20.02.2015. Exorcism, or Critique of Judgment Revisited

Aleksander Panov

 «…and what about winter? What about snow?»
Gennady Aigi, from the poem «And What a Winter»
(1979) dedicated to Igor Vulokh

It’s difficult to write about Igor Vulokh’s work.
Difficult because it does not fit into the tradition of Russian art, which remains all too narrative and «loquacious» even in its attempts at the abstract and the silent. One will bite one’s lip trying to stifle a sudden outburst of loquacity, yet will manage to babble on, as in the notorious case of «Black Square,» whose creator was strangled by metaphysical meanings and drowned with the philosophical millstone around the neck of the seemingly modest form.
Vulokh, on the other hand, writes no manifestos and gives no pompous speeches at mundane gatherings. Free from any burdens, his art seems to arise from natural necessity alone. Vulokh paints just what he sees, his optics being somewhat excessively original (although can a true artist be reproached with «excessiveness»?!). In the abstract, utterly unpretentious, nomination-like titles of his paintings, sometimes even left as «Untitled» (his favorite!), he appeals to artistic prototypes drawn from reality, such as «Landscape,» «Interior,» «Window,» «Wall,» or to seasons: «Autumn,» «Summer,» «Spring,» «Winter.» Could anything be simpler and more archetypal? Moreover, the «posing» archetype in this abstraction is identifiable and recognizable. It is very much present.
A horizontal line symbolizes the horizon over a wide open space. A vertical line inscribed into the oblong rectangle of the canvas represents a window frame. In his «geometric» paintings, where he looks for new ways of rendering volume, a corner of the studio’s ceiling suddenly emerges as if seen from the outside of the building by an eye delivered from the conventions of space. An unidentified «fragmented» figure mentally materializes into a cigarette butt or a piece of dried-up paint that has posthumously acquired an eye-catching texture. And there’s no passing by Vulokh’s «three-dimensional» paintings, which strive to become the object itself, only compressed. There, pastose white dots, for instance, can represent either snowflakes or snow banks.
It’s all clear and perfectly readable, albeit in the absence of any text. There is nothing but what is shown (and not said). That’s all. All interpretations are of evil, interpreters are not welcome here. One should not «judge» this art in the Kantian sense of the word–it should be «disinterestedly beheld,» to quote the same Kenigsberg author. It is probably no coincidence that Vulokh used the term «arabesques» to refer to his early, still somewhat figurative expressionistic works, and it is precisely the arabesque, a fanciful, aimless, and self-sufficient ornament, that Kant considered the supreme art form.
So Vulokh is an anti-avant-gardist, although art critics tend to compare him to the masters of Russian avant-garde (all the more so as David Burliuk, rather a theorist and promoter of futurism than a practicing futurist himself, graduated from the same Kazan Art School, only about half a century before Vulokh).
Avant-garde gladly succumbs to lengthy interpretations. It can act a cause for a literary declarative statement. Here, language is king, it ecstatically chatters away on the brink of dementia. Vulokh’s art, on the other hand, is silent, calm, autistic, yet it can be converted to its textual version: to poetry, i.e. almost music. It is not by chance that he has created a graphical equivalent of the Swedish poet Tomas Transtremer’s poetry. There is a certain element of that Scandinavian cold meditative melancholy in Vulokh’s aesthetics. Silentium with a view of the Baltic sea, despite the fact that the artist was born in the restless, boiling, multilingual, half-Asian Kazan. Another poet immediately comes to mind: the underground experimenter Gennady Aigi, with whom Vulokh has also worked. They met in 1960, when both were selflessly mastering the literary avant-garde with the aid of Alexey Kruchenykh:

what kind of Might ought you to be
to thus be Still and Silent as though before a storm
in such a miserable wight as I
(«Untitled,» 1978)

Vulokh’s silence is in fact immensely powerful. His intellectual self-humiliation, a kind of ascesis in the name of the abstract «plastic values,» his demonstrative acknowledgement of his own «miserableness,» incarnated in an ostentatious lack of emotion or individuality, his «writing zero degree» (Roland Barthes) – although abstract art, one would think, favors the opposite – all of that is illusory. Vulokh is not verbose, he shuns fancy improvisations, does no heart-rending breast-beating to display the mysterious depths of his soul. Yet, strange as it may seem, he is a very thoughtful artist; thoughtful solely in the sense of «intelligent doing,» as understood by Orthodox mystics-Hesychasts, eternal silentiaries («A wise man sees silence»), and as formulated by St. Gregory Palamas, author of Triad in Defence of the Holy Hesychasts: «inward introduction of intelligence.»
Byzantine Orthodox asceticism, which for centuries has been characteristically referred to as «spiritual art,» comes alive in Vulokh’s painting «Quiet Movement.» In the late 60s and early 70s, by pure coincidence (or was it Divine Disposal?), he worked as an assistant at the Ecclesiastical Academy in Zagorsk. However, he does not pray silently in the back of his mind to foster the «preservation of intelligence,» nor does he «shut the door of his cell,» following Simeon the Stylite, since he is open to the real world that he transforms in his art. He is composing an infinite poem, thriftily divided into lines and verses. Incidentally, Alexander Blok, when reading «Philokalia,» wrote on its margins: «I know, I know it all.»
Vulokh really is neither a lampooner nor an essay writer. He is not an art philosopher. He is a visual poet. His art must be measured by lyrical laws.
Not only a film director and a communist revolutionary, but also a practicing Christian poet Pier Paolo Pasolini once wrote:
«…poetry uses signs from various semantic fields adjusting them to one another, often despotically. Hence it does something similar to the stratification of every sign which connects every layer with the meaning of a sign taken from another semantic field, but united in advance (by the demon) with others.»

This sophisticated quasi-scholarly excerpt came to mind when I was looking at Vulokh’s drawings and paintings laid out for the present retrospective: from the early figurative work done by him as a student, to the very latest ones, geometry and lines. Observing the artist’s evolution, you cannot help but feel that it is precisely this semiotic «stratification» (distribution) that he is concerned with more and more consistently. He segments the space of his paintings and drawings into individual components, harmoniously uniting the non-unitable, spreading monochrome or colored motley layers whose ghostly shimmer is confined by the size of the canvas or paper. This truly «intelligent,» intellectual labor, however, defies any calculation or description. It is that wise effort that in the end results in some sort of disengaged naturalness giving birth to a Ding an sich (Kant again!), taken for granted and requiring no comment. In fact, this is what poetical creation is all about.
Pasolini, on the other hand, who was probably uncomfortable with his lyrical talent, affirmed that a mystical demon is responsible for the stratification and re-unification. For Vulokh, it is God. The one who has appeared in the internal prayer, who is pantheistically dissolved in the landscape seen from the window and who looms invisibly above the horizon. Untold and ineffable, yet so clearly present, he is apophatically provable by the very silence about him.
Igor Vulokh’s taciturn art exorcizes demons from poetry, giving it back its divine dimension. Exorcism tolerates no onlookers. This is why it is hard to write about Vulokh’s art, about this purified outcome of the ambivalent work of the spirit and conscience. It is indeed pure as white winter snow, despite the richness of colour, incredibly transparent even given its visible, oppressive saturation.
But how he manages to combine thoughtfulness, rationality, geometry, and even realism, which he understands in his own peculiar way, with a paradoxical ghostliness and mysticism, a volatility of definitions and sensations – that is all a mystery. All I can do now is conclude, as I have begun – thanks to the Aigi quotation – with a question mark: ?