Oleg Kudryashov

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Drawing in Space

"My reliefs of the 1970s-1980s represent a dialogue between two forms of drawing: drawing on the flat plane of the paper with its space, and three-dimensional spatial construction."

Oleg Kudryashov

 

Oleg Kudryashov belongs to that generation of Russian artists who in the late 1960s and 1970s broke away from the prescribed art of officialdom and challenged the canons of Socialist Realism that had dominated Soviet Art since the early 1930s. Yet although he was recognised by his contemporaries, artists and critics alike, as one of the most gifted artists working in Moscow at that time, he did not join the dissident movement. He followed his own path, making no compromises with external pressures. That refusal to accommodate accepted norms and commercial expectations has also characterised his work in the West, Kudryashov has pursued his own artistic goals with single-minded independence and complete aesthetic integrity.

Kudryashov's chosen medium is the drypoint etching, and for the past thirty years he has been consist¬ently exploring its technical and aesthetic possibilities. His inventiveness has manifested itself in straightfor¬ward prints, large and small, in triptych groupings, and in three-dimensional reliefs and constructions. Char¬acteristically, Kudryashov's creative process begins with his scrubbing the zinc plate to endow the ensuing print with a certain vitality of surface. Using the sharp point of a burin engraving needle, he then draws, with intense energy, directly onto the metal plate. The drawing is entirely improvisational since Kudryashov eschews the use of preliminary studies or sketches. As he has explained: "Drawing for me is an action coming from nowhere, demanding concentration and energy, but it is not a discipline and you cannot force yourself— what you are left with is only the inevitable."

Working at speed, to maximise the momentum of the creative impulse, he completes the entire design within a very short space of time, as though it were one sustained gesture. The prints themselves embody the physical and emotional energy of this process of drawing. Indeed, the initial spontaneity is often quite literally embedded in the prints when zinc fillings, gouged out of the plate in spirals by the violent energy with which the artist wields the burin, are impressed into the paper during printing. A chance by-product of the creative process, they add a metallic richness to the already vibrant sur¬face texture.

In Kudryashov's works such immediacy co-exists with immense control and sophistication. Emphatic linear marks and blocks of saturated tone are played against delicate passages of line and hatching and fluid cyrillic notations. The overall effect is a marvellously rich configuration of textures and tones, yielding an exquisite orchestration of the surface that is both taut and resonant with light and space. Of what can be done with the economical resources of ink printed on to paper, Kudryashov himself remarks that "black and white are both colour and light, defining form in space." 3 He considers that "the drypoint is pure drawing, and the printing itself is a process of painting", and, indeed, since 1980 he has been enriching his drypoints further by applying gouache or watercolour washes to the paper before printing. Under the pressure of the rollers these strokes are transformed into cascades of juxtaposed colours" which can be gentle and elusive, or bold and highly saturated. Such washes are not mere embellishments of the initial. drawn structure, "not just a colouring of a ready-made architectural form" 5 in the artist's words, but rather an integral part of the spatial interplay.

Kudryashov described himself as "a draughtsman, maybe a sculptor." 6 His impulse to extend the linear structure of the drypoint out into real space was first manifest in 1957 when he made his first paper construct¬ions. During the 1960s he created objects from paper and tin, using paint to enhance the expressive qualities of the forms produced. After he arrived in Britain in 1974 he started making small paper reliefs, but it was only in 1978 that he began systematically to produce three-dimensional reliefs from drypoint prints. These are usually constructed from two etchings, produced from a single plate. The second impression from a drypoint is usually much weaker, so while retaining the basic structure, Kudryashov usually elaborates the original linear configuration with some additional marks and touches of colour before reprinting. This ensures a continuity of design, yet permits some elaboration of the initial idea. Usually, one print forms the base of the work, while the other is cut and sliced into rectilinear or curvilinear elements which are twisted and contorted to develop the linear theme into three-dimensional volumes. The process of cutting the paper with the knife seems to be a natural extension to that of incising the plate with the burin. Kudryashov explains: "At the beginning of the sixties I came to the decision that drypoint can be voluminous. In my work I create this with spatial drawing... still cannot determine where drawing finishes and where painting and sculpture begin,' The works em-phasise this ambiguity, cutting across the traditional boundaries of printing, painting and sculpture. While Kudryashov draws on the zinc plate as if it were a piece of paper, he uses the printed paper as if it were metal, exploiting its stiffness to cut and bend it into rigid structures. " The architectonic elements simultaneously reiterate and develop the formal theme of the prints. By this means Kudryashov is able to evoke a still more complex set of spatial relationships. The implied space and luminosity of the printed tones and drawing interact visually with the actual projections of form and the inci¬sions into the ground plane, and also with the real play of light and cast shadow upon the work.

