“Apologia of Post-modernism or the Decline of Uzbek Painting”. This was the title of my article written in the middle of 2006; it has not been published, although some of its provisions have been reflected in other publications. (See A. Khakimov. Clip and Video-art: the artifacts of mass and elite consciousness // Clip and Video-art: language stratification. Colloquium 2. Seminar presentations and transcript. Tashkent, 2006.) This is how the article began:
“The beginning of the 21st century was marked by a certain crisis in painting model of art; the self-exhaustiveness of ideas becomes ever more evident, especially on the background of optimistic trends of early 1990s, when its encouraging conceptual renewal appeared just as evident. The new insight of the world disappears: painting is inert, even of those painters who seemed dynamic yesterday; the “sense of time” now disappears, plastic self-repetitions acquire a sarcastic context and no longer fit the former space of the authors’ ideas. Yesterday’s step-daughter in visual art, photography, claims leading roles ever more actively. Confusion in painting is aggravated by silence in theory. What has happened with painting in Uzbekistan over the last five-six years? Does this apocalyptical picture indeed reflect the actual situation? Even with a degree of hyperbola, this characterization is not far from truth: the lack of new ideas in the national art becomes a topical concern.
What causes the process is another matter. It is not a proven fact that the blame is exclusively on the exhausted potential of artistic, creative or visual resource, although this cause cannot be excluded either. Globalization, explosive development of information technologies, the erasure of boundaries in art, and post-modernist shocks that structured new evaluation criteria for art, certainly, influence the perception of the contemporary process of assessment of painting phenomenon; the painting itself, however, does not resist its own fading. And even the fact that paintings are selling well, which can be a counter-evidence offered by a successfully-selling painter, cannot serve as value indicator in the environment of spontaneous and chaotic art market; at times it is, on the contrary, demonstrates painter’s success.., but on the path of creative suicide… Having felt the instrumental limitation of two-dimensional painting the most sensitive painters began to deal with the forms of modern art, exploring the unusual three-dimensional space in search of post-modernist truth. And this is where problems arise.
The anatomy of modern art in Uzbekistan is experiencing a certain identity crisis that has resulted in not so visible yet important tectonic shifts in artistic consciousness. The expression of meaningful creative ides is giving way to the cosmetology of actual forms, post-modernist imitation and sophisticated mystification of one’s own intellectual impotence…”
Thus, it was a discomforting diagnosis of the current state of national painting. Although I still believe in most of the observation and assessments made in the article, it was my own initiative not to publish it. Looking for reasons of that decision it is now the right time to turn to the topic of this publication – two exhibition projects: “Tetragon and Four Dimensions of Reality” and “The Abduction of the Cocoon” implemented under my general supervision. At the time when the article was ready for print, the residence of the former German Ambassador Hans Kinderlen hosted an exhibition of the works of young artists from Uzbekistan under the framework of “Oriental Symbiosis” project. According to the contest conditions, each of the five creative groups comprised a writer and an artist. The artist was expected to draw a painting inspired by a story created by the writer. One of the contest participants was a young artist Farrukh Akhmadaliev who painted an insightful picture filled with subtle socio-philosophical meaning, titled “Expectation”. It was the piece that made me ponder over my categorical statement about crisis in the national painting and introduce some adjustments into my notion of contemporary painting.
At that same moment other issues of theoretical and applied significance emerged: What should be the role of an art critic in the given situation? What is the relationship between painting and vanguard art forms? What can be done for self-realization of creative potential of contemporary artists? This resulted in the idea to implement a project that would encompass the most interesting solutions in painting and installation. On agreement with the management of the Fine Art Gallery of Uzbekistan it was decided to present two exhibition projects in the two ground floor halls of the Gallery: one for paintings, the other for installations. In the course of the project preparation the support from the Forum for Culture and Art Foundation and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation was crucial. At the final stage the project benefited from the input of the German Embassy, as the project idea was the brainchild of the diplomatic mission.
In June 2007 the Fine Art Gallery of Uzbekistan presented the art project that consisted of two extraordinary exhibitions: “Tetragon: Four Dimensions of Reality” and “The Abduction of the Cocoon”.
