I am pleased that the “Novy Museum” has provided an opportunity for Gregori Maiofis to exhibit his work broadly, to express himself freely, at last. A museum exhibition is a joy for any artist, but in “Maiofis’ case” the time is truly ripe. It’s not about prestige, not about praising where due: because he has been exhibiting for a long time, working a lot, has been recognised by galleries and collectors. It is just that Maiofis will finally been able to show his work in the right format. What does it mean – right? To be more precise – that which alone can give an idea of the artist’s certain strategic interest which directs his creative work.
Using the word “strategic”, I do not mean a career strategy, issues about advancement in the art world: that is a special area, important not so much for the critic, as for the artist himself and his support team – the gallery owners, project curators and collectors. I am speaking within the boundaries of my own competence: about strategy as a kind of conceptual wholeness of expression. What, in fact, is the message of Maiofis’ work? What is the general idea he is seeking to convey to the audience? What unites the various stages of his self-realisation? That’s what I associate with the museum format of expression. Why am I giving this question so much attention? Simply because, ultimately, it’s a matter of understanding the artist. Many times I have caught myself at exhibitions looking at (even, more exactly, reading) Maiofis’ works as separate visual novels. And their very diversity I have perceived as merely a manifestation of his presence in the art scene: he works constantly, growing in quality, this means that all is well. It was only when preparing this text, as if mentally reconstructing the history of meeting Maiofis’ works at exhibitions, I asked myself: Where does this “separateness” come from? After all, it is precisely this that prevents the “strategic” from being perceived. And only a broad – museum – showing of his art will harmonise Maiofis’ separate “exhibition dynamics” amongst themselves into something integral. And, by the way, will determine, finally, the scale of his efforts. But first – about the “separateness”. About the fact that Maiofis’ separate exhibition appearances “draw” one’s attention towards the visual subject matter which is self-sufficient, worthy in itself, structurally complete. I think this occurs primarily because he gets carried away with these subjects – he has the gift of the story-teller, and the excitement of narrating takes him a long way. A role – paradoxically – is also played by the fact that Maiofis is an artist who undoubtedly possesses a sense of humour. And he does not consider it necessary to hide it. Moreover, he realises some of his important ideas also with the help of what the Russian philologists-formalists call “comic practices”. And humour in general is in opposition to contemporary art. I do not mean the total postmodernist irony, with which the whole stratum of contemporary visual culture is, in fact, permeated. Thus, contemporary art with all its might directs this irony at itself: its phenomenology, status, hierarchies, codes of perception, etc. Namely humour is in opposition: it is bound to the narrative and gives that level of unambiguousness in the decoding of the message of a work of contemporary art, which runs from humour like the devil from holy water. There are, perhaps, only a few contemporary artists who allow themselves to articulate a “sense of humour”: first of all, Jeff Koons, who works with unsophisticated “popular humour”, and the brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman who are not foreign to traditional English black humour. In practice, the “over-use” of a sense of humour often takes the artist out of the territory of the contemporary. It, this sense, is channelled into specific genres: comics, caricatures. Even such an outstanding artist of the conceptual type of thinking like Saul Steinberg is considered one of the cartoonists. (It is true that comics are very often appropriated by contemporary art, but this is another story).
So, Gregori Maiofis is versed in all the types of humour – from the absurdist to the ordinary. Moreover, he readily uses images of animals – bears, elephants, lions. The theme of “the animal” refers to respective aspects of the well-developed structure of the plot and even to genre forms – the fable, for example. All this, taken together, gives to specific projects of the artist an appearance of separateness and completeness: a beginning, culmination, an end. And only the museum space will allow the artist’s strategic vision to be revealed, because he has been persistently working on the same point for many years. This point is the issue of representation.
