Boris Koshelokhov, 1942-2021

Boris Koshelokhov in his studio at Pushkinskaya 10 in Petersburg. Photo courtesy of boriskoshelokhov.com

A Titan Among Artists: Boris Koshelokhov Has Died
Kira Dolinina
Kommersant
July 12, 2021

The artist Boris (Bob) Koshelokhov has died at Petersburg’s Mariinsky Hospital aged eighty. Despite the thousands of canvases he has produced since 1975, Koshelokhov will be mourned first of all as a charismatic leader of the Leningrad underground. His mere presence in the artistic landscape enabled others to feel that they were situated within a great tradition whose principal value was the freedom to live as you wished.

The news that Bob Koshelokhov had passed away was expected (relatives and friends had discussed and written about his serious illness on social networks), but it was no less stunning, simply because Bob could not pass away: his personal relationship with time and space had long ago settled into an unlimited flow of being. Neither the numbers of birthdays, nor figures of work produced, nor the status of a Petersburg art old-timer stuck to him. Bob could not be called a “veteran” or a “mighty old man”: nothing about him ever changed.

The man in the photos from the 1970s looked like the same man whom you would encounter until quite recently at exhibition openings and in the courtyards of the Pushkinskaya 10 Art Center: long hair, beard, leather vest, black clothes, booming voice, darting gaze. Koshelokhov had become a guru less than a year after he started doing art himself, yet no one ever tried to push him off this pedestal.

His biography seems to have been specially written to fit the canon. He was orphan who ran away from orphanages with enviable regularity until the seventh grade. He was half-educated man who worked as a heating plant stoker, then as a carpenter, then as a trucker. He married an Italian woman and briefly emigrated, but then returned from this “golden cage” to an “iron cage” (his own iron cage). He lived in communal apartments and squats, and achieved cult status. In the early 1970s, he came to Leningrad from his Southern Urals hometown of Zlatoust to study medicine. He lasted two years: his programmatic study of the history of philosophy (Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Camus) resulted in his being expelled for his fascination with “bourgeois” ideas. Devoutly believing in existentialism, spending all day long in second-hand bookstores and the legendary “Saigon” cafe, where he received the nickname the Philosopher, he arranged his life exactly in keeping with the precepts in the books he read: “Your freedom was born before you.”

His freedom was born on November 2, 1975, the day when his friend the artist Valery (Clover) Kleverov told Bob that he too was an artist. Koshelokhov himself later kidded that it was just a joke, a way to somehow repay Bob for the fact that he had turned his 27-meter-square room in a communal flat into a gallery selling paintings for a whole year. Joke or no joke, Bob took the idea to heart: an artist is someone who sees. Given a strong desire, anyone can become an artist. (Similar ideas espoused by Joseph Beuys were unknown in Russia at the time.)

Even paint was not needed: Koshelokhov’s first works were concocted from objects found in garbage dumps.

But when Koshelokhov got his hands on paint, it was clear that he really was an artist — an artist who was powerful, considerable and critically important to entire Petersburg culture.

Boris Koshelokhov, Happy New Year!, 2007. Oil on canvas, 120×190 cm. Image courtesy of boriskoshelokhov.com

Koshelokhov’s first exhibited work was “made of shit and sticks” in the true sense of the phrase. For an exhibition in memory of the deceased Leningrad abstract artist Yevgeny Rukhin, a show that had not been sanctioned by the authorities, Bob produced a “collage” consisting of a tabletop to which he had attached a hospital bedpan, a child’s potty, a coin and a brass exclamation mark. While all the other participants of the show were nabbed by the valiant police as they approached the venue, the Peter and Paul Fortress, Koshelokhov calmly made his way to the site, thus signifying that the exhibition had taken place.

Koshelokhov’s painting was made of the same stuff — he composed everything on the go. His expressionism was homegrown and self-made, unlike international expressionism and even dissimilar to what the baroquely passionate artists of the Arefiev Circle had done a little earlier on the other side of town. A spontaneous artist, Koshelokhov mixed everything with everything else, painting on carpets, plywood, upholstery from old sofas, and abandoned propaganda banners. He employed impossible combinations of colors (since they were all his personal discoveries, because even the fact that you get green when you mix blue and yellow was something he discovered for himself). And he painted, painted, and painted.

Although, in fact, he himself preferred to say that “the work should be like a boil: it pops up, comes to a head, then suddenly opens up, as if it bumped against a corner, so that the blood flows with might and main.”

Actually, only Koshelokhov himself could live up to this prescription. But he tried to teach others: the group Chronicle (Letopis), which he founded in 1977, is now famous primarily for the fact that Timur Novikov made his start there. And yet in terms of their painterly method, their devilishly rich rhythm of work (critiques were held every week; if you didn’t bring a new picture to them, you were told to take a walk), and rabid omnivorousness, Koshelokhov’s team fostered its own version of neo-expressionism at exactly the same time as the Europeans were developing theirs.