As the quotation of my unpublished article read, in early 2000s under pressure from modern art represented by video-art, installations and photo-art, there emerged a sense of imminent crisis in the national painting that appeared to be receding into the background. Therefore, the project “Tetragon: Four Dimensions of Reality” represented by four Uzbek painters (Zebo Sharipova, Farrukh Akhmadaliev, Timur Akhmedov and Babur Ismailov) was supposed to demonstrate that painting as art form did not loose its expressiveness and power to have an impact on the viewer. The results of the exhibition enable one to say that this objective was met, thanks to the unique canvases created over a few months time.
Under the project each artist was to create one picture 2 x 3 metres. Four large pieces highlighted by soffits in a darkened hall have become a symbolic representation of creative concepts of contemporary artists. The pictures express new understanding of painting, which is manifested in both style and technological specificities. Every one of the four artists possesses original plastic and philosophic thinking. And all of them worked with a canvas of that dimension for the first time, which had a marked impact on the concept and pictorial and semantic solution. This resulted in the creation of unique pictures conveying original creative ideas.
Unusual in its mystic mood is the painting by Zebunisso Sharipova titled “Dawn. The Descent of Angels upon the Earth”. The artist, whose work is characterized by single portraits 1 by 1.5 metres in size, turned to a multi-figure composition for the first time. The sense of esoteric submersion is created by means of restrained yet semantically saturated colour range: light-ochre with mysterious mixture of pinkish and purple shades and expressive incrustations of white.
Brilliantly chosen plastic and intonation accents resulted in the creation of a special allegoric atmosphere – mystical and paradoxically combining metaphoric symbols and intonation of pagan beliefs, the Bible and the Koran. The author subconsciously promotes the idea of the universality of ethic notions and the absence of any divide into East and Went in heaven and in man’s deeds. Despite certain transcendence of the happening, the characters are psychologically expressive and, iconography-wise, are akin to the images of earthly women. In its internal spirit and in the gestures and poses of the characters the picture invokes associations with the works of Renaissance artists, yet intonation-wise it is surprisingly close to the contemporary perception of the world. The images of the angels combine the features of something sacral with very complex but humanly understandable emotional and psychological expressions. Their faces and countenances show disappointment, surprise, apprehension and fright and determination to return to their abode where there is no room for earthly vices – avidity and bodily pleasures. This is told in the verses held by the hand of a woman sitting in the right corner, for who the artist herself was the prototype.
Мы спустились с небес обетованных [We descended from the promised heaven]
Возлюбленными ангелов мы были [We had the love of angels]
И вновь туда мы возвратимся, [And thereto we shall return,]
Где дух над телом торжествует. [Where the spirit prevails over flesh.]
The image of a sitting female figure in the right corner of the painting (also modelled on the artist) continues the line of a dynamic, a kind of mystical, realism that can be sensed in her earlier portraits. At the same time, the overall impulse of the painting creates an exciting context of new trends, postulates a special poeticism and pictorial key, to which national painting has never turned before.
The story about the canvas size. The painting performed in the classical painting traditions also preserves the traditional integrity of the canvas. The frame and the canvas stretched over it were assembled in a small studio room on the 9th floor of a high-rise apartment house. When finished, the painting did not fit into doorways, so the thresholds had to be removed so that the painting could be taken out.
At the centre of Farrukh Akhmadaliev’s painting “Path to Maqom”, as if covered with a cobweb of time, there is a group of musicians performing a traditional melody. The artist makes no secret of the fact that the scene was inspired by an old photograph he purchased on a market-place in Bukhara, and that the photo served as visual prototype for the painting. This is where the similarity between the photo and the painting ends. A special enchanting golden-ochre and silver-grey colour palette is in unison with meditative sounds of the traditional tune. Spiral-shaped ribbon that girdles the central element in an elongated rectangular itself consists of small scenes – partly borrowed from old photographs, partly created by the master’s imagination. When one looks at these mini-scenes, it occurs to one that these could have become independent pictures, if enlarged. This is the principle of the internal semantic drive of the piece – as if an ancient manuscript is unfolding, page by page, a story inspired by a moving melody.
