Finding Shelter in Painting

Viktor Tsyganko
From Homelessness
to Art World Stardom
Finding Shelter in Painting

Viktor Tsyganko, whose last name means ‘gypsy’ in Russian, mysteriously appeared in New York in 1990 and has led a nomadic lifestyle on the streets of SoHo and in various institutions. Disoriented and homeless, he was discovered by an art dealer who granted him shelter in the basement of his gallery. The art dealer, who wishes to be unnamed, acted as his patron and assisted him in finding shelter at Art Pathways of Pathways to Housing, an organization which uses creative recovery treatments to assist the homeless. Tsyganko, who was taken in as a resident artist and diagnosed and treated for schizophrenia, inevitably wanders into the streets searching for something that stability cannot offer.

From the supplies given by his anonymous patron, Tsyganko has produced a series of paintings and works on paper. To the astonishment of his patron, who has gained a sensitive understanding of the aesthetics of painting from his extensive career, there was “surprisingly no discernible iconographic evidence in any of the dozens of works that have been produced of the artist’s mental condition”. Tsyganko, who may suffer from hallucinations, delusions, and memory disorder, demonstrates a remarkable technical command which is consistent throughout his body of work.

Born in the Ukraine during the period of the former Soviet Union, Tsyganko was educated at the prestigious Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Industry in St. Petersburg. Reflecting his training in classical and modern techniques, many of Tsyganko’s artworks are related in style and content to the works of celebrated Europeans. Working in the Russian Avant-Garde tradition, Tsyganko’s artistic corpus encompasses an eclectic array of suprematist, cubist, art deco, constructivist, and expressionist elements. Notably, Tsyganko has expressed a special fondness for Kazimir Malevich’s artworks of the Russian Suprematists.

Portrait of Two Men
Viktor Tsyganko
14.5”x15.5” (36.83cm x 39.37cm)
Oil on Board

Painted from memory, the works exhibited are a selection from Tsyganko’s recent series of portraits. As insightful character studies, these paintings demonstrate an exceptional propensity for portraiture and a keen sensibility for capturing the essence of any particular modernist style. Reminiscent of expressionist paintings, the textured brushstrokes of “Portrait of Two Men” animate the subject’s gaze with agitated restlessness, rendering a psychological intensity to the subject’s introspective countenance. In “Painting of Two Men II”, the musculature of the subjects’ faces is molded into metallic chrome as if they are wearing armored art deco masks to shield the thoughts behind their critical eyes. In these two paintings, the viewer is confronted with the way Tsyganko perceives the world to gaze at him through a monochromatic lens.

Yet, a sweet naivete characterizes many of Tsyganko’s portraits. Most recently, Tsgyanko has become fixated on flowers –particularly red roses– and the use of colored pencils for his portrait works. This combination lends a guileless charm to “Young Man with a Rose” and “Old Man with a Rose”. Here, as in the rest of his oeuvre, the expressive nature of these works is matched by their technical precision, revealed in the simplicity of the graphic cross-hatch technique employed to mold the subjects’ faces. As Tsyganko moves through styles in periodic phases, the sweetly rendered expression of these latest works may reveal a serene change in Tsyganko’s state of mind. Like his lifestyle, Tsyganko wanders through various styles as the particular expression of each modernism seems to act as the medium to channel his mental state.

In the existential crisis that faces the art world today, it is truly an oddity to find a gem that channels candid sincerity without a high-brow critical gaze. One finds this true of outsider art or art brut, which Jean Buffett describes as “works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses” created from the mentally ill and the naive who have little connection to mainstream art world or art institutions. Outsider is contrasted to “cultural art”, the artworks produced by professionals within “the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade”. As the art of the ‘insane’, outsider art exists outside the boundaries of official culture.

It is even more peculiar to run across Tsyganko, who is mentally ill, but cannot be grouped with outsider artists due to his academic training. His patron, referring to the technical virtuosity of his artworks, also firmly states that Tsyganko’s paintings are not “the work of a madman”. Literally and figuratively, Tsyganko is difficult to place –his virtuosic precision is at a stark contrast to the chaotic and compulsive tendencies symptomatic of his disorder. In his famed essays, psychoanalyst and art historian Ernst Kris argued that the German-Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783) experienced a “psychotic break” due to schizophrenia. Unlike the distorted sculptures of Messerschmidt during this period, which are described as “character heads” due to their wildly exaggerated facial expressions, Tsyganko remains almost rigidly faithful to his academic training and the particular expressive quality of each technique he utilizes. In essence, art seems to act as a structural paradigm to organize his mind.

