Nikolai Kulebiakin “Breaking the Square” 2018-2019

According to the laws of classic art that educated painters followed in the second half of the 19th century, having already absorbed Heinrich Wölffliln’s formal analysis, who, along with Friedrich Nietzsche, passed through Jacob Burckhardt’s school of individualism, painting means creating images with volume on the flat plane of a canvas using paint. 

The photography of that time, if you begin to see photography in the camera obscura, was initially seen as a technical means of the mechanical, optical reproduction and chemical fixation of an image with volume onto a flat surface. In this regard, it ‘recreated’ painting with its relentless technical perfection, and the attendant possibility of creating editions of prints and democratization. But this isn’t the reason painting with light triumphed over painting that’s based on reflecting and breaking light apart. This meant a complete transformation, as though, emerging from Plato’s cave, you found a new Reality – so what if it was monochrome – that won out with its life-like quality, it’s captivating sense of absolutely likeness, as though the viewer was right there in the image. This ‘reality’ could not be conquered by the hypertrophied technicality of the salon, let alone society painting, contingent on the rather foolish tastes of its patrons – these were nothing against the athleticism of life-likeness! It was unthinkable that public taste, initially inclined toward decadence, with its tricks of searching in the darkness both internal and external, could then turn to the primitive, opening new horizons on the archaic. And then came Malevich. He hung his Black Square in the corner like it was an icon and with it, ushered in a new era. The meaning of the Black Square is in its absolute flatness. It doesn’t fall off or fall into the plane of the canvas. This means that painting can thus exist on its own. The umbilical cord tying it to reality was cut, it was set free. The canvas was now open to everything from formalism to conceptualism. That is how the era we live in today started. Everything changed. And so did photography. It became a means of technical documentation and reproduction first and art second. 

Imagine if on the wall of paintings in Plato’s cave, where previously, there had only been shadows and reflections of reality, seen through smoke, suddenly, the Black Square appeared.  And humanity fell into it like it was a black mirror – hello, TV! – and became trapped in it like a fly in amber. 

Nikolai Kulebiakin’s “Breaking the Square” is about breaking through this “stuckness” with classical photography. 

The center of his composition is a 5x5 cm contact print. This print is the essence of truth, the tablet of the covenant, a print matrix, a kind of informational absolute – everything that will appear in the blown up shot is already in it, can already be seen here. Although you would need a magnifying glass or a microscope. This completely opaque print, like a fragment of Heaven from C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, is placed in the geometric center of the black square. Its ideal flatness is no longer flat. Here, in this shadow, the reality of that ur-flatness has seeped through and become capable of standing up to The Void itself, which we have found ourselves in since 1912. The square’s frame becomes the frame of the contact print, enlarged to its size. It was enlarged using the regular photographic tools, and the handmade edge shows the work of the artist’s blade. Yes, the contact print was cut out of the frame, there’s no doubt, and we see that we’re looking at the same image at different scales, broken up by the square. But if the image in the print is completely frozen, perfect in its form and composition, the frame is rather dynamic. This is definitely not a problem of scale. It feels like if we were to enlarge the central image to the size of the frame, the saturation and opacity would remain the same. This opens up two horizons of possibility. One comes from Akhmatova, “when could you know the arguments that poems grow from, unashamed,” and the second is about conjuring the eternal from the ephemeral. This is not a miracle of cropping, this is about breaking the square. It’s the meaning of art in general. In this case, of photographic art. 

Egor Larichev