An Artist of Paradox

Viktor Kalashnikov

Magazine issue: 
#3 2012 (36)

All of us were once taught that the world was propelled by contradictions, the unity and struggle of opposites, and other similar principles. Perhaps the most valuable among these ideas is the notion of paradox, which implies a discord between meanings so striking that the mind at first refuses to accept them. Ivan Leonidovich Lubennikov is a true artist of paradoxes. If viewers familiar with his very aestheticised and ironic easel paintings learn that he also created the fanciful steel structures inside or on the facades of certain buildings, they are bound to think that this fact runs counter to the laws of nature and society.

Those who have had the good fortune to talk with him at least casually are certain to keep in memory the striking, even brutal personality of an energetic man who is active to the point of arrogance, and has an aura of machismo which he does not care to conceal. Frankly, up to a certain moment I'd had the same impression, strengthened by his "masculine" still-lifes (vodka and herring) and not-always dressed but always ample-bodied Venuses, Eves, and Susannas. This is why I least of all expected that in his valedictory speech for a group of graduates of the Surikov Institute's monumental art workshop, at an improvised banquet after the defence of their graduation projects, Lubennikov — a professor of the Institute — would talk about an artist's work as a commitment. His absolute sincerity and depth of feeling made me look at this most interesting personality from a new angle.

Lubennikov's oeuvre has always had a mystery. His paintings are better known to the public than his monumental projects. The paintings have become a regular feature on the exhibition circuit: each composition has a mystery in it, a break-down in its logic. Lubennikov's trademark female images, for all their allure, in fact prove to be doll-like, unreal. Although supplied with a suggestion indispensable for carnival, their "un-real-ness", however, cannot be reduced to the so-called "carnivalesqueness" of the 1970s generation either. The suggestion consists in a doubling of a clear constructiveness of form and that form's transformation into a generalised silhouette — a technique the many versions of which, all provocative and natural at the same time, he has used. Inside the space of the discourse between the plane and the volume, which is the habitat of any practitioner of monumental art, the fleshiness of imagery acquires a slightly porcelainlike quality akin to the frosty and rigid lace work on the skirts of the belles of Meissen china. For viewers, however, the artist has in store some recognizable details that return such personages to reality.

This disruption or, conversely, splicing sends Lubennikov's painted stories into the realm of fairy-tales, of course, "fairy-tales for adults". Unlike children, adults can understand not only erotic suggestions but figurative ones as well. As, for instance, in "The House of a White Woman Bather", where the belle's fair-coloured and visually weightless silhouette, almost blending with the environment, is very tightly "installed" into the tectonic structure of the painting: if you pull out the weightlessness, all the crisp and stable geometric features of the cottage as well as the landscape itself, with its layering of the sky, forest, field, pond, would disappear.

But Lubennikov would not be himself if he became bogged down in the process of building these frontal structures. A consummate graphic artist, he easily and gracefully places figures in fanciful positions that impart a 3D-like quality to the space he depicts. Or, ostentatiously rejecting the naturalism of linear perspective in his most object-centred and tangible still-lifes, he pivots his composition (such as "A Fence") around a literally interpreted direct descent into a pit. The same can be said about colour: the pictorial foundation of Lubennikov's compositions is nothing like the textured brushstrokes and endless play of changing colour tones characteristic of the Moscow school.

What we have here instead is a fondness for local colours represented through their tonal scales and ennobled by their rigorous calibration of several wide relations. But sometimes this local colour would open up through a spontaneously captured plein air tone. One understands this expected "surprise" if we look, for example, at one little detail of the very frank "A Book for Reading", which for several months now has been providing rich fodder for the imagination among intellectuals in Moscow and elsewhere. This composition has many visual, as well as aural, verbal, olfactory and gustatory, rhythmic and figurative, and so on — in a word, existential — dimensions. The visual aspects include an example of paradoxical perception: the black flat silhouettes of bulls grazing the vast pastures of Andalusia become for Lubennikov a mark of the limpidity of the air. The motif is captured sharply and suddenly, as if "in a snap" — this is obviously a feature of the Impressionist, plein air vision. Yet, is there an admirer of bluish distant views who would regard these live monuments placed across the plains as black?! Who among proponents of aerial perspective would rely on blackness as a testimony to the rightfulness of his God — in the meaning of something worshipped to the highest degree? Somewhere here lies the key to understanding the artist's creative method. But how can we determine its meaning? A living thing becomes a dry leaf spread between the sheets of a book, a sign whose connection to the object's organic matter has been cut. Or do we have here an endeavour to strip the core of accidental super-impositions?

Maybe post-modernism explains everything? The artist's works every now and then display the formal signs of this global trend: there is plenty of irony, quotations are quite easily distinguished, and as for the freedom from stylistic limitations, at this point certain questions arise about identification of the idiosyncratic "Lubennikov style". In an antithesis, such as baroque vs classicism, it is easy to identify characteristics that seemingly prove that Lubennikov is a baroque painter. The already-mentioned complex angles at which the sitters are viewed, the picturesque quality (albeit with reservations), the spatially- and temporally-unrestricted character of the composition — all this confirms the idea.

