The Drawings of One Young Artist
In 1916, Nikolai Punin published an article entitled “The Drawings of Several Young Artists” in the journal Apollo. I recall it now not because, I am certain, it remains (despite all the ensuing changes in the content of artistic life) a standard in terms of its insight into the poetics of the works it discusses and its ability to tune its descriptive system to the aesthetic mode. Although in our day and age, when art is appropriated by the discourses of the most varied disciplines, it is especially instructive to track the mastery with which the great critic shows himself to be a “prober” (Vasily Rosanov’s coinage) of aesthetic material. And the master’s historical perspicacity, although not so important now, also warrants our respect: all the “young” artists whom Punin mentions went on to become outstanding artists. In the present context what matters most is that Punin gave a leg up to an entire group of young artists on the basis of their drawings. In Punin’s eyes, the drawing wasn’t a tool for solving large-scale problems outside its realm. Nor was it an indicator of quality or a measure of “maestro” status. The drawing represented nothing more or less than a new quality of artistic thinking. Since that time the descriptive devices developed by Punin have become common currency. However, the master class he conducted in this article has proven to be unsurpassed: before its publication, attitudes to drawing had either been informed by connoisseurship or by functional considerations.
All this came back to me when I first saw Danya Akulin’s large drawings. The young artist has thought through his own relation to drawing with the same uncompromising stance that Punin took when he set out his own relation to the art. Nowadays, the word format is in vogue. The format of Akulin’s drawings is neither functional nor auxiliary. Nor is it narrowly specialized. (In Soviet times, there was just such a mania for dividing artistic practice in terms of technique, medium, and craft: draftsman! water colorist! etcher!) The format of Akulin’s drawings is that of an optical medium.
A native of Saint Petersburg, Akulin was educated in Germany. It would have been hard to pick a more imposing set of teachers: Akulin studied successively with Georg Baselitz and Daniel Richter. I won’t touch on the lyrical aspects of the matter: I simply have no idea who had the most impact on the young artist’s personality. But I can see that it was another Richter who had the most influence on Akulin’s artistic language: Gerhard Richter. A rugged individualist and absolute loner on the German art scene, in his evolution and subsequent returns to his starting point, Gerhard Richter has remained true to one principle: the optical as a means of making the world intelligible. The artist has moved from the hyperrealistic to the hypermediated and back again, making stops along the way, but the optical has been the invariable focus of his work. He has articulated the nature of vision as a kind of media phenomenon. Whether in his grey, almost grisaille-like paintings of the sixties, in which he transubstantiated the most notorious events, or in the nearly abstract, non-objective later paintings, the mode of vision (and Richter has perfect knowledge of the physiology and mechanics of vision) or “optical matter” in its various states has possessed a kind of mediality.
This precise, thoroughly elaborated stance couldn’t have failed to make an impact on Akulin, of course. Among his pieces, there is a portrait-like drawing: a head modeled in relief with chiaroscuro shading. The head rests on even more sketchily drawn shoulders, and the torso has entirely dissolved in the page. As a result, the head optically “punches through” the picture plane. But this isn’t a typical mistake (from the academicist viewpoint: even Repin, in The Zaporozhian Cossacks, was familiar with such “breakthroughs”). It is, I think, a demonstration of ability. If I want to, Akulin seems to say to us, I can produce an absolutely sculptural, relief-modeled head. In our time, this act won’t be perceived as an exercise (there are very few young western artists, or even old artists, technically capable of such serious “sculpting”), but rather as a hyperrealistic device. If I want to, he tells us, I’ll “disappear” into the plane of the page, I’ll be an invisible presence there. (This is likewise the device of actualizing the optical medium that Richter has been so fond of demonstrating.) Such conscious employment of his media at such an early stage in his career is an attractive quality in an artist. Next come Akulin’s monumental drawings (up to three meters in size) on photographic paper and exposed photographic paper. Light-sensitive photo emulsion on paper is, apparently, something the artist values not only for its textural and expressive possibilities. It also retains a particular optical potential. Akulin draws the simplest objects—a chair, for example. This abrupt, radical enlargement isn’t phenomenological in character: the chair qua chair doesn’t concern the artist. What concerns him is the spatial existence of a sufficiently complex form. His drawing is textural and probing: the chiaroscuro modeling thus acquires a bit of weight. That’s right: bunches of pencil strokes differ not only in terms of candlepower, temperature, and structure. They also have different weights. By virtue of this very same weight, dark voids are often more object-like than the objective component of the drawing itself. (This quality can be found in the works of Morandi: the “thingness” of the spaces between objects competes with the objects themselves.)
Akulin has been gradually simplifying the object-content of his drawings. A window sash, a primitive digital read-out, a bar code, a fingerprint, a checkmark—texture acquires particular significance in such works. In the twenties, the term (or rather, image) “surface noise” was used to designate texture. For Akulin, it isn’t “noise” that matters, but tactility, corporeality. The probing motions of his pencil (graphite crayon, sepia brush, etc.) peel away layer after layer, as it were. A particular sense of intimate contact arises. Our tactile-motor reactions are accompanied by altered optical states. In certain works (the checkmark, the bar code, the fingerprint) form is on the verge of disappearance, of optical collapse. But at the same time—at the limits of the eye’s capabilities—this form is self-focusing. It somehow draws the viewer in, forcing him to somnambulistically change his position vis-à-vis the work—to move away, to come closer, to grope for a point of contact. In other works (the window sash, a diagonal slash) form loses corporeality, it floats. And it is in this state of ephemeralness that a metaphysical dimension gradually and insistently makes itself felt.
Recently, it would seem, Akulin has become fascinated with readymade graphic forms. Electronic read-outs, various kinds of official emblems, elements of urban and domestic graphic design. In their original state, they are reduced and de-emotionalized, so to speak. Why does the artist need them? Here the element of competition is obviously crucial: displacement, overcoming obstacles. To give back “visual flesh” to what has been reduced, to return dramatic potential to what is beyond emotion. In this connection, the only thing that comes to mind is Ed Ruscha’s work with the logo of the 20th Century Fox film studio, but his work was bound up with the concerns and norms of Pop Art. Akulin does something else, something outside any particular movement or school. His work is, rather, a ritualistic breathing of life into exhausted, prefab forms.
In Akulin’s monumental, large-format pieces, there is much that remains unrevealed and underdeveloped. One thing is certain, however: the drawings of this one young artist are a fascinating phenomenon. They show us that their maker is blessed with an independent, intelligent optics.