Aesthetics of non-paraded St. Petersburg in the oeuvre of Dmitry Kustanovich

Dmitry Kustanovich became a well-known figure in the art world of St. Petersburg precisely because of the depiction of the ceremonial, «classic» views of the Northern Capital, its outstanding monuments of sculpture and architecture. However, today the painter uncovers an unknown facet of the beautiful city on the Neva River, turning to a new theme – the aesthetics of non-paraded St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg has always been concurrently very diverse, contrasting, but at the same time exсeedingly integral, if one may say so, atmospheric city. This quality of St. Petersburg determines the constant interest of painters in its image, the desire to capture its spirit and interpret it in their work.

The theme of «Non-Paraded St.Petersburg» is eternal and inexhaustible. Today, it is becoming especially popular. Many artists, photographers and just creative people strive to show the «underside» of the city. Mystical, mysterious, quite often gloomy and frightening — this is the most common image of non-paraded St. Petersburg to appear. And this is not accidental, because in the works of Russian classical literature, this particular image is reflected. However, non-paraded St. Petersburg of Kustanovich is somewhat different. The painter brings new shades and demonstrates an original understanding of this concept. The painter does not strive to focus on the unsightly side of St. Petersburg streets and through-passage yards, but, on the contrary, seeks to capture something human, intimate and chamber in them. The epithet «non-paraded» in the oeuvre of Kustanovich means not only «unofficial», «informal», but also «intimate», «confessional». In the images of small patios, you can feel the warmth and heartiness that you cannot feel while peeking at the classic views of the city. «Unadorned», «non-paraded» does not mean «unsightly», the author finds true beauty in these places hidden from the curious gaze of the tourist.

Образы, которые мы видим на картинах, довольно сложно сопоставить с традиционным и привычным представлением о непарадном Петербурге. Непарадный Петербург также нередко ассоциируют с мистическим Петербургом, однако в случае с образами Кустановича, это было бы ошибочно. Образы художника скорее проникнуты не мистицизмом, но чувством меланхолии и светлой грусти. В то же время, торжественные аккорды ярких красок не позволяют полностью погрузиться в это состояние, но приободряют зрителя, сообщая чувство надежды.

The images that we see in the paintings are quite difficult to collate with the traditional and familiar idea of non-paraded St. Petersburg. Non-paraded St. Petersburg is also often associated with mystical St. Petersburg, but in the case of the images of Kustanovich, this would be wrong. The painter's images are rather imbued not with mysticism, but with a sense of melancholy and light sadness. At the same time, the solemn chords of bright colors do not allow to fully immerse yourself in this state, instead encouraging the viewer, giving a sense of hope.

These images can hardly be called those of the shadow life of the city, because they lack the feeling of something forbidden, never meant for prying eyes. Looking at these artworks, you do not feel the smell of unkempt courtyards and dirty entryways, but you do feel an actual life filled with meaning.

The painter calls his series of works not just «Non-Paraded St. Petersburg», but precisely «THE AESTHETICS of non-paraded St. Petersburg», operating in his works with aesthetic categories, such as the category of the beautiful, sublime, tragic, etc. For the painter, the «aesthetics of the unsightly», perhaps even «unpretty», «hideous» in the eyes of the everyman is also of interest.

It is interesting to analyze from the point of view of the figurative meaning of the above-described «painting in painting» effect, and also try to explain what the painter's interest in graffiti is related to, whether it accidentally falls into the frame. It is obvious that the inscriptions on the walls play a key role in creating images of Kustanovich's works. Let's try to answer the question why the artist decides to reproduce this modern «monumental painting». To begin with, let's turn to the definition of the concept of «graffiti».

The dictionary gives 2 definitions:
1. Ancient and medieval drawings and inscriptions of magical, household, etc. nature, scratched on metal products, vessels, etc.
2. Inscriptions on the walls of buildings made by hand.

Thus, if «graffiti» in its first meaning is an inscription with a special meaning (ritual or routine), is it possible that modern wall paintings are not devoid of it? Probably, the paramount meaning of any inscription is the affirmation of a person's presence. Kustanovich subtly felt this, which is why in his series of works there is a desire to convey what young people, full of life, energy, strength, their own thoughts and plans, painted and inscribed on these walls. The painter seeks to convey their decisiveness and confidence through the brightness of the paint, the dynamism of the gesture, in which the painter also becomes like a graffiti artist.

