Oleg Khvostov: Morphology of primitive. Early works
October 14 - November 13, 2022
Oleg Khvostov's creative evolution has been all about building himself an identity distinctive enough to imprint itself on the fabric of art history. The extraordinary number of self-portraits he has painted – over ten thousand all told – speaks of a highly intense self-reflection. Khvostov has continually weighed himself against and put himself in the midst of the classical tradition, which has manifested in numerous remakes of iconic masterpieces.
Eventually, Khvostov managed to fashion not only an original style of his own, but a personal visual universe with a steady repertoire of images. In that universe, plowed fields, blossoming orchards, and herds of cows at pasture share the visual space with voluptuous nudes and fruit weightlessly hovering in the air. His subjects are sweepingly soft and smooth, cleansed of the rough edges of the material world. And the cold, homogenous light in his works strengthens their resemblance to computer game screens, as Yekaterina Andreyeva once remarked.
It took the artist a decade and a half to reach this private, romanticized, idealized utopia reminiscent of the manmade planet from the short story Restricted Area by Robert Sheckley. While preserving the anti-intellectualist ethos of expressive statement inherited from the Brotherhood of the New Blockheads and the 1990s -- the alternative art world's reaction to the highbrow conceptualism coming out of Moscow -- Khvostov has nevertheless pledged his loyalty to painting.
The analytical character of Khvostov's postmodernist optics is revealed by theartistic devices he employs. He treats Primitivist morphology like a tailored artistic language, long since enshrined as a textbook classic and available for dissection.
This exhibition, comprising Khvostov's works painted from the late 1990s through the mid-2000s, unveils the entire array of the artist's expressive devices, from which his signature aesthetic would eventually crystallize by the 2010s.
In his 1998 and 1999 portraits, serial self-portraits, and occasional still-lifes, Khvostov gets rid of figurative background details, replacing them with homogenous planes of color, which accentuate the two-dimensional character of his foreground figures. He makes use of certain techniques cultivated by the different incarnations of the late 20th-century neo-expressionist trend, such as the Italian Transavantgarde, the French Figuration Libre, and Bad Painting in the US. With their brutalized iconography and contrasting colors, Khvostov's human images harken back to his immediate predecessors in the "second wave" of Russian avant-garde art: Oleg Tselkov and Boris Turetsky.
In Mattress (1998), painted with oil on a bed spread, Khvostov juxtaposes the folksy ornamentality of floral patterns (typical of, for example, the Russian lubok style of popular prints, one of the chief inspirations for the Russian Primitivist classics of Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova) and the geometricity of an abstract center, which, in turn, references Jasper Jones' American flags and, at least as strongly, evokes minimalistic landscapes with an extended horizon line, such as Red Cavalry by Malevich. Mattress, overall, is representative both of Khvostov's use of exaggeratedly "lowered" surfaces, some of the better known examples of the which being his cardboard boxes, and of his striving to bring out a broad gamut of painterly traditions in a pointedly mundane object – a method eminently characteristic of Russian nonconformist art.
In the late 1990s, Oleg Khvostov simultaneously had a short-lived fling with non-objective painting. What makes his two Compositions and his Remake of Malevich's Black Square (all dated 1998) interesting is their patterned texture. The tiny juxtaposed color segments bring to mind impressionist brushstrokes, but are even more redolent of pixels. Khvostov's vision developed a clearly discernible digital slant as early as the turn of the century. Even when he quotes Black Square, he sees it primarily as a screen.
In Khvostov's landscapes from the early 2000s, patterns take the place of an essential formative element, with the space of the painting increasingly generalized. Recalling Cezanne's formula of reducing all natural forms to the sphere, the cone, and the cylinder, Khvostov diligently "polishes" his objects, sacrificing sharp corners in favor of roundness. By the end of the 2000s, Khvostov had settled into a depiction of the world as an amorphous polymer-like substance from which painting is "hewn" like sculpture.
Khvostov's treatment of color owes much to the stained glass painting technique. It seems that light is seeping in from the outside, through his textured, homogenous color planes imitating grimy glass, most vividly exemplified in his series The Life of the Antichrist (2003). The blood red background intensifies the impact of the phantasmagoric scenes that feature the more odious historic figures of the 20th century, in the depiction of which Khvostov exhibits an accomplished mastery of the grotesque. In later years Khvostov phased in gradient fill -- now a signature technique of his -- evocative of Fernand Léger's Tubism and Kazimir Malevich's Post- uprematist peasant portraits.
"Primitivism offers a way to plumb great depths with limited means," maintains Khvostov, who aims toward an elegant succinctness of images, behind which looms the entire history of human culture, from archaic idols to official political portraits. Consistently paring away from the world what is unnecessary, Oleg Khvostov exposes the immutable, irreducible fundamentals at its core.
Konstantin Zatsepin, exhibition curator