Interview

 

Anastasia Martynova and Andrei Volkov

 

I’d like to jump right into the most important and most difficult topic. A similar question was asked of Oleg Karavaichuk in an interview: “If you had to explain music to an alien, what would you say?” I would like to ask the same question about painting. How would you explain painting to an alien?

In primary school, when I was unsuccessfully trying to solve a math problem, instead of giving a simple answer to the question, “How many mushrooms did the children pick?” (six, for example), I would usually get lost in thought for a long time about the various kinds of mushrooms and the places they grow. So the “alien” that sneaked into your question has caused me to think about the phenomenon of vision itself and has taken me quite far from the original topic. To answer the fundamental question, there is always the danger of falling into either a false scientific or a pretentious aphoristic state. So I am going to try to answer on the basis of my own experience, with the caveat that I am certainly not a theorist, but rather a practitioner and an observer. I would say that painting is paint (pigments and binding agents) applied to a plane (a surface), which, when perceived by the eye, gives rise to a series of psycho-emotional reactions, some intended by the artist, and some not. In sum, it is “paint applied to a surface with non-utilitarian purposes”. When talking about painting, one needs to consider its dual nature. On the one hand, it is a material object with inherent physical characteristics – sizes and proportions, the properties of the surface and spatial contexts; on the other hand, painting as a whole is located in the visual space, that is, perception acts as an intermediary, due to the design of our visual apparatus. In my view, this amalgam of the material and visual (or, more precisely, the proto-virtual) is also one of its most important characteristics. Painting is something that is very human, very close to our feelings; we, too, balance on the dividing line between material and mental reality. The essential question is what is painting in general, where are its boundaries? We are always talking about “painting” as if we have a universal, unified view on the subject. But actually, everyone gives their painting some kind of meaning, so formulations and attitudes toward painting differ greatly. Even if we limit ourselves to the narrow subject of the artist’s relationship to the paint, then a lot of nuances still arise: what is considered “paint”? Determining the boundaries of the “intended material” is very complicated. An even more confusing question is that of the method of application. Do you need to limit painting to some kind of application of paint by hand – what degree of intermediation is allowed? What about mechanical means of application?

 

Or, like Yves Klein, with the assistance of nude models?

With the assistance of models, sure. Klein’s work is painting because in this case, the body becomes a tool for the artist. It is also a brush, just of a different sort, or a palette knife. It does not have to be metal or plastic; It can be anything – you can take your own body, the body of “another”; it is just a question of personal preference and the task at hand. It is very important for the artist to understand their personal task, not necessary in the form of a strategy (as is the custom now), but it should be at least on a sensory level. For me, painting is a colossal plane of possibilities. When you are holding a tube or a can of paint, you understand that compressed within it are an enormous amount of possibilities that can be realized or not. The irony is that for every realized possibility, there are hundred unrealized ones that are maybe even better. In addition, painting is the physiological contact with paint, and there are poles for this contact: there are places where you are getting closer, touching it, and there are places where you are getting further away and moving away from the process. As a result, this succession of approaches and estrangements is built into the individual internal rhythm of every work.

 

When you spoke about physiological contact, that in some places you are getting closer and some places getting farther away, I thought about how painting, of course, is much closer to dance than to music. That is, in general, the process is one of interacting with the paint, interacting with the painting, and the movement of your own body, right? How do you decide to apply this line or a different one? The bodily intention is the same.

When I understood that I can perceive my own gesture independent from the result to which it leads, an amazing thing happened to me – I began to truly realize all the stages and gradations of my own lack of freedom. At a relatively mature age, you suddenly understand how much is within you that you were unaware of, and how severe these internal self-restrictions are. When a person begins drawing, they take a standard sheet of paper, and this standard sheet is, in reality, a colossal religion. Someone before you has already decided in which proportionality to the given space you exist. A composition always begins with the format you have, and this format determines the movement you make accordingly. Here is where we come to dance. Working in a pre-determined format is like a dance in an elevator or a telephone booth. Ideally, you need to establish the boundaries yourself, and then you have a choice of movement: will you move your fingers, elbows, shoulders, or your entire body? Everything hinges on this movement, regardless of the character of the painting, whether it is expressed or more contained, hyper-realistic or a painting of a colour field. The viewer’s movement is no less important, whether they come close to the painting and examine it or whether they are repelled by the surface of the work, whether they sense a distance or immerse themselves.

