Observations on Evgeni Dybsky’s art / Jürgen Raap

Translation of time

Evgeni Dybsky’s formative years were centred on Moscow, where he studied and where he made his first important contributions to the capital’s art scene. Upon leaving Russia in 1990 he spent several years living in Italy before settling in the German city of Cologne, on the river Rhine. 

Dybsky’s biography is of relevance to his development as an artist. His interest in landscape painting took him to the Crimea on the Black Sea in the 1980s; several years later, he discovered a very similar, seasonally influenced light in Italy.

Southern skies have always held a powerful attraction for northern European artists. Light effects in the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) show a clear divide between works that were created before his eight-year sojourn in Italy (1600-1608) and those that came after. There is a marked freshness, luminosity and glow in the colours in the later paintings.
For many Flemish and German painters from the 17th to the 19th century, a voyage to Italy was virtually part of the training, not only because of the Greek and Roman classics, but also to draw inspiration from the landscape. Around 1880 French impressionists flocked to the Mediterranean and the Provence. Plein air painting demanded a keen eye and a fast, sure hand to seize the elusive, shimmering world of appearances. Under the influence of the inconstant light, artists began to simplify and dissolve the forms of things. 

Around this time, too, Peter Tchaikovsky was in Italy. His bright, exuberant “Capriccio Italien” opus 45 reflects the transformation which the introspective Russian composer underwent during his Italian stay.

For Evgeni Dybsky the concept of landscape has literal and figurative meaning. In 1985 he created a series of landscape studies in nature. Visible in them is the young artist’s predilection for a composition divided into fields, each dominated by its own colours. This was to mature into a guiding principle, clearly evident in his later large-format works. 

Dybsky is interested in the space of landscape. The corners and edges of his colour fields also perform an architectonic function. For all the formal and conceptual differences, one is reminded of Paul Cézanne, whose Provence village roofscapes are a cluster of red surfaces, anticipating the cubist style.

The landscapes Dybsky painted in the Crimea and in Italy are striking because of their luminosity and the intensity of the colours. The tones vibrate with an elemental, expressive force. In the paintings from the Cologne period, colours are more restrained, subtle, calm.
Even in his early landscapes going back to 1985, it is evident that Dybsky is using paint not just to draw, but to build something. He uses heavy impasto to create relief, foretelling the more mature artist’s interest in structures that will be visualised in plaster, pigments and binder, in a nod to restorations of Italian fresco painting.

In this way Dybsky gradually moves away from easel painting. Textured, substantial paint gives his works a distinctly plastic feel. One is not surprised to learn that in 1993-1994 he created a series of sculptures and plastic reliefs as wall and floor murals; we are witnessing the stations in his development as an artist. In this period he sculpted solid wooden bodies with circular niches, within which stones, slightly bigger than an egg, have been embedded. Subsequently, Dybsky put the same technique of inset objets trouvés to use in painting.

The series Dybsky calls “Translation of time” has been ten years in the making. From 1992 to the present day, ten groups have been created, each counting thirty to sixty paintings. These are “translations” in the sense of graphical metaphors for landscape using multiple layers of colour space.

For example, group IV (1994-1997) makes use of two plywood boards, fastened respectively to the front and back surfaces of a frame. The resulting objects, roughly two inches deep, define the support as a colour body inside which Dybsky fashions the circular holes (‘craters’) in which he embeds the stones.

The basic model for these compositions involves a large surface, with the oils applied in successive coats. The deeper layers subtly shimmer through, creating a diaphanous field of organic colours; the effect is that of an airy, ephemeral veil. The luminous character of the layered colours permeates the space in a deeply sensual way. In their conception, the paintings are related to colour field painting, which experienced a vigorous revival in the post-fauves nineties.

At this stage Dybsky breaks the aesthetic unity of his composition with plaster applications reminiscent of old frescoes on which peeling or severely deteriorated places have been masked with cement. Also, the lower third of these paintings is set off from the upper two thirds by a pure, dense monochrome of sprayed-on black acrylic.

The use of various materials and techniques builds on natural contrasts between glossy and matt, between luminous and dark, absorptive portions of the canvas; but also tactile contrasts: stones and clumps of white synthetic wool, for example. The visually striking effect of the group IV works also owes something to the contrast between the abruptness of the insets (in another series they are filled with hair) and the smoothness of the colour transitions on the canvas, where no contours whatsoever may be discerned.

Grey stripes done in tempera paint outline the canvas, vertically and horizontally. In group VIII (1998) and in Dybsky’s most recent work, the sides of the frame are treated as an integral part of the painting, dispensing with the conventional boundaries of an orthogonal piece of flat canvas or wood.

