CONSTRUCTIVISM: A Historic Art Movement of Intended Liberation and Ironic Weaponization

Guennadi Maslov Taking Dictation
Guennadi Maslov, Lenin and Sergei (Edition of 10, $120)

In 1913 the Balkan Wars were still a thing. The dissembling of the Ottoman Empire was stressing Europe. Russia was allying with the emerging Slavic groups, the shift threatened the Austro-Hungarian Empire and sent ripples of concern across Europe. Having just undergone industrialization, new ways of looking at economic and political structures were taking hold and giving rise to revolutionary movements against traditional monarchies. The art world was responding with its own revolutionary reordering—the Modernist art movement was reaching a crescendo with Picasso’s cubism.

Against this backdrop, avant-garde Russian architect, Vladimir Tatlin visited Picasso’s studio and was inspired by his edgy experimentation. Seeing Picasso’s fracturing and reordering of perceived content led Tatlin to the realization that art does not necessarily create the content, but that the content can create the art. Hence the eventual five principle’s of the Realistic Manifesto (as written by artists and brothers, Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, 1920) that articulated the constructivism movement.

manifesto

This seemed to track the new bottom-up world view that was the Marxist engines of Bolshevism, placing more importance on the elemental or “proletariat” constituents of a subject than the ultimate illusion. In a new iteration of the truth, Constructivist art stripped a subject to its basic shape and function.

Between Tatlin’s studio visit of 1913 and the Manifesto of 1920, Europe’s destabilization accelerated with WWI (raging between 1914-1918, with continuing treaty work until 1924) and the Bolshevik Revolution (October, 1917) that replaced the Russian monarchy with Leninism. Certainly this turmoil reinforced Tatlin’s and his Constructivist followers’ drive to find basic truths in abstraction and to rely more on modern methods and materials than traditional media. And again, this tracked with emerging economic reactions to industrialization by using the shapes, materials and methods that had exploited the worker as media reconstituted in work that revealed the modern circumstance, its problems and possibilities. The use of unadulterated patterns, shapes and even materials was not well received by the art critics of the day, and one inadvertently gave the movement its name when he insultingly reported that work by Alexander Rodchenko looked like “construction art.”

The Constructivists embraced this moniker and sought to manifest it literally, considering art as a means to construct a utopian future. Constructivist art actualized through Tektonika, exploitation of industrial matter as media, and Faktura, in the context of promoting utopian communism or social change. Again, this is happening at the time of hopeful transition from ineffective monarchism to energetic Leninism, so that the Constructivists were using the geometric building blocks of visual art, recognizable and available to all, to extol the fundamental value of the basic people as building blocks of society. This revolutionary and egalitarian approach is often characterized as unemotional or sterile, but arguably its absence of a dictated feeling leaves room for a future one either to be determined collectively or decided by the individual viewer.

A group of Constructivists took this to an extreme—that artists should do their work in industry, that true constructivist art is applied art. This group formed a movement called Productivism that rejected Constructivism’s focus on solving the more esoteric artistic problems of spatial and rhythmic relationships. The progression of thought that true art must be useful seems to have been tracking the political tightening of Russia’s iteration of communism into an oppressive regime.

The Constructivists and Productivists thought art should serve to secure the new social order that would be communism, and should not be merely an intellectual or spiritual exercise in and of itself. Although their art was premised upon advancing the revolution, as the revolutionary government evolved, the artists and intellectuals who were essential to the cause came under suspicion and eventually their work was rejected or purged. Ironically, the political machine they brought to power would reject them while co-opting the political usefulness and geometric strength in the restyled genre of Soviet Social Realism (a state approved art movement that glorified Soviet dictated values and propagandized for Stalinism; not to be confused with general international Social Realism that is critical of such propaganda and manipulation of the masses). In an ironic twist the Constructivist’s once progressive visual themes were used as a means to convey oppressive propaganda to the masses with its then maudlin and familiar appeal, harkening back to the hope and promise of the revolution. Thus the movement journeyed from its intent of liberation to a weaponized art form.