 

So you select a format depending on your internal needs? Whether you want to move using your entire body or use a brush determines if you will work in a large format or not?

Exactly. When you work in a small or medium format, it is one thing, but if you want to make something similar, but three times larger, it requires completely different movements with different qualities.

 

Talk to me about how your oval works came about.

The ovals appeared because at some point I began to sense physically that when I begin to do something, I suddenly fall into rhythms given to me by the character of the rectangle, rhythms that emerge on their own. It began to remind me of the movement of a puck in air hockey – quick, exact, but completely mechanical. It was irritating; some kind of alien influence could be felt in these rhythms, and I wanted to find my own rhythm, my touch, my breathing.

 

Like purification, liberation from what has been given?

Yes, no matter where I moved, I would eventually end up in the corner. Four corners of 90 degrees are always haunting you. I tried to work with complex shapes, but it didn’t work for me – the more expressive the shape, the more superfluous, the more redundant the image becomes. When I was searching for the most “clean” solution, the oval came about simply by excluding corners. Thanks to the oval, I later “excused” the rectangle.

 

Is free verse closer to you?

It seems so. When I began working with ovals, I wanted nothing to be “predetermined” at all, so that everything would “pile up” in some strange way. There is much less that has been predetermined in terms of the composition’s rhythm. In addition, the oval is funny; there is some irony and playfulness, because it intrinsically has very strong baroque connotations. On the one hand, you expect some kind of bouquet or a profile, and on the other hand, it is practically a zero, a symbol of emptiness. And if you take into account that I endow it with a reflective, sometimes practically mirror-like surface that does not allow you to see it as a whole and forces you to move and catch the changes in light, then in a poetic analogy, the comparison with free verse is close enough.

 

You have said that the viewer can get closer and farther away and dissolve into the painting. This brings up the question of whether you can clearly express the feelings that you want to evoke in the viewer, and how close can they be? Almost all abstract artists, as odd as it sounds, while avoiding narrative in their painting, write a lot about their art. For example, Wassily Kandinsky concretely described what the viewer should feel. Mark Rothko felt that it should be a religious feeling or the feeling of some kind of major tragedy. Barnett Newman dreamed that the “viewer would cry before his work”. Do you have these moments? Do you think that something concrete should happen to the viewer?

I would like to “slow down” the viewer. “Slow art”, as it were. In the endless stream of changing visual images, photographs, primarily, the value of the image is devalued. I want for the material density of the painting to create a kind of gravitational effect, a slowdown, so that the viewer senses time itself. I’ve had interesting coincidences happen where someone has come up to me, complete strangers, looked at me work, and told me what I myself had been feeling. My Facebook friend came to my exhibition in Italy in the summer of 2016, and we had never met in real life before. And he suddenly began talking about the works in the same exact words I would have used myself, although there were no specific commentaries to the works at the exhibition.

 

And what did he say exactly?

About the search for balance between randomness and control – what I am thinking about all the time now. Actually, this is what many of my works are about: randomness, determinism, and control. How can you make it so that the random ceases to be so, when you define it and you say, “I see you, and I name you and give you this designation.”

 

It is the theoretical question that the Dadaists answered, right? Marcel Duchamp took a string a meter in length, raised it to a meter above the canvas, and then let it go, and how it fell is how he painted it. And there is the story about how a Dadaist should find their readymade. Do you know this story?

No.

 

You name a date and time for yourself, that is, it is an ostensible randomness that is under control, and you say, “On Wednesday at 5 pm, I will go on such-and-such street, turn on this corner, and I will find my readymade, and this will be my work of art.” I really like how a readymade is not something that we select while sitting on a rubbish heap – this isn’t it and that’s not it – and you very much seem to begin with arranging existence upon a fortuitous meeting.