Koshelokhov’s painted oeuvre is all about philosophical categories, to the point of cosmism. And what matters is not its “complexity”  (on the contrary, the images are simple and executed backhandedly), but its quantity. Koshelokhov did not do dozens of anything: his series number hundreds, and sometimes thousands of works. His latest project, Two Highways, was produced over thirty years and consisted of three or four thousand canvases [sic] and tens of thousands of sketches, pastels and drawings. That was how he thought — in terms of numbers with many zeros after them.

One of his last solo shows was entitled 70,000 Years of Boris Koshelokhov. It was occasioned by [his seventieth birthday], but no one was interested in the numbers in his passport.

Boris Koshelokhov at an exhibition of his works. Photo courtesy of boriskoshelokhov.com

Vadim Ovchinnikov, one of the so-called New Artists who listened to him attentively, explained Koshelokhov’s place in art best of all: “We advise critics who doubt Koshelokhov’s significance to pay attention to the neon ‘Titan’ sign on the corner of the house on Nevsky and Liteiny where the artist lives.” Only a pandemic was capable of overpowering such a titan. There will be a hole in the stratosphere without him. But everyone who knew Koshelokhov is certain that he has just flown through that hole to the place where his thoughts have always dwelled.

Translated by Thomas Campbell

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Two Highways (Nick Teplov & Alexander Markov, 2008). Courtesy of boriskoshelokhov.com

2097 (Vadim Ovchinnikov, Boris Kazakov, Georgy Baranov, Tatiana Ledneva, 1996). Courtesy of boriskoshelokhov.com

The Creative Path of Boris Koshelokhov (Yevgeny Kondratiev, 1988). Courtesy of boriskoshelokhov.com

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Boris Koshelokhov’s Two Highways

It seems to me that every person is an artist. It’s just that some people know this, and others don’t.

— Boris Koshelokhov

Alain Badiou argues that social progress is propelled by “events”—great insights, discoveries, and revolutions in art, science, politics, and love. Although he often uses language that is evangelical to evoke the lived relationship to these events (it is no accident that one of his prototypical heroes is Saint Paul), Badiou is rather more prosaic, even purposely “mathematical,” when he describes how events come about. In a situation whose elements remain as many and self-identical as they were before the event, the poet, scientist, revolutionary or lover sees something other (more) than what the canon, scientific dogma, public opinion, and common sense tell him that he should see. After this event, the world remains the same and is changed forever. The exact proportion of sameness and difference is determined by how those who live in the wake of the event construe its afterlife. For Badiou, what matters are whether we remain faithful to the event or not, and what forms our faith (or faithlessness) takes. In fact, this is what the event is: the sense or nonsense we make of it; the way it changes how we act even when its whole significance escapes us; the social reaction and personal deadening that set in when we deny or forget the truth the event revealed to us. The event has no other meaning.

For Petersburg artist Boris “Bob” Koshelokhov (born 1942), the event was this: in 1975, his friend the painter Valery “Clover” Kleverov told Bob that he, too, was an artist. Nowadays, Koshelokhov suspects that a sense of guilt made Clover pronounce these fateful words. Koshelokhov had been helping Clover and his family improve their cramped living conditions and (later) emigrate by selling Clover’s works—on zero commission—from a makeshift gallery that doubled as Koshelokhov’s room in a communal flat. Besides not making any money off these transactions, Koshelokhov also drew the ire of his neighbors, who sent denunciations to the authorities. Wanting, apparently, to compensate his friend’s risky, selfless efforts on his behalf, Clover pronounced Koshelokhov an artist. Koshelokhov believed him.

What followed is art history—in more ways than one. Within a year of declaring himself for the truth accidentally revealed by Clover and after the latter man’s departure for America, Koshelokhov had gathered around him his own haphazard group of disciples, Chronicle. The group’s name is linked to Koshelokhov’s understanding of the artist’s task: “The artist is a chronicler; he has to record everything.” The dozen-some young artists in Chronicle—which included latter-day Petersburg art superstars Timur Novikov and Elena Figurina—gathered weekly in each other’s homes to discuss their new paintings. If they showed up for the weekly session without a freshly painted work, “Master” Koshelokhov showed them the door (even when it was the door of their own apartment).

The group provided a way for Koshelokhov to spread the gospel of art he’d been vouchsafed by Clover. It also created a refuge for Koshelokhov and his pupils from a late-Soviet art world where neither the right wing (the state-sponsored Union of Artists) nor the left wing (the so-called unofficial artists and their alternative quasi-unions) had much time for the purely artistic and personal truths Koshelokhov & Co. wanted to pursue with paint on canvas.

