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Oleg Vassiliev: Past Imperfect

Published: December 18, 2013 (Issue # 1791)



  • Oleg Vassiliev, The Wild Flowers, (Detail) 2005 2006, colored pencil on canvas.
    Photo: Faggionato / For SPT

  • Oleg Vassiliev, 'The Aisle,' 2004, oil on canvas.
    Photo: Faggionato/ For SPT

  • Oleg Vassiliev, Intertwined Space, 2012, oil on canvas.
    Photo: Faggionato / For SPT

  • Oleg Vassiliev, Praire Grasses, Reflections, 2012, oil on canvas.
    Photo: Faggionato / For SPT

  • Oleg Vassiliev, 'Lusja with Tulips,' 1967, oil on canvas.
    Photo: Faggionato / For SPT

Memory is a fickle process. Before photography, painting, among the other monumental arts, held the role of repository for institutional and collective memory. While still subjective, it was perceived as presenting the totality of an historical event. Since the advent of photography, painting has been relegated to the periphery of history as a vehicle for personal memory and fantasy.

Oleg Vassiliev, the subject of a solo exhibition at the Faggionato gallery in London, grew up in a culture whose relationship to memory, indeed memory itself, was always subject to revision depending on who was in power. Perhaps as a response to this, his paintings often feature a haziness overlaying a hint at reality.

Precise to the point of photorealism in some aspects, Vassilievs paintings nonetheless bear the marks of compromised reminiscence. Alternating between total, geometric abstraction and meticulously drawn landscapes they present the periphery of an incomplete image that is often obliterated by a spreading darkness at the center.

A landscape, The Aisle, from 2004, shows this rather bewildering black hole at its center to great effect. The artist saw this abstract, spatial element as being connected to the selectiveness of memory and that when trying to recall the initial intensity of an experience one was always drawn into the void. The hole at the center of this and other of Vassilievs paintings can also be read as a depiction of Orwells memory hole, a place in the authors novel 1984 where old versions of reality are dropped as newspapers and other documents are altered in accordance with the pronouncements of Big Brother and the Party.

To me, the visible and tangible world is more a thing of remembrance than of perceptions of reality, Vassiliev wrote. The present is saturated with the past as a live sponge is saturated with water: Through the workings of memory, light comes from the past and illuminates, snatches out of the dark that which is not of this moment. That light is the very essence of remembrance. The deeper one delves into the past, the more powerful the stream of light. And somewhere over there, beyond the boundaries of the discernible, it turns into a river of golden light. In that river my life drowns, and everything that was before lives.

Vassiliev talked in metaphysical terms about the ways in which a painting is experienced. That while a viewer may be standing in front of a painting appreciating technique and formal values, a good work of art should take you to the other side on an emotional level as the nexus where the objective meets the emotional, subjective response.

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