I first saw Denis Mikhaylov’s works at the “Born to fly … and crawl” exhibition at the Russian Museum in St Petersburg. He exhibited several images of different bugs, made in different techniques on aluminum base. I had a childish wish – to understand how all this visuality was organized. What was the principle of the realization of the material plan: what was the foundation – direct drawing or virtuality based on scanning technologies? One thing was clear: he is not simple, this painter, not at all simple. On the one hand – a clear simulacrum: images that were too bright, ideal in their formal orderliness, teasing with a sort of illusionist power. Everything that made possible for G.Deleuze to call images-simulacra “cunning, crafty and immoral”. On the other hand – something archaic, something born not out of techno: rather out of visual mythology of scarabaei of Ancient Egypt. However, modern cinema farced with visual computer effects does not hesitate to exploit the enthomophobia – the fear of insects. More than that – this fear is concretized – for example, into arachnophobia: there has been created an endless series of films about spiders – real and imaginary, mutant spiders, cosmic and artificial spiders, etc. All these films have one thing in common – the representation of fear of ‘strange’, alien attacking the territory of ‘ours’ - human. But the main horror – that makes the skin crawl – is caused not by FX! It’s caused by something atavistic, mystic, hiding on the subconsciousness!
Denis Mikhaylov once worked as a graphic designer – he’s got experience in dealing with mediate, indirect, symbolic. Generally speaking, an artist is experienced in working with many materials, he is capable of giving the maximal aesthetic surcharge to the material and technological realization… But all this is nothing but pre-conditions to his independent development. The important thing is how the artist will use these pre-conditions.
And in these ‘crawlies’ Mikhaylov seems to have established the formulae of the main principles of his poetics: his own balance of techno- and psycho-. When I say techno- I mean, just as M.Foucault did, “the reality, the materiality and, so to speak, physicality” (cf M.Foucault’s writings about Manet’s works). When I say psycho – I mean the whole complex of sensuality and subjectivity to which the artist appeals.
Of course, this balance exist in a certain context. Thanks to reflections or intuition Mikhaylov approaches the problematic formulated by Giorgio Agamben in his Profanazioni . The philosopher actualizes the old Roman definition of sacral and profane. “Sacral or religious were the things that somehow belonged to the Gods. Profane was any act that violated or circumvented this their special inapproachability, that reserved them exclusively for heavenly (in this case they were called ‘sacral’) or subterranean (in this case they were called just ‘religious’) gods. ‘The word profane - as the great jurist Trebatius writes – is used in that very sense that what was sacral or religious is returned to people to use and possess (cf. Giorgio Agamben. Profanazioni) Agamben examines the instances of mutual inter-transition of sacral and profane.One of these instances is a game. In Mikhaylov’s insects the same element of a game is present: being the simulacra, agents of the world of games, deceit, “asking to be held” world, they are ready to become “products of mass exploitation”. Being the representatives of sacral (scarab of the Ancient Egypt – a symbol of rebirth in the afterlife) they are mysterious, elusive, dangerous (they are no more welcome in our hands – the hand involuntarily jerks back). Agamben goes on with his discourse about the sacral and the profane in the context of capitalist development. He creates the total image of the Museum as the incarnation of the “absolute impossibility to profane”. In other words the antique profaning represented the “natural use”, possessed a humane resource.
A comprehensive capitalist Museum is the “exposition of the impossibility to use, live, experience”.
