The Inner Person
| || | Philipp Kondratenko Opening March 4, 2009, 6 p.m. Guelman Projects, M.Polyanka str. 7/7-5
| || Exhibition is open March 5 Ц 29, 2009 |
2-8 p.m. daily, except Monday and Tuesday
I first heard about his work during a conversation with Alyona Kirtsova about whether or not high-quality painting was possible today, among the young generation of artists. Alyona suddenly remembered a very nice townscape that she had seen at the home of Natalia Sipovskaya. Although neither Alyona nor Natalia knew the artist's name, Natalia was able to provide us with the telephone number of Elena Basner. In St Petersburg, she gave us the contact details of the artist Ц Philipp Kondratenko.
Before going to meet him, I keyed Philipp's name into the Yandex search engine, which threw up photographs of smoky, nominal urbanscapes. This was what I expected to see when I went to his apartment on the Old Nevsky Prospekt, where one of the rooms had been turned into a studio.
Upon entering the artist's studio, however, I had to forsake my preliminary opinions and notions of Kondratenko's oeuvre. I was almost appalled when, instead of intimate, intellectual, purely "Petersburg" works, I encountered some gawky red things on large, more or less unprimed canvases. Their quantity and size were too great to justify them, for example, as studies for later, more "finished" works.
Attempting to conceal my confusion, I asked to see the townscapes that I had seen in the internet, and was shown a huge bundle of canvases removed from their stretchers (the only possible way of keeping them all in the room). These paintings were not like the work of a young artist at all. They were more like those of a mature, established master who, over years of academic studies, had developed his own "far-sighted" approach to the urbanscape, resulting in deliberately nominal, geometric images of the city.
The artist's painterly mastery was evident Ц the light brushstrokes creating the watercolour effect; the brilliantly constructed compositions, contributing to the sensation of rapid movement, spinning the viewer inside the depicted space. The possible subsequent development of his artistic style could also be envisaged Ц even greater nominality of the image and a transition to regular geometric compositions, deprived of any connotations with the realities of life.
At this point, Philipp produced another roll of canvases. He said that, having abandoned urbanscapes, he had spent the last couple of years working on a new series of virtually monochrome black/white works.
This stage in Kondratenko's oeuvre had virtually nothing in common with the urbanscapes. One felt that the artist had suddenly, for some reason, rejected the most successful and effective achievements of the preceding period. There were no longer any tender pastel hues or deft compositions. The canvases were completely covered in dark coats of paint, uneven in colour, only occasionally interrupted by light patches reminiscent of oculars. The impression of a dark counterpane was increased by the traces of the stretchers left on the canvas in virtually all the works, erasing the paintwork along the lines of the inner bars.
The artist thus rejected the logical and self-suggestive geometric line of development. Instead of inner experiments with the image, he seemed to take a step to one side Ц in order to look at the picture from aside, to see with the eye of an uninitiated, non-professional, almost Tolstoyan viewer. 1 What he saw was a strange engineering construction on a frame, recalling a dark and dusty stage set, one that nevertheless laid claim to its own optical revelations, insights and enlightenments.
Although calm and detached, the artist's gaze concealed great charm. Notwithstanding all the apparent rationality, it was neither cynical nor cold. His dark canvases, machines for meditations, ungainly and incongruous, are a world away from the fake attractions created with the help of scores of workers by Ilya Kabakov. 2
Kondratenko's interpretation is closer to Magritte's approach to the picture, whereby the position of the external observer paradoxically combines with the artist's deep personal sympathy for the issues surrounding the image. Despite their irregular forms, the holes and gaps in his canvases do not lose their most important aspect Ц the function of a window Ц just as the asymmetric and crooked windows of Novgorod architecture do not detract from their sacral role.
The relationship between the nominal elements of Philipp's earlier urbanscapes and the light-coloured holes can be likened to the relationship between the object and its interpretation. The difference, however, is cardinal. When addressing the question of vision as such, the most abstracted representational motif always comes second.
This qualitative advancement in the development of Kondratenko's painting helped me to finally accept the next turn in his oeuvre Ц the aforementioned red abstract works, which I first saw when visiting his studio. After an hour spent perusing the black series, the artist simply pointed at them with the words: "This is what I am doing right now."
There were many red bubbles, patches, cones and segments Ц much more than was hanging on the studio walls. Although circular white gaps were also present in this series, the richness and activeness of the red background did not leave any room for their meditative interpretation. In the red series, the white (light) tone is secondary, with the main load of meaning carried by the red, claret and lilac forms.
Once again, the central role is assigned to the object, rather than the direction of the gaze, as in the black canvases. Regarding the "objectivity" of Philipp Kondratenko's red forms, the only thing that makes them so is the energy of the colour, which is too insistent and implicit, like a concrete object, such as a stool or suitcase.
The development of Philipp Kondratenko's painting might be described in the form of a logical triad Ц thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis. This is far more meaningful than a simple attestation of a transition from urbanscapes to abstract motifs.
Abstractionism as such Ц with laws and concepts separate from all other painting Ц does not exist. Whenever one wants to employ this term, it is worth investigating what concrete desire, sensation, knowledge or world-view lies behind it. It is irrelevant that the distance between the interpretation and the image is greater than in the case of an easily recognisable image. History shows that even such indisputable objects as shoes can be misleading Ц yet such a mistaken interpretation was unable to deprive Heidegger's analytical text of legitimacy. 3
In Philipp Kondratenko's red series, the geometric figures are far removed from the rectangles that he once placed in his urbanscapes, treading the fine line between reality and nominality. Regarding the external critical discourse, however, the elements of the urbanscapes and the red forms are equivalents. This seems to be the main message of the artist Ц the objectivity of a painterly image is stipulated not by the fact of its recognition by the viewer, but by the intention of the artist to depict that object.
1 See the description of an opera as seen through the eyes of Natasha Rostova at the end of Book Two of War and Peace.
2 A reference to Ilya and Emilia Kabakov's Alternative History of Art exhibition, held in Moscow in 2008, where pictures in various styles, including black abstract works, were painted on behalf of three imaginary artists.
3 A reference to Martin Heidegger's mistake in his article The Origin of the Work of Art, in which the depicted shoes are not really peasant boots, but those of Van Gogh himself.