Constructivist art is marked by a commitment to total abstraction and a wholehearted acceptance of modernity. Often very geometric, it is usually experimental, rarely emotional. Objective forms which are thought to have universal meaning are preferred over the subjective or the individual. The art is often very reductive, paring the artwork down to its basic elements. New media and unexpected media are used. For the original Constructivists, the context or Faktura was crucial; they were seeking a new order of art, rejecting the old order that had culminated in World War I, and promoting a world of more understanding, unity, and peace. This political component of constructivism, often was omitted from later abstract art, but has had a recent resurgence in street art (e.g., Banksy and Shepard Fairey). Today, purely rooted Constructivism, as well as its ironic usage, is as relevant as ever. Think of hackers or fake news generation—using contemporary elements as media to shape thought or further an agenda. As with any provocative or political argument, the reception is dependent upon whose ox is getting gored, and when and where.

In the gallery (through April 8, 2017), we have two Ukrainian artists whose lives and artistic training were influenced by their country’s active history with Constructivism (e.g., Ukrainian Louise Nevelson is an exemplary Constructivist artist who advanced the movement and its progeny in the west). Both multimediaist Andrey Maslov and photographer Guennadi Maslov have a geometrically muscular sensibility to their work. Both consider the contemporary circumstance and, whether intended or not, their art provokes a response to it, either in the discovery of what is, or the thought of what could be.

Power Plant 2200 (2)
Andrey Kozakov, Power Plant (Oil on canvas, $2,200)

Other Representative Constuctivist Artists:

Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko, Kasimir Malevich, Robert Adams, Alexandra Exter, El Lissitzky, Wassily Kandinsky, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Lyubov Sergeyevna Popova, Louise Nevelson

Germany was the site of the most Constructivist activity outside of the Soviet Union (especially as home to Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus, a progressive art and design school sympathetic to the movement), but Constructivist ideas carried as well to other art centers, like Paris, London, and eventually the United States. Gabo, Pevsner, and El Lissitzky brought Constructivism from the Soviet Union to the West. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy came to Germany from Hungary, Theo van Doesburg from the Netherlands. Ben Nicholson was the most prominent English Constructivist. Josef Albers and Hans Richter encountered the movement in their native Germany but were also instrumental in its international dissemination.

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CONSTRUCTIVISM: A Historic Art Movement of Intended Liberation and Ironic Weaponization

EXPRESSION: The Roles of Artist and Viewer in Painting and Documentary Photography

If a tree falls in the woods and…

We hear the phrase, “Art for art’s sake,” but we don’t hear, “Photography for photography’s sake.” This highlights an important difference and motive in an artist’s choice of one medium over the other. Painting can be used strictly to satisfy a need for expression, whereas documentary photography generally cannot. Of course there arguably are exceptions, such as Vivian Maier whose need to snap the photo outpaced her ability to process the film. That example begs another discussion of whether photographic expression is in the snapping or the processing, whether the mere idea of making a picture is as much a manifestation of expression as actually making the picture. The premise assumed here is that expression requires a greater degree of actualization than snapping the camera, and once the film is processed there is an assumption that the photo is looked at and kept to be looked at again; otherwise, there would be no need to develop the film, and then there would be no need to keep it. In painting however, it is accepted that from the artist’s perspective the mere act of painting completes the expression; there is no need for the artist to look at it, keep it etc.

Accordingly, the choice of medium reveals the artist’s motivation, whether the need to express and reiterate an observation, idea or experience requires making or having something through which to understand or relive it; in other words, whether the artist wants to release or capture a temporal observation, idea or experience. Painting releases, photography captures.

If the viewer’s perspective is taken into account, the choice may be dependent upon whether the inspiration’s connection to time is general or specific. To illustrate the point, consider whether a new parent would prefer a painted portrait or a photograph of their baby. Now consider whether you would prefer a painting or a photograph of a babe in arms or nursing, or of a toddler exploring the garden or playing with a puppy. Probably, the new parent would opt for a photograph of their baby to best capture that particular moment in the time of their child’s life, whereas you might opt for a painting of more timeless and universal relationships that define general times of life. Perhaps the more general or abstract the inspiration is, the more it calls for painting, and the more specific or particular, the more it calls for photography.

Is this because we trust photography to faithfully document the inspiration more than we do painting? Or, is it because we consider a photograph a better artifact of time to refer back to in the future than we do a painting? Photography seems to be the choice for capturing concrete circumstance, whereas painting seems to be the choice for reiterating feelings. Circumstances actually occur at points in time, whereas feelings may derive from particular circumstances but prevail or at least continue beyond the circumstance. Photography attempts to capture a particular point in time or circumstance. Painting is a process that comes after the circumstance, thus is unavoidably a synthesis of time.