I would like to preface Maiofis’ numerous interrelated series, overflowing directly into one another, with a graphic epigraph. In the Metropolitan Museum in New York there is a caustic painting, by the American Mark Tansey, with the telling title “The Innocent Eye Test”: a live cow in an academic studio, surrounded by professors waiting tensely to see – whether it would take the grass on the “realistic” landscape as real, would it try to eat it? The time for the testing of the means of representation is ripe, it has become a requirement of contemporary art. And Maiofis shows a particular inventiveness in it, moreover, he not only organises this process into themes, but is also ultimately developing a certain poetics of the testing of the means of the representation of reality.
Of course, the artist did not immediately formulate for himself an overall line of self-development. His first works are purely of a painterly character. It was painting “based on motifs”: the artist turned to widespread iconographic designs and to whole stylistic strata. But it would be wrong to call this painting retrospective or, moreover, stylisation. At its base lay a different, perhaps not yet fully thought out, message. His style of painting was “complex”: it was founded on a reaction to the preparatory – and therefore virtuously uninhibited – drawings-sketches by Rubens, and was as if tempered by the visual drive of Daumier’s paintings and drawings. Maiofis appealed to the “externally-artistic”: viewers, artists were featured in the paintings, the presence of easels and paintings (real or implied) already then hinted at some other strata of the reflection of reality.
Of course, the young Maiofis was not an artist who took things from his head. He had thematic and purely figurative predilections. I would say that J. P. Witkin was the first. The photographic images that the artist created were strictly staged: regulated compositional planes, fixed sources of lighting, nothing left to chance. At the same time they were densely populated by the corporeal: baroque plumpness, overflowing from the bounds (corsets, lacings and so on), and – quite perverse. Witkin was far from politically correct in his choice of sitters: he loved freaks, hermaphrodites, abnormally fat women. I think that Maiofis took the following from his attraction to Witkin: the attention paid to the arrangement of the mise-en-scène, that is, to a kind of theatricality. And – his lasting interest in corporeality in its various forms. He did not follow J.P. Witkin’s general path – to the theatre of triumphant perverse flesh. There was no “decadence” in his interest in corporeality, but rather the coldness of a naturalist’s experiment. Thus, in his large format paintings, depicting elephants, he, first and foremost, tries to convey the particularity of this corporeality – the anatomical, the tactile, the palpable. In his photographic series there appears the image of a woman with especially curvaceous forms, the artist strictly preserves the conceptual nature of the design: the characteristics of flesh exist on the cognitive level. One is talking about mystery, and although the erotic is not by any means denied, it gives way to the speculative. Maiofis has another predilection, perhaps inspired by P. Greenaway. It is a predilection for some artefacts, rarities, curiosities: écorché, herbaria, optical devices, stuffed animals, skulls, entomological collections, generally anything dried, mummy-like. This predilection, remaining to some degree amongst the artist’s main interests (after all, we are still talking about the representation of reality, albeit peculiar, recoded), has formed a separate theme in Maiofis’ works. We are referring to the series called “Fables”, “Tarot Decks” and several others. The “representative” line also runs through them. So, the artist likes to create some personal classifications of the esoteric type: what is diverse, of different times, made using different techniques is organised into certain lines, the universality of which does not lend itself to interpretation. There are works in which “the task of representation” has been set with the utmost rigor. Thus, in the work “Unfit for “The Garden of Eden”, the technical joints, as well as the optical and corporeally-tactile contrasts (a “live” body and a “dried” one) are, of course, talking about different ways of representation.
Maiofis gives freedom to his abilities as a narrator. And his narratives, as a rule, are not thematic, but optical. With a certain potential for development which lends itself to verbalisation only in the most general terms. Thus, the series “Life is Everywhere” cleverly articulates a Freudian theme. And in the work “Crow and Fox” (the series “Fables”), the story leads away from traditional morality (preserving – in the image of an especially coloured picture of a piece of cheese – the theme of lust, the craving for possession) towards surrealist imagery. The technique of alogism triumphs in the work “Mountaindweller”. In “Parnassus” it also works on the theme: the artist creates a kind of frieze out of plaster casts of classical antiquity. Between which images of people in uniform have sneaked – are they policemen from silent films? The reference to comedy stunts and gags played out in the material of plaster casts of ancient sculpture gives a totally comic feeling.
