Nestor Topchy debuts first museum exhibition at the Menil Collection

April 27, 2023

The Menil Collection announces the first museum exhibition of Houston-based artist Nestor Topchy. The Iconic Portrait Strand by Nestor Topchy will be on view at the Menil from August 4, 2023–January 21, 2024. Topchy's portraits follow the traditional techniques and materials of religious icons used by the Ukrainian Eastern Orthodox Church for the last 800 years.

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The show includes over one hundred paintings made over the last fifteen years of the artist’s circle of friends and colleagues. Topchy considers these contemporary portraits a single and ongoing work of art, a corpus representing and honoring his community.

Nestor Topchy
Iconic Portrait Strand (Kiya Kim)2008–22
Egg tempera and gold leaf on gesso over cloth on plywood
Collection of the artist
© Nestor Topchy
Photo: Caroline Philippone

The Menil Collection

Topchy’s work draws connections to the Menil Collection, home to one of the most important collections of religious icons in the United States.

The museum’s holdings span fourteen centuries and include significant examples of holy objects from the Byzantine Empire and Orthodox traditions. Topchy’s luminescent and skillful contemporary versions share an array of layered materials (red clay, hot hide glue, powdered marble, gold leaf, pure earth pigments, and egg yolk) on small wooden panels and are finished with precise brushwork called “ozhivki,” or life-giving lines.

What distinguishes The Iconic Portrait Strand from historical precedent is that the artist does not depict holy figures or events but everyday subjects. Topchy presents his sitters in a sacred context through this reverential painting technique, connecting the past to the present, the sacred to the profane. “To paint a mortal in the sea of gold light, alone,” Topchy states, “is to propose a saintliness that dwells within all people.”

The Menil is proud to present The Iconic Portrait Strand by Nestor Topchy. Nestor has been a friend and collaborator of the Menil for many years and given our collection and conservation commitment to the care and study of Byzantine-era art, objects, and material processes, it is an ideal place to showcase his reimagination of the art form. In these iconic portraits, the artist astutely balances his deeply traditional and spiritual approach with familiar subjects. The startling result not only elevates the subject but poses fascinating questions about the relevancy of the divine within contemporary art practices and what it means to capture likeness in a moment flooded with images.  

Michelle White, Senior Curator

I began this project as a way of exploring what was innate to myself as an artist. It was a way of bringing together resonant images from my childhood. I grew up in the Orthodox Church and was fascinated early on with the symbolic patterns of Ukrainian pysanka egg designs. I also enjoy working within the restraints of the craft of icon painting. The controlled and formal language allows many possibilities to emerge, especially through the meaningful connections that take place through my process. I make the sketches for the paintings by drawing each sitter in person, so the work also becomes about that interaction, connecting the temporal, ephemeral moment with history and tradition, a gesture towards the immutable, the divine.

Nestor Topchy

Nestor Topchy

American-Ukrainian artist, Nestor Topchy was born and raised in New Jersey. He received his bachelor’s degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Houston.

Deeply influenced by Ukrainian folk art, Zen philosophy he is known for his use of diverse media and attention to craft. Topchy has worked on these iconic portraits in Houston for over thirty years and founded HIVE (Habitable Interdisciplinary Visionary Environment).