An important feature of the young painter’s artistic creed is his philosophic mindset and a search for refined aspects of pictorial language. As the author himself admits, “I am first of all interested in universal human values in painting. I want to focus the power of light and colour on deepening the content of my works, so that they help communicate the notion of unbreakable link between one instant and eternity. I would also like to develop my own philosophy of colour, through which I could realize my ideas in painting. It is important for me to learn how to look upon the world through my own prism and to find my own path in art”.
The story about the canvas size. Originally the painting size was a bit smaller than required – 2 by 2.7 metres. Therefore, the project supervisor suggested adding two vertical strips in order to meet the project conditionality. At first this appeared impossible for the artist to do, but then he finally added two ornamented sections that gave certain completeness to the idea and enabled retaining the proportion to three other canvases.
Painting by Timur Akhmedov “Vanity Fair” is brilliant in the concept, complex in terms of genesis and controversial in the very process of its creation. Timur Akhmedov was the last to enter the project, substituting Kamol Babaev who was unable to start the work on time due to departure abroad. Akhmedov started working at the beginning of May 2007 and was given 1.5 months to complete the assignment. Nevertheless, Timur Akhmedov finished it earlier than most.
About 10-15 days after the work on the painting had begun a version of it was ready, which the supervisor found sensationally impressive in terms of plasticity and relevance of socio-philosophic meaning put into it. The painting was called “Vanity Fair” in reference to a popular British magazine (for many years Akhmedov had lived and worked in the UK) covering the life of show business stars. Pink-golden, bright and bewitching painting adequately reflected new social and pseudo-aesthetic trend of glamorous, epicurean-twisted hedonism that has engulfed modern society. However, in the process of completion the painting acquired different semantic and pictorial configuration.
In the final version a deliberate minuteness and attention to details, mournful velvet of emerald-purple and deep-blue-yellow gamut with paling and fading golden floods introduce the Schopenhauerian Idea of Decline. Not the decline of Europe but of eastern civilization that, in the 20th century, tasted the forbidden fruit of cynical anti-utopia of the western world. The ferryman’s boat taking the souls across into the void of spiritual non-existence (in the first version there in the boat stood a woman – Buddha – with green band over her eyes) is vanishing in the myriad of shining, shimmering and reflecting glare, shapes, fruits, stars, fragments, but has not disappeared… In this work the post-modernist philosophy acquired an amazingly subtle oriental colouring.
The story about the canvas size. First Timur telephoned and asked for a permission to shorten the canvas horizontally by 30 centimetres, as the canvas stretched over the frame did not fit into his third floor apartment in Yunusabad residential area. Then, after giving it a second thought, he kept everything in keeping with the projects requirements, finding the way out in dividing the canvas into three equal sections one meter each, fitting them tightly to one another.
Babur Ismailov’s painting “Kurak” (“Appliqu?”) inadvertently makes one recall a crisis in European thought on the verge of the 20th century. At that time Europe was astounded at the scientific discovery of nuclear decay. In the mind of creative intellectuals the world was disappearing, split into invisible particles. This phobia had transformed into a nihilistic philosophy of creation, which was manifested in cubistic quest of Picasso and Filonov’s model of structuring a painting texture. Thus, the western model of vanguard art dwelled on the notion of decaying and vanishing reality. A different understanding of reality we find in the works of Uzbek artists (A. Volkov, V. Burmakin, D. Umarbekov, Kh. Ziyokhanov, Y. Useinov and others) who employed the techniques of structural composition of painting. This has been beautifully illustrated by Babur Ismailov’s work he called “Kurak”.
Kurak is a traditional appliqu? technique employed by Uzbek craftswomen making blankets, covers and other items of multicoloured shreds of fabric. Some specimens exemplify great mastery of it. The art of composing an integral pattern out of patches is built on the principles of creative restoration of the decaying world. This philosophic idea that is opposite to the western paradigm is the one that lies at the basis of the artist’s composition. ‘The world is like an appliqu?; every entity, object and things around us are also kind of an appliqu?’, says Babur. ‘My work is an attempt at reconstructing the values of the universe. But I am not seeking to express myself in global or cosmic dimensions – what interests me more is the world of chamber human emotions and issues’.