You prepare the universe for it to return to you…

 

Yes, this randomness; it is also being prepared.

At the beginning of the year, I once again had the opportunity to visit Vincent Hawkins, a very interesting London artist, at his studio. We talked about freedom, that exceptional freedom art can give that you can’t find anywhere else. And during the conversation, the phrase “You need to allow the universe into your work” somehow arose by itself. This means that accepting the random includes an act of liberation. Not so much for yourself, but for the random, the “universe”. You need to be a liberator yourself.

 

I want to return to oil painting. Why did you choose it?

It’s hard to say… Probably because I have lived with it since my early childhood and separating myself from the magic of this material is difficult for me. And maybe I just like the smell. The warmth of oil’s resonance is special, and in addition, the material requires well-known discipline and humility. Oil doesn’t always conduct itself in a predictable way; you need to come to an agreement with it and you need to be able to use it. It is a kind of a story of relationships. But in acrylic painting (which I, unfortunately, am much less comfortable with), in which the paint is almost as translucent as watercolour, the material can come to life. You need to find the right physical condition for every kind of paint, the one in which it will reveal the possibilities only it has. Right now I sometimes also use acrylic, in that translucent, luminous, flowing state.

 

Together with oil?

Yes, with oil, and also with household enamel and spray paint. You can use it all equally, but the important thing is to ensure that it does not all peel off later. As long as painting has existed, so has experiments with paint – you need to constantly “reinvent” what you are working with; it gives you a kind of push, the effect of the unexpected. This is very important in one’s work, like how a river is flowing peacefully and then suddenly rapids begin to boil and these emerging difficulties in the form of underwater rocks cause you to make unexpected moves. You need to be authentic, like yourself, and your fantasies should be something very you, personal. For example, Tony Cragg, the sculptor, experiments with complex twisted forms – he actually worked in a factory, producing moulds for casting engines, some technical things. So his art comes from a certain source, skills that he gained in life, and he didn’t just think it up out of nowhere.

 

Yes, and James Turrell was a pilot, right? He was so blown away by what you see when you fly, the pink sky that you can only see when you’re up there, and he started creating these things because he wanted to show what he saw.

It seems to me that this is why “authenticity” is so interesting and appealing in art. It is something based on your real life, and not something you thought up, and that is why it is so powerful. Everything that is thought up will eventually be figured out and become uninteresting, and only what has been lived through will remain.

 

According to this idea, you can’t think up a work of art that isn’t yours; that is, you can think it up, but It won’t be yours?

Yes, this happens a lot. Of course, total fabrications have their place and are important; they can be called preliminary plans. But often what comes along has already been created, and it is truly not yours because in our conscious actions we are much more similar to one another than in our unconscious ones; we are much less independent. Predictability is inherent to our logical actions. I like Sol LeWitt’s quote: “The art cannot imagine his work and recognize it before it is completed.”

 

How did you “come to be born”? Tell me about your family. What is it like to be born into a family of artists?

