Contemporary art on the net

Old New

No time!
It was just a little ordinary fly with grey wings.
Just that and nothing more.
But more than once, it gave me a pleasant minute while it lived.

Knut Hamsun

Diana Machulina's series of paintings made up of huge canvases under the general title Old New is a statement on a large scale. In it, equally important are both the form (color, composition, and citational iconography of each of the paintings, which should seem to be of marginal concern to a "contemporary art" artist) and content (existential philosophical message free of geographic or art market concerns). This classical unity of technical finesse and semantic fullness, which exists outside of time and has no regional address, refers Machulina's "new" project back to the "old" artistic tradition. This is the first chronological paradox, not counting the title. Additionally, this "edge of your seat thrills" genre painting has an at first glance paradoxical, but immediate melancholy forerunner in the longue durée; namely, the Dutch Baroque still-life with the insistent theme of vanitas and an austere Calvinist sensitivity. The curling rind of a half-peeled lemon in the paintings of Heda, Kalf, or Claes easily rhymes with the strip of sticky fly-paper, which becomes the constant "character" of Machulina's series. On her canvases, the golden band, which has become the last refuge of ubiquitous "vectors of sickness" replaces at times the ribbon in the hair of an angelic girl, at times the tinsel on a Christmas tree, at times the finishing line of a record-breaking runner, at times the information tape of a telex. And just as in the Dutch paintings, it symbolizes the meaninglessness of that towards which fussy humans are rushing with fly-like rapidity; that which will anyway be carried off by the stream of the river of ages. The sinful, pointless, futile desire for a New god of modernity, who takes the form of a sports record, a journalist's "breaking news," the endless Russian holiday lasting from the 1st until the 13th of January (hence the literal meaning of the project's title) 1, an exhibition opening, a wedding, or a fashion show became the subject of Machulina's images. The young artist, with some otherworldly wisdom and aloofness gazes upon the surrounding vain world, which reminds her of the chaotic milling of insects. The allegorical, carefully executed canvases seem to have come from a different time. Or, more precisely, with their misanthropic pathos, they reject all temporal categories as such. And thus belong to the type of contemporary art in which chronology has become one of the most relevant themes. Or, to be more exact, what has become the theme is the problematic nature of chronology, of the "web of intentionalities," to quote Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
Diana Machulina paints large, serious paintings that should inspire trust with their thoroughness (in our particular case, we are speaking of the Old New series, since she is, after all, a multifaceted artist). And this is conscious atavism, which is also a way of overcoming a temporal barrier. Because a painting today, despite all the assurances of art critics and dealers about the "return of painting," has become just one of many carriers of aesthetic information, having been squeezed in by photography, video, and performance. And it is precisely these genres that have demonstrated the importance of Chronos, forcing us simultaneously to look at a painting differently and to appreciate how incredibly comfortable it is. If a painted canvas is stationary and static, demanding of the viewer a reciprocal stillness for a couple of minutes at most, then video, which sometimes lasts for hours, demands either maniacal concentration or an indifferent ease with which the spectacle is consciously filtered. Photography is a "frozen moment," an accidental eruption of Being, which already problematizes the position of the author whose achievement is found not in his diligence, but in the professional sharpness of his eye; if a painter is like a convict in a labor camp, a photographer is like a thief. As for performance, it is a substance so ineffable and ephemeral, living only in the present moment "here and now," that the viewer has to perform miracles of attentiveness and responsiveness. The "object-observer" relationship with a painting presents a logical fragment in a "world picture" harmonious in its classical stability, one in which nothing happens and time passes smoothly and imperceptibly; whereas in contemporary art in all of its genres, there is a temporal breakdown. A question hangs in the air: "What is to be done, how to work with this?"; a question urgent both for the producer and the consumer of the art product. And the question mark here equals to the mark of time, drawn by the buzzing, dashing flight of a fly.
Diana Machulina's paintings halt this flight both in terms of figuration (the flies which have been frozen in the sticky paper forever) and figuratively (again, "oil on canvas" instead of new technologies). The very term "time" is abolished here due to its vainness and chaotic unseemliness. The static, monumental imagery of characters and things from the canvases of Old New series, which, after all, does use quite dynamic subject matter, does not just play at recognizable borrowings from the sacred classics (e.g. the runner crossing the finishing line freezes in the pose of Crucifixion, the ribbon in the girl's is akin to a halo, the phallic bouquet thrown by the bride evokes the scene of Annunciation, and the photographers next to the podium freeze in the pose of praying supplicants in frescoes). This might be neoclassicism on its own. But it also might be that the term "classicism" is not appropriate since time has disappeared for Diana Machulina due to its obsolescence. And then, the dichotomy of "old-new" disappears on its own, merging in an achronological ecstasy in the very title of the series. Diana Machulina offers an apophatic "Chronology" (I am borrowing this word in its broader sense from the Daniel Birnbaum's eponymous book), a definition of time arrived at by finding that which it is not. There is no time, the canvases declare. And thereby remind us again about the impossibility of removing it. And about its eternal relevance; both to art and to man, until he turns into a fly, suspended eternally on a sticky golden ribbon.
Art longa, vita brevis est.

1 Due to the very late replacement of the Julian calendar, used by the Russian Orthodox Church, with the Gregorian calendar after the Revolution of 1917, there is still a tradition today of celebrating New Year's on the days where it would fall in both the new and old style calendars. KG

Fyodor Romer

Translation: Ksenya Gurshtein

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