Over the past year, Leonid Tskhe produced a series of pictures portraying modern Petersburg life. All the paintings are based on photos taken with a digital camera. Disorder on the street, scenes at the market, a few teenagers trying to deal with a selfie stick – these are the subjects selected for the canvases, in the best traditions of realist art. Daily life and observation of the varied manifestations of urban existence are completely natural for photo-based painting. The more prosaic the theme or subject of the work, the less risk there is to fall into the genre trap of documentary evidence or heartfelt accounts of the life of the people. After all, when painting derives its material from photography, it multiplies its power. Like the early forms of photographic prints, digital images liberate the painter, involving him in one of the most fascinating paragons of modernism – the competition between the artist and visual technologies. Eugène Delacroix, and Ivan Shishkin, and Maurice Utrillo and Francis Bacon were challenged by photos in their painting. Surely the artist's skill couldn't be inferior to the ingenuity of the engineer? And surely the artist doesn't lack the imagination or cunning to invent his own creative optics or special artistic focus in opposition to the camera's indifferent observation of the world?

         Another conflict that Leonid Tskhe entered while working on the sketches of modern Petersburg life is probably even older than the contest between fine art and visual machinery. Tskhe is one of the few graduates or teachers at the Academy of Arts to date who have taken interest in finding a common ground between this conservative school and contemporary art. The temple of fine arts on the University embankment was, is, and will always be the main opponent of modern art in Russia, while most likely the best justification of its existence in our vast expanses. First the Wanderers (Peredvizhniki), then the avant-gardists of the beginning of the last century and the late-Soviet nonconformists all pursued their esthetic experience and recognition in contemporary artistic practices and repeatedly tested the ties that bound them to art in the classic sense. Vladimir Tatlin built his monument to the Third International in the studio of Pavel Chistakov, who taught practically all the Russian artists at the turn of the century. Before starting, Tatlin threw out the master's mosaic sets that were taking up too much space.

       Tskhe's painting is an escape from the boundaries of the «school», liberation from the prescriptions of academic drawing and the habits of an easel artist. It shows his insistence on his own way and his attempt to be a painter in his own right, while remaining inside the walls of the Academy. Tskhe's allies who have survived a similar experience include the grandees of contemporary art Neo Rauch, Luc Tuymans, or Peter Doig. However, the dispute renewed by Tskhe is not yet commensurate to discussions on the international art scene, but is primarily with the local art context and possibilities for broadening it to be like the life that unfolds at the Dusseldorf academy of arts, at the Chelsea galleries in Manhattan, or at international art festivals. In parallel, there are at least two generations of artists in Europe who are interested in the same issues in painting that the Petersburg painter is exploring. However, the local peculiarity is that such a rarity as our Academy of Arts in its 19th-century state is not to be found anywhere else. This lends a special Petersburg charm to the work of many of our artists.     

         Photo-based painting, taken up as a weapon in the polemics with academic art, is made up of multiple artistic languages. Gestural abstraction undermines the foundations of academic painting. The «school» is no longer mentioned when figures are drawn out in dancing squiggles, bold strokes and heartily delivered blots. When examined closely, a painting's surface drowns in a Babylon of different colors, where smears and drips are assembled in a flashy chaotic design. The expression of gestural abstraction is cooled by the white of the canvas. On some of the paintings, three-fourths of the surface is uncovered, and the bright spots of the figures are hanging in the gaping emptiness of a fragmented story. The preliminary boundaries of the painting are marked in an unsure pencil line, but a wider subframe is taken. Other pencil sketches mark the silhouette of one of the characters, or part of the landscape. This painting is capable of incorporating both graphic drawing and white-on-white in order to be a painting in the classical sense. Before us is a flat collage image claiming to bear witness to reality.

         Leonid Tskhe's exhibit tells of Neopetersburg – a city that has already been living for over twenty years since its name was restored to it in the beginning of the nineties, but that still hasn't restored the former greatness of the Imperial capital or acquired a new, modern significance. This is not the pre-revolutionary Saint Petersburg: not the city sung of in classical Russian literature as a mirage and inhuman intent, not the intimate esthetic world of Alexandre Benois and his sympathizers, and long since not the stage where the events of three revolutions unfolded. Even until recently it was difficult to shake the feeling that Saint Petersburg of the nineties and the zeros was Postleningrad, since there was so much that was reminiscent of Soviet times. Tskhe draws Petersburg today without retrospective rehashing of the Soviet experience. His sketches don't have socially critical or satirical subjects, or the wildness of the Yeltsin years. This is not criticism of capitalism in the third decade of its existence in Russia. Neopetersburg is interesting in that it lives the life of a big city in the middle of the teens. This life has the bourgeois ordinariness that Baudelaire's favorite, Constantin Guys, saw so keenly. It also has the horror of the city's back streets so relished in the works of Alexander Arefiev and his circle. Tskhe's «NEOPETERSBURG» voices an obvious but sufficiently inconvenient thought for contemporary art: that modern art begins with the obligatory and ordinary things that make up our life. As in Tatlin's time, it can begin right in the garden of the Academy of Arts – like next to the house where they keep the ponies.


Stanislav Savitsky