The Archaist-Innovator
An essay by Alexander Borovskiy,
(Russian Museum, Saint-Petersburg)
Most artists of the same generation and status as Evgeny Chubarov have long assumed the role of patriarchs – they live in the West and they are engaged in preparing and editing their own heritage for museums and galleries. This is understandable enough: in the heroic years of the underground they have done much and now in the new conditions they are careful lest they lose face. Why risk the even flow of their hard – won honorable careers by making any sharp movements? Living in a little town of Mytischi outside Moscow Chubarov made several turnabouts in the course of his artistic career.
True, his twists and turns have always happened within the same energy system, so to speak. No matter how different his works of different periods appear to the onlooker, their electric charge is immediately apparent to the point of a tingling sensation. Although Chubarov may not have attained historical recognition, raising him to the status of a patriarch, his energy level makes him at least an oligarch among artists. In my opinion, very few of the artists from the generation of the 1960's compare to him in his powerful resources.

Chubarov began as an artist a bit later than the others of his generation (that of Kabakov, Chuikov and Bulatov) and he developed outside the students' and later professional environment enjoyed by his coevals. He was born in a Bashkirian village and later moved to the town of Zlatoust famous for its production of cold arms and hunting weapons. He was probably trained as an armorer because he was taught engraving on metal. He is basically a self-made man: he started drawing on his own initiative. In 1959, he moved to the town of Zagorsk to be closer to Moscow, to artists and art. It was at that time that he met Dmitry Tsaplin whose guidance was just as productive for Chubarov as the association with Vladimir Favorsky and Robert Falk was for his fellow-artists, the students of various Moscow art schools. Tsaplin was a unique figure in Russian art. A brilliant sculptor with an impressive record of exhibitions in the West, he returned to the Soviet Union and found himself unemployed, unappreciated, and pushed back to the margins of official art. He had much to share with a budding artist, including the skill of art appreciation (incidentally, he was very much a self-taught artist himself and assimilated the art of form-building on par with the level of modern art of his times) and the strategy of artistic behavior, independent and critical towards officialdom. In practical terms, Tsaplin gave Chubarov two main impulses: first, the powerful energy of archaism, typical of Tsaplin's own form-building; and second, rejection of everything plot-driven and literary imposed on form-building from outside. Tsaplin was intolerant to questions about the concrete meaning of his works. He made no difference among animal painting, portrait or any other – for him only one distinction existed: a sculpture or not a sculpture. However, Chubarov came to this freedom from "the theme" only somewhat later.

Chubarov was invited to exhibit at "alternative art" exhibitions rather early in his career. (It was too early at that time to use the term "unofficial art" because 1962, when he exhibited his work together with some Moscow artists at the cinema houses Illusion and Udarnik, was a borderline year when illusions were still alive regarding the good will of the authorities and their willingness to abandon the totalitarian, one-dimensional ideology in favor of peaceful co-existence among different trends in art.)
Chubarov was probably unconcerned with these general considerations; he was not the type of artist who wished to be a leader or ideologist of an art movement. It was important for him to learn his trade as best he could, to get some commissions if he was lucky, and try to earn his living by his trade. However, there was one factor, which interfered with this reasonable, worldly behavior: an all-consuming passion for self-expression that he developed early in his life. Self-expression is an old-fashioned word, it belongs to the language of romanticism and means spontaneous, pre-rational art practice when a person is aware of some bursting inner energy and tries to organize it somehow, to express himself with no heed to strategies and positioning.
Each page is counted, but no folio or page number is expressed, or printed, on either display pages or blank pages.
But neither was Chubarov a naïve artist, a so-called artist of the "seventh day of creation" (he wouldn't even dream of positioning himself in this role like his naïvely cunning contemporary "Lyonya Purygin from Nara".) Many people at that time were beguiled by the outward pattern of his life and behavior: a naturally gifted self-educated artist from an under-privileged family, a marginal loner, a "clean sheet". Many well-wishers probably tried to teach him life's wisdom and culture. Meanwhile he already considered himself as a professional in art, and, moreover, in modern art, and probably felt more assured of himself than many of his contemporaries, who were torn apart between the skills learnt at school, the norms and rules imposed by the official art, and their own inner feeling of freedom sustained by the few extant relics of the culture of the 1920's. Chubarov knew none of those inner discords. No formal art education stood in his way because he had never had any while Tsaplin probably relieved him of any inferiority complexes on this account. Moreover, it must have been the same Tsaplin with his profound knowledge of contemporary European sculpture and the example of his own life, who infected Chubarov with a purely demiurgic, modernist complex of mistrust of any formalized structures imposed from outside. He also infected him with a faith in the artist's creative will – the world was shaped here and now irrespective of established norms. Thus Chubarov had chosen the best possible, in his situation, way of self-identification: he articulated only what derived from his "self-autonomy", to quote Pushkin, what was natural, organic, rooted in the soil. Several decades later, in an interview with Vitaly Patsukov, an indefatigable collector and keeper of the history of Russian underground art, Chubarov spoke at length about his roots: pre-Christian Bashkirian and Russian Old Believers'. I must mention at once that his root-seeking could have led him into a blind alley, which was the case with many others, if it remained at the level of declarative ness and the plot, because what is rooted in the soil often turns into things artificial, ideologically biased and nationalistically crude. This way is only fruitful, in my opinion, when the vector of form building is directed from within (from one's heart), no more no less. While the form building itself is interpreted in the context of modern art.
One gets an impression of a procedural continuity from Chubarov's graphics. Many years later this quality was realized in his abstract works – continuous lava eruption or form-eruption as an analogy to the inexhaustible process of fertilization and the emergence of life in all its forms.

