DENIS MIKHAYLOV: PAST INTO PRESENT  

 

Time present and time past

are both perhaps present in time future

and time future contained in time past.                  

 T. S. Elliot, Burnt Norton, I

 

It was the last hour of the last day of the 2012 Art Miami Fair. Rounding a corner I came across the booth of Dmitriy Semenov, a Moscow gallery. Hanging on an outside wall was a most unusual painting, one based on Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes in the Galleria Nazionale in Roma. It was, for me, one of the most intriguing paintings at the fair not solely because of the Old Master reference but also because of the unusual way it was painted, in a manner reminiscent of stained glass. I was introduced to the artist Denis Mikhaylov and that encounter with subsequent discussions led to the invitation to write an essay for this catalogue, one that I happily accepted as it provided the opportunity to study his career from the beginning to the present, a trajectory one could hardly have predicted looking only at the first 20 years of his work.  This book includes new paintings from three series each of which represent a new direction.

 

MONOTYPES

 

Monotypes is a group of ten black and white paintings of the human figure handled in a  “realistic” manner, images that opened a new representational path radically different from Mikhaylov’s earlier, flat rather primitive, cartoon-like style with simplified outlines rendered in un-modulated, bold colors.  However, Monotypes are hardly figure studies in the academic sense - studio poses meant to master the human form. Rather, these paintings were inspired by Mikhaylov’s chance encounter with black and white photographs: Thus his decision to use a monochromatic palette. But Mikhaylov was even more intrigued by the play of light and shadow on the figures’ surfaces. Here, I suspect, lies the origin of the “stained glass” technique – a eureka moment – carried forward in the Gamble with Classics series. By employing pools of light and dark on figures set against a pitch black background, Mikhaylov at once highlighted the body’s classical form and dematerialized it by fragmentary surface illumination making them “lifelike” but also mysterious, all the more so as the images themselves are unusual, evoking in the spectator an emotional response and narratives charged with erotic overtones (Catholic Girls, Altar Boy, No Name); cryptic action (Horse Latitudes, Love Me Two Times, Invitation to the Blues, Hold On, Was Alive); or athletic allusions (Arc of a Jump, No Name [Jack Knife Dive].

 

GAMBLE WITH CLASSICS

 

“And I decided to conduct an experiment – to make my favorite classics  [Old Master paintings] live in the modern world. So I added new characters, new stories to their works.  I began to experiment with their images …….in the painting called Michel and Angelo, …I added one more incarnation to the Virgin Mary – a sort of inner voice.” *

*Excerpt from an Interview with Denis Mikhaylov

 

The title of Mikhaylov’s series, Gamble with Classics, suggests the inherent danger of returning to the Old Masters for inspiration, for doing so can be a gamble, a risk the artist’s vision will be absorbed by its source, obscured by a familiar classic.  He quotes Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Guido Reni, Rembrandt, Raphael, and Jacopo Bassano, among others – artists whose art forms part of our collective consciousness. These familiar images call to mind not only great paintings but also their religious themes.

 

“Religion is the most aggressive entity in the world. Maybe that’s why I take these characters – their energy is so strong that it allows them to exist in the Metro, and in the modern world, and to co-exist with other characters.”  

*Excerpt from an Interview with Denis Mikhaylov

 

Mikhaylov’s goal is not simply to pay homage to the Old Masters. Rather his intention is to recharge our modern environment by jump-starting our aesthetic batteries and shocking our spiritual senses with visual charges from the past that demand to be interpreted for each one tells a tale. Mikhaylov is a gambler linking past to present. How does he play his hand so skillfully?

 

Part of his solution lay in the mode of representation first explored in Monotypes. However, Mikhaylov abandoned black and white and followed the polychrome palette of his Old Master sources. Discrete, irregular areas of varying color and tone defined by dark borders create chromatic islands, an archipelago forming figures emerging from the darkness into the bright, Caravaggesque light.  As noted above, this technique is inspired by stained glass windows where each section of colored glass is fitted with a lead collar then fused with others to create a luminous, multi-figured composition.  In appropriating elements of Old Master compositions Mikhaylov extracts them from their original context and relocates them in the present. Merging religious themes with a mode of representation referring to stained glass suggests the observer occupies a special space, a spiritual space similar to the interior of a chapel, an effect enhancing the painting’s aura and meaning.

