The Gloomy Pictures have been a constant in Vladimir Shinkarev’s painted oeuvre. They consist of Petersburg and suburban landscapes, leavened with luminous views of Sestroretsk and riddled with railway Platforms. The paintings have grown naturally on the map of the artist’s life, structuring the topography from home to studio.

The Soviet city Leningrad, where Shinkarev became an artist in the 1970s, is now retreating into the gloom of history. It was a fairly dark city, so no one could give a better account of it than the Gloomy Pictures. No one could tell more vividly how its inhabitants treasured this darkness, how they thrilled at the fog whence dilapidated citadels of industrial architecture would emerge on the river banks, and how those people delighted when the fog would clear in the spring, and the porticoes of the Spit of Vasilievsky Island and the specters of the Bourse and Pushkin House glowed of their own accord.

The world of Alexander Blok and its nearest equivalent (according to Shinkarev), a glass of good vodka. Seminal Leningrad underground artists Alexander Arefiev, Vladimir Shagin, and Rikhard Vasmi, and the horses in Pavel Filonov’s painting Narvskaya Gates. (Are the horses carved or cast in concrete?) Unsigned illustrations in Soviet literary magazines, and the original painted movie posters at the Titan and Coliseum theaters. Painter and illustrator Nikolai Lapshin, who perished during the Siege, and the 1920s as exemplified by the Circle of Artists Society, the last semi-free years, whose spirit still nourished us in our own formative decade, the 1970s. All these things infused the palette of the Gloomy Pictures produced in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Later, Shinkarev would reflect and deflect with his paintings the Luciferian light of the now-capitalist built environment, the nothingness whose icy glow obscures the Petersburg myth’s metaphysical otherness. Inhuman polished façades and the night-and-day-dispersing oscillation of advertisements swirl above still-uncultivated land, above the wet mirror of asphalt.

It is a commonplace that contemporary artists are as serially minded in their work as production lines. Shinkarev enjoys exhibiting series of landscapes, and of thematic paintings. He even likes painting the same subject twice so as to look at it, for example, in his studio at his dacha and his studio in the city. The series imitates life in the sense that something in common is preserved, but the “stuffing,” as they now say, irrevocably changes. The title and function have been retained, but the work’s character has changed. Art wants to maintain an attitude of temporal integrity, of incomparability. Contemporary art often does this by showing the time of a spectacle’s consumption—Rouen Cathedral at a certain time of day or Campbell’s Soup cans lined up like a month’s menu. But there is a difference between displaying a standard item with a particular shelf life and representing life’s amazing countenance here and now. As Mandelstam wrote, “Don’t compare: the living man is incomparable.”

Sometimes the artist, like Van Gogh or Cezanne, wants to invest himself in each chromatic flourish as if it were his last, saturating literally every brushstroke with time. Thanks to this impulse, Mont Sainte-Victoire has become the most beautiful mountain in European painting, while sunflowers from a nameless field (which the hasty know-nothing mistakes for squiggles squeezed from a single tube of paint) have blazed for a century, recharged as it were by the Earth’s magnetic fields, Nikola Tesla’s transformer. It all depends on the scale of the artist’s personal sacrifice and his humility before image and canon. In these wildly famous masterpieces, art transfigures the gaze’s serial scan into contemplative, intelligent vision. It is just when it infiltrates life’s growing seriality that art attempts to find some saving grace for life and for itself as well. After painting all the Campbell’s Soup cans, Andy Warhol said he wanted to see exactly the same thing every day, not roughly the same thing. What he demanded from himself and viewers was not the gaze scanning the picture plane, but eight hours of immobile contemplation of Empire, projected on a screen.

The seriality of Gloomy Pictures is quite particular. No two images are exactly identical, but neither is there a location that has been painted deliberately differently by way of launching the 24-hour timer. What we have here is “orbital” seriality, when the course of time is imagined paradoxically. It is all about loss, since the years of the artist’s life are in motion, and so is the world. The clock has made a full circuit, and hours have disappeared into oblivion. But a painting has emerged between the circuit’s beginning and end: it has been acquired as a unique moment of correlation in time with all of being. This is especially true of the scenes on train platforms. In these latest observation points, there is no constant except repetition itself. And yet only here is everything tied into a knot in order to come undone, as in a magic trick, and start all over again. The lines by Daniil Kharms—The hour was only always past / Now the hour is always to come—might have sounded in Anna Karenina’s ears at the beginning of her affair.

In stories about the artist Mikhail Matyushin a “Sestroretsk feeling” is mentioned, meaning the special transrational state involved in his theory of “extended” viewing. As your gaze traces the shore of the Gulf of Finland at Sestroretsk, you have the sense of a sphere in motion, as if you were in the depression of a slope on the top of the globe. Always present on the coast as a fact of life, infinity here takes on the rhythm of perfect geometrical form. Circular motion—looking round—not only increases the viewing angle to 360 degrees but the picture’s luminosity as well. Repeatedly traversing the distance and seemingly setting off sparks against the twirling syllables SEST-RO-RETSK, light in motion dissipates the shadow along the coast’s narrow strip. Like a collector of amber (that precious luminous resin generated by ancient geological life), Shinkarev collects in his paintings these eternal Baltic shadows and the light penetrating them. To these he adds, like the sounds of speech, the geometry of architecture and the imprints of human silhouettes. The eternal return (an image that itself goes serial) returns on its course—to the earthly round, to our northern round of god-bearers traveling in an ocean of extended viewing.


Ekaterina Andreyeva




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