Besides Witkin and, perhaps, Greenaway, at the base of the artist’s development lay other impulses as well. Maiofis’s “eternal companion” is also, I believe, R. Magritte. This master had attracted Maiofis, most probably already in his youth, by his amazing skill in changing the levels of visual thinking: from totally mimetic images to de-realisation to the mirage level of, as it is said, dream reality, and then – to radical reduction to verbal, non-visual messages. All of this allured the young artist, his favourite method became combining comprehensive, mimetically oriented imagery with conventional, almost symbolic drawing, and then – combining the figurative with the verbal.
Documentary photography was, I think, another predilection which served Maiofis as a meaning- and form-creating impulse. This is not about being attracted by someone’s style or poetics, here there was something anti-Witkin-like – not individual theatre, but extras. Maiofis became interested in soldiers’ photographs from the two World Wars, the anonymous and unsophisticated. Nothing important, significant, just everyday life. But something is happening, within the frame some kind of everyday activity is taking place, the soldiers are not looking at the photographer, but to somewhere inside the frame: they are catching a pig, they are sitting in a trench. Regardless of whether Maiofis had studied Jean Baudrillard and R. Barthes he, perhaps, was intuitively searching for that which started to be defined as “punctum”: a certain point of existence, a funnel, pulling one into another existence.
He is also interested in amateur (or documentary, chronicle, having little to do with the art of cinematography) film making. In the series “Amnesia” documentary footage – military newsreel is appropriated. Here everything is factually dramatic. But, as I see it, the event per se and the stylisation did not interest the artist. He needed the military newsreel in order to present the nature of perception in extreme conditions, in a situation of overwhelming and dangerous external influences. The images are given as flashes, flashes in a special tense tonality. This has a perfectly understandable explanation: something is forever highlighted in the consciousness, something disappears, is displaced. Hence, the fragmentation method, whilst maintaining a certain overall module – the frame... The attempt to overcome amnesia is the desire to complete the picture, that is, to overcome the losses of memory, represented by the fragments of the film projection. In this way – the drawn calendar (“Four Seasons”) is like an attempt to restore a sequence of events. And in the work “The Score” (which can be translated as “account”, and as “humiliation”) the raised hands of the prisoner, added by drawing, – is a sign of tempering the “frozen moment”. In the work “Execution” this “managing” of the flow of time is expressed in the simplest and most effective way: a fragment added by drawing, reminding one of an easel, in this way the photograph or newsreel picture acquires the status of a painting. Even this simplest technique raises lots of questions. On the one hand, the element of chance is removed: the image is already in a high-status, it is – forever. On the other hand, the question arises: will this “high-status”, the picture in this case, withstand direct confrontation with extreme reality? Lying at the base of this appropriation of the documentary is the attempt to restore (or maximally consolidate) pictures of the world created by the consciousness, that is, once again the problem of the representation of reality.
In terms of the purity of the experiment, the posing of the question itself is most convincingly manifested in those works (belonging, as I understand, to a different series) in which there is a certain materialised artist (sometimes he can be perceived as the artist’s alter ego, sometimes – as an extra fulfilling the role of the artist). Maiofis shows him in a real studio situation, austere, furnished with nothing but stools and an easel. But it is a real interior with a real hero. Thus, a particular type of representation is already set. It can be defined as objectivity or, in the American tradition, optical literalness. The artist, being as if “inside” this type of vision, tests other ways of representation. At the same time he is given a certain task, a programme, existing in the form of an epigraph or the accompanying text. As a rule, – in the form of popular wisdom or a proverb. In this a certain social commission can already be seen, an appeal to a norm. For example here is a task formulated as a Russian proverb: “Stupid Hair, Grows Everywhere”.