More important, Chronicle gave Koshelokhov the means to realize his notion of art as philosophical/existentialist practice. State Russian Museum curator Ekaterina Andreeva argues that Koshelokhov finds in painting an external outlet for the endless work of inquiry going on in his head and heart. Koshelokhov sees the artwork as the (potential) site of a dialogue between maker and looker, an intermediary in their otherwise lonely search for the meaning of self, world, and being. The result, according to Andreeva, is an “altered space” that forever changes how Koshelokhov’s interlocutors think and behave after they have entered it.

Koshelokhov’s dialogical view of art echoes within his biography. By his own account, he has spent his whole life in dialogue with others—whether the medical school classmates with whom he studied existentialist philosophy in the sixties (they were all expelled for this seditious act), the artists of Chronicle, the habitus of the famous “Saigon” cafe (where Koshelokhov earned the moniker “Philosopher”), or the inmates in the smoking room of the nearby Russian National Library (the equally famous “Publichka”). Through the books of philosophy that Koshelokhov found in this last haunt and elsewhere he has extended his dialogue with others into remoter times and kingdoms. This dialogue is re-enacted in his artistic practice, which can be imagined as an active interrogation of the artists and schools with whom Koshelokhov shares aesthetic ground: the Fauves, The Blue Rider, Dadaism and surrealism, Paul Klee, CoBrA, the Transavantguardia, the Neue Wilde, Figuration Libre.

Koshelokhov’s work likewise evokes international and Slavic traditions of outsider and naive art. In keeping with these traditions and Mikhail Larionov’s notion of everythingism (vsechestvo), and joyously bowing to straitened material circumstances, Koshelokhov has often turned the least promising debris of daily life into the stuff of art: discarded sofa frames, Styrofoam packing, bedpans, and other treasures rescued from garbage dumps. In this connection, his disciple Timur Novikov once remarked that if you come across a Koshelokhov painting from the seventies on a good canvas and high-quality frame, it’s almost surely a forgery.

Koshelokhov’s work also makes an especially clear appeal to the immediacy of children’s art. By his own admission, his five-year-old son Ilya has become his severest critic and “teacher.”

The context most germane for an understanding of Koshelokhov’s work, however, is the post-war Leningrad/Petersburg neo-fauvist/neo-expressionist school, in which Koshelokhov can be seen as the lynch pin between the immediate post-WWII generation (the circle of Alexander Arefiev) and the young bucks who created a grassroots artistic perestroika during the eighties and early nineties (Novikov, Oleg Kotelnikov, Ivan Sotnikov, Vadim Ovchinnikov, Vladislav Gutsevich and their fellow New Artists). For these younger Petersburg neo-expressionists and other local contemporaries, Koshelokhov has served as a peculiar model of steadfastness in the midst of faction and fashion. It is a testament to his significance in Petersburg’s “second” culture that his life has become the stuff of legends.

Finally and most vitally, Koshelokhov’s artistic practice is a dialogue with biological evolution and universal history. He rehearses the evolving variety and perennial sameness of animal and human life, and re-maps the migration of these life forms through geography and history. In his own words, his work and life is a cognitive and pictorial ontogenesis that repeats the phylogenesis of art history and human culture.

Paradoxically and appropriately for an artist so interested in dialogue, Koshelokhov’s path has been a remarkably lonely one. In a Russian artistic culture that favors collective identities, he has taken pains to emphasize his independence and distaste for “crowds” and “scenes” (the tusovki that prominent Russian curator Viktor Misiano identifies as the dominant form of post-Soviet artistic and cultural life). This sense of independence was his birthright: an orphan, he spent his childhood passing through and running away from a series of orphanages in the Urals. The wanderings of his youth and middle life took him to places as far-flung as Odessa and Leningrad, and jobs as unromantic as ship’s electrician and armed security guard. Most remarkably, just as his influence within Leningrad’s underground art scene was solidifying, he gave it all up and left for Italy with a young Italian aristocrat-communist. Just as surprisingly, he returned to the Soviet Union several months later, having found life in his new “golden cage” no more conducive to his pursuit of the truth revealed by the event of 1975 than life behind the bad-old Iron Curtain.

Whatever the peripeteias of Koshelokhov’s life, then, they all answer to another of the dictums he often repeats (following Sartre): “First my freedom was born, then I was born.” Koshelokhov teaches us that human life is a work of art that takes shape as its makers—we ourselves—haltingly grope backwards and forwards toward this originary insight.

