On the Tracks of Time / Wibke von Bonin

The Art of Evgeni Dybsky

In the blinding sun that falls through the skylight in Evgeni Dybsky’s studio, his paintings radiate an austere foreignness. Not that they frighten or even repulse the visitor. They emanate no vehement action, no silky seduction. Instead, they keep the visitor at a distance. In terms of tone, they are calm and determined. The dominant white is perfect and reticent; the portions that appear to be black at first glance soon prove to hold many secrets in store, while the colored parts are difficult to define at first and seem seethe with ferment. The paintings, which appear in pairs, are concerned with one another, not with the spectator, caught up in quiet, tense dialogues. Their magic only discloses itself with time. Their intensity of radiation only grows over the time the spectator requires to approach them.

Notwithstanding the warm reception of Dybsky’s work at his last exhibit at Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery in 2003, Russian art criticism found the refined composure of his art to be “all too beautiful”, as Dybsky himself puts it. A reason for the seeming inaccessibility and misnamed beauty of his art can certainly be found in its degree of technical perfection. In his ten years of training in the uninterrupted tradition of painting at the academies of Soviet Russia, Dybsky mastered the techniques of working with his material, so that he can gild his pride with irony in speaking of the secrets of the studio, explaining the immaculate smoothness of the paintings’ white surfaces or the consciously induced crackles of its other portions.

But in fact, Dybsky feels that Russian art criticism is not chiding him for the aesthetic perfection of his artworks. Instead, he also tries to explain it in different terms: his visual language is perceived as something inherently problematic, simply because it is visual. “Russian culture has been deeply defined by literature. The first question one asks when one sees a painting is what the artist wanted to say, what it depicts, not what he wanted to demonstrate. In contrast, since I was a student, my explorations have always focused on fields that few of my Russian colleagues find very interesting. I always saw first and then thought about how to interpret what I had seen. My first impression is always defined by the senses of sight and touch, and not by thought. At least initially, I am primarily concerned with color, structure, and spatiality.” This explains why Dybsky’s art originally draws its themes from the world of objects – landscapes and figures – but then reduces them to their skeletal structure, to the rhythm of select forms, for an example. His art is drawn and – in this sense of the word – abstracted from the object.

Dybsky has carried out his “research” with rare consistency and a sense of certainty that excludes sheer coincidences. In cycles of varying extent, he tests out all possible variations of a problem that he himself has posed.

The works show here stand at the end of a long process, in the course of which form and color have become increasingly independent. However, one can discern their origin in the landscape and the figure if one follows Dybsky’s painting over the last 20 years. In the early summers of 1985 to 1989, Dybsky regularly travelled to the Crimea to work. Made during this period, a series of tempera-sketches on paper provided the artist with a reservoir of forms for “landscape paintings”. After a cycle of almost mellifluous, small-formatted works on paper (1985), they depart from realistic depiction almost entirely and work in a mode that the critic Olga Sviblova describes as “meta-realistic”. Even if their tonality has disconnected from the natural landscape completely, one can still interpret the forms from the earlier sketches as mountains, roads, houses, trees, telephone poles etc. Initially, human figures still come into view, reduced to small vertical marks in the paintings’ lower-middle edges, but soon the human figure – which used to be the main theme of Dybsky’s painting – disappears entirely. Running upward diagonally toward the center of painting, tapering swathes of color can be read as paths to the horizon: the surfaces at their sides and the points scattered on them can be understood as fields and flowers, while rectangles seem to indicate houses. The characteristic Crimean architecture of vertical rectangles and ovals survives until well into the late 1980s. It is around this time that the line of the horizon is subject to more and more deformation, so that it is only the predominant horizontal format of the pieces that points toward their origins in landscape painting.