Red-brown warm colour range in the painting matches positivist aspirations of its author. However, it would be unfair to reduce the spirit of the painting to general philosophic interpretations only. Every part of the pictorial appliqu? is a very subtle psychological observation. Two portraits, of a man and a woman, despite their unusual location in the space of the painting, nevertheless, constitute the core of its meaning. They represent an inner dialogue; around this main scene composition a kind of other mise-en-scenes unfold: an old gramophone, earthen houses and walls, various figures and symbols. They attribute space and relationships of the main characters, giving the entire composition the shape of histrionic lyrical drama unfolding before one’s eyes.
The story about the canvas size. Originally, a canvas 2 by 3 metres was assembled and painted in thick brown colour. The artist was in doubt whether he should paint immediately on it or place separate mise-en-scene pictures on its plane. Finally he decided in favour of the second option.
The other hall of the Gallery displayed installations by Jamol Usmanov and Yura Useinov under a common title “The Abduction of the Cocoon”. The Silk Road theme runs through the artists’ works performed using different materials – gypsum, wood, textile… To make a difference from its common high-flown interpretations, Usmanov and Useinov try to show a wider range of plot and intonation solutions, revealing dramatic and at times tragic contexts of this historical and cultural phenomenon.
The main composition of Jamol Usmanov’s installation was created in a basement. On the background of scattered twigs and old furniture for the first time I saw the still unfinished work: it was not yet painted, and arms at elbow bends were not completely sculptured. Still, in the environment of not-so-neat basement the sculpture seemed to glow from within, and its spirituality produced an indelible impression.
The idea is metaphorical: a beautiful but cold and reserved European woman dressed in silk garments with long train personifies the Great Silk Highway. At the final stage of the work her gypsum train was painted with colour designs in the shape of sailing merchant ships carrying silk. The train has many meanings. In the black-yellow design with chessmen and coins featuring the images of rulers one can read their tragic fates. Many of them perished fighting for the treacherously attractive shimmering light of silk.
Jamol Usmanov finds very subtle spatial solutions: against the background of a huge red canvas there is a tiny dot – a white cocoon. This creates a vivid metaphor, the image of China that had revealed the great mystery of silk to the world. Just as metaphorical is a solution found for the idea of the rises and falls of this transcontinental route. A diagram of geometrically verified curves made of painted cocoons expresses the idea of the road being a kind of a living dynamic organism that saw its heyday and its tragedy. It is no accident that the work is called the Cardiogram of the Silk Road.
Yura Useinov is a conceptually thinking artist working with different materials. His main element is textile. Under the project he presented a new and improved work experience in chiya technique – such is his brilliant composition titled “Cocoon Sunrise”. This rectangular panel with vertical pipes wrapped in silk thread creates a vivid effect of shimmering colour range: from silver to purple-white. The artist demonstrates an excellent work in the style of easel patchwork – the characters on the panel are striking in their expressivity and inner power of character.
The fable of the main part of the project is expressed in his composition “The Abduction of the Cocoon I” and is akin in its intensity to the Western myth about the abduction of Europe. The use of unusual figures of plywood dinosaurs that embody evil forces makes Useinov’s installation appear particularly exotic and dramatic. Through the diversity of techniques, plastic structures and thematic solutions the artist creates a kind of performance out of stilled moments of mythological reality.
The overall atmosphere of the two extraordinary exhibitions demonstrates the range of innovative search of modern artists of Uzbekistan in different spheres of plastic art.
The exhibition material provides art critics with a good excuse to turn to the relevant issue of contemporary national art – its philosophic component and inner conceptual content, as well as its interaction with the trends in the global artistic practice. One of the key questions of art criticism is the topic of post-modernism in its national variations. This, however, is something to be addressed in another article.