in a walk-through of the exhibition, her needlepoints were originally conceived alongside the evolving refugee crisis and family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, a situation that mirrored Yurshansky’s ancestral past. It is each successive generation—the children—that carry these divisions and traumas forward, while the ancestors loom like shadows of the past.
Pensive and plaintive, A Legacy of Loss is a reminder of the complex effects of displacement, a protracted existence between memory and reflexive continuation. Yurshansky has constructed an elegiac song about sacrifice that spans geography, culture, and generation. Her story is offered as a proxy, but the depth of the work suggests that the desire for belonging is universal—the embroidered thread and the woven fibers are her melody, the shadows are her tempo.
Jenny Yurshansky: A Legacy of Loss: There Were No Roses There runs from January 30–May 12, 2022 at the American Jewish University (15600 Mulholland Dr., Bel Air, CA 90077).