Wednesday, November 23, 2005
A conversation with . . .
Mikhail Gubin, unbound from Russian censorship,
pursues his craft in New York, with Radford show
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New York artist Mikhail Gubin has come a long way for the sake of his art.
Born in Ukraine in 1953, Gubin fell in love with drawing when he was a child, but government censorship stifled his ability to show his work as he began to develop the craft.
With realism as the only acceptable art form, Gubin became involved in underground apartment showings, where he further developed his connections and his reputation.
As the Russian government began to shift radically under Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic, social and political restructuring program called Perestroika beginning in 1986, new opportunities presented themselves to the artist: Gubin was able to show his work in the Kharkov Art Museum, and ultimately to immigrate to the United States in 1989.
He has lived and worked in the New York art scene ever since, firmly established now as an award-winning artist of various mediums.
Gubin, who currently has an art show at Radford University, reflects here on the journey and the purpose of his art.
What are your feelings on Soviet realism as a form?
Mikhail Gubin: The socialist realism has replaced Russian avant-garde. … The avant-garde was art for the spectators prepared for perception, art for the elite.
The masses accepted avant-garde in the beginning of Revolution only to refuse it later. Art of socialist realism was more accessible to the masses. The purpose of this art was to represent a new human being created by the new society. The new society required positive role models.
What was it like for you as a developing artist, to live in a culture that only accepted Russian realism officially?
MG: I am always a grateful spectator of talented art despite its political conjuncture. Any art movement has both the talented and the worthless artists. My interest toward a work of art is motivated by the artist’s skillfulness. However, it is important for an artist to be exposed to a variety of creative forms.
In Soviet Union we were deprived of opportunities to choose and compare. The Iron Curtain limited our reception of the information from the West. It was awful and hindered to live and to create. But something slipped through the cracks.
For the Soviet people the basic source of the information about a life abroad was a 24-hour broadcast of the western radio stations in Russian. But for an artist seeing new things in art is more important than hearing about them.
Nevertheless, the first time I saw works of Dali and Ìàgritte was in a book that criticized Western Art. It is my belief that some critics wrote these books with a unique purpose of acquainting readers with art of the West. By communicating we infected each other with a virus of knowledge.
What kind of art did you attempt to make during those days?
MG: I was young, and the whole world was interesting to me. At that time I worked in many styles, but surrealism prevailed in my creativity. Surrealism was always loved in the USSR. This style was close and clear to us. We lived in a surreal society. For us surrealism was social realism turned inside out.
What was your experience in the apartment shows?
MG: In USSR there were no opportunities for an artist to show his works to the public. Prior to Perestroika, Kharkov’s population was 1.5 million and there was just one art gallery. Only officially recognized artists or those who were able to bribe some officials were able to show at this gallery.
In Kharkov, bureaucracy had blocked dozens of artists from all possible ways to show their work. I was one of them. I had gone to Moscow, as it was difficult to break through the system. In Moscow people lived much freer than in the provinces.
Many foreigners and western journalists visited Moscow. Therefore, authorities were afraid to use brutal force. While in Moscow I became acquainted with several artists. They offered me to join apartment exhibitions.
They would hang art works in an empty apartment. Artists and their friends, journalists, and many others visited it. This was cheerful and exciting.
Much vodka and wine was consumed. People discussed artwork and got acquainted with new artists. The exhibition went on all evening and all night and next day the apartment was empty again.
It was repeated over and over in new apartments. With the beginning of Perestroika I began to show my work in these exhibits.
How did Perestroika affect your career specifically, and how did your decision to immigrate affect your personal and professional life?
MG: The local authorities of Kharkov had resisted Perestroika for a long time. Nevertheless, a day came when I was invited to take part in an exhibition at the Kharkov Museum of Art. Perestroika gave me an opportunity to leave my country. I wished to see the world and to enable my children to live in a freedom.
I wanted to see the works of art of which I heard and those I saw in books.
You were quoted in a 1999 New York Times article as saying: '’Man, his soul, his values, the ramifications of his dual nature, his needs and his ambitions are the subject of my work.’’ How much does that statement still apply now, over six years later?
MG: The statement from this newspaper is not relevant to my current work. I believe that the questions of human psychology should not concern me as an artist — “yes” as a writer, but “no” as a visual artist.
At present time I am more concerned by color and texture.
In what way do the different mediums you work in—oil, photography, paper—liberate or confine you when creating a piece? Do you prefer one over the other for certain ambitions? What makes you choose one versus the other when embarking on a project?
MG: I am an artist and I do not put myself into a box. I like all manifestations of creative expression. Besides visual art I write poetry and short stories.
Any current goals? Important projects or priorities? What is the life of the artist like these days?
MG: I do not have grandiose plans and receive pleasure from daily creative work. I find leaving traces of my presence on a white surface of paper or canvas enjoyable.
What artists or movements influence you today?
5. German Expressionism
6. American Abstract-Expressionism (Pollock, de Kooning)
“New York Visions: new paintings by Mikhail Gubin” is on display in the Radford University art gallery through Dec. 2. There’s an “Artist¹s Talk” featuring Gubin at 5 p.m. Dec. 1 in the Cardinal Ballroom, Heth Hall, and a reception at 6 p.m. that day in 200 Powell Hall.