AND THE ENDURING RESISTANCE OF VISION
Antonio Luis Ramos Membrive
These fragments I shored against my ruins
I be Columbus of my ships
And sail the garden round the tears that fell into my hand
Presence, by Serhiy Savchenko, 2012.
From the outset, I feel obliged to confront the reader with three warnings: I am not a professional art critic; I have somehow become a collector of quite a large number of Serhiy Savchenko’s works; and I remain, above all, a devoted friend of his. These warnings should not be interpreted as some sort of deterrence against further reading, but simply as an uninhibited confession: when it comes to Savchenko’s works, my judgment is utterly partial. What I propose to the reader, therefore, is to embark on a little journey with me in order to shed light on and, expose in all confidence my reasons for such partiality.
I met Serhiy a long ago in Lvov- those were other times, surely merrier; Ukraine was a country quite different from what it is today, less infused perhaps with enthusiasm, but possessed of a candor which now seems to us irretrievably lost. My wife and I were in that beautiful city for the second time. Serhiy picked us up from our hotel and took us on foot to his atelier: I remember it–ideally- as a ramshackle lodgment full of canvas, personal bagatelles, and flying sparrows; those birds, he said, helped him concentrate. His initial reserve gave swiftly way to an explosion of gaiety, not solely, I hope, because of the prospect of having encountered a possible buyer. He was like an open, used book, full of disparate and colorful sketches. One could almost instantaneously realize that most of his observations came from direct experience rather than from erudition; his trail of thought –just as his working space- was not exactly original in the current meaning of the term, but it was resolutely personal. Many artists aspire to create voluntarily or involuntarily an “artistic” mold for themselves as well as for the unadvised viewer: behold the great sanctuary of Bacon at Reece Mews in London, conveniently turned into a museum, or Picasso’s at Rue des Grands Agustins in Paris, where centuries before the plot of Balzac’s Le Chef D’Oeuvre Inconnu had taken place. In the case of Serhiy, his “mold”, his den, was, and is, transparent and irreverently natural. Its “organic design” demands sine qua non the presence of sparrows. Which, by the way, sporadically contribute to his work, in quite an astonishing proof of uninterested collaboration (or even critical appraisal?).
Savchenko’s unswervingly personal approach to almost everything intermingles with a very uncommon feature: his honesty. Even his bourgeois side pops up as if it could not be otherwise. Some critics, Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian, have compared him to a grown-up, playful child, I think, because of that combination of traits. And though in my view the comparison, or rather the cliché, is not entirely correct –he is, after all, one of the most mature and even serious human beings I have met in my lifetime-, it strikes a chord. One of the reasons he works and re-works a single canvas over a period of years, with the orderly patience of the experienced craftsman, might lie precisely in that fact. Savchenko needs the painting to finally show itself, and will not tire until the true colors of it, so to speak, decide to come to daylight. But such hard-headedness happens to be a byproduct of sincerity, not obsession.
Along with these attributes comes a ravaging and humbling curiosity, which derives, I suspect, from an unquenchable thirst for life, especially inner life. And I say this because this outgoing and notably sociable man is also one of the most introverted people I have ever known. He does not understand life (who does?), but wrestles with it in a very particular way, like some sort of furious, lustful monk, attacking it from all flanks, offering his visual eloquence as a tribute to the great silence that encircles him (and all of us).
Devoid of any complexes, eager to interact, Serhiy works in a variety of different methods, styles, materials, and sizes; he is a part-time photographer; a part-time video artist, an engraver of talent, but above all, he remains at heart a painter.
On account of everything said thus far, it comes as no surprise that his work is prolific to the extreme, in what regards not just the numbers but more critically the many paths he has undertaken. Savchenko’s oeuvres do not just range easily from the abstract to the figurative and all the way back, but rejoice in the many possibilities offered in-between; and yet, in spite of it, there seems to exist a basic need to leave an “expressionist” trace of himself at the core of all of his paintings, like a reactionary cry of allegiance to his own self.
In Brassaï’s Conversations with Picasso, the master remarked casually to the Hungarian photographer: “one does not delimit nature, one does not copy it either; one allows imagined objects to take on real appearances” . Or, as Klee put it: “art does not reproduce the visible; rather it makes visible”. Similarly, the landscapes, the free compositions or the “eruptions” of Savchenko are not bound by nature or try to emulate it to the letter, but originate in a seemingly constant process of internalization and “ownership”, a flow of thoughts, emotions and intuitions which are then poured onto the canvas, once and again, day after day.