In their vehement coloring, the Crimean paintings do not adhere to any form of naturalism whatsoever. In many cases, the image’s tension arises through the way the color itself is applied: even in the small gouaches, of which Dybsky makes four or five a day, erratic polychromatic applications in rough brushstrokes alternate with closely painted surfaces of pure color: yellow before blue over green-grey with red insertions, balanced out by a green stripe on the other side of the “path”. Parallels of ocher, pink, and dense grass-green in front of a grey-brown “sky”. The titles of the small-panelled oil paintings that follow these studies express a dramatic quality that carries over from the canvas to the spectator. A multitude of color-forms – which varies in terms of brushstroke, nuance, and tonality – crowds the space of the painting, edging out beyond its boundaries. Recognizable objects are replaced by the structuring of the painting’s surface through differing modes of application. The smooth, monochrome surfaces mentioned above stand side by side with rough, unmixed fields, in which the direction of the brushstroke determines the direction of a form, concurrent with other fields in which a number of colors are heaped onto one another in impasto applications. As before, the painting’s dynamic is determined by the diagonal that arises through the “path”, even if associations with the landscape are gradually lost.

The painter subtitles his series “The Alarming Space” from 1986/87 with names such as “Collision” or “Invasion”. In contrast, the horizontal or quadratic canvases of the series “Monotonous Subject” (1987/88) seem seasoned and stocked in seeming tranquility.

Two series rich in experimentation, “The Second Meeting” and “Walking around Gethsemane” (1988/89) are followed by “Shadows” (1989/90), a sequence of many parts, in which the dominance of larger monochrome surfaces returns calm into the paintings’ dynamics.

Certainly, the titles given to the paintings have something to say. We will not attempt to discover in how far unease or monotony, encounters and shadows draw their meaning from the artist’s biography. However, the name of the extensive series “Memories” (1990/91) is certainly connected to the fact that Dybsky does not return to the Crimea after 1989, though he uses the sketches made there as models for his subsequent work. He leaves Moscow and emigrates to the West, at first to Italy, where he lives near Milan, and then to Cologne in 1996.

At this point, it makes sense to dwell upon a substantial phenomenon in

Evgeni Dybsky’s painting that we have not mentioned until now.

As early as in the Crimean sketches, he bounds the surface of his painting with a painted, narrow frame. This boundary travels to the larger pieces in tempera and oil, though it is overstepped from the very beginning. Initially, it is the painting’s lower edge that opens itself to the spectator, inviting him to enter the path into the landscape, which actually leads into the spatial depth of the painting in a perspective fashion, even if this illusionism is hardly registered by the painting’s other elements. More frequently, however, “clouds” will slip from the upper portion of the painting sideways or can even demand a sculptural extension of the upper edge of the painting’s otherwise precisely finished picture plane. The application of paint can be especially impasto, even tending toward three-dimensionality through the use of emulsion binder, making the painting into a relief. In keeping with this tendency, Dybsky gives a series from 1990 the name of “Towards Sculpture” and, in 1992, dedicates his efforts to the production of large, rustic sculptures that have clearly grown out of the rectangular format of the painting. Lying on the floor or affixed to the wall in a relief-like manner, the body of these pieces consists of a massive block or chump of wood, either left raw or stained, with slots or depressions in diverging color, without or with inlays, which, more often than not, are stones. Fat sticks protrude out from the wooden block’s narrow side like branches that have been sawed off abruptly. Some of these sculptures are reminiscent of trees that have lost their life through a storm and now live on as artworks, placed upon the fundament of a sculptural pedestal. Dybsky recounts that he had planned to create an absurd landscape in the rural surroundings of his Italian domicile, transforming nature into art in an overdimensioned plan that never reached the point of realization.

What characterizes this plan and Dybsky’s approach to sculpture on the whole is how important the sensual aspect of his materials really is, how he emphasizes the materiality of the means that he works with. The colors on his canvases take on a variety of qualities, ranging from impasto to the point of relief to rough surfaces much like the wall behind removed frescoes. At these points, the canvas gains an opening through which the wall becomes visible, drawing the surrounding spaces into the aesthetic object. On the other hand, Dybsky is successful in depicting stones – which he also uses in his sculptures – in the series “Towards Sculpture” and “Memories” in such a way that the illusion is perfect at a distance. In doing so, he makes use of a combination of pigment, plaster of paris, and binder, which he calls an “emulsion”. From the 1990s onward, he continues to use this emulsion in a broad variety of colorings and structures rather frequently, guarding its recipe as a trade secret.

