Freedom Inside Yourself, Oleg Kudryashov, Bermondsey Project, 14-26 September 2012

The art world – that amorphous, headlined beast – is full of surprises.

Even with the enormous expansion of public museums, active collectors and commercial networks, and consequent media attention and public relation firms, remarkable and interesting artists can still somehow operate under the radar.

One such surprise, the Muscovite and octogenarian, Oleg Kudryashov (b.1932), has just had what was in effect a retrospective, well shown at a new, enormous and extraordinary gallery, The Bermondsey Project.

The Project is self-described as a creative hub led by Crisis and working in partnership with Bow Arts, London Community Resource Network and other organisations to provide a network of opportunities for professional artists and Crisis members.

To this end, a big range of programmes is being developed in this vast industrial building in the heart of Bermondsey, with its own website for news, as part of the family of charities devoted to the single homeless. The best known in terms of the general public is Crisis at Christmas, but Crisis is now a national charity with a huge variety of activities not only dedicated to housing the single homeless but encouraging, as far as possible, proactive behaviours. The aim as far as this observer can paraphrase it is to help single people who have been victims of circumstances and their own specific predispositions and problems to become as self-sufficient as possible and to become architects not of disaster but of productive survival.

It is particularly fascinating that the Bermondsey Project gallery is in this

Saints with Scenes, 1991, plate 2146 Linocut on paper, 72.5 x 55cm (paper: 104 x 70cm) Private collection
Devkin Pereulok, 1981 Gouache and pencil on paper, 34.5 x 28 x 9cm (paper: 105 x 72.5cm) Private collection
Composition, 2001, plate 2546a 120 x 72cm Private collection
Composition, 1998, plate 2454 104 x 71.5cm Private collection

context presenting a programme of serious and professional exhibitions. Kudryashov is an artist who should, on the interest and merit of his work, have an international reputation. The paradox is that his art is held in significant major collections, and he has had one man exhibitions at the Tretyakov and the Pushkin in Moscow, as well as being shown in many another major public gallery, including the Tate. Moreover, those private collectors who own his work and live with it domestically are deeply attached to the ways in which each work continues to give up more and more to see and find. Kudryashov has even been interviewed by that international guru of the Serpentine, Hans Ulbrich Obrist. This was included in the informative and well-illustrated catalogue of the exhibition, which also featured an introduction by the curator of The Bermondsey Project, the poet and critic, Edward Lucie-Smith.

Yet Kudryashov is not as yet a name, and he has had a chequered life somewhat self-imposed. He came to London because of the totally stultifying atmosphere in Russia in the 1970s, although of course it was a very difficult time in London then too with significant industrial unrest and economic depression. There was freedom, however, and the subtitle of the recent show was Freedom Inside Yourself, a phrase which can aptly apply both to oppressive regimes and working democracies – and certainly to Kudryashov’s art.

It is perhaps peculiarly apt that Oleg Kudryashov, when he first came to London in the 1970s, having destroyed some six thousand works of his art on leaving Moscow, was then helped to find accommodation and given assistance by a remarkable agency dedicated to helping artists: ACME. Forty years on, the charity manages more housing and studios specifically for artists of limited income than any other such organisation in the United Kingdom. Many ACME ‘graduates’ have moved on to substantial critical and commercial success.

Kudryashov was born in Moscow and trained extensively under the rigorous and old-fashioned system obtaining in the Communist state. Socialist realism was the only acceptable language. Nevertheless, this early training means that he is an artist who has a wide repertoire of skills at his disposal.

Kudryashov has evolved a remarkably original idiom of his own: his works are recognisable not only for his extraordinary technique but for his imagery. The compilation at Bermondsey ranged over forty years and more. Every work is a work on paper but all are mixed media and deploy a number of techniques, most notably watercolour, print making and drawing. Some of the larger paperworks were charmingly hung, as is Kudryashov’s habit, from clothes pegs: hung out to dry, metaphorically. Although printmaking technique is used, each image is unique; there are no editions or multiples.

The artist draws on zinc plates. He impresses curls of metal into the paper. The methodologies of drypoint and etching, aquatint and sugarlift are deployed but often amplified by using gouache and watercolour. The images sometimes contain recognisable elements, notably human figures, themselves active in all kinds of ways. While curiously clear these scenes also leave plenty of room for the imagination, and, as has been pointed out, occasionally even resemble Russian folk images. In the main, though, they are swirls of lines in an extraordinary variety of mark making. They play with the human ability to see three dimensions when only two are present, by layering both colour and mark.

Kudryashov himself does not particularly want to be allied with the innovative group of Russian artists who, early in the twentieth century, choreographed abstraction into deeply profound minimalist compositions. These artists wrote visual philosophies centred on an interpretation of the non-objective world – that is, a visual world not centred on the observed world but rather on imagery dredged exclusively from the subjective. Kudryashov, by contrast, mixes the figurative and the non-representational in his own inimitable manner.

Kudryashov has worked almost all his life in self-imposed isolation from the conventional and public art world, and this has had a rather unexpected outcome. Far from pessimistic in tone, the hybrid work – print, painting and sometimes wonderful, three-dimensional, wall-hanging paper sculptures – has a marvellous exuberance. It creates a kind of baroque dance of abstraction, filled with delight and amplified by a witty deployment of colour. It is his own intuitive geometry, playing with recessive space, layered and unexpected. A Kudryashov repays, with increasing pleasure, endless looking: more begets more. Playful he may be; but play, we know, is a very serious matter.

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