I should say right at the outset that Ivan Sotnikov is one of the most highly esteemed and deeply cherished painters in Petersburg. When he was still a young man of twenty-three, the legendary Vladimir Shagin offered him one of his paintings in exchange for Sotnikov’s painting Alien (Homon LTD). Two years previously, Sotnikov had etched his name in art history along with Timur Novikov. The two friends had their picture taken in the empty aperture of a stand at a group show organized by the TEII (Society for Experimental Visual Art).
They had dubbed the picture frame, à la Malevich, the Zero Object. They turned the popular amusement of sticking one’s head through a hole—for example, the “porthole” of a plywood rocket ship—and having one’s picture taken into an avant-garde act, a nullification of routine and a relaunching of vital systems.
Sotnikov has not specialized in performance art. It has, however, been a natural consequence of his life-as-art approach. The inventor of the musical instrument known as the utyugon, on which he performed at the notorious happening that has gone down in the history books as the Medical Concert, he has perused art shows without dismounting from his bike and walked the streets with a net on his head, like a gladiator escaped from the arena. (He was then either returning from a production of The Biathlete or, on the contrary, had been walking around before showing up to the performance, giving it a much needed visual jolt.)
In one of his principal but little-known performances, he showed how life and art are indeed inseparable. In 1996, Sotnikov was ordained as a Russian Orthodox priest and some time later was assigned to a parish in the village of Rogavka, where St. Xenia of Petersburg Church had been set up in the former Blue Danube beer hall. Armed with Novikov’s recomposition method, the first thing Father Ioann did was fashion a belfry. He made the bells by cutting the bottoms off of natural gas canisters.
If we adopt a Kharmsian method of analysis, the passage through the Zero Object was a reversal of Malevich’s transformation at the 0.10 Exhibition. Sotnikov and Novikov lunged backwards from the infinite (the transfinite) through the zero into the finite (cisfinite) realm we inhabit. In the person of Ivan Sotnikov von Stackelberg, the cisfinite world has, perhaps, found its most obliging and kindred artist. Who else loves our fragile world so furiously and is able to transform it into such an intense and beautiful pictorial surface? Georgy Gurjanov once admiringly showed me new paintings by Sotnikov on the screen of his iPhone: a gorgeous baby Heracles, a boa constrictor, shampoo bottles in a bathroom, and mobile phone casings succeeded each other in no particular order like flashes of the iconosphere, like the bright blossoms of an organic imaginary.
Sotnikov, however, does not mechanically accumulate images of life. He is not a postmodernist artist-cum-recorder, but a creative transfigurer of vital impulses into a grotesque and grand panorama of interacting energies, even when it comes to the particulars and small formats. Electric light from windows slashes through the dark night like the plangent signal of a commuter train (Aeronautical Park). In a still from a TV report, a Mriya transport plane carries the Soviet space shuttle Buran, and these seemingly animated machines, as they fly through the heavens above the earth and the clouds, are something like a symbolic picture of our entire world, just as miniature books of hours once were. The burning headlights of riot police trucks crush space (Elections). Snow falls on pines and the hipped roof of Vyritsa Church, or night descends on the churchyard, day after day, one painting after another, as it were affirming the inescapability of this landscape, in which the artist’s soul was reborn. Sotnikov’s depictions of New Year’s trees are marked by such a cornucopia of form and emotion that this motif alone is revealed as an entire theatrum mundi.
This theater, it bears pointing out, is always in the realm of art. It is realized in the field of painting, whose subject is the interplay of light and volume. It is no coincidence that, despite his penchant for the grotesque, Sotnikov never depicts the inhabitants of these spaces when deploying his favorite motif of lighted windows at night. He is attracted by the glow of these seemingly blank façades in the dark. In both streams of his painterly work, paintings from life and imaginary scenes, Sotnikov is paradoxically unique while being traditional at the same time. He is modern, but his original impulse comes from within the world of art. In his landscapes and still lifes, he strives to emulate the paintings of so-called third-way Soviet artists: Georgy Rublyov, Yuri Vasnetsov, Vladimir Grinberg, Vladimir Lebedev, Nikolai Lapshin, and Vladimir Shagin. As they navigated their own paths between the ideologies of the avant-garde (constructivism) and socialist realism, these artists stubbornly keep faith in painting as the only basis of life. In his conceptual series (Cars, Computer Games, Snowflakes, Fir Trees, and so forth), Sotnikov sets his bearings on folk art. Thus, car icons in computer games acquire the status of modern pictograms, like solar signs in traditional art. While focused on the artistic tradition, Sotnikov does not delve into history, into the past, since he sees shape and texture as part of the current organic world, which draws its colors from everywhere, launching a cyclic exchange between plants and sunsets, embroidery and carving (e.g., the stone reliefs in the Montenegrin town of Kotor), pictures and, once again, forests and sunrises.
Sotnikov’s fellow “savage” painter and collaborator Oleg Kotelnikov captured the evolution of Sotnikov’s pictorial expressions best of all. In the eighties, said Kotelnikov, “He did it with his legs, but now he is doing it with his hands.” The New Artists and Kotelnikov stopped doing it with their legs circa 1987. Artists who “used to paint with mops and brooms,” according to Novikov, switched to stencils and manual work. Drawing with the legs is like having eyes in the back of one’s head or having an ear for painting. When you have this skill down pat, it is time to go back to traditional painting. Sotnikov is a rare master of organic expressionism: his work possesses the unity of a tableau vivant and reminds me of a dormant volcano. There is beautiful scenery on its slopes, but fiery lava churns in its crater, and the temperature and pressure are no lower nowadays than they were in the 1980s. His paintings Death-Defying Stunt, St. George’s Porcelain Set, and Lenin in Razliv are now among the few genuine historical witnesses of our time.
Few people manage to do in life what Father Ioann has done, I thought to myself once as I watched him storming the door of his studio and insistently muttering “I can’t get no . . .” under his breath after returning from performing mass. Rolling Stones fans get the most satisfaction from singing this song, it has been said. That is how to live the life of a painter: to never stop searching for satisfaction while repeatedly intervening in the war between heaven and earth, between life and death, and portraying the frontline—self-identity in the opening of being—so attractively.
Translated by the Russian Reader
This essay was originally written for the forthcoming catalogue of a retrospective of works by Ivan Sotnikov that will open at Novy Museum in Petersburg in mid December. My thanks to Dr. Andreyeva for permission to reprint the translation of the essay here.
Mr. Sotnikov died on November 16 and was buried yesterday, November 19, in the cemetery of Our Lady of Kazan Church in the village of Vyritsa.