Eric Bulatov

5 September 1933, Sverdlovsk

Erik Bulatov has been considered to be affiliated with Moscow Conceptualism, Sots Art, and hyperrealism, but the artist maintains that that playing with the images and ideology of Soviet official culture is not as interesting to him as much more abstract and even formal subjects: the questions about what is a painting and how does the surface of a painting correspond to the surface of the depicted objects. The artist’s first independent works, decisively breaking with official art, were abstracts—or works intentionally playing on the ambiguity of abstract and figurative, the flatness of the painted surface and the illusoriness of space. “Black Tunnel” of 1964 is such a work. In the 1970s, Bulatov moved from abstraction to figurative painting in an almost hyperrealistic manner—but he retained the obviousness of the conditionality of the canvas, introducing text into the image.  An inalienable element of the artist’s works are the captions: Soviet slogans like “Glory to the CPSU,” warning signs like “Caution” or “Danger,” contradictory indications “Entrance” and “No Entrance” layering over each other, or theoretical-metaphysical statements like “Coming!” or “Seva’s Blue” (dedicated to the poet Vsevolod [Seva] Nekrasov). Erik Bulatov’s aesthetics refer to American Pop Art, particularly to the works of Ed Ruscha (an echo that Bulatov notes himself).  However, the captions play a fundamentally different role for the Russian artist. They do not create the depicted world, they delineate its border. Like bars (made visible in the painting “Skier,” where they are drawn in the same red color as the letters of Soviet slogans), they block entry to the imaginary painted space, or, on the contrary, show the point of penetration into it or even the vector of escape—from the paintings as a painted canvas or from the inherently false Soviet “picture of the world,” beyond which, as if behind a curtain, lies a metaphysical distant vista.

The captions on Bulatov’s paintings resemble film or television subtitles. It’s not at all clear on which side of the screen Erik Bulatov’s paintings are shown: perhaps the “iron curtain” made out of the letters “Glory to the CPSU” is simply protecting the reality on this side of the screen from the phantoms of ideology trying to burst out of the space behind the screen. In any case, the surface of the screen (or canvas) remains impermeable even in the works of the 1990s-2000s, which have nothing to do with Soviet ideology. Of course, many paintings of those years manage without any depictions at all: only letters remain on the sky blue background, sometimes covered with clouds.  These captions no longer block off the “behind-the-screen” space, but on the contrary create it. But the screen here is probably different—no longer part of a TV or film house, but belonging to a computer. That screen is not totalitarian or even illusory: it is interactive. Nothing is trying to escape from behind it; it lures you into it and becomes quite literally a window, with which the classic figurative painting is usually compared: the blue sky with clouds of Bulatov’s paintings today can’t help but remind us of the Windows logo.

Irina Kulik