To Tsyganko, in coping with the chaotic symptoms of schizophrenia, the act of painting may offer a sense of stability which he otherwise cannot find. Often fixating on a particular subject, Tsyganko will produce a series of artworks on the same subject for months or years. By psychoanalytic interpretations, his repetitive behavior may be a compulsive act to exercise control. Kris writes, “In creations of the insane… these productions are no longer meant to influence the mind of an audience, but they are intended to transform the external world. By his word the insane artist commands the demons, and by his image he exercises magic control. Art has deteriorated from communication to sorcery”. In creating polished and beautifully crafted works of technical precision, art may represent to Tsyganko a facet of the world which he has skillfully mastered and can control.

If his madness does not show through onto the canvas, one wonders what connection Tsyganko’s illness must hold to his art in this conglomeration of disorder, creativity, and survival. Most commonly, myths of the ‘mad genius’ or ‘heroic melancholy’ associated with artists such as Viktor Tsyganko, Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and Jackson Pollock is often presented through the image of the creative genius who is tragically doomed to both suffer and create by his art. Despite the widespread tendency to romanticize mental illness and idealize depression in artists, gaining a comprehensive understanding of mental disorders and the ‘artistic mind’ is a complex endeavor requiring investigation into underlying conceptions of body and mind, health and sickness, as well as the ethical implications of the social constructs which have produced these paradigms.

In addition to psychoanalytic interpretations, the sensitive connections between mental anomalies and creativity is currently being explored in cognitive science using new technologies. Recently, scientists have found a biological mechanism which they suggest demonstrates a “crucial link” between creativity and and mental illness, or psychopathology. In 2010, a research team at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm found a correlation between highly creative people and those with schizophrenia by studying the brain’s dopamine communications system. Using PET scanning, the team studied thirteen mentally healthy, highly creative men and women and found similar dopamine receptor activity in the thalamus and striatum, areas of the brain that process information before reaching conscious thought, as those of people with schizophrenia. Past studies have also indicated that highly creative people are more likely to have mental illness in their family.

Portrait of Two Men Smoking I
Viktor Tsyganko
22”x22” (55.88cm x 55.88cm)
Oil on Canvas

Though these findings show some basic correlations within controlled studies, this is not to say that all who have mental disorders are particularly creative or that all highly creative individuals are mentally ill. According to contemporary Western psychological practice, simply displaying odd tendencies does not constitute mental illness, but rather, particular mental illnesses are diagnosed according to a specific criteria of symptoms. The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” or DSM-IV, the standard manual used by the American Psychiatric Association, defines mental illness as “a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual… associated with present distress or disability… [and] a manifestation of a behavior, psychological, or biological dysfunction in the individual… [and] must not be merely an expectable and culturally sanctioned response to a particular event”. The DSM-IV, while itself making note to the difficulty of defining mental illness, states that a particular behavioral or psychological condition produces “a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom”.

By current clinical definitions, the boundary between illness and health is divided by debilitating distress and to some degree, a loss of normal functions. In cultural paradigms, the line demarcating creativity from sickness and health is conceptualized in critical theories of rationality, hygiene, and madness. The history of mental anomalies has been traced since antiquity by thinkers such as the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who viewed irrational thought and behavior to be produced by an excess of black bile, to the modern French philosophers Giles Deleuze and Pierre-Félix Guattari who argued in their two volume work “Schizophrenia and Capitalism” that the nature of production and desire inherent in capitalism enforces schizophrenic neurosis as a way of maintaining normality. These theories, through presenting different understandings of what constitutes and produces madness, work with the assumptions which centralize concepts of the ‘normal’ within a certain cultural space in society.

The line of reasoning is highly elaborated by the modern French philosopher Michel Foucault in “Madness and Civilization”, which explores constructions of madness from the Middle Ages to the end of the eighteenth century in Europe. On the genesis of madness, Foucault writes, “we must try to return, in history, to that zero point in the course of madness at which madness is an undifferentiated experience, a not yet divided experience of division itself”. In the Renaissance, Foucault suggests that madness was integrated into the fabric of daily existence where in the nineteenth century, madness was treated as a moral and mental disease. Lamenting the death of madness as a ‘lost truth’, Foucault argues the invention of madness as a disease was conjured to evade a moment of disturbance in our own existence. Consequently, the stigmatization of unreason and exorcism of madness resulted in the loss of exploring its potential.