Since the dawn of another great and little-understood political event, perestroika, Koshelokhov has become bolder and more single-minded in his faithfulness to the event that changed his life in the mid-seventies. This boldness has manifested itself in an increasing turn to scale and number. Ekaterina Andreeva points out that many of the great artists of the modern and postmodern periods (she cites Picasso, Warhol, and Ilya Kabakov) have also employed rapid, serialized mass production as a means of unburdening themselves of their genius. Koshelokhov had always been productive and profligate, even in the midst of harrowingly inhospitable working conditions. (His “studios” have included the machine room of an elevator and waterlogged cellars lit by a single bulb.) Many of the hundreds of paintings, sculptures, and assemblages (the so-called concepts) of his early period disappeared into the mists of oblivion and the landfills of suburban Leningrad almost as quickly as they appeared.

In the late eighties and early nineties, Koshelokhov carried out two projects that even more clearly signaled his desire to “world the world” by turning it into art: Puppets of Peace March Around the World (1989, oil on canvas, 23 meters x 6 meters) and Heilige Sunder (1992, oil on canvas, 120 meters x 3 meters). Fortunately, these gigantic pieces weren’t consigned to the rubbish bin of history. They are now in private collections in France and Moscow.

In 1992, Koshelokhov began work on his magnum opus, Two Highways, which Andreeva cites as one of the most significant art works of contemporary art. The first two stages of the project—1,200 black-and-white sketches and 6,000 (40 cm x 30 cm) pastels (five variations on each of the original sketches)—were completed in 2002. The third and final stage—a 5,000 square meter mural incorporating the findings of the previous two stages—so far exists only in the imaginations of Koshelokhov and the friends he has infected with his sober, tender, and naive re-visioning of life. He says that he is ready to produce the work anywhere in the world, given a wall that is big enough, a team of helpers, and a minimal amount of funding.

As Koshelokhov explains it, the two highways in his project’s title (in English in the original) are the earthly path and the heavenly path. “I travel in a vehicle over the earth’s surface. My peripheral vision picks out quintessential human images and artifacts from the Stone Age to modern times. My journey takes me from Europe to Africa, across the Atlantic and America to Alaska. From there I go to Japan, Asia, the islands of Oceania, and around Australia. Finally, I cross Antarctica and complete my journey in South America.” Andreeva suggests that the prototype of this imaginary trek is a solo road trip from Trieste to Palermo that Koshelokhov made in his Italian wife’s Citroen in 1978. It also has to be mentioned that for some time in the late eighties and early nineties he worked as a gypsy cab driver in Petersburg. He ferried people and things around the city at all hours of the day and night in a used Mercedes-Benz until the mafia forced him into an early retirement.

Mikhail Trofimenkov has written of Two Highways that it gives us a glimpse of how God sees the earth as He flies above it. For his part, Koshelokhov claims that, like the opposite side of a Moebius strip, the earthly path repeats (in extension) the forms and ideas that lie hidden in the empyrean. His mission is to re-awaken the viewer to the possibility of participating in the world’s co-creation by uniting thought and feeling, theory and practice, sensus et ratio (to borrow the artist’s beloved coinage). Everywhere—even in the less prepossessing quarters of Leningrad/Petersburg (Koshelokhov’s real muse)—we are reminded (by colors, shapes, faces, bodies, buildings) of the miracle of being’s unfolding. Ekaterina Andreeva argues that it was this impulse—to see the whole world and to see it all at once—that launched the postmodernist/transavantgarde project. In this sense, she speculates, it was no accident that Koshelokhov found himself in Italy just as the movement was jelling. (There, he exhibited in a special program at the Venice Biennale, “New Soviet Art: An Unofficial View.”)

Preached by Mikhail Larionov and Joseph Beuys, and then taken up by Koshelokhov and Novikov’s New Artists, the now-unfashionable avant-garde notion that everyone is an artist and everything can be turned into art (which we must distinguish from the directive to turn everything and everyone into commodity and consumer) is nothing other than the ethical imperative to remain faithful to the insight that visited Koshelokhov in the mid-seventies: that the mission of art is to reunite vision and thought, self and world. In Koshelokhov’s case, “insight” has to be understood literally. Two Highways is a journey that the artist has been making without leaving his current studio at Pushkinskaya-10. Like all genuine avant-garde projects, though, this journey won’t be complete until the human world (or, at least, one 5000 square meter corner of it) is physically and spiritually transformed. // Thomas Campbell 

