Behind a rim of freeze-dried giant bamboo and scraggly trees, in a Houston Heights neighborhood caught between old apartments and new townhomes, lies the compound that has been artist Nestor Topchy’s laboratory for twenty-odd years. His place is a natural habitat for wildlife and his own wildest dreams; if there could be such a thing as a postapocalyptic Utopia, this is what it might look like. Topchy, keenly attuned to relational histories, thinks of it in more archaeological terms, like an ancient ruin below grade, denying the urban grid around it.
I visited the property ahead of what looks like, finally, a breakout moment in Topchy’s career. This summer the Menil Collection is presenting his Iconic Portrait Strand, an ongoing project of small paintings that are contemporary portraits inspired by a deep respect for the materials and traditions of Byzantine icons. (His first solo exhibition at a major museum, it’s on view now through January 21, 2024.) Topchy has been making these portraits of friends and acquaintances for as long as he’s been the keeper of this land, using a historically accurate, many-layered technique he learned from St. Petersburg masters. He likes to go as far back in art history as he can with his work, and “then live it,” he told me.
Lanky and boyish at sixty, Topchy keeps his salt-and-pepper hair neatly cut. The first thing you notice about him, though, are the bushy eyebrows that swoop far away from his face, giving him a countenance that wavers between clown and mad genius. Wit is integral to his practice. He chuckled a bit as he showed me some large, round mandala paintings that will be on view at Houston’s Josh Pazda Hiram Butler gallery in September and October. He referred to the works as pizzas, and he was thinking about inserting a joke into them by adhering bronzed carcasses of lizards and roaches that might be snacking. (Nothing wasted: the idea came to him after the creatures got trapped in his studios and perished there.) “People think if it’s funny, it’s not serious,” he said. “Well, yeah, it’s a killing joke, the whole thing.” Topchy’s acrobatic mind churns with philosophies, cosmologies, art history, architecture, and science. He can talk casually of, say, “Bucky” Fuller and Louis Kahn, “Ren” Weschler and Edward Albee, Kanjuro Shibata Sensei XXI and Duccio (you might have to look some of them up, like I did).
The child of a Ukrainian immigrant and Scandinavian who met in Canada as displaced persons after World War II, Topchy was born in New Jersey. He struggled as a schoolboy with anything that didn’t involve drawing, so his mother took him to art classes and museums. His dad, who worked as a translator at Bell Labs, supplied endless strips of accordion-folded computer paper to draw on. Topchy came to Texas in 1985 as a cocksure 22-year-old with a painting degree. He was in such a hurry to add an MFA in sculpture to his résumé that he shortcut the three-year University of Houston program in favor of his own two-year plan, which the university dubbed “special problems.” By his own admission, he was an art snob then, “really obnoxious and arrogant.”
Topchy knew he needed to ground himself, maybe even isolate himself, to stay focused. That is not what happened. He landed at the Commerce Street Artists Warehouse, a combustible locus of creative energy and all-night parties and wild performance art. (During one head-banging concert, a touring Swedish band created indoor fireworks with car batteries and metal objects, blowing up the sound system.) Several luminaries eventually emerged from that chaos: Rick Lowe, the founder of Project Row Houses, who was Topchy’s roommate for years; the Art Guys (Jack Massing and the late Michael Galbreth); Jason Nodler and Tamarie Cooper, the founders of the Catastrophic Theatre. I followed their careers for years but didn’t see much happening with Topchy’s.
As a young artist, he made “spherical paintings”—big orbs of painted and collaged fiberglass. He veered into the art-car scene and dove into performance art, appearing as his raunchy clown alter ego or channeling Yves Klein with actions involving judo and blue paint. Hiram Butler showed the spherical paintings in the late 1980s, and Topchy’s work appeared in a few group shows after that. More recently, he has staged his own exhibitions at funeral homes. But by traditional measures of artistic success, Topchy looked to me like a brilliant, rigorously conceptual underachiever. During our visit, he sounded cheerfully philosophical about his late bloom. “You know, I ran slowly from the back of the pack to marathon,” he said. “I could have done this twenty or thirty years ago, but I was so busy exploring things that I wasn’t making objects so much.”
He was referring to small objects. He was making structures that couldn’t be moved to museums, on a track that maybe only he could see. “I tend to go work all over the place at once, and that can make some people really nervous, because they think I’m not finishing something,” he said. “But at the end of the year, there’s a whole lot of work complete.”
His nearly acre-size compound holds a visionary collection of structures, ranging from small meditation spaces to works Topchy calls sculpturetecture—his word for the “habitable objects” he makes from salvaged architectural detritus. (Topchy and his wife, Mariana Lemesoff, live in a modest bungalow off to one side of the property.) Some are studios that accommodate different kinds of work at different scales. He’s also built a platform for teaching and practicing kyūdō, an ancient form of Japanese archery that he took up after years of studying other martial arts. “It’s a really beautiful, relaxing [practice], and it’s great for artists like me who are prone to excitement,” he said.
