Sign and Materials

Mikhail Koulakov has found the centre at the world amongst the hills and valleys of Umbria surrounded by nature's generosity, in a place that is just far enough away to insulate one from the chaos of civilization, especially the sounds of people in a hurry, and where one is barely able to put up with the noise of tractors and threshing machines.

Silence. That is what his open-air meditation needs, from ground to sky, better still by night watching the moon. But artists such as Koulakov are citizens on the world. Their sky is that of Moscow or Vallicciano; what is important for him wherever he is, is to achieve harmony with infinity which he is part of.

This transcendental/bucolic dimension of Koulakov's present happy condition should not deceive us. In fact, he lives out his existence to the full, feeling himself 'to be part of the cosmos and not merely a tiny fragment of it. For him, as an artist and, citizen of the world, art has universal value to be watched over and passed on continuously through creativity and dialogue. His personality is complex like the research that he has been carrying out for more than thirty years and which continues in this Roman period (perhaps more accurately "Umbrian"). But, as we know, geographical location is completely unimportant for him; today he creates a synthesis through a sort of coagulation of expression. Retracing in broad outline the first steps of his long and varied career, one has to start from his early works - in all senses, not just chronological - in the mid 1950's in Moscow. Such an analysis has been carried out several times by Enrico Crispolti and more recently by Enrica Torelli Landini, as well as by the artist himself in the introduction to his first Italian show in Rome in 1973, and in a catalogue note for a 1988 show in Narni. His academic studies, followed immediately by his first painting activities, were fundamental steps in his development which still have a positive influence on his practical and material approach to art. In that early period, Koulakov studied RussianByzantine culture, especially icons, studying the almost magic process involved in their making. And the in-depth assimilation of such techniques and images provided an immediate liberation that led towards Pollock's action painting, only occasionally glimpsed in rare copies that circulated in Moscow at that time. So, it was this type of stroke and movement, only apparently different in approach, that unfolded and still unfolds in Koulakov's painting and sculpture. His subsequent periods in Leningrad and in Rome (since 1976) are none other than the more or less systematic exploration of his universe, marked by a wholly consistent approach. His recent activities in his new "buen retiro" in Vallicciano, following the normal period of adaptation, are clearly distinguished by the awareness of his maturity of expression, and move along the dual track of the brush stroke (used to form geometry and construction) and material-paint. These are complementary languages that are often integrated not only in substance but also in pictorial form, conjugating mainly in spatial dimensions which, however, are inherent in both forms of expression. From his earliest works, this informal gestuality differs from the automatic or mechanistic approach of action painting. It is mainly the result of meditation with transcendental overtones, and is therefore the image of space in which feelings and forces can be expressed. It's no chance that the dense brush stroke of material-paint sometimes moves slowly in search of form, in the romantic sense, especially in works with sacred themes. At other times, the substance of the paint is not sufficient to express the concept, particularly when the artist feels the need to emphasize dimensions; in such cases, he uses plaster which he moulds and paints to create bas-reliefs superimposed on the flat surfaces (but there are cases when he also uses unpainted plaster to divide or join areas of a picture).

The form is certainly not that of the extensive, and by no means secondary, collection of drawings in which the gestuality is often made up of schematic objects, sometimes using and elegant language with an oriental flavour. Rather, it is chiefly that of the geometrical composition made up of symbolic and often spatial elements. In this case the paintings are done on shaped supports bristling with tacks, or even become gothic-style constructions that seem to be trying to add a fourth dimension to the three they already have. These "sculptures" in particular display a constructivist vein harking back to Tatlin, with productivist tendencies developed in the Russian avantgarde movements, especially Rodcenko and Stephanova.

In a more general sense, Koulakov manages to express elements of oriental philosophy (particularly Zen) the basis of his original gestuality, with a more material western culture which is open to all kinds of experimental experience. Starting from different cultural origins therefore, this Russian artist has arrived at the universal culture of mankind, understood by all and encompassing everything. In the quiet countryside of the Umbrian hills, only physically removed from other geographical locations where he has found similar conditions in the past (maybe also in the future), in recent months he has produced a large-scale painting made up of several panels, similar to those of his early Muscovite period, now mentally recouped and also physically in terms of studio space available. The four seasons of the Umbrian Landscapes, in reality four meditations on the universal landscape, are on display together for the first time. They have been seen two at a time in Corciano at the "Artists in Umbria" exhibition, and in Toscolano at the "Fiera in festa" exhibition.

In this work, Koulakov has reached a high degree of synthesis in his research through a measured balance of meditative gestuality, the search for space, and chromatic urgency. Without in any way disparaging the other neoconstructivist experiences, still rich in symbols and signs, in which creativity frees itself in a sort of intelligent game between geometric shapes, different materials, and the informality of layers of material-paint without form, pure pictorial work on canvas (especially on a large scale) represents the high point of this artist's achievement in painting.