Kudryashoy's exploration of these interests has produced an enormous variety of work. In certain reliefs the elements cling closely to the surface of the print (for example in Untitled Relief, 1981), while in others they form extensive and complex constructions, advancing dynamically into the viewer's space and barely anchored to the wall plane (notable instances being Construction: Plate No /467 of 1986, and Construction: Plate No 451 of 1982-7 which is almost entirely built up in space and almost completely liberated from the background print). At times Kudryashov deploys only a few three-dimensional shapes on the surface of his reliefs; at others he builds up numerous elements to create exceedingly rich architectonic compositions. In Construction: Plate No 630 of 1983 such irregular shapes are wrought into a tightly knit whole which is full of spatial ambiguity and tension. Since 1983 the spatial interplay of geometric shapes has been modified by the addition of irregular Organic forms, made from thinner paper that has been crumpled, slashed, coloured and twisted. In some reliefs these organic shapes billow outwards from the surface, alone or else in juxtaposition with more taut rectlinear elements. Elsewhere irregular holes are cut into the base print and the malleable paper with its own undulating surface is inset as a covering, in places receding and in others protruding from the surface plane. Such elements, apparently accidental in form, are often boldly coloured to intensify the ambiguity of the spatial relationships they generate. This process of building up a form to create actual as well as illusionary recession from the base print is seen here in the very strong geometry of Construction: Plate No 1520 of 1987 where the development of the circular and spiral theme is taken in both directions, back and for¬wards from the plane.

The technical virtuosity of his work and the profundity of its formal experimentation allies .Kudryashav with those innovative artists such as MaIevich and 'Tatlin who were working in Russia in the 1910s and 1920s. This heritage is particularly evident in the dynamic and angular figurations of the reliefs from 1982-4 which bear directly on the vocabulary of the Suprematists and the constructivists. Construction: plate No 1467 ex¬plores the spatial development of the rectangle and circle, the strong diagonal structure supporting a complex and energetic circular structure that is barely anchored in the base plane of the print. The small black square placed at an angle emphasises the movement that is created across the plane of the base print by the intersect¬ing axes of the rectangle and circle. Such a composition sets up a variety of tensions which are reminiscent of Malevich's Suprematist paintings. Yet Kudryashov's own development has not been a conscious emulation of avant-garde experiments, but rather the result of his own committed investigation into the structural pos¬sibilities of line and form. He avows: "1 am concerned with form and space and the expressive image." It is his dedicated pursuit of these interests that gives his work the vigour and resonance of his Russian forebears.

Having himself trained within the Socialist Realist traditions of the Moscow State Art Studios (IZO, which he entered in 1942 at the age of ten) and the Moscow Art School, Kudryashov was ignorant of the experiments of the avant-garde. He recalls the revelation he experienced in 1953 when he read the poems of Khlebnikov, and realised that there had once existed aesthetic ideals other than those of Socialist Realism. It was only much later, in 1965, that he first saw works by Malevich, Filonov and Kandinsky in the basement of the Tretyakov Gallery. Although his commitment to structural form evokes Cubism and the Russian movements, his inter¬est in the emotive charge of the gestural mark suggests an affinity with American Abstract Expressionism.

While Kudryashov does not care to be classified as a "natural heir to the Constructivists", he does regard himself as belonging to a wider Russian tradition of the icon and fresco painters, and in particular as adescen¬dant of the htbak artists who from the early 18th century onwards produced popular prints for the Russian masses. His work, even when ostensibly abstract, is like theirs rooted in everyday life and the environment. "I am a realist", he declares, insisting that the artist should create his art from what he knows in the contempo¬rary world.' The abstract language of his works is distilled from the urban landscape in which he lives, with its gaunt buildings, tarmac streets and factories, its demolition sites, slums and rare and precious vegetation. Kudryashov's prints and reliefs capture the austere poetry of these surroundings, and they sometimes incor¬porate the notation of his own city experiences: explicit references to the houses, streets and tramlines of Moscow. the stark outlines of half-demolished buildings in London, and even violent incidents which he wit¬nessed in his youth. Living near a steel works in Moscow, he observed the huge tubes and rolls of wire which became elements in his drypoints. In the 1940s he used to draw maps of the areas where he lived, and forty years later he is still incorporating topographical details of Moscow into his works. When he first arrived in Britain he lived in the East End of London and then moved to Kensington. In both locations the demolition and devastation that surrounded him at that time is manifest in the spare and stark quality of the drypoints from that period. In the same way Kudryashov's etchings frequently include allusions to utilitarian and engineering structures, the bridges, aeroplanes and railways which have fascinated him since he was a boy. He explains: "I am not in love with cities, I simply live in one. I want to express in my drawings all my visual impressions, independently of whether or not I like what I see. I like to draw that which I know well and what I see every day, but I do not want to portray objects. I do not want to enumerate all I see, but to gather it together."1"

The beautiful, compelling and vividly original images which he creates are the expression of Kudryashov's own unique vision, revealing both the poetry and the desolation that is everywhere about us. In the fullest sense they embody and inspire a new spatial awareness.

Christina Lodder

University of St Andrews, Scotland

July 1988

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