But Lubennikov would not be himself if he has not prepared the ground for an alternative interpretation in advance. Thus, the clarity of his images is absolutely classicist: the painter's artistic message is quite intelligible for a thoughtful reader-viewer. Classicist style also distinguishes the monumentalised arrangement of the compositions with the tendency to frontality: some in the form of a frieze, others actively provoking the viewer into a dialogue with the image of the Deisis, this provocation accounting for the ostentatious "neglect of perspective". This classicism, however, is of a special, Byzantine variety — the classicism that appreciated in antiquity not so much naturalism as the craft of telling fascinating stories about gods and heroes while remaining within the limits of narrative story-telling.

Both the naturalist and narrative trends of classicism prove to be important as carriers of a truth that reveals — or hides? — itself in details. Herein lies another of Lubennikov's inner contradictions: his details are extremely suggestive, taking on a plethora of meanings and spreading them over the entire image, but at the same time they fit very naturally with the bold and substantial generalisation both at the pictorial and narrative levels and at the level of meaning. One can talk about the post-modern nature of the details in as much as they are steeped in irony. Yet, the details in Lubennikov's compositions are too worldly, they have too much in the way of complexity and volatility of inter-human and inter-object relations. The artist is perfectly aware of this, and so, selecting, for instance, illustrations for the book "Architectural Projects. Paintings", he supplies not only a print of an entire piece such as " Larks", an image conveying the atmosphere of a provincial market-place, but also two pages with fragments of the picture, to let the viewer relish the protuberances on the body and the dress of the flirtatious blonde, which are set off by the gloominess of the other figures, or appreciate the "multicultural flavour" of the Cyrillic and Latin letters tossed together in signboards, labels and other elements. All this appears to be overly socially typified for post-modernism.

Post-modernism is often criticised for its inviability. Not so much with respect to its being an antinome to realism but, rather, for its rejection of certain ontological fundamentals and the replacement of reality with a simulacrum. Would the artist's images fit this definition? The simulacrum must be disconnected from reality, its indifference being its substitute for real spontaneous emotions. In Lubennikov's works the sensations, for all their sensuality, are certainly a result of much processing and filtering, structuring and intellectual packaging. In his compositions this function is performed not only by the figurative dimensions but also by the verbal component of the compositions as well. Yet, here again we observe a duality: the word is realized both nominally, as the name of a certain object or personage, and phraseologically, as the personage's pronouncement. At the heart of this are long-running traditions: the "verbal" vase painting of ancient Greece, icon painting — all that a monumental artist must learn to mature as a professional. Sometimes these two forms of verbiage are combined in one work, such as "A Bream's Going to Bite at the Bait, Son!" where the phrase used in the picture's title is elaborately spelled out across the top of the picture while the lower section features a similarly thorough listing of specifications of different types of fishing lines.

Thus, a word, a thought, different techniques of estrangement — all this activates analytical faculties and sets the viewer on a quest for the answer to the paradigmatic question: "What did the artist want to say?" A case in point is the neatly constructed image titled "Road", where a frieze-like composition, with an articulated social message (a young woman's urge to get away from her village, away from lethargic peasants idling their lives away — to the city depicted between her legs, the city with its well-lit windows of apartment blocks and shop signs). There is also a unicorn (a symbol of purity and search for a way to truth) provocatively inserted into the typical setting of the Russian countryside, which collides with the sentimental mood of a warm evening faithfully conveyed through subtle but also rich chromatic colour relations. A life that lives itself asserts its right to existence!

Often the notion of metaphysics is tentatively applied to Lubennikov's oeuvre. Indeed, a certain stiffness and airlessness in his visual world, the exchange of roles between space and objects evoke the images of Rene Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico. But unlike the works of the classics of Surrealism, Lubennikov's paintings do not have such monstrous seriousness or claim to reveal (to exhaust?) the entire logic of being. His art is a spectacular example of the difference between post-modernism and Surrealism, trends which, if fused together by a creative artist's will, can produce a new quality of emotional perception of an image. A case in point is " Death at Dawn", where a geometrised landscape in the vein of de Chirico is populated with sharply social subjects, with most characteristic physical features. The combination of the solidity of the architecture with fishnet stockings and cute lace-work is amusing in itself. On the other hand, the death is real, and the prostitute in the foreground appears to be certifying the death of the lyrical hero collapsed in the centre of a public square! Metaphysics is declared but abolished by the acuteness of the daily routine.

Lubennikov's art is undoubtedly metaphoric, but it has nothing of the literary quality into which artists who proclaim metaphor sometimes slide. In a picture such as "The Man" (2011) the details of the man's appearance allow the viewer to infer, to reconstruct the vagaries of the man's uncomplicated and rootless fate. In " Susanna" (1993), a zestful and visually effective detail — the finely patterned shadow from leaves on the cream-coloured body of the red-haired belle — crawls over into the space of metaphor, morphing into the traces left by the elders' sticky wet palms.