Sometimes, these works are accompanied by quotations from Socialist Realist art creating a jarring fusion of past and present: Biblical, Soviet, current.  I Never Talk to Strangers, based on Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of St. Francis, anachronistically contains two armed soldiers reminiscent of Viktor Safronov’s Socialist Realist warriors. But they exist in our time, here and now. The title of this painting is derived from the first chapter of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Soviet era novel, The Master & Margarita first published in 1967 almost 30 years after the author’s death. The multilayered structure of Bulgakov’s work is echoed in this series:  debate on existence of Christ; religious themes; the juxtaposition of New Testament and Soviet periods; magical spaces; questions of belief, doubt, love and hope; the conflation of good and evil; the sometimes ambiguous nature of evil itself.   A kneeling, penitent soldier holds a submachine gun, like the praying St. Jerome lovingly cradles his crucifix in numerous Renaissance paintings, as he witnesses this miraculous event. His companion having rushed forward bayonet fixed red banner billowing behind, halts and looks on. Does his action signal antipathy, spiritual connection, or indifference? There is something perplexing about these works for they offer a narrative embracing multiple and mysterious realities just as Bulgakov’s novel does. What does it all mean? One cannot help but think of Winston Churchill’s 1939 quotation: “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

The Massacre of the Innocents is based on Guido Reni’s painting of the same subject. Mikhaylov has removed from the center of the composition the mother with a dead baby at her feet looking imploringly heavenward and added a shouting, young, modern woman with a taped fist.  The girl delivers a powerful right cross to a man’s face, the force of her punch catapulting his head backward blood spewing from his mouth. Is this a comment on the tumultuous nature of male/female relationships set within the context of the New Testament narrative, the massacre of a modern innocent, a turning of the tables on an abusive man?   The mother has been substituted with a crouching Soviet soldier cradling his machine gun  (the same soldier seen in I Never Talk to Strangers) as he looks sadly at the dead, bleeding baby – a contemporary counterpoint to the ruthless assassins doing King Herod’s bloody bidding. We are bounced backward and forward in time as we try to untangle the story and its multiple meanings.

Criminal Code 148 refers to Danish painter Carl Heinrich Bloch’s (1834-1890), Casting out the Money Changers from the Temple. Article 148, passed by the Duma in the aftermath of the Pussy Riot controversy, makes illegal any words or actions offending religious sensibilities.  The irony is that under this law, the gun toting figures Mikhaylov has added could arrest Christ Himself for His attack on the corrupt religious practices of the day – a comment on the cozy nature of church/state relations in Russia.

Last Supper Interrupted   is based on 16th century Spanish artist’s Vicente Juan Masip’s Last Supper with the addition of two soldiers taken from Evgeni Shirokov’s famous Socialist Realist painting, For the Motherland. At the center where Christ should be holding aloft the Eucharist a computer box has been substituted with options to: “CUT, COPY, COPY MERGED, PASTE, PASTE SPECIAL, CLEAR.” Anything you want can be pasted in to replace the original “IDEA”, and the State’s forces will be there to support the new ideology.

The source for Ioan and Karla is Caravaggio’s St. John the Baptist.  The Baptist sits on the edge of a sleeping pallet to which Mikhaylov has added an attractive, nude sleeping woman.  His wilderness abode, marked by bare tree branches in the background, is shared with an alluring, recumbent woman with luscious lips who he gazes upon in a manner suggestive of many possible narratives, not all spiritual, reflecting the complicated and conflicting nature of man’s desires, as we know from St. Augustine’s Confessions.

An attractive young woman sits on the edge of a bed holding the limp body of a young man on her lap in Michel and Angelo, a reference to Michelangelo’s Pietá at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  At the left, another attractive woman looks on impassively. The connection to Michelangelo clearly suggests religious content but the uncertain identities of the beautiful women, the locus of action in the present, and the title may also imply a narrative more carnal than spiritual or may just as well allude to an inner dialogue of the Virgin Mary.