The artist illustrates it (i.e. represents the summarised popular wisdom – by definition the correct picture of the world) in a complicated way: through manipulating the textbook image of high art – the Mona Lisa. Following M. Duchamp, he adds to her face, if not a moustache, then some semblance of vegetation. Within one reality, which is literal and duplicates the visible, a different way of representation is shown: by means of appropriation (and subsequent simplification). In addition, “ideology” is introduced to the process by attendant circumstances: the problem of the high and low is thrown in. The proverb is clearly ascribed to the common, to the ordinary, to the low. The actions of the artist also cannot be called high: he, as Pushkin would say, “... stains Raphael’s Madonna” (Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa). But at the same time – it works perfectly well in the avant-garde tradition. In another work – “A School of Sovereign Academism” (possibly, in the title there is an allusion to the contemporary Russian political term – sovereign democracy) the hero, fulfilling the role of the artist, is painting a pig’s head from a plaster model, with other traditional masters – David by Michelangelo, for example, – pushed aside. In plain sight there is a variety of etudes of a pig’s head. They are rather unskilful, but the artist is on the right path: his representational picture is selective, and will soon become canonical. Sovereign academicism, as well as sovereign democracy will be in demand in one particular country. There are here additional references which relate to the contemporary (which has its own selectivity and its own “beacons”). In this case – J. Koons. In another study on the “pig theme” (“Allegory of Posthumous Fame”) – D. Hirst, his taxidermy studies.
The allogism of the message is also present in the work “Military Historic Painting”. Here the staging is minimal. More likely, genre: the courtyard of the Military Historic Museum, the exposition – tanks and missiles, a small boy with his father-artist. The latter with the air of a seasoned landscape master is looking at the scene. But instead of a canvas on an easel – there is a chart of oil prices. But this, in my opinion, is not a political statement – hinting at the oil background in military affairs today is a truism. It means something else – the transition from a symbolic, semiotic reality to a traditional one, objectified in feelings, and vice versa, becomes somewhat familiar: no child, nor the artist himself, would be surprised by what has happened at his easel. And now we see a “landscape artist”, just as typical in appearance and manner, but only what he is painting is not the classic beautiful views of St. Petersburg, but a submarine afloat somewhere near the Admiralty. But in the picture, which is perfectly figuratively traditional and banal, there are the menu knobs of a crudely made pirate disc: play, scene selection. And the viewers are also not surprised. And now we can see Miami Beach: a sandy beach, and there are crosses on it. By the way, not imaginary: those opposed to the war in Iraq really do put crosses on the beach – in memory of the dead. But what about the artist? A canvas, with crosses painted all over it, is on an easel, standing in front of an empty beach. A canvas, in front of a beach covered with crosses, – is empty. Is it true that “Imagination Rules the World”, as the title says? But why is the canvas empty?
“Figurative Painting” is a serious thing, not reducible to a joke. The artist in the studio is painting a bear and a ballerina in a tutu. Both – are favourite characters of Maiofis, studied by him in every detail. Both – real, live, rendered with that “material intimacy” (G. Bachelard) which is almost tangible. But here on the canvas – is the same bear and ballerina. Though, in the form of porcelain figurines. But – presented with such photorealistic mimetic power that competition is inevitable. Whose presence in the world is more real? Maiofis does not give any answers, his method – is the unhurried and careful scanning of various ways of representation. Like swimmers testing the water temperature by touch, he with care touches these “pictures of reality”. Ready both to dive in, and pull out his foot.
The very testing, the unhurried weighing up of the capabilities of each, immersion into them – is already the position. And even – poetics. By the way, not without the common sense found in fables: trust but verify. In this regard, the frequent appearance of the bear in Maiofis’ works is not accidental. Firstly, it, in Russian culture traditionally vested with human qualities, draws the artist into the realm of the fable with its wonderful balance of the conventional and the real. And, I must say, contemporary art (here – at least O. Kulik, D. Tsvetkov and a few others) is starting to become aware of “the animal theme” as being vitally important, saving from speculative thinking, so, here Maiofis will have company. And in the artist’s creative work itself, the bear, it seems, represents trust. It has been assigned the role of a kind of mediator. On the scale from full derealisation to full mimetic and vital credibility, it, with its instinct, will help find the correct point at the right time and in the right place.