The boundaries of easel painting have been repeatedly assailed over the past forty years in art. Thus, in the 1960s Lucio Fontana presented his Concetti spaziali of slashed canvasses, while Yves Klein’s monochrome work and Piero Manzoni’s Achromes, consisting of untreated plaster reliefs, exploded the classic definition of a painting as depicting a form and containing at least two colours (to show a figure against a background, for example).

Evgeni Dybsky is one of those artists who refuse the illusionism of traditional painting, which relies on geometrical perspective and colour variations to mimic three-dimensional space on a flat surface. An early, telling work of Dybsky done in gold leaf testifies to his fascination with Byzantine icon painting. The “Translation of time” series, marked by uncompromising rigour and precision, can be understood as an indirect tribute to that older, strictly hierarchical form of art.

More importantly, however, the icon is transcendental: while it is certainly a representational object, it also intends something that goes beyond the depicted space. It is a medium, an agent, the incarnation of an arch-image governed by a strict liturgical canon.

Modern paintings conceived as organic ‘colour energy’ beings impinge on a sacred, though not necessarily religious, meaning, such as the most archaic forms of painting possess. The logical artistic consequence, of course, is a movement towards the abstraction of colour. A prime example of this is Malevich’s programmatic “Black square” from 1913, which he described as a “naked framed icon” for his time, an archetypal figurative model of abstraction and pure intuition. Malevich considered colour as an absolute substance in its own right. Sixty years on, the proponents of colour field painting showed that this ground was still fertile. In his more recent work, Dybsky makes allusion to this heritage with variations on the square-in-a-square theme.

For artists of Dybsky’s generation, the question today is: what can and should painting do, in the context of an age that is swamped with images produced by photographic, technical and digital techniques. Dybsky has articulated a possible answer based on the specific material nature of the substance that is formed by the painter, something that comes through particularly clearly in the “fresco” parts.

This allows him to avoid the facile bluntness of everyday images. In contrast to the frantic rhythm of a videoclip, a painting demands a certain contemplative focus. The “Translation of time” series emphasises this, requiring as it does a generous use of exhibition space in which the viewer can encounter this painting, ignoring its role as an element in a series, or a member of a duo.

Certain films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergio Leone use camera techniques that may be said to dilate subjective time; this experience relates cinema to painting, which encourages the same unhurried exploration of the image. The analogy is borne out by the epic picture stories told by the narrative panoramas of an earlier age.

Those classical pictures have a certain dramaturgical structure which demands that they present a logical and chronological sequence of events, typically ordered from left to right and from top to bottom. In sacred art, this structure corresponds to a view of history as redemption, positing heaven and earth, the centre and the periphery. It continues in the narrative structures of historical painting, well into the 19th century.

Dybsky’s work, too, may be viewed through the prism of vertical and horizontal ordering. Thus, the paintings in series VIII (1998) make use of a main base in a delicate rose or yellowish shimmer. To achieve this effect you must have recourse to an old master technique in which ten to twelve translucent layers are applied successively. The upper third of the painting consists of a relief surface formed of a transparent or translucent material, amber or plastic. Elongated oval craters open onto the painting’s inner world, inviting and menacing at once.
Andy Warhol had a radical approach to the dilation of cinematic time. In “Empire State Building” he dispenses with the earth-bound perspective of a wide screen, restricting the camera instead to a view from a window. The viewer is confronted with a single, essentially static image, rather than an evolving story. Dybsky’s title “Translation of Time” is a message in code, a message with an absurd subtext. For painters have ever failed to capture more than the mere coagulated rivulets of time, until action painting came along, based on process and hence inherently dynamic.

Dybsky’s paintings are the colourful abstraction of everyday experience in all its variety. They achieve a synthesis of the subjective side of experience with objective, essentially ‘meteorological’ elements (light, landscape). Since 1998 he has been producing paintings in pairs, giving new importance to symmetry and similarity.

At the same time, Dybsky has started to use horizontal format canvasses, where in the past he restricted himself to vertical format. The round craters are still there, but now they glower from the edges of the paintings, tangible scars that refuse to stay within the assigned two-dimensional confines.

The classical format is transformed yet again in 1999 and 2000 as Dybsky constructs appendages on the periphery of his paintings. The latter have now definitively turned into spatial objects. Cloud-like billows of synthetic wool grow down out of the painting and into the surrounding space.

Immediately following this series, “Translation of time – X” (2000 and 2001) uses white or off-white backgrounds with gash-like inserts that are filled with clumps of brown animal hair. Observed from a distance, the relief effect disappears and the animal hair is perceived as a patch of intense colour that leaps out of the picture.

Effects such as this make Dybsky’s recent works more energetic, even aggressive. At the same time they are more purely geometrical; Dybsky himself, with subtle irony, describes this marriage of hard forms and soft materials as a “gentle constructivism”. The emulsions he uses develop tiny cracks and fissures in the process of drying, forming filigree patterns that testify to painting as a medium of sensuality.

July 2002
(Translated by Eduard Friesen)