For every person, their family (at least in the early years of their life) seems to be something natural, something taken for granted. In that respect, I am no exception – my home was simply my home, such as it should be. My first suspicions arose in nursery school, which I started attending relatively late, at five years old, so that I could prepare somewhat for the socialization in a Soviet school. There it became clear to me that my family was not completely normal. In a six-room old house with ceilings that reached unattainable heights in Bolshaya Polyanka lived three families connected by their close relation to one another. There was the Bubnov family (my mother’s parents), the Kandinskys (my grandmother’s sister and her husband), and us, the Volkovs – me, my parents, and my brother Mitya. The foundation for our “Polyana” life was laid by Alexei Rybnikov, who moved there with his family in 1941 when his home was bombed. Rybnikov was a very prominent individual – he was the head of the restoration studios of the Tretyakov Gallery, a specialist in the technology of painting famous throughout Moscow. He had been a student of Mikhail Larionov, and Rybnikov had been a talented artist who switched to restoration due to the necessity of following the general party line in art. His painting, quite restrained in colour, dark and dramatic, was something I did not understand right away, even though I had seen it since my earliest childhood; arguably it is now that I can feel this “Rybnikov” blood inside myself more strongly. Works from his collection (he was a passionate collector) gave me my first impressions of classical painting. Each room of our apartment was a different world. At the Bubnovs’, theatre ruled – they were a family of actors – new productions, rehearsals, running lines, learning roles. The Kandinskys were musicians and teachers at the Central Music School and the conservatory. Someone was almost always playing the piano, and the room’s distinctive décor included an enormous record collection and numerous objects from China, as Alexei Ivanovich had taught in China prior to the Cultural Revolution. My parents’ room also served as a studio, club, and an exhibition hall for kvartirniki [shows in one’s flat]. In addition, it is hard for me to remember a day when nobody came over to visit. The visitors were people of various generations, professions, and tastes, and this was another special characteristic of the Polyana house – the amazing hospitality, simplicity in communication, and the complete lack of snobbishness. In these very complex living conditions, there was almost no small talk. Irreconcilable disputes could break out, but only when discussing Alfred Schnittke, contemporary painting, a new production, or a hockey game. I travelled through the house like through different worlds, hiding in enormous wardrobes and under tables, and catching snatches of the adults’ conversations. Therefore, to say that I was merely born into an artist’s family would be inaccurate – along with the painting that shaped me, primarily my father’s and grandfather’s, there were Rybnikov’s paintings, his collection, and the worlds of theatre and music that existed literally behind the neightbouring doors, separated from us only by a wide corridor. Perhaps this is why I love Venice so much – it reminds me in part of my childhood flat, at once reminiscent of an antique wardrobe and a treasure chest.

 

Do you have any reference points? Can you remember any moments or vivid memories?

My most vivid memories are of the exhibitions. They were, of course, events for the entire house. One of the first, after many years of silence, was Alexander Nikolayevich Volkov in the Museum of the East, which faced huge obstacles and a demand to remove avant-garde works, even the possibility of cancellation on opening night. An exhibition like my father and his brother Valery’s at the Ermolova Theatre could not take place in any “official” hall. Well, there was also, of course, the first blockbuster exhibition I witnessed, as we would call it today: “Moscow to Paris.” Pomegranate Teahouse was hung in one of the best spots. I remember that I got ill from the flurry of sights; my head began to spin and I felt hot. They took me out to the street for some fresh air and then I went back inside. Besides exhibitions, there were several “events” in my personal history of experiencing painting connected with paintings that resided in our home. One of these was a work from Rybnikov’s collection. It was a female portrait of the Spanish school, dark brown, almost black, probably 18th century. This work, according to the words of Alexei Alexandrovich, has a dramatic history. It has clearly been through a fire and practically burned – there are places where “boiled” paint can be seen. A face and folded hands emerge from the darkness; there is dark hair that also blends into the background. And one day something went wrong and our power went out. We lit candles and completely inadvertently set them near the portrait. At that moment, everyone in the apartment ran to come see – the lady had practically leapt out of the portrait; clearly, it had been painted for just that kind of lighting. Her dress and hairstyle appeared – it was a completely fantastical transformation. Another story occurred with a painting by Alexander Nikolayevich (Still Life with Tulips, 1941). It had hungin our room for many years and I knew every inch of the canvas, every brushwork. And then one time, when I was probably around 15 years old, it was a May day, and went into the room and I saw from the corner of my eye how the sun was falling on the work, and I felt like cold water had been poured on me, because another painting was hanging there, another. I looked at it and I understood that I have known it since childhood, but suddenly something had changed in my perception so that I couldn’t recognize this familiar thing. Here, I have learned from my personal experience how so-called reality can change and how things can be totally different than what they seen.

 

This story about how a painting lives in time and changes very much plays out in your work, as I understand it. You have reflective surfaces that change the painting depending on what is going on around it.