Unlike many of his Ukrainian contemporaries, there is no trace of “moralism” or “folklore” in Serhiy’s painting. The power of his vision replaces the hope of a self-sufficient system or the denouncing pamphlet; and, through vision, the artist imprints a shape of himself on the thick, blasted surface of the canvas, wrought and re-wrought, ceaseless tortured along successive incarnations, which ultimately aim at finding its impossible soul.
Forget the visceral attributes, the desire to cause “shock and awe” of an Arsen Savadov, praiseworthy of course; you will not find it in here. No savvy staging of any kind of social protest, no aim at caricature for the sheer sake of it either. When working, Savchenko is very much political, of course, but in the contradictory manner of a Walter Benjamin, incapable of separating his innermost beliefs of transcendence from public and sometimes more down-to-earth ideas. For this reason, even Savchenko’s attempts at depicting cannibalism as a tenet of our consumerist world simply remain within his “personal” orbit and therefore do not attain, strictly speaking, the political sphere:
Public relations, by Serhiy Savchenko, 2016.
In a way, Serhiy Savchenko is an old artist who gets carried away by his admiration for XXth century icons. He is especially attached to a certain tradition, which paradoxically was boosted by the dissolution of an earlier tradition, and which preached the intransmissibility of culture. Observe, for instance, the following “parallel lives”:
Alberto Giacometti, Portrait of woman, 1965.
M.o.a.c, by Serhiy Savchenko 2015.
Such admiration, at any rate, is highly critical, highly intuitive, and carefully sifted by his insight. Surely, many a canvas from Serhiy’s new series “Nothingness” will remind the reader of other well-known “abstract” painters, from Kandinsky or Mirò onwards:
Nothingnesses by Serhiy Savchenko (sea), 2015.
Now, these rich influences are just a means. What really matters in these paintings is the drive behind. In Savchenko’s head, nothingness is not an absolute absence. His mind cannot let it be so. And so nothingness becomes a collection of strings of objects, suggested by a deep layer of his imagination, constantly moved by an invisible whirlwind arousing from a thinly coloured abyss.
His landscapes, his cities, his roads, might make us think of Nicolas de Staël or of Van Gogh, or of Dubuffet. They are all nevertheless only Savchenko. I am particularly attracted to his nightscapes: their uncanniness, their anticipation of fear in a suspended state of joy, their wise reliance on color, make them unique. These illuminated nights release demons at a distance, who might decide to come towards us, or not.
No title. Series “ways” by Serhiy Savchenko, 2015.
In a similarly counterbalancing way, Serhiy’s almost Picassian obsession with women brims with pure, strong, carnal violence, which is mixed at different intensities with tenderness and a distant reflection of both the other and the self.
Savchenko’s individual attachments complicate things, though, with regard to his own relation to the post-modern. The late Zygmunt Bauman wrote: “art is like a window over the chaos: it shows the chaos at the same time that it tries to frame its enormous flowing (…) Great art can, behind each one of the forms it makes appear, make us see the unlimited chaos of being”  . Somehow I feel these thoughts are alien to Serhiy Savchenko. I suspect that he is not a religious man, at least not as we currently understand someone to be religious. But then,
his paintings are so full of a sense of mortality and a sense of hope that sometimes he seems pre-modern or modern in his conceptions and his quest for beauty.
His work is not based on the celebration of the ephemeral or the accidental; it is not based either on an aestheticism that glorifies emptiness. He relies on the power of myth, he is permeated by it, but not in the intricate and yet suavely ironic manner of a Cy Twombly, for instance. Sergei does not seem to believe that human frailty happens to be a technical challenge, or that the purpose of every artistic activity ultimately consists of making the spectator feel and experience a specific yet fleeting sensation.
Aesthetics without art means the triumph of kitsch; art without aesthetics rarely takes place in a world saturated with ready-mades, underperforming performances, and easy reproductions, and very often devaluates into something else, like the depiction of an ideology or a solitary statement of political or metapolitical nature. A gap, apparently unbridgeable, is open before the artist, who does not count on tradition to surpass it. He can only count on himself, and on his own ability to put everything under scrutiny.
Let me recall at some length an excerpt from Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben that attempts to shed some light on this. According to him, “irony meant that art had to become its own object, and, no longer finding real seriousness in any content, could from now on only represent the negative potentiality of the poetic I, which, denying, continues to elevate itself beyond itself in an infinite doubling.(…) At the extreme limit of art’s destiny”, Agamben continues, “when all the gods fade in the twilight of art’s laughter, art is like a negation that negates itself, a self-annihilating nothing. Art becomes the annihilating entity that traverses all its contents (…) because it cannot identify with any content. And since art has become the pure potentiality of negation, nihilism reigns in its essence.” .
