Galery by Lev Tabenkin


In summer 1987 Lev Tabenkin showed two new works at the exhibition in the Manege. The smaller picture attracted us with its frightening power. "Where is such power coming from? Just like Masaccio!” said my companion. And I accidentally caught with the tail of my eye the name of picture: "Refugees”. What refugees? Where from? Where to?

In summer 1987 we had no refugees yet... I associated the plot with imaginary remembrance about the war. Our postwar generation was rich in those half-fantasies, half-remembrances. We had war dreams. We even had war nightmares. At that time the work of Tabenkin seemed to be a dream, as clear as reality. Now the situation of escape - with or without belongings - into someone's house or even into homelessness has become habitual. No, I do not think that Lev Tabenkin is a prophet. He is just endowed with the finest artist's intuition, which allows him to feel, to guess the anxiety and pain of the surroundings. As well he can guess social uneasiness.

...Canvases are piled in a gloomy studio. A roughly flying bird cuts air with efforts. It is a hard, difficult flight. Alive density of its brachypterous body seems to be sculpted by the hand of a playing giant. With power, unusual for our days, Tabenkin paintings involve us into a free play of nature forces, into game and fight The ground accretes with rock. Conical rock with a mighty round edge is separated from the air with a tangible, but not marked face.

You catch at once if this space is natural or artificial. If it is closed or just limited. If it is limited, then - by the cubeness of accommodation, or by the extension of the market row, or by the narrowness of the bus salon, these limits? are not marked with a brush, and often they are not even outlined. Nevertheless they are felt The plasticity of postures and gestures of people and animals, birds and plants speaks about the place where they are located in. People in the railway coach have become rigid. They grasped for the railings in the alienated neighborhood of the train, so usual, so familiar. The child in the mother’s hands has become heavy, while sleeping. One-legged passerby hardly creeps along the street. No one turns back. It's habitual. Heavy dream has seized the narrow cell of the compartment. Dream has captured a couple of lovers. Their bed is like an island. Or have they fallen asleep on the beach? Maybe on the river beach? Maybe on the edge of time? Interior space becomes apparent in the external one so widely, so completely... Birds on the branches of a naked tree have settled so gloomily that it seems - they can never fly up. Only captured birds sag like this. And what else may drive four eagles together on a single skinny tree? Zoo cage has become the parable of freedom and captivity... Drowse that bounded the birds is drowse of enslavement.

Lev Tabenkin often portrays sleeping ones. While dreaming the bodily nature of a person reveals most clearly. The body, released by unconsciousness, lays heavily, life goes through it, not touching either the eyesight or the hearing of the sleeping one. The artist is not constrained by wakefulness of his model, by communicating with it, he can watch and paint a person like a landscape.

At present there are lots of philosophizing and reasoning artists. Tabenkin is not eloquent. Outside his studio, far from the canvases, his arguments are nanve sometimes. Figurative order of his painting is not nanve, but monumentally simple. Such customary definitions as landscape, portrait, interior, don't work here. One thing is vivid - the action, as simple as the ABC book. The seagull flies. The tree grows. The eagle looks. The canary bird is sold. The meat is chopped. The boy is asleep. The traveller is tired. The bag is heavy. The young woman has dropped it from her hands. She is having rest. The old woman eats bread. She is tired. People are attached to the earth by the weight of their flesh and burdens of their earth way. And the paints of Lev Tabenkin remember about their earthly origin.

As early as at the beginning of 1980's critics confidently reckoned Tabenkin among painters-plastics, in other words, among those for whom the expressiveness of image was achieved by the expressiveness of colour combinations. This kind of painting designates that the construction and the plot are defined by the ripple of light, its movement and germination. It is the colour that builds a picture, sometimes the colour is heavy, viscous and sometimes monotonous. Lev Tabenkin is not a colorist in the old-fashioned sense of this word. His palette is strict, almost poor, and it seems that he doesn’t seek for the wealth of light. Neither for diversity in any case. For the painter the colour is not a jewel, not a feast for eyes, but a kind of clay. The artist shapes his image of the world as a potter and uses that clay, which we all puddle - the clay of everyday life. Or probably it is a different clay and its visible habitualness is deceptive?

‘To find the place of mass in the space" - that is how the artist defines one of his tasks. "Mass in space" is a working definition. It is not complete and at the same time it’s very exact.

But it is always a live mass, closed in its heavyweight physicality, a tight clot of bioenergy, whether it is a man or a bird.

I am examining the surface of the canvas: it’s a heavy, thick layer, loosened by continuous movement of the brush. It is a ploughed land of the artist: there is no finality, completeness. Bulls and eagles, shepherds and sheep, trees and rocks are tom away from the chaos of gigantic palette as if by a sudden effort. As though they dwell in a just created, but still not calmed Universe. Everything here is still not "having become" but it is becoming. It has not frozen, has not acquired the final clarity of shapes. This incompleteness - whether it is real or a seeming one - may cause concern and it may irritate.

And I used to hear such judgments... The painting is raw... It is not finished... Two-three sessions more, and then...

In my opinion, Lev Tabenkin is one of the few artists who can stop in time, saving the main thing - the movement of his paintings from chaos to order. The attentive contemplator is drawn into this motion - not without resistance. And then the new reality which is created inside the canvas before our eyes, will displace the initial, real one. Then the painting will again give way to the real life, of course, but will make it richer, fuller, and thicker.

Lev Tabenkin belongs to those recently young, and presently mature masters, who, having been recognized at once, find themselves at the edge of critics’ and public interest. Why?

Seven years ago the language of his art was still too much unusual, fresh, plastically unexpected... And therefore it was inconvenient. And all his people were unsettled in a way... And the birds were monstrous... And this gull... It looked so strange. At that time the voice of the artist seemed strange by itself, and now the language of his paintings is already perceived by many people as too calm, traditional, almost "museum" one. The art situation has changed.

"Pure painting" of Tabenkin was ousted by set free, more catchy, actual, and above all recently banned or half-banned social art, whose intonations, angry and ironic at once, turned out particularly clear to us today. And the spirit of forbiddingness, romanticism of recent underground existence made the art of such painters especially attractive.

But the heroic period of underground finished, and again the almost forgotten criterion of artistic quality is becoming particularly important. And yet this criterion is necessary to make sure that the painting continues existing namely as painting, not only as the chronicle of the time, like publicism, pungent and spicy one, like a bitter smile at the artist himself and at us, spectators. Someone must stay near the fire, providing that temperature, keeping that level of quality which only allows natural life of the artist to exist


Elena LVOVA "Clay and birds of Lev Tabenkin" // The "Ogoniok" Magazine, Na 37. September 1990, p. 25-27