Mikhaylov chooses his own “Museum” and his own way of “profaning” (in the true antique sense of the word) as a way to resurrect the practice of “use”. He creates a series of large-format compositions which he calls “Monotypies”. The title evokes not a specific print technique – the artist rather means a fixation on monochromaticism. And –typy (from the Greek týpos – a print) makes us think of a print on the retina of an eye. (This visual-optical interpretation is supported by the fact that soon after this series he would create a new series called “Stereotypies”: “3D painings” that could be looked at and examined only in special glasses). Maybe this series appeared as an attempt to represent Mikhaylov’s photographical experience: the manner of the resolution of the form – the gradual materialization, “apparition” of the image – was based on the prolonged process of the development of a negative print. Nevertheless during the process of the creation of the series this factor was somehow moved into shadows: a new problem, a problem of carnal in its artistic realization was moved to the forefront. In other words, the theme of physical and chemical ‘development’ is replaced by the theme of ‘hand-made’: a sort of modernistic creation in a manual mode – molding, materialization, re-coding. A source may be a sort of a summary image of the carnal plastique of a realistic or academic kind, or a photo image (“Noname”). The carnality itself can be traumatic, and victoriously athletic, have narrative, symbolic or citatory functions. In the “Monotypies” series Mikhaylov maps out a sort of basic method that he would develop later on. This method is form-setting (accordingly – physical, palpable) and at the same time emotions-setting (ephemeral, illusory, metaphysical). The carnality means volume. It seems that the artist “cuts” the volume with the planes of light to show the space plans of corporal. In any case he “lights up” the highest, closest to the spectator points (plans) of the “high-relieve” of a human figure or a group of bodies, and then “moves” inward. Gradually you are beginning to feel, that no common succession exists: the artist feels that it’s enough to outline the volume, after that the plans “act independently” in space as well as in their relation to the luminosity (calculated calibrated clarity). On the other hand there appears a sense of decorativeness and dynamism: the movement of more bright spots against the darker and more static silhouette. This method gets more active in the next series – “Gamble with Classics”. The colour appears, the moulding of the corporal by means of “lighting up” is replaced by the interaction between colours. But the light still plays a significant role in the form-setting: it’s just that the “mission of the light” is fulfilled “through the colour”, through its own inner luminosity. References to the stained glass are inevitable, particularly because the form-setting fragments (small islands, samples, scales) of the colour get more distinct definition associated with lead partitions of a stained glass window. And acryl with its specific material certainty “corresponds” with the stained glass. The form-setting, of course, has an image background – a sort of metaphysical light penetrating the material plane of the work (“But the source of light is mysteriously hidden” – Anna Akhmatova). Associations with the stained glass are used yet in another image-bearing key: the artist gives us the feeling of the melted glass – cracks, swellings, etc. This is a sign of the intensity of emotions, spiritual and even carnal (“Michel and Angelo”).
If we examine the “project”, program side of the series we see that Mikhaylov addresses the classical works of different times and artistic levels – Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Bassano, Guido Reni, C.H.Bloch and others, - subjecting them to re-forming, re-construction, transformations of the collage type. For example, to the composition of the work he called – “after M.Bulgakov” – “I never talk to Strangers” which iconographically is the descendant of the “Ecstasy of St. Francis” by Caravaggio he adds a fragment of quite different origin - images of the Red Army soldiers from a typologically socialist realism painting by a little-known Soviet painter V.Safronov. There are foundations in these stratifications – game foundations (hence – the theme of gambling in the title of the series) and content-related. In the “Criminal Code 148” the iconographic scheme of the “Expulsion of the Money-Changers” presented in the version of C.H.Bloch, Danish academist of the XIX century is interpreted in the spirit of recent Russian political events around the Pussy Riot punk group. The title refers to the article in the Russian penal code that was the basis of the conviction of young women artists who appeared in the Temple of Christ the Savior in Moscow with an anti-government performance. Modern personae appeared in the composition – Pharisees in fashionable clothes, terrorist girls with weapons (that’s the way the guardians of the regime see these performance girls in their nightmares), etc. New meanings were quite evident. On the outside it all reminds of a well-known practice of the contemporary art – a postmodernist deconstruction as well as political conceptualism. But I think that the most important meaning of the series is hidden deeper. Typological postmodernist procedures usually leave a feeling of utter artificiality, of being intellectually pre-programmed. Mikhaylov’s aim is quite different. He “works upon” not only classical paintings but also upon the emotional and cultural complex of interrelation with them – a sort of new subjectivity. Yes, subjectivity – a fusion of analytical mind and moments of trance, of sudden inspiration. A resource of transcendental is set free – and then new personae are sucked in, as into the funnel, into the classical iconographical schemes and spiritual meanings of evangelical parables. Not only those personae that are painted by the artist but also those left “behind the scenes” – those that belong to the spectators, to the audience. I think that it is just the sucking in”, the impulse where the physical is integrated with the spiritual, that is of most interest to the artist.