Yes, this also stems from my childhood experiences, in part. For example, you were left at home in the winter, you were sick and didn’t go to school, and it wasn’t the weekend, but you were sick and didn’t go… And you wake up and you see how rectangles from the blue and grey twilight slowly begin to appear in the paintings hanging on the wall. At first you don’t see what is depicted, and then you gradually begin to recognize it. And if you also have a fever, you may get visions that are completely detached from reality. Some works you may be able to see well, and others begin to glisten because the light is fading. Everything is changing and the short day quickly ends, and everything is immersed in darkness once again. Within different paintings, the entire cycle of life happens (birth to death), right in front of your eyes. This really shaped my attitude towards art in general. It is why I arrived a surface that is glossy and markedly reflects flight and that makes it difficult to perceive it in a singular way. For me, painting has never been about pictures; pictures were in Native Speech [textbooks for the primary school level], like Goalie by Sergei Grigoriev or Morning by Tatiana Yablonskaya, about which we wrote compositions. These were assignments that seemed completely idiotic to me – I wrote and did not understand what painting had to do with anything at all in this case and why we had to write a description.

 

Do you call figurative paintings “pictures”? If there is a story or narrative, you don’t like it?

In my childhood, for a long time, I definitely had a very strange, even biased attitude toward figurative painting, especially of the 18th and 19th centuries; maybe then I was ready to say, with a child’s direction, that painting had died or a painting didn’t have meaning. And I definitely remember that I have liked abstract painting from my early childhood; it was immediately absolutely clear to me, and there was never the sense that it was complex or impossible to understand.

 

And what did you understand?

It is hard to remember now what exactly it was and how I explained it then – too much time has passed. I remember the feeling of the language itself, where you don’t need to explain it in words, but feel and think, join in on the experience, and, most of all, see it. It was immediately clear that this kind of art can be, as we would say now, “widely interpreted”. But children, luckily, don’t say that.

 

Where did you study?

I was very lucky – nobody tried to make an artist out of me. My parents wanted me to choose a normal profession. They unconditionally prioritized education without skewing it prematurely, and they didn’t send me to any kind of specialized art school. My father was categorically against it due to his rejection of the existing system. I drew as much as I wanted, showed my elders, and received the requisite counsel from them. The atmosphere of my home, with its discussions and arguments, was a very important part of my education, as were visits to my father’s friends’ studios, and the enormous number of exhibitions I saw. Of course, the more I worked, the more serious the advice I received became. The main principle of our Volkov school was to search for points of reference within the student’s work. As a rule, my teacher’s favourite phrase was, “You did this well; let’s do it like that.” That is, to reveal what was already within the student, developing it and making it so that they are equal to themselves.

 

Did you paint? What did you paint? What were your paintings like?

I made my first attempts in abstraction in various years. It was quite natural for me to seek interaction with the visible world to express my experiences. My childhood memories include walking around a wintry and dark Moscow, and then painting from what I had seen. I was interested in mysterious things, a kind of a lyrical expressionism, I would say. As I had been surrounded by bright, vivid, and colour-saturated painting since childhood, I wanted to see this colour in real life. These were my first disappointments – you go outside, and everything is green or grey. So at home, I tried to paint still lifes with Uzbek plates, some bright rags, apples, and pomegranates, and then when you look out your window, everything is grey again.

 

And we arrive at the moment that you saw the East.

Yes. When it became clear that I would continue to persist in my delusions, that is, I wanted to become an artist, I was sent to prepare for the Moscow State Stroganov Academy of Art and Industry. I didn’t make it on my first try, and my father and I left to travel through Central Asia. We went to Karakalpakstan – Nukus, then excavation sites, Konye-Urgench –and Uzbekistan – Khiva, Fergana and the surrounding area, the mountains not far from Tashkent (where my father supervised an all-Union symposium on sculpture). These natural surroundings and their unique free spirit totally amazed me, and so during these travels, I did my first truly creative, free studies.

 

Landscapes? Do you still have them?