Contrary to this Zeitgeist and notwithstanding his variety of styles, Savchenko does not seem to be an “elector of identities”: his works seem to be consubstantial to his own conscience; he believes in the possibility of conscience, and therefore he has not been devoured by it. By the same token, he possesses the power to keep irony under control. In this respect, he reminds me of another emerging artist, the Scottish Gayle Chong Kwan, who achieves similar results through a conscious balancing of elements and trends. Remember how, in her case, dim blue illumination and several plastic white bottles, correctly arranged, display before the camera the submerged island of Atlantis.
Every new project of Savchenko is closely related to the rest, and, quite often, different images from the past resurface in the present: the figurative landscapes and the abstract paintings speak a common language. The stripped lines of his “Vibration” series and of his “Dispersion” series point to a common goal. Furthermore, Savchenko constantly recycles his previous findings in subsequent works. This recourse to inter-textuality can achieve sometimes a notable degree of intricacy.
Take this homage to Goya’s “Saturn devouring one of his sons” (2012), one of the most symbolic of the Black Paintings of the Spanish master. In the original, a gigantic elder is caught eating alive the body of a younger man. The eyes of the cannibal are wide-open and wild: it is difficult for him to believe what he is doing. The mutilated and bleeding corpse occupies the center of the painting, where its light becomes more intense. The primordial parent –Saturn, Cronus, time- who engendered that human-like god brings him back to his belly in the most awful fashion. Both time and god are represented as men and yet, the canvas tells us that time consumes his conscious child, that that is the highlight of life, and that it is a bloody business. To never have been born, said Sophocles.
Now, in the case of Savchenko’s rendering of the painting, the whole concept is substantially changed. First of all, man is not devoured by man, but rather by the monstrous caricature of a man; more precisely one of the bizarre, round, histrionic faces that first appeared on the “Chorus” series, and which reappears here in an entirely different context. It is as if the old works devoured the new ones. It is as if time were not was it used to be, both to art and to man. In fact, time wears a crueler and less comprehensible face, bereft of feeling. Then, there is no trace of blood, though an illuminated corpse remains at the center of the canvas. The whole setting is aseptic and black, clean in its own way. Therefore, one could argue that Savchenko aims at delivering a poignant critique, using for that purpose a well-known and popularly recognizable piece of work of a master who is at the same time of the pillars of tradition and one of the precursors of modernity. Time is no longer modeled on the shape of man- albeit on a grotesque scale;
nothing is modeled on man anymore; man has gone astray, while time silently and efficiently disposes of him.
There is no need for things to look messy or mortal. Soul and blood have no role to play in this ongoing processing of ghostly biological existence.
As I said at the outset of this brief essay, I met Serhiy some years ago. Because of our lasting friendship, I have observed how he has evolved artistically, and I am particularly impressed with his increasing mastery of portrait, something that maybe has to do with his own maturity as an artist. His latest works in this genre allow him to reconcile figure and colour in a way that he had not essayed before. The countenances of his portrayed subjects used to be very schematic. Lots of characters in Serhiy’s previous works did not even have faces, or their eye sockets were empty. Complexity of composition and the gradual apparition of facial complexity go hand in hand and serve the same purpose: exploring the subject’s psyche as a way to explore the inner self of the artist. Serhiy is –seemingly painfully- learning how to turn others’ faces into a mirror as well as how to draw some solid conclusions out of it. It is no coincidence then that the eyes in those portraits have become so piercing.
Take this last piece of work. A girl, almost a child, resolutely and even insolently looks at us. She is in complete control of herself; that self-control, that fixedness, might make us feel unsure. The looker on is being looked at. Her regard is calm, but intense, and slightly melancholic. One ought to wonder if she is on the brink of crying, maybe out of despondency. She is looking at us so hard after all.
Deep down in the eyes of that girl, too, lies the center of the struggle of Serhiy Savchenko: the enduring resistance of his own vision. Certainties -so we are told- are gone. Nihilism reigns. However, from an imaginary threshold, Serhiy keeps on staring at the ruins, as if there was some real meaning in them. And he keeps on leaving traces behind –drawings, sketches, installations and above all paintings- in order for us to recollect that his urge to stare, to see, is ours as well. The results are fragmentary, contradictory, they revolve around themselves, but they matter.
Lemkynya X by Serhiy Savchenko, 2015.
 Brassaï, George: Conversations with Picasso, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999. Page 36.
 Bauman, Zygmunt: Arte ¿líquido?, Ediciones Sequitur, 2007. Arte, muerte y posmodernidad, Page 14.
 Agamben, Giorgio:The man without content, Stanford University Press, 1999. Pages 55-57.