In my opinion, the sculptural and continuous quality of Chubarov's graphics has another aspect: their material existence in the world and its tactile-symbolic filling in. In this sense it is not only expressive but also expansively aggressive.

In Chubarov's paintings of the 1970-80's there are several opposing directions. They all develop a whole range of anthropologically-related themes, which are processed differently with various materials. One theme is realized in a more visually cultured and substantial context, and moreover, assimilated the artistic systems of classical modernism. This theme is presented in one composition in a manner obviously deriving from a well-assimilated and appropriated experience of Synthetic Cubism. Other historical artistic-rhythmic structures are being vigorously assimilated as well. Another direction articulates a different cross-section of the anthropological, which is practically outside the assimilated experience of the established historical art systems. What type of painting culture can you expect when an artist depicts "the physiology of the Soviet suburb", the subculture of the disheveled, shaggy drunkards, the homeless, and hooligans? The physiological man, a transitional creature, (who had fallen into the gap between the urban and village life) reveals his vulgar, lowly qualities and habits. Several artists of those days were attracted by the wild life of the Soviet lumpens, among them the Leningrader A. Arefyev, who is somewhat close to Chubarov although they probably had never met, and the Muscovites V. Kalinin and V. Pyatnitsky. I think Chubarov differs from them in his positioning himself – he does not analyze or, God forbid, criticizes this world. Neither does he make use of any readymade genre and stylistic structures, such as fable and grotesque. He is a born artist and an element of self-portrait is often included in the structure of the imagery. It goes without saying that the above directions are not found in a pure form, and they often intertwine. Such intertwining has taken place, as I can see it, in the picture that can be provisionally called "The Woman and the Shadow". In its visual-spatial structure one can clearly see the reflection of one the 1920's trends, one employing primitivism in art, and at the same time the typically Chubarovian sense of physiology that is particularly conspicuous in his series tentatively called "suburban". Incidentally, this work (that is, in fact, devoted to violence: a woman standing with her back to the viewer recoils from the ominous shadow suddenly blocking her path) reveals some mystical connection between the artist's surname, the sensation of physiology and crude sexual gesture (so typical for Chubarov's art of those days that it has become his brand; it was not accidental that I mentioned "typically Chubarovian"), and a certain period in Russian art of the 1920's. For example, in 1927 some students of Filonov painted a number of panels, under Filonov's guidance, for the Leningrad Press House. One of them was called "Chubarovism", depicting the then notorious criminal case: some hooligans raped a young factory woman, a progressive shock-worker. The crime took place in Chubarov Lane and the name stuck as a denomination for the entire phenomenon widespread in those days: sexual aggressiveness, depravity, and criminality.