This series as a whole seems to be the continuation – let’s recall Agamben’s thesis in the beginning of this article – of the interrelations between the sacral and the profane. Mikhaylov has his own “Museum” as an “exposition of the impossibility to use, live, experience”. And he is searching for his own way to overcome this impossibility, to revive the “practice of use”. In the series “Underground Stories”, for example. We see approximately the same poetics of lightning a-la Caravaggio, to the extent of the achromatic white, adapted to the stained glass principle. The same – maybe more sophisticated – stays the operational base – deconstruction, re-forming, through-citation, editing. In this series the “Museum” (classical works in Mikhaylov’s interpretation) is moved underground, to the subway. It is an ambivalent procedure. On the one hand – can there be a more apparent manifestation of the “profane” in the meaning of Trebatius, that is “out of sacral or religious, that it had been, returned to people for use and possess”. On the other hand – the subway has its own sacral – just remember “the Gods of subterranean” referred to by Agamben. The more so in Moscow, Stalinist subway. (There exists a lot of writings about the symbolic meanings of Moscow subway). So, the protagonists of Mikhaylov’s “Museum” as well as those involved, “sucked in” during the process of “return of the classics to people for use” find themselves “between the hammer and the anvil”. It stipulates the intensity of emotions. They are “authorized” by the artist: sometimes they add to the emotions “forced upon” by the original work from the classical archive (“Museum”), sometimes they lead astray, sometimes they contradict the original. Of course, there are examples of external contemporarization – “The Polite Man”, for example, referring directly to the critical political problems “around Crimea”. But I consider much more important works, painted in the meditative key. This anti-newsworthiness is declared I think in the “Telephone Call from Istanbul”. The basis of the painting is “David beheading Goliath” by Caravaggio, but the original dramatic effect of the plot is ‘canceled”: we hardly see the bodies on the platform. Everyday routine of the subway: policemen lazily calling in, reporting the event. The main theme of the work is the purely emotional alienation. Hence the title without any cause-and-effect relation to the events – “Telephone Call from Istanbul”. Why Istanbul? It’s just a sign of total alienation – does it matter where the call is coming from? The basis for “Downtown Train” is the “Self-portrait” by Deineka, a wonderful master, who sacrificed a lot for the sake of the celestial place on the top of Soviet artistic Olympus. Deineka was a poet of optimism, that in his work associated with athletism, direct victorious action, youth. The artist painted himself in a boxer’s gown with an open chest - not young, but still firm, sportive. Placed in a swaying subway car that is rushing nowhere, this images suddenly gets a dragging existential character: confusion when faced with the sudden insight about the finiteness of the personal existence, ephemery of its durability.
One of the main emotional themes of the series becomes the loneliness. In the “Passing Train” a female image crossed over from the famous “Transfiguration” by Raphael embodies this emotional state: what can be sadder than a lonely woman on the railway tracks… Especially successful examples of the “return to people to use” I consider to be two works onspird by “The Last Supper” by Bassano. Apostles transported “out of Bassano” feel absolutely at home in Moscow subway. Their clothes can not surprise anybody: the subway is the Babylonian mixture of languages. Migrant workers, most likely homeless. They seem immersed in a sort of argument facing each other: “One said, that Our Life is a Train// The Other replied – no, it’s a Platform” (“Before Supper”). In the “After Supper” they are lying head to head on a car seat – image of peace and trust, as if contradicting the theme of alienation, so vibrant in the same series.
Well, Mikhaylov is an artist of balance. Techno- and psycho-, sacral and “profane”, “Museum” and everyday routine. I’m sure this balance will assure his further development.
Head of the Department of Contemporary Art,
State Russian Museum