THE VESTIGE OF REALITY

There is nothing comparable to the lure coming from a yet unpainted canvas. It swarms with possibilities and at the same time is impenetrable in its blankness. The first brushstroke has always posed a real problem, while nowadays such complications seem almost insurmountable. For if before it was a question of an artist's inner necessity, today's painting, especially realistic painting, has to reestablish itself in the light of external constraints.

It is indeed no secret that the very paradigm of painting — its image of a window open onto the world — has undergone a drastic transformation: no longer can we indulge in the illusion of reality offered by a three-dimensional pictorial representation. Mentally alerted by the newest trends in art which teach us to ponder on our own sensations, we, the community of present-day spectators, are likely to treat painting instrumentally — not as the Art, but rather as a medium coexisting with so many other expressive means. Which is to say that painting has become self-referential, even if it is still produced from life. What is thus made visible is not a play of discernable forms or more abstract color relations. Instead, we are prone to "see" the underlying concept — precisely that of Painting — which has admittedly come to an end. This moment of disaffection is essentially historical: painting is placed in a contextual framework. In a way, at least as a privileged art practice, it doesn?t exist any more.

But even if painting has turned into a sign of painting, which is clearly seen in contemporary multi-level installations (the most dramatic example being that of Ilya Kabakov), even then the incomparable pleasure of painting persists. What is implied, however, is not a private pastime. It is true that the practice of painting is presently deprived of the scope it once possessed. What, in fact, are the ways of realism in recent times? It would seem that it has been completely and irrevocably discredited by the totalitarian regimes which placed it at the service of their respective ideologies. And, to continue, after World War Two experiment in art has taken other than realistic paths. Which means that paradoxically realism exists by way of an omission, a void, a vacant space. Realism is "not there" for the simple reason that it does not give ample food for thought, that it remains regretfully under-conceptualized. (Whereas realism in the second degree, be it hyperrealism or the so-called sots art, is all the more tangible in making use of realistic codes.) Where then does the above-mentioned pleasure of painting reside?

The repertoire of realistic images appears complete and fixed. Any contemporary artist who chooses to work in this vein is inevitably citing: he or she is recurring to realism as a powerful cliche. The artist's originality is given in reverse: first comes the impersonal and only then the individual or proper. Moreover, individuality is measured not so much by talent in the traditional sense, but rather by the artist's capacity for combining and arranging that which happens to preexist, i.e. compositional, generic, stylistic and other elements of realistic painting. It would seem that such an artist is engaged in producing a copy: he or she is forever denied the right of invention. Yet, we have come to understand today that the most peculiar is constituted (if not sustained) by the most unattainable and remote, and it is precisely this sense of vagueness or indetermination typical of a life that at once informs the latter with a host of possibilities and creates conditions for identity and individuality, including their manifestations in the realm of art. If, in the spirit of the French philosopher G. Deleuze, we consider realism as an impersonal "block of sensations" (he would call it "percept"), we may find a way of unraveling the mystery of realistic painting: What is it that accounts for the tenacity of realism and, in the final outcome, allows it to withstand the erosion of time?

Blocks of sensations belong to no one. They are in contrast with the feelings one might experience in front of a painting. Rather, they are extensions of our very sensibility and, as such, necessarily open toward the new. They point to zones of indeterminacy in a living being, connecting him to the inhuman forces that emerge in places and things. Percepts then are scraps of experience which can never fit into a single whole and resist all forms of linear depiction. They are traces of encounters, traces of the overwhelming tides of life. Color can become a percept. So can subject matter. And, evidently, so can a trend. The percept of realism in painting may be indicative of a turn in our relation to external social reality: what is implied is a changing vision of the document.

Documents have always been regarded as the epitome of objectivity, because they necessarily convey the truth. But the very notion of the documentary may be associated with different material means. Ever since its advent, photography, an ideal double of reality, has undoubtedly taken the lead: indeed, it certifies a presence in the most remarkable way. However, before the invention of photography it was the newspaper reportage that played a similar role. To this we may add Russian 19th century genre painting which told stories from real life. The idea of the documentary then is grasped as evolving toward a combination with ever more reliable means of depicting reality. It turns out, though, that the document, irrespective of its material support, is virtually imbued with fiction. For us to read a photograph as historical (to say nothing of writing and painting), a distortion should be implied. This distortion of what may seem the perfectly objective image has to do with the unseen instance of time. For time is imprinted not so much in conspicuous details, but rather in the atmosphere — something never given to the eye directly, yet forming the conditions of an historically truthful sight. This something is definitely not a code. Rather, it is a trace of collective emotions, a community presenting itself through affect.

Today's realistic painting, among other phenomena, seems to be reflecting a renewed interest in the past. It is the awakening of historical consciousness, at least in the people living in this country. Which does not mean that realism is turned into a piece of evidence pointing to things other than itself (in terms of time or substance), for example the makings of a style or the demands of propaganda. If it is treated as a percept, the time of realism is yet to come. And in today's paintings we should sense a tension which is at the very heart of the objective: truth is given only in as much as it is constituted by the variable, the indeterminate in its own content. This instability of truth, its constant relapse into its opposite is precisely where history comes in by way of pure eventuality. To underscore: realistic painting is at odds with itself, every new painting is always already a copy. Yet, there is no supreme or independent truth of the original, the original being restated, and hence produced, in each new work. And such is the "truth" of the moment.

Every painter knows, in one way or another, that a finished work is always an extension of the visible. In the words of the French phenomenologist J.-L. Marion, it is a saturated phenomenon, pointing to the limits of our vision. Born of the world, the painting has no memory of its own beginnings. Never an object among others, it is self-contained and complete in its visual existence. And it is this singular phenomenon that seems to emit its mute appeal from a still unpainted canvas. (Here the two meanings of "appeal" happily come together.)

Vladimir Sokovnin is well aware of the ways of painting. His realistic manner is neither deliberate nor naive: it springs from inner necessity. At the same time it is the test to which he puts his abilities — the tension between color and form is all the more dramatic when form is restrictive of color. For Sokovnin, though, realism is not a kind of ready-made. Rather, it is the function or effect of purely painterly relations: form comes into being only through juxtaposition. Which means that, if deprived of its support, it may easily dissolve into the background. Forms maintain each other not only in a single work, but also across separate canvases. The artist's relational drive is so strong that in conceiving future works he describes them in terms of absent relations: a sky without the necessary support of the ground, a thicket with nothing to be set against it. Forms acquire volume and density only with respect to others, and realism is a sort of photographic frame. Framing a piece of reality, however, inherently implies its transformation. For realism is not the way we "see". It is simply one of the possible modes of coming to terms with the Formless.

 

Russian Academy of Sciences
Helen Petrovsky, Ph.D