The third direction in Chubarov's art of those years tends to turn back to his earlier graphic works, devoted to the archaic-anthropological: some proto-men emerging from chaos and yet indivisible from the earth. However, this trend is reinforced with the manner of execution typical of his "suburban" series: archaic proto-people, symbolizing the forces of the birth and unity of the world and its syncretism, are presented to the unpretentious crowd of onlookers, eternally hungry for spectacles. Chubarov's presentations of symbols-images (powerful male and female nudes, symbolizing fertility, reproduction, etc.) appearing before simple people are quite original. As a rule, they are arranged within some color rectangles (to put it in everyday terms, they would usually recline on a piece of fabric, a scarf, a ritual rug, etc.) that is, in a concrete space, having a name and giving a name. The crowd is reaching toward this symbolic ritual space from all sides (they either unceremoniously crawl over these bodies or worship them.) What is important here is what Brecht called "the show of the show". The artist clashes the different archaic and contemporary layers while feeling and positioning himself as a shaman, who condenses the time flows and recalls the shadows of long-forgotten ancestors from their non-being, in other words, he is the one who organizes a ritual. These very powerful works conceal a certain contradiction. The representation of the symbolic with quasi-descriptive means is basically dangerous because it leads directly to narrative ness and literariness. Chubarov did not always manage to escape this danger. He resolved the problem in the following way. In his many-figured, densely populated compositions he puts an emphasis on corporeality and three-dimensionality. This is only natural: the situation of shamanism with its rituals and procedures requires tactile bodily contact. Chubarov literally sculpts this multitude of heads and bodies, articulating the very process of tactile contact. However, the scale of the images recedes, the corporeal layer gets thinner to the point of atomization, like in Filonov. From this it is very close to abstraction.

Chubarov has covered a certain preparatory road towards abstract thinking, but the qualitative transition has been made during his stay in Berlin, where the main body of his abstract works has been created, a most unique phenomenon.

The second coming of abstract art in Russia is associated with the maturity of Chubarov's generation and passed through several phases. Almost every artist tried his hand at abstract art but only very few remained faithful to it. Soviet abstract art of the late 1950's and early 1960's was a school of liberation from the current official dogmas and at the same time an ABC's of modern art. Petrov-Vodkin said about Cubism: "We were all educated by Cubism." In the same way abstract art taught practically all of Chubarov's coevals, but not him. He came to abstract art in his later, more mature period. Why and what for?

oil on canvas, 1965,
80 x 110 cm

From the collection of Norton and Nancy Dodge at the Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, U.S.
It is easier to explain the presence of a certain common trend for abstraction at that stage, which 20th century art experienced periodically up to the post-conceptual period. We could, for example, identify the driving forces behind the American Abstract Expressionism: Freudian and Jungian, classical studies, completed approximately at that time, of the primitive-mythological and archaic consciousness in general, John Donne's universe, the beginning of existentialism, the view of the language as action akin to the theory of speech acts (including a technical device understood as visual language similar to "dripping" in Pollack), and last but not least, Eastern philosophies and Zen in the first place.

But what about individual non-stage-wise development towards abstraction? Of course, there should be some sort of individual logic here. Chubarov was sure to have learnt, if somewhat too late, the basic elements of abstract expressionism. Moreover, its earlier archaic-mythological thematic range, which had also affected Pollock, Gottlieb, De Cunning, to name a few, was of immediate interest to him. Special attraction to abstract art? Its energy and means of conveying it have always been of much concern to Chubarov. Kabakov meant something similar as he described his own experiences in abstract art: "I experienced … some sort of a powerful electric discharge emerging as it were from within me. It was impossible to anticipate those movements of the pen and those brush strokes, they appeared of their own accord, but the configuration or pattern that gradually shaped up contained the memory and the feeling of that energy emanating from within." Finally, there was some anthropological dimension. To quote the philosopher Valery Podoroga: "…a vision through the movement of your hand, laboriously drawing the lines to follow the rhythms of your physical sensations."

I think all these moments played a part: mythological discourse (archaism, roots, sources), the anthropological aspects and translation of energies. From these components "the phenomenon of Chubarov" was shaping up. But the main quality, which assured a special place for Chubarov's art in the densely populated space of abstract art, probably consisted in something else: he has managed to rise to a higher level of understanding of the ontology and forms of existence of abstract art. He uses the abstraction not as an instrument for overcoming the mimetic representation, or rather not just for that – this is only one of the conditions for creating a work of art. We are not talking about the liberation of artistic representation as such (in broader terms: art as such); or de-realization, but, on the contrary, about quasi-realization, about enhancing the material component of the body of a work at the expense of the objectification, the embodiment of certain events around its creation and perception. These events are associated with the borderline mythological-poetic practices rooted in the artist's biography. We mean by practices a certain type of physical manifestations, such as thematic rendering of tactile manipulations, contacts, shaman's incantations, psychedelic acts, esoteric rituals, etc. In the most general terms, Chubarov no longer depicts any myth-bearing processes but realizes them in time and space, employing the instruments of abstract language. In essence, this is a modernist demiurgic practice but with a superimposed conceptual plane. I think it would have been impossible without the experience of Boyce. Quite distant from Chubarov as far as esthetic realization or the final product are concerned, Boyce is quite close to him in his intention to enhance the art object at the expense of mythological-biographical aspects (what would happen to Boyce's piece of felt if it had not been appropriated by the mythological-poetic discourse.)