Pietá refers to Lorenzo Lotto’s painting of the same title. However, here Nicodemus, the old, bearded man seen over Christ’s left shoulder staring out at us as he supports the body, has been replaced by a Ninja-like figure whose blue eyes directly engage the viewer with a mesmerizing stare. Only the visible portion of his face and Christ are rendered in flesh tones - the angels in celestial red – so both are clearly of our world, if not of the same time. But is he an assassin who has participated in Christ’s execution, or a mysterious, secret contemporary observer demanding that we consider the timeless significance of what we see before us, even against laws or social norms that forbid such contemplation?

Madonna dell’Impannata is based on Raphael’s painting of the same name. Here the Baby Jesus has been removed from the center of the composition and replaced by a computer screen directing the viewer to choose: “Background or Select Similar Layers.” As in Last Supper Interrupted, we can delete the center of the narrative - the heart of meaning - and paste in a new text that may be a perversion of or have no bearing on the original message and so introduce a completely different reality in the guise of accepted “truth.”

Banquet at the House of Simon is based on Bernardo Strozzi’s painting of the same subject. Mikhaylov has endowed thirteen figures with the features of Vladimir Putin. The irony is that Christ, who in the Gospel of Luke, forgives the woman of ill fame all her sins, appears as Putin. So does almost every other figure in this large composition. And the kneeling woman is one of the girls from Pussy Riot who is washing Putin’s feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. Such is the power of Putin and entourage, who control everything, that he can pardon her “transgressions” and set her “free”!

 

UNDERGROUND STORIES

 

“The Moscow Metro was one of the USSR’s most extravagant architectural projects. Stalin ordered the Metro’s artists and architects to design a structure that embodied svet (radiance or brilliance) and svetloe budushchee (a radiant future). With their reflective marble walls, high ceilings and grandiose chandeliers, many Moscow Metro stations have been likened to an “artificial underground sun”. This underground communist paradise reminded its riders that Stalin and his party had delivered something substantial to the people in return for their sacrifices. Most importantly, proletarian labor produced this svetloe budushchee.”  Wikipedia, Moscow Underground

 

The collision of old and new, their startling fusion seen in Gamble with Classics is continued in Underground Stories with public settings whose grandeur call to mind Renaissance and Baroque cathedrals – but in spaces built to replace sacred buildings with structures for the new Communist religion. The style is as different as the location of the previous series: Here the colors are flat, almost un-modulated with drapery folds indicated by short, broken black lines – no longer like stained glass - but evoking digitally manipulated photographs. Quotations from Old Master paintings intersect with quotidian subway scenes inserting ethical observations into a subterranean netherworld filled with contradictions between the real and ideal; the ordinary and the exalted; anger and indifference; hope and despair as a quick review of the subjects shows.

On the Way to Dinner: The two figures draw upon Apostles by Jacopo Bassano in a painting of the Last Supper. Here, instead of discussing the meaning of Christ’s words at table, they converse across the aisle: An incongruous juxtaposition - apostles riding a subway car perhaps on the way to the Last Supper. And just what are they discussing; the results of the World Cup; the situation in the Ukraine; transubstantiation and the promise of salvation? We are invited to look beyond the shock of fusion – secular present with religious past –to a narrative freighted with many potential meanings.

Engagement: The painting is based on one by William-Adolphe Bouguereau in the Musée d’Orsay, which was inspired by a short scene from Inferno set in the eighth circle of Hell (the circle for falsifiers and counterfeiters), where Dante, accompanied by Virgil, watches a fight between two damned souls: Capocchio, a heretic and alchemist is attacked and bitten on the neck by Gianni Schicchi who had usurped the identity of a dead man in order to fraudulently claim his inheritance.

 

“But no fury of Thebes or Troy was ever seen so cruel against any, rending beasts and even limbs of men, as I saw two pallid and naked shades, which ran biting like the hog loosed from the sty. The one came at Capocchio and set its fangs in the nape of his neck, then, dragging him, made his belly scrape on the hard bottom.

Inferno, Canto XXX 24-30.”

 

The violent attack witnessed by Dante and Virgil has been relocated to the Metro. Instead of the poet and his guide watching the assault as they do in Bouguereau’s painting, here two men visible through open doors, stand inside the subway car oblivious to the scene on the platform, an example of urban callousness and indifference, a scene based on the artist’s experience of two homeless men fighting in the Metro – their personal Hell.