Sources
· Ekaterina Andreeva. “Khudozhnik,” Novyi mir iskusstva 6 (1999): 3–5.
· Ekaterina Andreeva. Postmodernizm. Iskusstvo vtoroi poloviny XX—nachala XXI veka [Postmodernism. Art of the Late 20th and Early 21st Centuries]. Saint Petersburg: Azbuka-Klassika, 2007.
· Ekaterina Andreeva. Videotaped interview, January 2007, Saint Petersburg.
· Alain Badiou. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Trans. Peter Hallward. London and New York: Verso, 2001.
· Thomas Campbell and Nick Teplov. Unpublished tape-recorded interview with Boris Koshelokhov, October 2006, Saint Petersburg.
· Boris Koshelokhov. Zhivopis. Exhibition catalogue. Text by Ekaterina Andreeva. Saint Petersburg: Na Obvodnom Gallery, 2002.
· Nick Teplov, editor. Bob Koshelokhov. Two Highways. Saint Petersburg, 2003.
· Mikhail Trofimenkov. “Bob pravdu vidit,” Kommersant 14 August 2002.

Source: boriskoshelokhov.com

Riders!

vo-shark-1989Vadim Ovchinnikov, Shark, 1989

Swift-footed riders!
Don’t burn with envy beneath the gaze
Of those who died untimely deaths:
Be untimelier . . . and younger.
Don’t fear those minutes when there are tears in your eyes.
They are your succor.
Take special note of the accent and the gaze.
Don’t turn your back and don’t cower,
Otherwise they’ll finish you off.
Take the high note and sing! It’s better that way.
Don’t burn in acetylene. It’s immoral.

vo-the life of plants-1994Vadim Ovchinnikov, from The Life of Plants, 1994

PEARLY RIDERS!

Ye who write on the cheek of tenderness and delight
with red-hot tongs!
And the world is mad and war . . .
Look at the sky and you will understand
who you are . . .
Crutches are not conducive to movement—
the other self.
Will the unlocking of locks be employed
In gluttony?
We repent.

vo-hutsVadim Ovchinnikov, Huts (year unknown)

RIDERS!

Be careful when choosing medals,
But don’t save yourselves . . .
Thse hell with them, the whiners . . .
Surely there must be JUSTICE!
And there is LENINGRADCONSTRUCT,
Their name is legion—you cannot enumerate the tide,
Although its roar is clear and beloved . . .
A mouse lies there, poisoned by marmalade.
Nasty rotgut! The mouse has almost rotted away,
Its love will no longer touch . . .
The poor thing lies any old where
Like a karakurt.
But there is no evil in the water, is there?
Nor is there in the pit.
The bureau’s slippery railing scurries amid the winds.
And he was merry and tender,
And condemned immoral acts,
He did not outlive his veins, though, kicking the bucket.
And did the veins long pride themselves on the blood?
They were proud of torso and sperm,
Which had their own original guise . . .
He gave himself nothing but happiness.
SCOUNDREL!

watercolor-90sVadim Ovchinnikov, Watercolor, 1990s

RIDERS! AMIGOS!

them ones or those who don’t scratch the backbone . . . backb.
take care

of the backbone!
he is now presented as an asset.
he lies with a kerf along the backbone
and gazes into the distance . . .
stuffed with eyes.
lovely pupils perspiring
he trrrmbles all over like nobody I know.
he’s probably a lover of kisses!

did you go to the plein air painting session? well, how was it?
ah yes, I forgot . . . you shoveled hay
that smelled of roses, bast, fog . . .
then you looked, only . . .
cautiously so as not to break the glove
of the fallen moon.
did you eat horse meat?

Hur-raa-aaa-aah to the riders!!!

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Twenty-four years ago today (May 24), the author of these poems and pictures, the artist Vadim Ovchinnikov (1951–1996), was buried by family and friends at Volkovskoye Cemetery in Petersburg. Ovchinnikov worked in a number of media, including painting, watercolor, collage, animation, mail art, conceptual literature, and music. His works can be found in the collections of the State Russian Museum (Petersburg), the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, the Art Museum of Pavlodar (Kazakhstan), and Kai Forsblom Gallery (Helsinki). For more information on Ovchinnikov’s art and life, see the website ov-ov.com. All images courtesy of ov-ov.com. All poems translated by Thomas Campbell

Yuri Krasev, 1960-2018

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Yuri Krasev, Self-Portrait, 1983. Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Image courtesy of Cultobzor

Very few people in the world know it, but the most progressive Russian rock band of all time were Leningrad-Petersburg’s Virtuosi of the Universe (Virtuozy vselennoi).

This recording (“Beauty Queen”) was produced by Sergei “Shaggy” Vasilyev at his studio on Nevsky Prospect in 1990. It features the late, unforgettable Vladimir Sorokin on vocals, Mr. Vasilyev himself on guitar, Andrei “Slim” Vasilyev of DDT, the late Ovchinnikov brothers (Vadim and Alexander), and Igor Rjatov, among others.