Yes, a few have survived. They were truly successful, and my father liked them a lot, saying, “If you can replicate this when you’re grown, you will be a good artist.” Sometimes, a person does more in youth than he is able to… The unusual experience of the stunning landscape of the desert in Karakalpakstan; the green desert from pebbles, not sand; the green stone barkhans; the golden sky over them; the fantastical light… Here I saw how in nature, shadows can be blue, and how mountains can really be purple. It is no coincidence that artists from various countries all flocked to the southern or eastern ranges. If you grow up entirely in Central Russia, then of course your painting will be special and your perception of colour and your perception of light will be completely different. I remember how once at the Pushkin Museum, a guide was explaining to children that Bellini’s paintings were classical three-color paintings; she said (I still remember the expression), “Brown tones are in the foreground, then green, and in the background are cold, blue ones – this is because they convey the space, the perspective of air. This will be closer, and thus this will be farther away.” And then you get to Italy and you understand that these “three colours” – there it is, in real life; they didn’t create anything; well, they just had no imagination and just copied everything.

 

You then couldn’t replicate it for some time, correct?

Yes, it was a rare moment of creativity, there few such absolutely joyous moments; perhaps then I experienced absolute happiness. When you are sitting alone with a box of gauche, with a sketchpad. And you have eyes and hands, and you don’t even need to turn on your brain; you simply seem to let your hand go by itself, just true automatic drawing. And it had a great effect on me. And maybe that is why I only achieved that level of freedom again about 20 years later.

 

Well, about 20 years later you were already an abstract artist.

Yes, then there were my years of study at the Stroganov Academy, with all of the characteristics of that school – its pluses and minuses. I only now understand how badly I had been educated upon graduation. Thank God that I never thought that I had already learned everything, and that I have always continued to go after what I lack. In my opinion, an artist cannot act as if he has finished studying, and now he will work. Unfortunately, there are entire generations, including my own peers, who have quite thoughtlessly repeated, “At first you study, and then you will make art” – which is a completely absurd and self-defeating maxim, because art and study are inseparable. You are taught how you are supposed to do things your entire childhood and young adulthood, and then very few are able to return to what made them want to engage in fine art in the first place. I had the rare possibility of studying at the Venice Academy in 1991; it was a serious experience that gave me the ability to compare different systems of instruction.

 

Is what you do close to minimalism?

Probably only partly. After all, minimal art is an already completed story, like Arte Povera. They are absolutely defined by a time and a place, and despite my affection for these movements, I recognize my distance from them. Now there is reductive art, which in my view is more neutral and international.

 

Well, it is a phenomenological term, and also Jean-Luc Marion has said that Mark Rothko, who removed shape to make the colour stronger, got the closest to reductive art. It’s clear that abstract art in general is reductive art; everything comes from the desire to remove something in order to leave something else.

Exactly! In terms of method, I can definitely say that the reductivist approach is closest to my own.

 

Do you remember this moment – the move to a different, non-figurative space?

I can confidently say that my first drawings were consciously abstract compositions. I liked the paintings that saw at home or while visiting others so much that I immediately wanted to try the same. And in my childhood and youth, I did abstract works from time to time, and then there were more of them, almost as many as figurative works, and I didn’t have any kind of internal conflict between these spheres. My figurative works were fairly close to my abstract ones (my favourite artists were André Lanskoy and Nicolas de Staël), and nonobjective things arose on the basis of real experiences. At the very end of the 90s there was a moment when I felt that I was at a dead end and I almost decided to quit art. It was in this “hopeless” condition that I accidentally and automatically painting a little red work. I would not say that it was an instantaneous insight, but it was a turning point for sure. Everything that has changed my understanding of and relationship to art had been connected with the colour red. It is this colour that has given me the ability to get closer to essence that is not connection to our visible, familiar world. It is so strong on its own that it can escape the “designations” it has been assigned. Red has become a liberating colour, and all of its associations with blood, fire, flags, and so on are completely irrelevant. I almost completely dwelled in this red for several years, and at the moment when the last non-red colour disappeared from my works and nothing remained except red, it was as if I had gone through some kind of cleanse and understood what I am capable of. After this, other colours gradually returned (or, more accurately, were reborn), also missing the direct connotations of their usual roles. By the way, I later understood that it was not a coincidence that I began creating green works after my red ones (opposite colours), as it is red’s complementary colour, on the opposite side of the colour wheel.