Perhaps metaphor penetrates more deeply into the creative process in his monumental art — or, as Lubennikov himself prefers to put it, "his works in architecture" — and in his architectural projects. This is understandable: the artist always uses space as the starting point, loath both to "embellish" a building and to illustrate its functions. But he is also so keen on all sorts of metal-ware that his recollections about one or another project often come down to nothing more than a description of organisational (the difficulty of procuring a required moulding) or technological (when something was hard to screw into place somewhere) problems.

It may seem as if there were no other problems at all. Meanwhile, the diversity of the concepts is impressive: from the 1980s murals at the Tryokhgorka Club, whose imagery was nearly classic-looking for its time but very bold in terms of embedment into a box-like interior, to the design of the Mayakovsky Museum, where the visuals of creation versus destruction are intelligible for all its seeming chaos. One can almost always see a surprisingly fitting match for the image of a particular building or locale.

His work on the Moscow metro is a special case. On the one hand, this subject has already been written up a little, while on the other, the seriousness of the discussion sometimes appears amusing when contrasted with just one practical joke played by Lubennikov and his associates with relation to the metro, where everything is measured by the ton and the kilometre: Paris presented Moscow with a copy of Hector Guimard's metal-work entrance to a Paris metro station, set near the Kiev train station, and we presented Paris with a unique stained-glass panel. Shortly before that the creator of the panel shown at the Slavyansky Boulevard station proved that a Russian painter can very easily fabricate a large-scale composition corresponding with Hector Guimard's cast iron-work but surpassing Guimard's creations in terms of magnitude and — if that is an appropriate word for a composition made of hammered iron — vitality. One can encounter Lubennikov's paradoxes under ground as well as above ground: the Sretensky Boulevard metro shows how quite an abstract rather than a figurative image made of etched metal can be astonishingly well-fitted into a real-life environment where people and objects exist within the movement of light, shade and reflections. In this project Lubennikov's trademark technique of having background details stamped into silhouettes appears absolutely justified.

Lubennikov is both complete and dynamic. Tempora mutantur, etnos mutamur in illis, to put it pretentiously. Did the artist or, more precisely, his visual vocabulary change when he/it acquired its unique metaphysical quality in 1987 — the landmark year for many, the watershed for everyone? By that time he was a mature and accomplished artist. Not only the creator of paintings and monumental projects that were objects of attention, but also a community activist: it was in this capacity that he became one of the organisers of the much-praised 17th exhibition of young painters.

A man deeply aware of the importance of classic art, he is inclined to welcome all that steps over the boundaries of "correctness", in so far as this overstepping results in great imagery. But Lubennikov is immune to the phobia of chasing novelty for novelty's sake: a child of a family that belonged to the Soviet elite, he did not share the lot of spoiled Soviet rich children who quickly "learned to love the forbidden fruit". In the legacy of the socialist period Lubennikov favoured everything that is of good quality and substance, even artwork of the Socialist Realist variety, disdained by many. In 1987 he created pieces that either directly ("Remembering the Revolution") or indirectly ("Red Still-life", which more than two decades later spawned a more definitive "Nostalgia for the Red, or Post-socialist Still-life") search for meaning in past decades.

Lubennikov is equally averse to recent emerging trends to look affectionately at all things Soviet out of contempt for the incongruities of today. Well aware of the meaning both of freedom and of discipline (the meaning of which is conveyed, jocosely as usual, in the composition "The Price of Freedom", the title of the anniversary show), in his capacity as a teacher, too, he uses not a stick-and-carrot method but good old charisma. The result is that his class boasts a very diverse group of graduates, but every now and then some student comes up with a work that provokes comments such as "Oh well, this one is pure Ivan Leonidovich!" — referring either to the play of silhouettes and spaces or to an emphasis on certain exclusive structures.

Monumental art is a pursuit for charismatic personalities, people certain of their mission. I am reminded about an event that happened when I worked at the "Khudozhnik" (Artist) magazine. In the early 1990s we printed an article about Lubennikov's paintings; after the publication the artist visited our office. The article was quite critical, so when a corpulent man walked into the office and introduced himself, "Lubennikov!", the chief-editor, by his own admission, was anticipating a dispute. But the visitor was absolutely self-composed and expressed hearty thanks for the publication, giving proper respect to the professionalism of the art scholar O. Dubasova, who was indeed a brilliant expert.

The paradoxes, the contrasts. The heart-stirring knot on the elastic ribbon that holds in place the sports trousers on a self-portrait; and the gripping gospel series, produced by the same hand, but in the Trecento style. One could go on and on... But for myself, a confirmed conservative, the key paradox consists in the fact that this real artist (in the true meaning of the word) proves to be so interesting for a traditionally-minded person! A paradox, indeed.





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