Passing Train: The female figure on the tracks is a quotation of the kneeling woman in the foreground of Raphael’s Transfiguration.   She looks at the Apostles at her left who stare in amazement toward the possessed boy she points to about to be cured by Christ, a physical and spiritual doctor. Mikhaylov has reversed the geography of Raphael’s painting from a high mount, site of the transfiguration, to the tracks of the Moscow Metro. Christ is the vehicle that carries us from the earthly to the heavenly realm just as the subway is the vehicle that carries us from place to place underground. The subway is no substitute for Christ but a reminder that our life’s journey is not simply physical but can be laden with the promise of spiritual healing.

After Supper is based on a photograph recently taken by Mikhaylov while riding in the Metro. Two sleeping drunks (?) lying head to head in the early morning hours have been transformed into sleeping Apostles resting on their way to the next gathering. There is a beautiful symmetry about this painting, peaceful and comforting, a transformation of the mundane into the mystical.

Telephone Call from Istanbul: The Old Master source is Caravaggio’s David Beheading Goliath in the Prado Museum, Madrid. Two policemen – one taking a call on his cell phone – are oblivious to or just ignore the violent beheading happening before their eyes suggesting that, even in this underground wonderland, people have become inured to cruelty and death.

I’m On My Way: Michelanglo’s Pietá now is set in a subway car rather than on an altar – an incongruous, even disturbing sight, but one even more apt to shock us into contemplation and self analysis. Moscow’s Metro becomes a cathedral, the subway a moving chapel; the subway car a portable altar confronting the traveler with one of the most iconic images in the history of art, one whose meaning of self-sacrifice and salvation suddenly appears before us as the doors open and we board the train. We might ask of the painting’s title: “On my way to where?”

John When You Dream: From Caravaggio’s St. John the Baptist. The Baptist is now seated in a subway car looking off to his left, a desert hermit riding the Metro, recoiling from something or someone unseen. Is he dreaming; what is he dreaming; why would the Baptist dream in a subway car; or is he in fact our modern alter ego projected through the precursor of Christ?

Can’t See My Face In Your Mind: Source is El Greco’s, Christ Healing the Blind   here set in one of the grand galleries of the Metro where the miracle occurs with hardly a notice from busy travelers absorbed with their own problems as they rush to catch a train to their final destination.

Let’s Dance: from Jan Brueghel’s Feast of Achelous. Two of the scantily clad serving women from Bruegehel’s lavish dinner scene disembark from a subway car and make their way down the platform possibly to attend a party at a friend’s flat; a strange sight causing us wonder, curiosity, and concern at the meaning of this “out of their time” presence.

The Underground Watch: Two central figures from Rembrandt’s Night Watch stand on the tracks in the center foreground back-lit by the lights of a distant station or the headlamps of an oncoming train: The triumphal arch in Rembrandt’s painting has been replaced by a dirty tunnel receding into the distance, the very antithesis of the Night Watch’s setting, an ironic reversal of its classical architecture and prosperous burgher society.

 

In these last two series of paintings Mikhaylov presents visually rich, complex and historically nuanced images drawing on religious themes of famous Old Master and Social Realist works. He reminds us of the complicated nature of belief throughout history as well as in our daily lives and in so doing ponders the ever-evolving status not only of the “New Soviet Man” the hero of Socialist Realist art, and the “New Russian Man” of today, but also Modern Man everywhere.  One wonders if Bulgakov and Mikhaylov had Chekhov’s story of The Student in mind where the seminary student’s tale of Peter’s denial of Christ brings to tears two village women. “’The past is linked to the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of the other.’ and it seemed to him [the student] that he had just seen both ends of that chain;  that when he touched one end the other quivered.”  And Chekhov noted further “truth and beauty that guided human life there in the garden and in the courtyard of the high priest have endured to this very day and evidently have always been the most important thing in human life.”  Denis Mikhaylov is an artist whose talent, informed by the past, equals his insight into our complicated and often confusing human condition, a condition where conflicting realities and differing philosophies distill good and evil into an intoxicating potion that can confound the intellect and the soul. By anchoring his art in the past, he illuminates the present and shows us a path to the future.

 

Dr. Michael P. Mezzatesta

The Mary D.B.T. and James H. Semans Director Emeritus

Duke University Museum of Art

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