Evgeni Dybsky: an appreciation / Matthew Cullerne Bown

Evgeni Dybsky's fundamental motif is landscape. Not the landscape of observation, nor even of memory, but landscape as metaphor: landscape reforged by a contemporary sensibility, in which the example of modernist painting, personal experience, memory and desire coalesce.

We may in his painting register echoes of Dybsky's Russian-Jewish heritage. The striving of the revolutionary avant-garde to integrate the artwork into the real world is echoed in the holes which puncture Dybsky's recent canvases, holes which lock the painting and the surrounding environment together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The saturated colours and unabashed lyricism of many works recall, perhaps, Chagall, and here an interpretative paradigm suggests itself: that of the Russian-Jewish emigre whose subjects are nostalgic for a world which, we suspect, never really existed. If we are to seek in Dybsky's landscapes a specific geographical reference, however highly distilled, then it must surely be to the lush landscape of the Crimea and Black Sea, where Dybsky spent several summers during his years of study in Moscow.

But with Dybsky, as with, for example, Howard Hodgkin, the narrative urge is always subordinate to the will to form. There seems little doubt that the increasing variety of Dybsky's surfaces, the growing subtlety and delicacy of his contrasts, owes not a little to Italian Arte Povera. Dybsky's years in the village of Fornovo San Giovani, near Milan, must have developed his feeling not only for Italian modern art, but also for its physical and spiritual context: the light's flatness; the texture of ancient towns and villages; the sense of history, lightly worn but weighing heavily.

These are not pieces designed, like much abstract or near-abstract art today, as ambient music for the corporate environment, but paintings requiring and repaying contemplation. The loving attention to surface, already apparent in Dybsky's Russian-period works and encouraged further by his Italian experience, distinguishes the eroticism of his painting from, say, the brash sexiness of a Frank Stella. This love of the surface - one might say, of the skin - of painting is a classic feature of the modernist sensibility; and Dybsky's work is a compelling restatement of the modernist first principle: that the formal elements of painting in themselves have the capacity to create significant worlds.