However, recent explorations in cognitive science have shifted away from eighteenth and nineteenth century paradigms. The lead researcher at Karolinska, Fredrik Ullen, writes in PLoS ONE, “Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box.” In this perspective, the relationship between Tsyganko’s illness and technical capabilities resonates with savant syndrome, a condition in which individuals with developmental disorders of the brain demonstrate profound talents that exceed normal capabilities. Most with savant syndrome share in common a prodigious memory, often photographic memory, and many have superior artistic or musical abilities.

The notion of a “less intact box” is also investigated in conjunction with successful leadership by professor of psychiatry Nassir Ghaemi in his work, “A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness”. Ghaemi, who runs the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts University Medical Center, analyzes historical evidence with recent psychiatric research to study leaders such as Lincoln, Churchill, Ghandi, Stalin, and Kennedy. His central thesis argues that the qualities such as realism, empathy, resilience, and creativity that mark a mood disorder have produced the best leaders in times of crisis. On the other hand, he argues that relatively “sane” or well-adjusted individuals are better leaders in times of peace. In suggesting that the depressed are better equipped to deal with moments of crisis and manic temperaments are more creative, Ghaemi encourages the reader to rethink mental illness as a purely negative phenomenon.

In essence, these fresh perspectives resonate with Foucault’s statement, “unreason, we must understand it not as reason diseased, or as reason lost or alienated, but quite simply as reason dazzled.” Though Tsyganko’s relationship between unreason and creativity may never be fully understood, art is inextricably connected to his conception of himself. The autonomous sense of self that painting can offer may be the reason why Tsyganko feels compelled to lead his nomadic lifestyle away from shelter. Though Tsyganko is more stable when he takes his medication, a requirement to receive housing at Art Pathways, his return to the streets may be because of its side effects. Most significantly, the quality of his artwork declines, which may be due to the mental deflation or the hand tremors his medication causes. Just as living organisms seek shelter, Tsyganko may be searching for a home in his own way. As each painting expresses a microcosm of structure and ambiance in its defined space, art to Tsyganko may be a sanctuary to create his own reality.

Portrait of a Young Man Smoking I
Viktor Tsyganko
9.5”x14.5” (24.13cm x 36.83cm)
Oil on Board

By. Jessica Rhee

      New York University 2010

        Bachelor of Music, Violin Performance


      Minors in History and Art History
    University of Oxford 2013

      Master of Studies, Music, Musicology


“Autism and extraordinary ability: Genius locus.” Economist. 16 Apr 2009: n. page. Web. 27 Apr. 2012. <>.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization. New York: PantheonBooks, 1965. eBook. < <> >.

Humphrey, Elizabeth. “The Mad Artist’s Brain: The Connection between Creativity and Mental Illness.” Scientific American. 22 Nov 2010: n. page. Web. 27 Apr. 2012. <>.

Snyder, Allan. “Explaining and inducing savant skills: privileged access to lower level, less-processed information.” Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society. 364.1522 (2009): n. page. Web. 27 Apr. 2012. <>.

Stein, Dan, Katharine Phillips, Derek Bolton, K.M.W. Fulford, John Sadler, and Kenneth Kendler. United States. National Center for Biotechnology Information . U.S. National Library of Medicine. Bethesda: National Institute of Health Public Access, 2010. Web. <>.

Stranger, Ilana. United States. New York Foundation for the Arts. Still Crazy After All These Years. Web. < <> >.

United States. National Institute for Mental Health. Schizophrenia. Bethesda: National Institutes of Health, Web. <>.

Wikipedia contributors. “Savant syndrome.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, Web. 27 Apr 2012. <>.

George Maciunas/Fluxus Foundation Inc.
* George Maciunas Foundation Inc. is exempt from Federal income tax under section 501 (c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code
* Contributions to the George Maciunas Foundation Inc. are deductible under section 170 of the Internal Revenue Code
* Federal Tax Id Number: 26-3178359
* George Maciunas Foundation Inc. is a public charity