How does the painter feel about graffiti? Probably philosophically. Here we are not talking about graffiti as an art and this issue is removed from the equation. Trying to understand graffiti as a phenomenon, a timeless phenomenon, the painter «documents» and explores it.

Graffiti as «street art» is in a way an attempt of self-affirmation (initially not of an artistic kind), graffiti can be called modern petroglyphs that perform the function of notifying: «the man was here». After a few years, there are real layers, stratums of «prints» of the thoughts and intents of many people. The paintings of Kustanovich allow us to see behind these drawings the shadows of the people who made them, to see their appearance and the feelings that stirred these souls. The author's paintings become a kind of mirror, which reflects the whole life of this place and the people who lived there for many years.

These images also clearly indicate the problem of time. Moreover, it is set by the painter twice. First, there is a sense of a procedure in the artwork that is encapsulated in the transmission of the dynamics of the movements and gestures of the graffiti artist. Secondly, there is also the image of eternity — having recorded this phenomenon in an easel painting, Kustanovich creates a peculiar monument, a monument that exalts this image. «Life is short – art is eternal» these works proclaim.

It is important to note that Kustanovich does not just document, but rather recreates the process of writing these symbolic drawings and inscriptions. The very manner of the painter is very conducive to this. The movements of the painter's brush seem to be trying to reproduce the movements of the graffiti artist, symbolically this gesture of repetition can be understood as «paying tribute», honoring, remembering everyone.

Each of the paintings in this series has a hidden plot. The objects left on the bench hint that someone has just been here. The structure of these images is based on this paradoxical relationship between the concepts of absence and presence. Thanks to this, the paintings of the series «Non-paraded St. Petersburg» I want to call very human, because they make you appreciate the person himself, his image and every action, fixating his imprint in time. The painter does not depict a person himself, but gives a hint of his presence. The presence is obvious. These images touch the soul precisely because they refer to the image of a person, make you empathize with him.

Dmitry Kustanovich. From the series «The Aesthetics of non-paraded St. Petersburg»

Dmitry Kustanovich. From the series «The Aesthetics of non-paraded St. Petersburg»

Silence is another feature of these works. Despite the bright colors, the bold texture, and the artworks in general making us feel every gesture of the painter, these are very quiet works. Perhaps just because the main character of the artwork is space itself. Space is an environment filled with silent energy. Space is also the absence of a person (that is, everything but him). The image of a space in which there is evidence of the presence of a person, but there is no hero himself, inevitably causes us a feeling of vague uneasiness, elegiac notes of nostalgia protrude in the image.

In the works of this series, space becomes an independent acting hero, but there is not as much of it as it may seem – the wall does not allow you to see the outside world, closing the exit to the open surroundings. This technique facilitates awareness of the importance of the inner space. The continuous plane of the wall might have created a sense of impasse, hopelessness: there is not even an exit to the top, in any work there is not even a hint of a strip of sky. However, the painter manages to avoid this effect. Protecting the «inner» world of everyday life from the «outer» world, isolating it, the painter «sacralizes» this space. The inner environment becomes the environment of revelation.

The wall with inscriptions at the same time is comprehended as a kind of ritual space, a place of shrift, confessions. Not only the graffiti itself, but also the plane, on which it is inscribed, becomes an important object of the image.

Space in the painting is interpreted in two ways and paradoxically, on the one hand — as a void, perhaps that is why the painter depicts winter, snow covering everything with a white linen, implementing the metaphors of «blank canvas», «start from scratch». On the other hand, space here embodies a spiritual essence, a certain energy frozen in time, reflecting the aspirations and thoughts of several generations. Inscriptions and drawings made in bright colors not only dynamize the image, but also make the wall itself a living matter, on which these «autographs» of people seem to miraculously manifest themselves.

At the same time, due to the separation of the space of the «inner world», the theme of loneliness also arises. In this space, everyone is alone with themselves. The development of this problem explains the introduction of free-standing objects into the paintings. In the center of each painting in this series is a «lone» object – a bench, a garbage can, a pole, a tire. On the one hand, this technique carries a figurative meaning, and on the other – a functional one. This creates a kind of optical correction, particularly, the flatness of the wall is overcome, and an additional sense of the depth of space is given.