Untitled, 1995
Oil on canvas
200 x 150 cm
Thus Chubarov's two- or three-meter monumental compositions, for all of their two-dimensionality, are in fact art objects of increased corporeality and extended materiality. These characteristics are perceived by the viewer as quite objective, rather than metaphorical (or not only metaphorical), perhaps potentially so, or intended to become so. According to the theory of speech activity, they encourage reality and stimulate the creation of new reality. Under certain conditions, gesture acts of abstraction are doing basically the same.
Chubarov's pictures-objects are created with a single brush stroke, "without seams". True, it takes him several hours of ceaseless labor between the first and the last breath, during which time the work is being created. This temporal aspect is of much importance to the artist. It is precisely in this sensation of procedural consistency, the regime, the arrangement of the actions within the time space that archaic practices and the modern understanding of art are intertwined. Hence the impossible extension of Warhol's Empire State Building and the accented monotony of some of Boyce's actions. It was probably back in the times of his early graphic attempts that Chubarov was acutely aware of the need to cut the flow of form-building into sections or slices, that is, individual works. He was tortured by the finality of the process. Expectedly, the sheer scale and unlimited potential for filling in such works with figurativeness and mimetic ness could powerfully extend the limits of established procedures, but not to the point of infinity. Here we are confronted with yet another aspect characteristic of a new understanding of art, which Chubarov arrived at in his Berlin abstract works. He came to understand procedural aspects as a possibility for launching a certain mechanism of inner development and self-realization of the work (moreover, its self-reflection: the work is capable of self-depiction, suggesting ways of its perception and interpretation.) It was already the classical Russian avant-garde that was dreaming of certain independence, self-reproduction, and an existence separate from its creator. Malevich spoke about "the painting's psyche". Filonov meant practically the same thing when he spoke about "being, pulsing and its sphere, bio-dynamics, intellect, emanation, inclusion, genesis, processes going on in color and form – in short, life as a whole." The so-called "actual" art gave an even more visual and direct example of such independent life of a work of art. In 1971, R.Raushenberg displayed his "Mud Muse" – a mud bathtub filled with the wastes of our machine civilization in which some independent process were going on, manifesting themselves by bubbles on the surface (Rotting? Absorption? Synthesis? Something else?)

Chubarov launches a certain mechanism, an electric "perpetual mobile". He naturally infuses the canvas (object) with his own energy, similarly to gesture painting. He molds the color flesh with his both hands. This is reminiscent of the techniques of manual therapy or folk healers, aiming at direct communication of energy (and why not – Boyce wanted his shamanic actions to make a therapeutic effect on the viewer.) In this quality, too, the object orientation of his artifacts manifests itself. He discovers energy sources within the art works themselves (in his own words, he penetrates through the surface in the manner of Philippine healers.) Chubarov articulates the theme of search for and extraction of energy sources and certain "found objects". However, he employs the energies of various origin and from various sources, be it traditional-utilitarian sources such as heat, electric, mechanic, biologic, etc., or metaphysical sources such as energy impulses of the proto-consciousness that have been preserved but not yet employed. Chubarov captures and visualizes the energy of life and death, decomposition and rotting. The outbursts of his ribbon-shaped forms and patches, signs and aureoles, testify to the same thing. The term "visualization" narrows the real content of his artistic manipulations. Visualization according to Chubarov is at the same time an accumulation and supply of energy, a therapy and an electric discharge. He launches the vital processes of the work itself, upon which things take their own course: interference and spontaneous mutual contact, disruption and re-establishment of contact. This includes the visual contact with the viewer, who senses, on both the intellectual and tactile levels, the dense fields rich with meaning, forming around Chubarov's objects. Chubarov is an artist who best of all fits the description of "archaist-innovator", created by Yuri Tynyanov for a certain phenomenon in the culture of his own times. It was precisely a hyphenated definition "archaist-innovator" where the hyphen is the size of a lifetime.