 

 

And have classical artists influenced you? Who is close to you?

I think that any strong art influences you… The more you see, the more you discover. You need to see different things, constantly training your eye and not being too sure of yourself. What yesterday seemed well known and obvious may have just been misunderstood. Of course, I have my favourite classical artists: Bellini, Mantegna, Giotto, Titian, Tintoretto, and all of the great Venetians. Fra Angelico is completely godlike. The Bruegel Room at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna is also a place of pilgrimage. I truly discovered classical art for myself much later than I did contemporary.

 

Tell me about the completion of a painting. How do you know that a work is finished?

Completion is something that you need to catch; you can miss your stop, which happens. If you put too much pressure on something, didn’t believe in yourself, or even got scared – whether it’s of simplicity, incompleteness, insufficiency, as it seemed to you, weightiness – then everything will be completely different, a kind of loss. True, it has become more and more clear to me that completion doesn’t exist at all. I will quote Sol LeWitt again: “A work of art will never be a completed work. It answers the questions that have been asked, and it will ask new ones.”

 

And what do you do? Is it possible to go back?

Going back is impossible; I do different things – sometimes I paint it over, or I strip off the paint or dissolve it. A long and draining battle with myself begins. During my most tortuous explorations, one work goes through 10–15 different states, in which even completely successful ones were buried.

 

So it is impossible to look at your own work when you can remember how it was, how it should be, truly…

Yes, maybe you need to commit to something during the process of working, but I don’t do that; I tried to before, but it hinders me. A painting is complete when you suddenly see that it is already an entity unto itself, that a barrier has appeared that separates you from it. But this barrier is fragile and hard to distinguish.

 

If you’re not tired, let’s try to discuss interpretation. And this word contains so much – on the one hand, it can be perceived as a kind of investigation of the artist’s intentions. As you said, someone came up to you at an exhibition and said the same thing that you felt and that he somehow picked up on. This can be called “intent”, but there are also people who see something completely different, and frequently something you didn’t mean. How do you feel about what the viewers do? And also, I have a completely different question – does this make an art critic a translator, as they take your painting and interpret it before it has been offered to the viewers?

I feel the same way about interpretation as I do about a work that is performed: there is a performance (an interpretation) of Mozart and there is Mozart himself, the sheet music. The interpretation can be genius, or it can be terrible. A bad performer does not detract from either the composer or the performed work itself; it is an entirely personal problem. Of course, this isn’t a perfect analogy, but as a whole it reflects my position. When I was in the beginning of my abstract experience, I frequently heard, “A beautiful work; I see something in it. Here’s an elephant. And here is a woman and a horse.” I was terribly annoyed, of course. But I wasn’t angry at the speaker. The failure was my own.

 

That you hadn’t been able to get away from representation…

Yes, I hadn’t gotten away; it wasn’t that simple. Of course, there are people whose brains are wired that way.

 

Yes, they will tell you about a horse no matter what.

They cannot perceive something that doesn’t have a name. If an object isn’t something they recognize, it doesn’t exist. So rather than perceiving something freely, they will embark on a tortuous search for something reminiscent of an object, some kind of literary component, et cetera. That is how forceful the desire to make something concrete is. I am at peace with this, more or less. In part, I perceive interpretation as a kind of driver, like in a computer. There is also sometimes a kind of driver that launches certain processes in a person’s head. They can be different – what five people agree on, the next two disagree with.

 

If you conceive of some kind of viewer, let’s say, up to the fifth, you anticipate that they will come across your works – is a descriptive language necessary? If you imagine your ideal catalogue, exhibition, or exhibition guide, do you need words? Maybe, do you need to give your viewer a language of interpretation or a description or not? Are words necessary? What could the description be like? Have you taken this own? Many artists explain themselves.