Virtuosi of the Universe, “Beauty Queen” (1990)

The film that accompanies the song was shot by the incomparably brilliant filmmaker Yevgeny Kondratiev, long resident in Berlin, and edited by the lovely sound wizard Georgy Baranov, who fortunately has not gone anywhere and is very much alive and well.

Thanks to our friend Ksenia Astafiyeva for the heads-up and so much else.

Ms. Astafiyeva dedicated her original post of the song to our friend Yuri “Compass” Krasev, who died on January 28. An actor, artist, and showman, Mr. Krasev played a key role in musician, composer and band leader Sergei Kuryokhin’s legendary Pop Mechanics performances and in the parallel cinema and necrorealist film movements, especially the films of the late Yevgeny Yufit, as well as in nearly everything else that happened in the endlessly various, continuously unfolding and intermingling of art and life known collectively as the New Artists (Novye khudozhniki), whose aftershocks continue to define the Petersburg art scene well into the nineteen-nineties.

In the mid nineties, Mr. Krasev and I once gave a performance at Gallery 103, in the old artists’ squat аt Pushkinskaya 10 in downtown Petersburg. The performance featured me, dressed in a old Soviet men’s dress suit I found in the flat on Italianskaya where I was living. Mr. Krasev helped me picked out my outfit.

During the performance itself, Mr. Krasev picked me up off the ground and literally held me above his head for several minutes while reciting a poem or text of some kind. He was such a strong man that at no time did I fear he would drop me, and indeed he did not drop me, gently lowering me to the ground when he had finished his recitation.

Mr. Krasev will be sorely missed by his many friends and acquaintances. Without absolutely unique artists, musicians, and eccentrics like him, Mr. Yufit, Mr. Sorokin, the Messieurs Ovchinnikov, and many others, Petersburg has turned into a place that seems alien to those of us who still remember what a joyous, free, and truly creative city it was not so long ago, a city that belonged to people who dared to imagine it as the center of universe and a place where literally everyone was or should be a virtuoso. TRR

Fond of Paradox: The Works and Days of Vadim Ovchinnikov

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Vadim Ovchinnikov, 1990s. Photo by Igor Ryatov. Collection of Igor Ryatov

Ekaterina Andreyeva
Fond of Paradox

Vadim Ovchinnkov’s masterpieces have always been remembered in Petersburg. The paintings Window, Green Square, and What Is Ruining Us, which he exhibited at shows in the late 1980s and early 1990s, have become enmeshed in the local mythology, just like the image of the man who painted them. According to Dunya Smirnova, Ovchinnikov was “fond of paradox,” and had the looks of a brave, mysterious hero, a Petersburg James Bond.

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Atmospheric Phenomena, 1988. Oil on canvas, 60 х 120 cm. Collection of Ekaterina Andreyeva

Ovchinnikov spent the first part of his life in Pavlodar, Kazakhstan. He spent the second part on the Gulf of Finland, in Leningrad aka Petersburg, where he moved with his younger brother the artist Alexander Ovchinnikov. Seven factories were built in Pavlodar in the 1950s to assist in conquering the so-called virgin lands. One of Ovchinnikov’s first paintings, which was shown at an exhibition of the nonconformist Society for Experimental Visual Art (TEII), was entitled Factory Gates. Ovchinnikov found a familiar industrial landscape in Leningrad, but there was nothing familiar about his factory gates. They flashed and flared amid the darkness of the canvas like an alchemist’s crucible or a spaceship. What the steppes and the seas have in common is their vastness and inconstancy, and in the steppes, human historical time has been added to these immeasurable dimensions. (“The trough stands like a monument, / The backhoe, like a token of hope.”) The reality of Ovchinnikov’s perpetually mercurial paintings is grounded in the history of the steppes, where magic and industry share the same space. An Asian shaman, he relocated to the north to assemble the Chukchi Poems, which resemble a wizard’s arsenal; to rhyme colors and words by paying heed to the signals emitted by the imagination (“I found gold in the steppe. / It was flat on its back upholstered in sand and gloom”); to give shape to sounds; and to write mail-art letters that always inspired a sense of an unprecedented happening among their readers.

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Danger! Keep Out. Enamel on iron, 16 х 12 cm. Collection of Alexei Mitin

The symbols in Ovchinnikov’s paintings are often situated on horizon lines, thus resembling sheet music, but also the patterns on shamans’ tambourines, which facilitate the passage from the underworld to the earthly and heavenly realms. The geography of the voyages he undertook without leaving his studio almost defies description. Ovchinnikov lived several lives simultaneously and was in touch with various worlds. These imaginary spaces were recorded in pictorial series that stretched through the 1980s and 1990s: Spring in Chukotka, Atmospheric Phenomena, City by the Sea, The Life of Plants, Riders, and War Games. Ovchinnikov’s paintings takes viewers on trips to the peculiar worlds of Leningrad’s New Artists and the transavantgarde of the 1980s, while The Green Square: Symbol of the International Environmental Revolution gives them direct access to the Russian avant-garde’s experiments.