The newest work of sculpitecture is a three-level prototype for Topchy’s Habitable Interdependant Visionary Environment (HIVE). About a decade ago, he founded a nonprofit to support an ambitious version of HIVE that he envisioned as a self-sustaining artists’ community made from shipping containers. It got a lot of press as a proposed ten-and-a-half acre, $25 million development on the banks of Buffalo Bayou, east of downtown Houston, but civic leaders didn’t buy in. “I think we freaked everybody out,” Topchy said. “I don’t hold out that I’m going to build it anymore. I don’t want to fight people. If they don’t get it, they don’t get it. But at the same time, I think it’s still viable.”
Giving up is not really in his blood. He built the prototype recently, to demonstrate how easily two rows of containers could be stacked and connected to create livable spaces under a common rooftop deck. “You can just glom onto it as you work,” he said. “For somebody like me who works in metal, piece of cake.”
Before Topchy had land to build on, he continuously remade a ’72 Mercury Marquis station wagon, InCARnation. When he and Lowe rented a derelict truck depot on Feagan Street in 1989, Topchy turned it into Zocalo, an experimental performance venue, and single-handedly erected “TemplO,” a Buddhism-inspired tower of pipes and aircraft cables that could have been taken for an unhinged cellphone tower. Houston, the city of constant teardowns, was a gold mine of free discarded building materials. That was a persistent distraction from traditional art making. But Topchy can’t not think, “Hey, I could make something surprising and useful with that.”
He hadn’t meant to stay in Texas long, but every time he was ready to leave, something nice would happen. He met Lemesoff just before embarking on a soul-searching pilgrimage through Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Nepal, and India in 1996. She had just opened the business that would become AvantGarden, her still-thriving Montrose bar. Topchy came back in about three months, and when Lemesoff gave birth to Minerva in 1998, he went from footloose to family man. “I don’t think you necessarily become an adult when you have kids, but it helps,” he told me.
Soon after he and Lemesoff bought their property, he transformed the garage into a little studio where he could be with Minerva in the mornings while Lemesoff slept off her “doom” work hours. That dictated working on a small scale, so Topchy took up Chinese painting and Byzantine drawing, which he was familiar with from his childhood days at a Ukrainian Orthodox church and school. With mature study, he saw something surprisingly contemporary in the purposefully unrealistic masterpieces of the Proto-Renaissance. Iconic portraits can be as uncanny as AI-generated images of people—neither look quite right; both have an eerie resonance. In excavating an ancient technique, Topchy was pushing the buttons of what constitutes a likeness in the twenty-first century.
While traditional icons feature historical religious figures, Topchy begins with live sittings. In the beginning, inviting participation kept him from feeing isolated as a stay-at-home dad. “I had to figure out how to . . . have a meaningful interaction,” he said. “I’m not really socially well-adjusted, so it was work for me. Self-therapy. I could meet somebody, get to know them a little bit, have some tea and draw and do something valuable.” Imagining how his portrait community would grow, he came to view each painting as a gene within a strand of “social-cultural DNA”. He envisioned the project as a single work of art, with all of the portraits hung in a museum in one long line. He dreamed of a moment when the subjects would come together for the opening. Two decades later, that is exactly what is finally happening.
Topchy likes the methodical painting process employed by Byzantine artists both because it is spiritually symbolic and because its multiple steps require drying times. “It’s pragmatic,” he said. “I can stop shop here and move into another space.” The live sketching is step one. Another is cutting and priming the small boards that serve as his canvases. He uses a stylus to etch each image into a prepped board, then applies a base of red clay—iron oxide mixed with animal-hide glue, representing Earth. “Then we breathe life into it three times,” he explained, blowing air from his mouth onto a sample. He applies gold leaf to the sticky surface, infusing it with a sense of divine spirit that reflects back onto the viewer. When that has dried, he layers on colors one at a time, from dark to light, before a final detailing.
Topchy is “catapulting this traditional method into the now,” said Menil senior curator Michelle White. She was among the first sitters for the project, at the beginning of her career. His icons are “incredibly thought-provoking and relevant to contemporary conversations around art making, especially in terms of questions around spirituality and community,” she said. “He is not just randomly creating these portraits but doing it with intimate proximity to everyone he’s painted.” Topchy’s project also gives visitors a fresh window into the museum’s collection of Byzantine icons, according to White. “Seeing Nestor use the same process used by icon makers from the eleventh century is pretty astounding,” she said. “It helps us understand how the work we have was made. But it also shows the relevancy of the process.”
I thought Topchy’s portrait project seemed odd in the context of other works he has produced during the past forty years, especially the architectural pieces, until I saw the Crescent. It’s a conservatorylike studio he built with casement windows salvaged from a school years ago. It is not air-conditioned—which makes it “better than LEED certified,” he quipped—yet even on a hot day, I would have been happy to hang out there longer. With the way it captures and reflects light, the Crescent is a masterful expression of transcendence—like a monumental iconic portrait, or the cathedral to the small, rustic meditation chapels Topchy built years ago at Feagan Street and brought with him to the Heights.
The Crescent hugs a massive pond that’s lined with slabs of recycled concrete Topchy cheekily calls urbanite. The landscape around it is wildly free-form. Slithery life thrums beneath the pond’s dense carpet of water lilies. Fish, frogs, snakes, and other creatures there sustain a family of great blue herons.
When he built the pond, Topchy asked a friend with a backhoe to make it as deep as he could. Was that just folly—Topchy being his compulsive self—or some radical expression of digging into his own private world? Either way, like so much of what he has made, it now looks like divine inspiration.
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