If expression is the synthesis of time or the “release” of a particular point in time into the stream of time, then photography shifts that creative process to the viewer more than painting does. Photography captures a circumstance for the viewer to deal with. A painting presents a version of how a circumstance already has been dealt with – the painter has done his or her expression for the viewer to expound upon, accept or reject. A photograph presents a moment in time – the “thing,” a painting presents a concluded processing of a moment – the “thought” about the thing.

All art is an acknowledged observation of time. Painting is an effort to review, understand and release the time observed. Documentary photography is an effort to capture, understand and review. The viewer of a painting decides whether they sympathize with the painter’s conclusion. The viewer of a photograph has to draw their own conclusions.

EXPRESSION: The Roles of Artist and Viewer in Painting and Documentary Photography

STRANIERO: Maurice Mattei’s Pictures of Italy – A Consideration of the FotoFocus2016 Theme, “Photography: The Undocument,” and Time and Being

Straniero” is Italian for “foreigner” or “stranger.” In addition to classifying someone who’s different and not a part of the immediate scene, the word connotes motion, passing through, someone who’s there then gone or wasn’t there then is. And that, metaphorically, describes photography; the process of capturing a noteworthy moment before it passes in order to have it in the future. The FotoFocus2016 Biennial theme, “The Undocument,” underscores not the documentary authority of photographs, but the fluidity in the viewer’s interpretation. The photograph is a static objective image, yet each viewer sees something unique in it.

Maurice shot the exhibited series between 1977 and 2007. More recently, even up until the exhibit opened on September 30th, he curated the black and white film frames into a series of 83 gelatin silver prints. During an interview, Maurice said, “An important thing a photographer should do is wait to edit…You need time to assess what you’ve taken.” What he would’ve included at the time he took the pictures, what he did include when the series was first curated 6 years ago (for Wm. Messer and Iris Book Café,) and what he included in the current exhibit are different iterations of the effect and importance of time and being. How the images relate to Maurice (his history in the place, his life experience, his plans) varies at different points in time. Also, the artistic evaluation of technique and product varies at different points in time, as the photographer develops his practice and understanding of the medium.

This effect of time is at the crux of what is both personal and universal in the exhibit. Maurice describes the exhibit as documenting the vanishing Italian village life he knew as a child before his family immigrated to the US and again as an adult during his 30-year period of picture taking. The past has become strange and foreign, yet was there in fact, and is here in the photographs, and will be gone again. Just as Maurice’s curation changes with time, so does the viewer’s perspective. We weren’t there when the picture was taken, thus we interpret the documented scene from where we are now; and even if we were there or experienced something similar in time and place, our reminiscence is seen through the lens of our current wisdom. In this way, photographs are both a document of one moment and a culmination of many.

The idiom, “take a photo,” is appropo to the consideration of time. The photographer takes a fragment of time and preserves it, yet it cannot exist without the unknown moments that came before and after. Although the immediate intention of a photographer is to keep that moment, the curator and viewer are perhaps more concerned with the surrounding time; how did the scene come about, how did it resolve? The viewer’s filling-in of these blanks with their “being” determines the authenticity or value of the actual image. Images that provoke a recognition of or relationship to a particular experience of time have a universal appeal that transcends the actual moment taken and its original significance to the photographer.

The nexus between familiar/foreign, document/undocument is directly proportional and symbiotic: the more you understand what is foreign, the more familiar it becomes; the more you document, the more context goes undocumented; and, you can’t have one without the other. The common element and determinant of these relationships is time. Because we each experience time differently (we do different things and different things happen to us,) we are never the same person twice and we are never alike another. We are undocumentable time-travellers. We are Stranieri.

STRANIERO is on exhibit until November 13th. Gallery hours: Thu 11-3/5-8; Fri 5-8; Sat 2-5; Sun 2-4.

(Update 10/29: STRANIERO is held over until November 27th)

STRANIERO: Maurice Mattei’s Pictures of Italy – A Consideration of the FotoFocus2016 Theme, “Photography: The Undocument,” and Time and Being