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The Green Square: Symbol of the International Environmental Revolution, 1988. Oil on plywood, 100 х 99 cm. Collection of Gennady Pliskin

Partly predicted by Boris Ender, who once noted in his diary that a green square on a white field symbolizes the form of human life, the work consists of a sheet of plywood painted bright green. Ovchinnikov probably had not read Ender’s diary entry, but he half parodically and half seriously extended the series of Malevich’s squares by painting a piece of scrap wood he had found somewhere. Ovchinnikov would not have been able to see the paintings of Boris Ender and his sister Maria and Ksenia or the colorful abstractions of Mikhail Matyushin until the late 1980s, when they were exhibited at the Russian Museum for the first time after an interim of more than fifty years. However, he undoubtedly studied the few paintings by Pavel Filonov he had seen at the museum: Solar Energy No. 2 (1981) is painted in the pointillist crystalline manner devised by Filonov. But the dynamic freedom of color combinations and the primary element of color and sound waves fascinated him much more, and so by the mid 1980s he had recreated and completely transformed in his own way the painterly technique of the Matyushin school in the series The Life of Plants and Atmospheric Phenomena. Ovchinnikov’s take on Mikhail Matyushin’s so-called expanded vision involved a combination of imagination and observation. Ovchinnikov discovered and rediscovered the real world, which lives for color, in tense abstract compositions that elaborated Matyushin’s paradoxical notion of the universe, in which rays from different sources intersect after millions of years, where the vast sun permeates our tiny earth with its radiation, and things great thus incorporate themselves into things small. The freedom of the avant-garde’s ideas emerged before we were born, but in Ovchinnikov’s work they found their living, perfect shape.

The Life of Plants, late 1980s. Oil on canvas, 50 x 70 cm. Collection of Svetlana Kozak
The Life of Plants, late 1980s. Oil on canvas, 50 x 70 cm. Collection of Svetlana Kozak

Among the New Artists who paid tribute to painting—Timur Novikov, Oleg Kotelnikov, Ivan Sotnikov, and Inal Savchenkov—Ovchinnikov stood out in the sense that his paintings were alive with a sense of the world’s unity, which was bound together by painterly matter. Moreover, the world, dynamic and amenable to harsh mergers and acquisitions, could indulge in contemplation of its own greatness only in the colored substance of paintings, pierced here and there by a sprout, an extraterrestrial beam of light, a magic arrow or an unforgettable hallucination. Like his comrade Timur Novikov, Ovchinnikov had his own philosophy of art making. Their minds sought to master the eastern technique of dashing between microworld and macroworld. Always in motion like the wind, Novikov managed in western fashion to accurately capture the harmony of the capstone, to the find the arch’s single focal point. Ovchinnikov, on the contrary, would quietly meditate in his studio for days on end, captivated by the endless changes, the alchemical process by which colors are sublimated into images, and the reverse process by which images dissolve into color. Ovchinnikov’s work was unique in that he freely drifted between figurative and abstract painting for many years. It helped him couple cross-sections of mythmaking, opened up sites of strength and poles of energy, the stories of flora and fauna before human being emerged, the legends of the saints, and dazzling visions at the limits of the heavens and his own consciousness.

A Walk, 1992. Oil on board-mounted fabric, 41.7 x 58 cm. Collection of Gennady Pliskin
A Walk, 1992. Oil on board-mounted fabric, 41.7 x 58 cm. Collection of Gennady Pliskin

People who dwell with Ovchinnikov’s pictures on their walls know that, like living beings, they reveal themselves anew and differently every day, giving one the sense of witnessing a transfiguration. The texture of his pictures is as mercurial as a natural landscape.

In 1993, I wrote the following in the booklet for Ovchinnikov’s first solo museum show, A Walk (Progulka): “Next to them you live as it were outside, amidst nature, which ineffably transfigures from one minute to the next. They constantly reveal a changing dynamism of shapes and new shades of color while simultaneously hiding past shapes and colors. Like a living substance, their colorful surface interacts with light and is capable of transforming like the surface of the sea.”

Spatial extension in Ovchinnikov’s paintings and poems changes vis-à-vis the organic budlike capsules of Matyushin’s living spaces or the symbolic fusions of heavenly and earthly worlds in the work of Vladimir Sterligov. In Ovchinnkov’s works, readers and viewers are constantly moving along lines formed by slices of space, along the trajectories traced by pictograms and dialects.

