Support Local Journalism. Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club.

Animal Planet 

Paul Sydorenko and his imaginary friends

Paul Sydorenko and his cat Cha-Cha were born around the same time in the mid 1970s, growing up together in rural Wadsworth. The white feline used up his allotment of lives around the time his human sidekick went on to study marine biology at Ohio University. But in the past few years, he's been granted a new sort of half-life in two dimensions, as a character adding an upbeat element to many of Sydorenko's often pessimistic, scientifically minded paintings.

In the show Totems at William Rupnik Gallery, Cha-Cha is a simply drawn cartoon avatar, exploring the fragments of a poisoned and disintegrating world, planting banners proclaiming spiritual values; one says "Soul"; another is emblazoned with the Japanese character meaning "Tiger."

Sydorenko's allegorical landscapes sample mountains and cities, round clouds and barren trees, summing up the planet. Schematic renderings or clear, caricature-like outlines carry much of the message, drawn on top of drippy, colorful enamel washes that evoke chemical pollution. In "Sick," tall buildings perch on clumps of rock and earth, while revolting pink liquids splooge out as if from pipes; very ill-looking fish, rendered in a sketchy style, float in a larger, looser dimension, appearing to gag. Then there's a weeping, sagging bear, a patch of colorful graffiti-like marks and a number of small, orderly green circles, reminiscent of a circuit board. Other symbolic elements in several paintings, including a compass with directional points and a diagram of DNA, expand Sydorenko's vocabulary, speaking in broad terms of structure, mapping and the power of the human mind to find, or sometimes lose, its way.

It's important that there are no people in these works. They're a human-free zone that, though imprinted with the damage of real-world industrial and technological mayhem, is essentially an imaginary animal planet. Near the door of the gallery, the title of the show is briefly defined. "Totem: noun. a natural object or animal believed by a particular society to have spiritual significance and be adopted by it as a spiritual emblem."

Sydorenko follows his totems into spiritual battle. Whether the hero of these non-narrative vignettes is Cha-Cha or an anonymous pink bunny who also makes frequent appearances, the story depends on the survival of childlike delight, triumphing at least in the imagination. On the gallery windowsills, several small troupes of pastel-tinted miniature plastic cats and bunnies made by the artist seem to mill around like student protesters, carrying signs with single words that might combine to mean something or nothing: sleep, doom, bum, bless. Every battle needs its foot soldiers.

Meanwhile the cat, mounted on the back of an owl in a paint-on-panel image across the room, swoops toward the viewer, away from a stand of leafless, ghostly trees, his paws spread wide. In one, he holds a flag that says "soul"; in the other, two flowers, like a gift.

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Cleveland Scene. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Cleveland Scene, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club for as little as $5 a month.

Latest in Visual Art

More by Douglas Max Utter

Read the Digital Print Issue

May 5, 2020

View more issues

Most Popular

No recently-read stories.

Visit the archives…


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.


Staff Pick Events

  • 78th Street Studios Third Friday Art Walk @ 78th Street Studios

© 2021 Cleveland Scene: 737 Bolivar Rd., Suite 4100, Cleveland, OH 44115, (216) 505-8199
Logos and trademarks on this site are property of their respective owners.

Website powered by Foundation