The Streetwise and the Celestial by Alexander Borovsky

The Streetwise and the Celestial

by Alexander Borovsky

For Dmitry Margolin I have high hopes.

Он умудрился пройти период становления без внешних вмешательств: двигался сам, на ощупь, спотыкаясь, но не запрашивая галерейной или кураторской подмоги. Он вообще пока что правильный художник: не тусовочный, не гламурный, не публичный. Преподает рисунок ученикам лицея им. Б. Иогансона, будущим абитуриентам Академии (в мое время этот лицей назывался Средней художественной школой при Институте им. И. Е. Репина, а ученики, соответственно, сэхэшатиками). Вывозит их на летнюю практику. Возится с ними, все по-честному. Да и сам он свой брат, академический: учился в этом лицее, затем — в Репинском институте. Его однокашники — сложное поколение: кто преподает и продается «по китайской линии» (пока что единственное географическое направление, где востребован сохранившийся у нас профессиональный изобразительный ценз), кто перебивается случайными заказами, считанные единицы прибились к берегам contemporary art. К самой кромке — пока что вглубь этой территории никто не пробрался. Марголин забился на верхотуру того самого лицея, где преподает, там у него мастерская. Я многажды чертыхался, покуда туда вскарабкался. Помещение сугубо производственное,  даже техническое, с мольбертами и парой стульев, не предназначенное для приема важных людей и вообще для ведения светских разговоров. Зато, при всей скудости, идеальное место, чтобы пересидеть опасности и соблазны, сосредоточиться не на тактике и стратегии продвижения, а на том, что там свербит внутри. Похоже, Марголин не особо заботится о круге профессионального общения— ведет сугубо частную жизнь, рассекает на велосипеде, живет с семьей где-то в Гатчине. Выставки у него были, в том числе в «Эрарте». Но особого внимания не вызвали — не было в них необходимого сегодня ньюсмейкерства. Какие там «ньюс» — все библейское или семейное. Ну и «мейкерства» не было — то есть массмедийной подготовки, вообще попадания в створ публичных интересов. По-моему, только коллега Иван Чечот заметил Марголина и написал о нем. Что ж, внимание Чечота дорогого стоит…

And so this exhibit at the Gromov Art Centre, I believe, will be a revelation. The artist is, in fact, established. And, at the same time, not hackneyed, not in the thrall of the galleries. And he is not too prone to answering any sort of question. For sure it is a rare thing, an artist at home with himself. Of course this is a balance that is not very hard to shake up or disrupt, for one, with success. I, however, think that Margolin is too engaged with his own world to falter and respond to external stimuli.

Margolin is an artist steeped in the academy. This has its pros and cons. Two-hundred year-old plaster casts and senior projects have not only been preserved in the Academy of Fine Arts Museum, they accumulate in the minds of the graduates. There are at least some who try to take in the Academy not only as a skill-set but as a mentality.

Margolin has an etching called The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter. The older generation of graduates knocked up against this subject. Take Polenov or Repin, each has his own version of the parable, but they have something in common: the idea of perfection in pictorial and plastic realisation. There is a correlation of canons: the biblical and academic. Curiously, an artist does not articulate references to classic versions of realising the gospel story, though those references themselves can be the subject of contemporary works. But ‘art about art’ is not for Margolin. This engraving is ‘about’ the phenomenon of resurrection. This approach gives rise to primitive forms which is in itself an image of directness, a rejection of mediation (reference to precedents from the history of art is an example of such mediation), an effort to confront the emotional source. The squat characters, engraved in large strokes, are somewhat fetal. They are in becoming, in the process of the transition from disbelief and scepticism to being ‘astonished with a great astonishment’ at what was being done. In the relatively early series of Job and his Wife Margolin ‘reconciles’ everyday situations of the biblical parable matrix. This fitting is not a buskined exaltation of the banal. Rather it is an attempt to give a poignant existential note to the constant sorrows of mundane despair.

These pieces seem to have a more thoroughly worked out representational basis. Later Margolin loses his mimetic foundations. Voids appear, colours bleed, scales compete with one another. Expressive, fragmentary, gestural writing creates a picture of the world, that, apparently, is authentic to Margolin’s mentality as it is now. It is whole and homogeneous in its discontinuity, I would say, in its tatters. Available reality is on the verge of succumbing to entropy. It is truly illogical: the horizontally hanging figures have nothing in common with Chagall’s soaring lovers. This is the naturalness of the flow of life, where everything is set upside down.

However illogic and absurdism are concepts too heady for Margolin’s ‘picture of the world’. It refers to the tradition of Russian absurdism – to Daniel Kharms first of all. But it seems to me that Margolin is far from playing at the illogical. All that he does is serious, everything is imbued with existential force. He draws the seamy side of Russian life that is a dysfunctional and conflicted place. In Petersburg this is Ligovsky Prospekt, then Kem’ and the Solovetsky Islands. This is, in Ilya Il’fa’s words, ‘soil, heavily manured with the everyday’. This everyday is conflicted, hopeless, merciless. Of course degrees of decay can differ. In the series Romanov-Borisoglebsk nothing particularly bad happens. The provincial inhabitants’ appearance is exaggerated, but within the standards of traditional social criticism. In Ligovka. Galleria, the situation has already come to a boil, down to Petersburgian dregs. In the 1840s there was a writers’ collection published with the title Physiologies of Petersburg. Of course, literati of the naturalistic school published within their own naturalistic limits. Now it seems quite harmless. Well, with Margolin, physiology runs off the charts. He describes some kind of anthropological catastrophe. The inhabitants of his paintings are prostitutes, beggars, punks. The air of his Ligovka is riven with lust, aggression, baser instincts. Here you can see the distant echoes of classic German expressionism in its post-war recension: despair of the hungry and crippled, hatred for the well-fed. But if there is an echo of that tradition here, it is an elusive one. As has already been mentioned, Margolin does not do ‘art about art’. His is about life. Life ‘captured’, not even grotesquely but dramatically. The grotesque for him is a technique, and Margolin has his vision: he is an artist of anxiety, panic attacks, acute reactions. What is the root of this anxiety that some may find excessive? (And some, I think, will reactivate that old Soviet bogey by charging him with defamation). Could it be in our native, historical trauma? In his series devoted to the Solovetsky Islands (naturally, not to the architectural and religious monuments, but to the current life of this regional centre, some particular ‘Sovietskaya street’), small scenes of contemporary personal exchange ‘germinate’ ominous images of the infamous gulag whose very utterance saturates the compositions with violence and humiliation. So there is a basis for such references. And there are others (After the Execution) where the modern, while being particular down to the women’s clothes and the ammunition of the soldier-“astronauts”, far outgrows its place in the Bible. This, I think, is the most important point. Margolin’s art is infused with a humanistic, humane tone. The artist with some naïve vulnerability refers to an eternal distribution of roles – victim, executioner, curious observer, indifferent crowd, each immersed in their own, low-slung passions.

Expressiveness, brutality, cruelty – his language is largely a tool to cover up his vulnerability. Margolin remains in the mainstream of representation, physicality even. This physicality is particularly noticeable in his series of etchings on the Apocalypse. The flesh crawls under the fire of the passions. The image, owing to the etching process, eats into the surface. Watercolour fills the furrows as if to quench the excessive heat.

So it is time to take note of this fully-formed, serious artist.

From The Streetwise and the Celestial. St. Petersburg: Svoe Izdatelstvo, 2018.