If the pieces in the series “Memories” is composed of elements that differentiate themselves against one another through their varying combinations of color, form, and impasto, the artist’s next step seems to be characterized by even greater formal austerity and the reduction to a smaller number of repeating color forms. In 1992, Dybsky begins his cycles of painting “Translation of Time”. By today, he has reached XII. He says that he is hesitant to cross the threshold to XIII, sounding slightly coquettish in his superstition.

Much like the title “Memories”, the name “Translation of Time” is also connected to the recollection of the past. However, this recollection should not be confused with nostalgia. Instead, it entails a continual reworking of energies that emanate from image-notes recorded in a previous period. In this sense, the artist explains that the cycles’ English title is misleading, because it is based on a play on words with the Russian translatsiya (=emanation, broadcast). In his progressive exploration of new possibilities, Dybsky continues to develop his oeuvre, drawing upon other forms, colors, and materials.

“Translation of Time I” (1992) continues in the vein of the brightly colored “Memories” cycle, although its formal vocabulary has now been reduced. Many of these paintings are dominated by a section of more or less wide and curving black-and-white stripes. A vertical beam of red appears on the side, separated from the remaining image by a beam of “fresco emulsion”, rising in parallel. The “path” diagonal has also returned.

“Translation of Time II” (1993) extends and varies this theme is oil on canvas, while the cycle “Translation of Time III” consists of smaller formats on cardboard. Their palette is far more reserved and reduced to a small number of tones; these paintings are dominated by sections of white-gray marbled emulsion that imitate stone and are applied impasto. The cardboard has been mounted onto a box-shaped frame, on which the painting continues. One can speak of these pieces as three-dimensional painting-objects. The sculptures mentioned above come from the same period.

“Translation of Time IV”, a series of wall pieces, undertakes a further step into the third dimension. Their color has been reduced to a small number of grey, often dark hues in favor of plasticity. Like the wooden sculpture, these canvasses have depressions, which Dybsky calls “craters”. They contain fist-size boulders.

In the years 1994/95, Dybsky works on the series “Translation of Time” V and VI. The former varies the cycle IV, removing the stones from their craters, while the latter departs from the coloring of the works that preceded them.

At this point, the possibilities for varying these themes seem to have exhausted themselves for the time being. The artist moves to Cologne and draws the conclusions from his years in Italy.

He takes the paintings of earlier phases, paints over them, and calls them “Translation of Time VII”. This form of recycling has something of an act of destruction, since the canvasses are perforated in order to insert new craters, but it is also an act of bringing together old and new structures, especially since these paintings now receive a third dimension. The series that follows this constructive recollection will also include such craters. The year 1998, however, marks a turn in terms of both content and form. In order to clarify this shift, Dybsky begins to work with pairs of paintings with his cycles. These pairs modify the motif at hand slightly, helping to hone the beholder’s skills of observation. Dybsky now turns from the theme of landscape painting in its variations to the human body. This shift may only be conditionally recognizable in the visual vocabulary, but it is all the more present on an emotional level. At this point, the painter shifts to a higher key and begins to use a strictly reduced palette of very light colors. The canvases are primed in shiny off-whites, nuanced through hues ranging from gentle yellow to shades of pink. Sequenced in rows, the oval craters are partially open toward their edges and filled with a synthetic fiber that resembles cotton wool, which edges out beyond the painting’s boundary. In turn, the third visual element consists of “emulsion”, though this is now an undefinable, slimy, dirty-yellow mixture of pigment, plaster of paris, and binder whose uneven surface gives off a matte sheen. While the smooth-light pink of the prime conveys the impressions of the youthful immaculacy of skin, its contrast to the emulsion – reminiscent of fat and secretions – could not be greater. The originally snow-white cotton-wool fibre in the precisely cut depressions – which are primed in black – becomes dusty and takes on a certain grubbiness in the process of aging, creating a further contrast, accepted willingly, supplying these calm paintings with an underlying tension that carries over to the spectator.