It is important to note that the objects of everyday life in these artworks begin to be comprehended as symbols, a special meaning and poetry is felt in their images. Isolated, as if congealed, frozen in absolute silence, they become elements of a still life that tells about the eternal. The entire courtyard begins to be perceived as a universal, notional spatial environment. Despite the fact that it reveals the features of a particular place, in the image of art it acquires clearly sounding universal features, becomes the embodiment of the metaphor «small homeland» for each viewer.

The works of Kustanovich demonstrate the intelligent view of the Petersburgian on his yard, in which he grew up, in which time for him mysteriously stopped. The painter has observation skills, but not the desire to focus on identifying drawbacks. Even the drawbacks of his native home a person has the ability to treat condescendingly, loving. St. Petersburg for Kustanovich is not only a source of inspiration, but also a place with which many events of his life are connected. The painter's mother was born in Leningrad, and his maternal ancestors were buried in here. Kustanovich feels an unshakable connection with this city, having been brought up on its culture and traditions. The artist considers this city to be his native city, he feels its atmosphere and energy subtly and knows how to convey it in his images.

The compositions of all the paintings in this series are almost strictly central, like a bold look in the face — to present reality in all its obviousness. This is both a reality and a notional image at the same time. In reality, we see unfocused, while the image on the painting is always in pursuit of precision, clarity and conciseness. Through the pictorial image, we get the opportunity to conceptualize familiar things. Undoubtedly, painting is not a freeze frame of the movie, but built up structure in which random is separated from natural, however, it is a pictorial image allows to clearly see the life from a different side, forcing you to stop and think about eternal.

The composition of the paintings in this series is arranged in such a way that the canvas is conditionally divided into two parts by the line of the foundation of the house. This underlined horizontal has a symbolic meaning. It means «earth», a world that is this-sided, human, earthly. Behind the everyday plot, a universal meaning emerges. The predominantly light colors used by the author inspire hope: even in this prose of life, the painter finds a bright side.

It should be noted that these artworks themselves are very decorative, depicting a plane — a wall with drawings and inscriptions on it, the author creates a painting within a painting. This quality, of course, in itself is the value of the work, as it allows you to organically include these works in a real interior.

Some paintings are painted in a colder scale, which conveys the frostiness of the air. Others are in warmer one. «Summer» colors depict inscriptions – for them, the painter uses bright green, red, and turquoise tones. The painter does use very cheerful colors, depicting drawings and inscriptions on the walls, not accidentally. In reality, they look somewhat more muted. This deliberate method is aimed at emphasizing the primary meaning of graffiti, because each drawing as a whole means «I was here». This ode to the joy of life, and the somewhat exaggerated brightness of the colors becomes a symbol of life affirmation. Life is also felt in the strokes of the brush, in the bold movements of the author's palette knife.

Graffiti inspired Russian futurist artists back in the early twentieth century. Primarily, they reproduced fragments of fence inscriptions in their images, which were most often made by soldiers during their service and often had a very playful, sometimes obscene character. In all the works of artists inspired by graffiti, there was always an ironic intonation. The author himself was always depicted next to the inscription (for example, a mirthful soldier) and the image ultimately took the form of a joking statement («Soldier's Series» by M. Larionov). For futurists that was the way to refer to folksy life, to the people's consciousness in order to see the lives of ordinary people from the inside, stepping away from the rules and regulations of high art, to apply to genuine, life, veritable. The same goals are pursued by the contemporary artist, referring to the theme of «street art». However, there is also something that, unlike the avant-garde artists, the painter Dmitry Kustanovich today strives to abstract from – it is irony. This quality is so deeply embedded in the images of contemporary art that it seems to become the very essence of many artworks, replacing the real and deep understanding of the depicted phenomenon. Therefore, there is no ironic subtext in the works of Kustanovich, he deliberately moves away from these meanings in order to focus the viewer's attention on the main thing – the transfer of the idea of the flow of human life, which always leaves a trace. An equally important metaphor is also present there — the «connection of times», expressed by pictorial means, among other things through «stratification». If the painter, succumbing to fashion, comprehended this phenomenon in an ironic way, it would be impossible to create a truly multi—layered and complex image.