I have a personal story that goes along with this. When I was a younger and much more self-assured artist, I had a lot to say and it was easy for me to do so; I had no problems at all discussing my work. The more I have delved into this, the less I am able to say, the more questions I have myself, and the fewer answers I have. When interpretations arise, especially professional ones, it is interesting, but the most important thing is the readiness for perception. With the right attitude, even the most unprepared viewer may come up with a very interesting reading. Ideally, I would want for the commentary (interpretations) offered to be not a ready-made judgement, but means of perceiving, methods, access codes.

 

Yes, we have already discussed how abstract art needs to avoid narratives, right?

I myself am interested in what works on its own, without explanations. But each exhibition or public showing is a kind of production, like in the theatre (it is probably not a coincidence that among English-speaking artists, I frequently hear them use the word “show”, and not “exhibition”). It is only natural for a mass of interpretations to arise simply along the course of organizing the space. How many works will there be? In which context, vicinity? In a basement, in a palace, in a factory, in a ventilation window, on the street? Hung higher or lower…? That is, the viewer has come in, and immediately there is a red painting under their nose, only later it turns out that there was something hanging in the corner behind it. And this is also interpretation, of course. I attach great importance not only to my own work, but also its existence in another space.

 

So context.

Yes, context, of course.

 

You are right that everything depends on the viewer, because some viewers we will strictly limit and give them a curator’s text; we just limit them and it’s not necessary at all. The most important thing they see it is to see it in a pure state. And to some people we, without saying anything, won’t give the opportunity…

We won’t give them the key. By the way, herein lies the very thought that I wasn’t able to articulate the first time. There are interpretations that are keys that open the door to a work, or tools that help someone better “perform” the work, and there are interpretations that replace an individual experience – they explain what you should feel.

 

You mentioned the concept of gravity. Do you study the physical characteristics of the materials you work with?

Yes, constantly. When a new cycle of works begins, different tasks arise. Right now I am interested in how paint flows, slides, and spreads. It is important to accurately adjust the degrees of viscosity and transparency, and to take into account changings during the drying process. The characteristics of the surface is also a fascinating subject. Twisting, folding, and crushing are also ways that the surface can interact with the paint; there is a lot of interesting stuff there.

 

How would you define the position of abstract painting in the context of contemporary art today?

It is complicated to talk about context, because again, there are no clear boundaries, and this is wonderful, in my opinion. Of course, I have a certain interest in nonobjective art and I can say that I see a lot of good, interesting artists in this area. There is also the “handwriting of the time” which will be more noticeable a little bit later, which has established itself, but isn’t widely known right now, but it is interesting. What is important is that “abstract” right now falls outside of fashion.

 

Elena Petrovskaya once said that “creating a painting today is an impossible task. The picture has been fundamentally predetermined; it has already been assigned to a context, an installation; above all, it becomes a sign of a certain way of seeing…” What do you think? Do you agree?

Yes, it was said in the Theory of the Image lecture cycle. It seems to me that in this case, she means the “academic” understanding of painting and the picture, and if I follow this logic, I’m close to agreeing with her. One can’t help but notice, however, that for a long time now, painting has existed outside of the conventional prescribed boundaries, to be more accurate, they have been removed. The pursuit of liberation from predetermined outcomes has led to radical transformations not only of “the painting”, conditionally speaking, but also in ways of perceiving it. Painting has undergone so many metamorphoses – paint without a base and pure pigment without glue, empty canvases and innumerable other surfaces – it has become an object, a sculpture, and it has captured the complete three-dimensional space. Ways of seeing have also multiplied – in addition to traditional means of perceiving painting, you can now also “recognize” it, read it, solve it. It can be itself and it can pretend to be something else; it can go beyond the borders of the genre and return to them. This not only creates additional optics for contemporary works, but it also allows us to see the art of past outside of “museum display cases”. As it always has, painting allows us to see the invisible.

© 2019 Andrey Volkov

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