This effect is heightened in the painting-objects of the series “Translation of Time IX” from the years 1999/2000. Two of their three constituent visual elements namely synthetic fibre and emulsion - now grow out of the painting. Seen in a row, these canvases are all the same size, painted smoothly and clearly bounded, but they have outgrowths of emulsion and fibre that vary in terms of form. The craters have disappeared entirely.

In 2001/2002, Dybsky concludes this period of formal experimentation with “Translation of Time X”, in which he moves toward greater geometrical austerity. He also introduces a new material, namely black animal hair. He turns away from the yellow and pink hues and their association with the body, and opts for nuances of white that can hardly be differentiated from another, creating a stark contrast to the narrow band of hair in a cut-out inset. At a distance, the hair’s fibres are no longer recognizable and seem darker that they actually are. In this way, Dybsky creates a deep black (Russ. “glubokiy cherny”), whose materiality only becomes recognizable when the spectator comes closer to the painting. Framed by the cut-outs of hair from one or more sides, the emulsion – applied in the form of regular rectangles or parallelograms – has changed in terms of quality. Intermixed with dark gray, its chapped surface is no longer reminiscent of something organic, but seems far closer to natural stone or worn plaster stucco.

In the cycle “Translation of Time XI”, the hair has disappeared entirely. This series only consists of six paintings, which are very light, austere, and minimal. Yet one has the impression that something is missing, as if these paintings had dried up and died off. Where, exactly, is the sensuality that the artist likes to talk about so much? Has he reached his zero-point?

At this point, his old principle comes to the rescue: he looks back. In 2003, he reviews paintings that he made fifteen years ago and finds them extremely current. In thinking about how draw a connection to his previous discovery without imitating himself, he develops a material that indicates how certain structures in his newest paintings come from a previous period and radiate into the present, as a translation of time. He calls this process Verälterung, a curious German neologism that combines Veralterung (=aging) with the adjective älter (=even older). This seems to indicate that one can observe the process of forced aging that affects certain forms, as in the crazing of crackled paint, for an instance. “These visual elements age far more rapidly than my new structures, which remain ideal”, Dybsky explains. “As the painting dries, certain portions develop cracks which continue to develop rapidly. Today, there are twenty of them, but tomorrow, there might be more than a hundred. This form of painting is alive: I can demonstrate the passage of time by bringing together different times in one painting.”

Not only the contrast between the old and the new, but also the fresh hues employed in the resulting canvases entitles the series “Translation of Time XII” to its name. Soft sky-blue, matte orange or bright green appear in free forms, while the fine impasto polychrome mixture from the “Memories” cycle also reappears, structured through the rough stroke of the brush, delimiting the painting’s other elements from one another. The light blue is allowed to produce the effect of reflecting water, while the work on paper even include dancing flower points that seem to stem from Dybsky’s earliest landscape. Rounded stripes of hair next to surfaces of grey emulsion are also present, and what’s more, all of these elements seem to get along. These paintings are full of life; they are cheerful, exiting, and tense without being too loud. A multitude of older and newer forms is set into variegated encounters, revolving around one another freely. It is as if Evgeni Dybsky had taken a deep breath and remembered his sense of humor in spreading out all of his riches. He has strode forward through the last 20 years with the seriousness of an inventor, following a path that has led along many way stations, from the Crimean landscapes of spring to the minimal abstraction of his studio in Cologne. By pausing and looking back, he has enriched his present painting, receiving the stored signals of an earlier time and actualizing them with his technique of Verälterung, broadcasting signals through the years, rendering visible the passage of time.

(Translated from German by Eduard Friesen)