Ukrainian Painter Pazza Pennello Remains Unshaken

One of the Odessa-born artist’s pop-inflected canvases embodies the tranquil resilience radiating through her war-torn country—and plays a gently devastating role in Elizabeth Baudouin’s gripping short film about queer grief.

Pennello. Via Instagram/@pazza_pennello

Queer grief has its own contours; it should be recognizable to anyone, but it radiates from its own specificity. Elizabeth Baudouin’s new short film Breakup Text glows with queer grief, detailing the end of a tumultuous lesbian relationship portrayed by Baudouin’s own wife, the film’s star Natalie Shirinian, and co-star Amanda Grace Jenkins. Set in a bummed-out L.A., and soundtracked by shimmering contributions from Jónsi, Kali Malone, Leila Bordreuil, and more, Breakup Text prompts viewers to consider that heartbreak, particularly of the queer kind, might be not only an emotional but an audio-visual experience. 

A painting forms a crux of that prompt. Made by Elizabeth and Natalie’s friend Pazza Pennello, Room of the Absolute portrays a living room with a female body made visible by intention. Born in Odessa and based in Kyiv until recently, Pennello has shown her pop-inflected, Soviet-esque paintings internationally, and is included in the Saatchi Art collection. Pennello emailed with Surface from her new home in her hometown Chornomorsk, about life during wartime, coming out of patriarchy’s shadows, and seeing her work on film.

A still from “Breakup Text”

First—how are you and your loved ones? What’s the current situation where you are?

Since February 24, 2022, the “How are you?” question has become a significant phrase and support for us. So thank you. I’m holding on.

I realized that a person can adapt to anything. At the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion, I was afraid. And this fear was so intense it engulfed me and paralyzed my body. I didn’t know what to do. The one thing I knew for sure was that I wouldn’t leave my country and would stay here and do everything in my power to protect my nearest and dearest. Then it became clear what was happening, and I began to think and act rationally.

Now I’ve accepted the fact of the war happening, and I have immense faith and pride in my country. Now I live in my hometown of Chornomorsk, a port city in the Odessa region, where I was born and raised. I’m here with my family and loved ones, and everyone is coping in their own way. The situation was very tough, with attacks on the port, and at night, we would sit in the hallway following the “rule of two walls.” I will never forget the sound of rockets flying overhead. The war knocked out all my imaginary fears and phobias I used to have; I realized there’s nothing scarier than war.

Where is your studio and how has been trying to work over the past year?

My studio is in Chornomorsk, just five minutes from the Black Sea. The beach is mined, and currently there’s no access to the sea. The war has made me more productive, mainly because of the uncertainty of what tomorrow may bring. Perhaps it’s a self-preservation instinct to accomplish as much as possible. A canvas serves as a personal diary where I express all my emotions and feelings through my artwork. Art saves me.

Did you study painting? How long have you been at it?

I knew who I was and what I wanted to become from a very early age. I wanted to enroll in the Art Academy in Kyiv, but they told me I lacked the necessary skills and knowledge to study there. Then I thought, “well, whatever” and moved on. Since 2011, I’ve dedicated myself entirely to art. Always do what brings you joy—it’s really the only way to experience true happiness.

How did you first connect with Elizabeth?

We met in 2018 through Saatchi Art. Elizabeth and Natalie purchased one of my paintings, and we’ve become friends since then. I’m beyond grateful for this connection.

Did they ask to use this painting specifically in the film?

Yes. Elizabeth and Natalie asked for permission to use my painting in a film. Although I knew nothing about the plot, I agreed immediately as I trusted them completely. They are incredibly talented with impeccable taste. I mean, how could I not trust them?

Tell me about the origin of this painting and how you made it?

Room of The Absolute is a quintessential work of the eponymous cycle of paintings. It attracts attention with its expressive depiction of a naked woman standing under the bright yellow light of a lamp. The woman in the painting radiates strength, independence, and confidence. In this work of art, she symbolizes emancipation and empowerment. She embodies a modern woman who is unafraid to go beyond stereotypes and demonstrate independence. Her posture impresses with self-confidence.

The lamp’s yellow light illuminating the woman creates an intimate and atmospheric aura. It adds warmth and intrigue to the picture and emphasizes her solid character. In such lighting, the woman acquires mystery and magic. Yellow is my favorite color. I use it to paint the rays illuminating my women, as if taking them out of the shadow of patriarchy.

“Room of the Absolute” (2021). Via Instagram/@pazza_pennello

Using a painting in a film as a narrative device is interesting. As its maker, how did it feel the first time you saw it in the film? Did it look different to you in some way?

We all experienced disappointment and betrayal, just like the main character, Mila, did in the film. And that’s through pain and crisis the transformation occurs. When we face difficulties, we always seek shelter, a place of strength where we can recover and move forward. I love the idea that the painting is placed in the house of Mila’s mother, as the parental home symbolizes safety and restoration. The artwork exudes tranquility, confidence, and power, emphasizing this important message.

Life goes on, pain fades away, and acceptance comes, as we see in the film’s final scene. Mila moves forward, and Natalie’s incredible performance takes us through this transformation, reminding us of death and rebirth.

I also appreciate how the painting seamlessly fits into the interior, as if it’s extending beyond the canvas. I’m delighted and proud to be a part of this project.

What are you working on now?

I’ve learned to live in a constant state of war and a sense of personal fragility. I continue exploring the theme of women’s freedom and strength. Despite the invasion of war into my Rooms of the Absolute, my women remain unshaken. At this point, I return to profound existential questions, which are felt especially acutely under the current circumstances.

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