The artwork «Tsoi Wall» from this series of paintings, which is in the collection of the painter's family, deserves special attention. The image of the musician, painted on the wall, is already a memorial in itself, but, embodied by means of painting, it gets a truly monumental grandeur. It is symbolic that the portrait is painted next to the window opening. The semantics of the window motif in the visual arts are very diverse. A window in the visual arts symbolizes a portal, an «entrance» to another world, hints at the possibility of deliverance and rebirth of the soul. As a mythopoetic image, it is associated with the realization of such oppositions as life and death, manifest and unmanifest, external and internal. The window in architecture is symbolically understood as the «eye» of the house. Hence, the window on the wall with the portrait of V. Tsoi can be symbolically considered as the gaze of the poet himself. The window can also be considered a symbol of clarity, light, in a particular case — the inner light of the prematurely departed Tsoi. The window can also be comprehended as a border, in this context, the window laid with bricks becomes a symbol of the impossibility of entering the world «on the other side». The window appears where there is a striving to sacralize the space, in the image of Kustanovich – the entire space of the wall becomes sacred. The image of Tsoi almost mystically manifests itself on it. In a sense, it stands in opposition to the image of the window, as if it continues to be present in the world «on this side»..

Dmitry Kustanovich. «Tsoi Wall». From the series «The Aesthetics of non-paraded St. Petersburg»

Dmitry Kustanovich. «Tsoi Wall». From the series «The Aesthetics of non-paraded St. Petersburg»

At the same time, in the painting, the opening is stacked with bricks, which creates a sense of hopelessness, the inability to break free. This decision may be due to the desire to implement the metaphor «Tsoi is alive», in this case, the sealed window symbolizes his belonging to the world of the living, and on the other hand, it may hint at the ridiculous and quick death of the musician, who did not have time to fully implement all his plans. In this case, the window frame also acts as a symbol of the cross, which fits into the structure of the image, designed as a monument to the great composer, poet and performer.

The coloring of the painting can be described as monochrome, the painter does not use bright colors to underscore the seriousness of the idea and not to contradict the idea of the graffiti artist who created the image of the musician. The signature of Dmitry Kustanovich, left in the lower right corner of the picture is also perceived as graffiti written on the wall. «Leaving» his own autograph, the painter joins hundreds of those who, admiring the talent of V. Tsoi, left their mark on this wall.

St. Petersburg is an eternal sourse of inspiration for the painter and every time it is being uncovered from a new, unexplored facet.

The theme of informal, non-paraded St. Petersburg naturally appeared in the creative work of Kustanovich. Magnificent, grand, luxurious St. Petersburg for a while gave way to a quiet and unvarnished St. Petersburg. The painter explores the gorgeous city, examining it with rapture as a jewel from different sides. The image of St. Petersburg in the painter's work is hard to characterize with the help of only several epithets. His portrait is so deep and multifaceted that it requires a detailed narrative.

If the parade St. Petersburg of Kustanovich is solemn and almost invariably cold, like a young dandy-aristocrat, then informal St. Petersburg seems to be deep in itself, thoughtful, silent, it reveals itself to the viewer who has managed to understand and accept its complex character.

At the same time, the non-paraded St. Petersburg of Kustanovich is not the reverse side of the medal, the face of which is pompous Petersburg. This side does not contradict the other. The painter creates a very organic image of the city — unique, full of contrasts and contradictions, but exceedingly integral in character. It seems that these painted walls could be located in any other city, but the discerning viewer will feel the spirit of St. Petersburg in them.

Winter cityscapes depicting the informal atmosphere of St. Petersburg turn out to be something much deeper than just a reflection of momentary reflection. They are conceptual symbols, new emblems of St. Petersburg.

These works also fit seamlessly into the concept of spatial realism, the author of which is painter Dmitry Kustanovich. Here, as in other artworks of the master, the texture as a means of expression becomes extremely important. In this series of works, the artist continues to explore the possibilities of this style, on the one hand – confining the space, and on the other – giving a primary role to the texture. It is thanks to the texture that the desire to go beyond the canvas, into the space beyond the painting plane, is felt..

Art critic Maya Stoltz