As if it had bathed the rough flanks of cliffs,
The water drained away to the babble of bubbles and never came back.
I saw
Tower cranes constructing a temple,
Clouds from the east racing above them.
Girls from our class
Running along the shore in white dresses.

Unification and harmonization occur in this case thanks to incessant transpersonal movement. Like the contrail left by an airplane in the sky, it shapes the mercurial, intermittent lifeline of the totality, emerging again and again. This line captures acoustic accents and momentary images, simultaneously emancipating them from immediacy. Thus, the word potok (here, “class,” but literally, “stream” or “flow”) once again partakes of free movement, tossing off the shell of Soviet bureaucratese. This harmony is marked by the shade of drama, for it moves via losses and lives only in the temporal being of art, in the event of the creative act, whether pictorial, poetic or musical.

The Creation of the Universe Has Been Completed, 1987. Mail art. Collection of Svetlana Kozak
The Creation of the Universe Has Been Completed, 1987. Mail art. Collection of Svetlana Kozak

For many people, including quite sophisticated professional connoisseurs, the paintings of Vadim Ovchinnikov were testimony to a miracle, the presence of a living, universal art. In the late 1980s, the head editor of the New York-based magazine Art & Antiques was so stunned by Ovchinnikov’s paintings that he undertook something editors rarely undertake: an experiment. He placed on the magazine’s cover a photograph not of the front side but the back side of a painting by Ovchinnikov, that is, a piece of stretched canvas with inscriptions in Cyrillic, indecipherable to most of the magazine’s readers. He thus augmented the effect of a sudden artistic discovery. The painting itself took up a full page inside the magazine. In the historical circumstances of the times, Russia was thus marked out as a continent of new art. This now rather old story persuades us that it suffices for people who want to see authentic postmodernist or transavantgarde painting, meaning art freely transiting the borders of time and space, and implanting itself in the flesh of cultures, from the primitive to the global and urban, look at the work of Vadim Ovchinnikov alone in order to comprehend his illustrious contemporaries such as Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, and Sandro Chia. Especially because looking at Ovchinnikov’s pictures is endlessly interesting. For he always followed his own Rule No. 26, as published by the mysterious Collegium D.P.: “Painter! Skillfully using pattern, color, texture, color temperature, tone, daubing, line, tone value, varnish, and Chinese and Indian philosophy, tell the viewer everything, but do not give away any secrets.”

Vadim Ovchinnikov: The Mineshafts of Nirvana, a posthumous retrospective of works by Vadim Ovchinnikov (1951–1991), curated by Dr. Andreyeva and Svetlana Kozak, will be running at the Museum of 20th and 21st Century St. Petersburg Art, in Petersburg, until October 30, 2016. A slightly different version of this text, excerpted from the exhibition catalogue, has been published, in Russian, in ArtGuide. For more information on Vadim Ovchinnikov’s art and life, see the website ov-ov.com (in Russian). Translated by the Russian Reader

Richard Diebenkorn & Vadim Ovchinnikov: 10 Rules for Painting

“Notes to myself on beginning a painting” by Richard Diebenkorn

1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.

2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued – except as a stimulus for further moves.

3. DO search.

4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.

5. Don’t “discover” a subject – of any kind.

6. Somehow don’t be bored but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.

7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.

8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.

9. Tolerate chaos.

10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

Richard Diebenkorn is in The Sackler Wing at the Royal Academy in London from March 14 to June 7, 2015.

source

__________

Painter!

1. The viewer is your friend, comrade, and brother.

2. Vary your intimate relations with the painting.

3. Before you begin to sketch on the canvas, sharpen your pencil properly.

4. Do not forget that there are also artists in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Chukotka, and other regions.

5. By placing the surname of the portrait subject beneath his portrait, you will increase the likeness approximately sevenfold.

6. Be sensible: get into your painting, but get out as soon your session ends.

7. You should not ponder the idea of your next work nor is it recommended that you think about it.

8. Make the viewer your accomplice; incline him to think that you are right.

9. Art requires sacrifices, sacrificiality, self-sacrifice, and ritual sacrifice

10. Skillfully using pattern, color, texture, color temperature, tone, varnish, and Chinese and Indian philosophy, tell the viewer everything, but do not give away any secrets.

— Vadim Ovchinnikov (1951–1996)

Originally published in English at The Russian Schizorevolution: An Exhibition That Might Have Been, March 1–May 31, 2009, Marres Centre for Contemporary Culture, Maastricht; subsequently published in Brushstroke: The New Artists and Necrorealists, 1982–1991, exhibition catalogue (Saint Petersburg: Palace Editions:  2010)

Thanks to Comrade EF for the heads-up.