Semyon Faibisovich

10 February 1949, Moscow



The images that persist on the retina when we shut our eyes after looking at bright objects, or the sky – fuzzy patches of colour with a rough inverse correspondence to colour in the real world – are known as after-images or ghost images. They are caused by exhaustion of the photo-receptors in the eyes: if you stare too long at a bright colour, the receptors for that colour tire and produce a weaker signal to the brain; when you shut your eyes, other receptors predominate and cause the brain to perceive an opposite colour. Like the ghost of Hamlet’s father – in the words of Hamlet’s friend, Horatio, “A mote (…) to trouble the mind’s eye” – such “ghosts” are presented in Semyon Faibisovich’s paintings called entitled Evidence as a conundrum not only of the eye but also of the mind.

In this body of work, Faibisovich is concerned not only with after-images but also with other intra-ocular phenomena: by the vagaries of stereoscopic vision, which cause a cubistic fragmentation of visual unity; and by so-called “floaters”. These look like specks, strands, webs or other shapes in front of the eye. In fact they are shadows cast on the retina by tiny clumps of gel or cells – bodily debris – which float inside the vitreous, the clear jelly-like fluid that fills the inside of your eye. This junk is easily observed by doctors as it moves through the eyeball’ we are most conscious of it when looking at a bright background, for example a summer sky, such as those we encounter regularly in Faibisovich’s paintings of Crimea.

In the paintings of the Evidence project floaters overlay realistic images of the world and after-images resonate with the form of things just seen. These phenomena emphasise a dualism, of the worlds within the body and without, but they are also a discreet reminder that the body – no less than, say, the Soviet Union – is a kind of closed system on which we are compelled to reside. The eye when shut becomes something like Plato’s Cave, in which fuzzy echoes of the outside world are dimly perceived’ when open, it is a self-contained ecosphere in which clouds (the floaters) travel serenely over the ground (the retina), casting their shadow, and we look out through this ecosphere at the world.

Ekaterina Degot, reviewing the first display of the Evidence works in 1993, suggested that Faibisovich was no longer presenting the perceived world as truth (istina) but as falsity (fiktsiya), or, more trenchantly, as “a complete fraud”. But he was not, he was presenting the dialectic between the world and the mechanism of its perception. But in another, English-language sense of the word, fiktsiya – the class of imaginative literature called fiction – is not so remote from these paintings. They address a specific question. If the visible, external, empirical world, translated into paint, has meanings, then what meanings might be extracted from these ghosts, floaters and physiological distortions of vision? Indeed, since Faibisovich is a painter of narratives, and the multi-panel structure of most of the works in Evidence, suggesting a reading from left to right, is an ancient narrative format, the question might be, what stories are these phenomena capable of telling?


In the literature about Faibisovich’s work there is a discussion about its proper classification and in particular whether or not, because of his extensive use of photographic source-material, it should be termed “photorealism”. In fact, if one accepts that the term is not geo-historically specific to art made in the USA in the 1960s and 70s, then it is probably better applied to his most recent paintings. A few of these reproduce the pixel-structure of mobile-phone photography, others are based on the manipulation of the original image in photoshop, and so they offer a contemporary update to photorealism, let’s call it photoshop-realism. In his works of the eighties and early nineties, on the other hand, Faibisovich’s use of photography is not analytic, it is not about the medium of photography per se: the camera is a tool for recording scenes and textures, and the photographic image – usually black-and-white – projected at the start of a painting on a bare canvas at much-increased size, is accepted and reproduced (and indeed “coloured in”) as a simple mirror of life.

At the beginning, the camera enabled Faibisovich to record the Soviet reality in paintings of vodka-queues, demonstrations, babushki in the courtyard and so on. In this respect Faibisovich’s project was not so very far from the social-documentary photography of Boris Mikhailov in Ukraine: both artists had a love-hate relationship with the “beautiful nightmare” (prekrasnii uzhas) of the Soviet Union, and a youthful and potentially dangerous compulsion to contemplate it unflinchingly, like a kid staring out a perceived rival on the metro. Faibisovich has described himself as a rabbit staring at a python. Other members of the underground art movement chose to deal with the Soviet system in less confrontational ways, using tactics of irony and aesopian deconstruction. But Faibisovich couldn’t help himself: he was hypnotized by a “ready-made work of art”.

When the Soviet Union fell apart (or, as Faibisovich has put it, the python unexpectedly dropped dead) the sense of an immutable oppressive reality evaporated. New hopes were in the air. The rabbit suddenly became aware that he had his own long-ignored feelings” an interior life! Faibisovich, no longer in thrall to the hypnotic Soviet catastrophe, continued to use the camera but began to investigate precisely what the camera cannot see. In Faibisovich’s own formulation, in the early 1990s his paintings cease to be about what we see and become about how we see. The process of seeing took precedence over its result: the artist became a kind of phenomenologist working with paint: his gaze became self-reflexive. Repeated views from inside the window of the eye-socket and through the curtains of half-closed lashes suggest the whole familiar architecture of the body: his tracking of visual phenomena within the eyeball presents a “lived perspective” (to use Merleau-Ponty’s phrase about Cezanne’s painting) that the camera cannot replicate. The closed-eye effects were based on sketches and notes made from memory: how else? Yet within the paintings of the Evidence project, the photograph-derived image persists, even though layered by floaters, smudged by “ghosts”, filtered by drops of water, and it retains its earlier status as a simple referent of empirical reality.


Faibisovich’s use of photography is regularly discussed, but the nature of his painterliness – rarely, if ever. His virtuosity is mentioned and admired, but his manner of painting remains unexamined. It’s a curious omission in the discussion of a painter, but in this case understandable: his surfaces are highly reticent and, in a word, strange.

Anyone who has gone through a traditional art-school education has internalized what I will call – with reference to the so-called Pathetic Fallacy, which ascribes feelings to inanimate objects such as landscape – the Expressionist Fallacy. That is to say, he interprets the physical qualities of paint, the facture of a painting, as conveying some kind of meaning, even an emotional state, emanating from the artist. Thin paint embodies a lyrical or sensual mood, big brushstrokes – a macho of heroic of proletarian attitude, distinct gestures in the paint – agitation; and so on. That such readings of a paint-surface are entirely artificial and conventional should be perfectly obvious. But this idea is one of the foundations of the professional understanding of painting: if you haven’t grasped it, or if it hasn’t grasped you, much painting will be essentially meaningless to you. And no-one who has studied to be a painter can lose this learned response to painterly mark-making: it is ingrained, like the exclamation “ouch” when we stub our toe. Artists who create a jewel-like smooth surface are either naïve and self-taught or – like Ingres, for example – are in sophisticated reaction against the Expressionist Fallacy.

But Faibisovich’s student years were not spent internalizing the Expressionist Fallacy at art school but rather at the Architecture Institute, where study culminated in a “bizarre spiral construction, a kind of agricultural perpetuum mobile for growing cucumbers non-stop all the year round” (Zinovy Zinik). Unencumbered by a painter’s education, in painting he seems to have found a third way.

He applies the paint with astonishing virtuosity, but the resultant paint-surfaces make no reference to the immanent language of painting, professionally understood. The poet Mikhail Aizenberg seems to have been getting at this when he referred to Faibisovich’s “lack of stylistic pretensions” compared to the other artists at the Malaya Gruzinskaya Gallery where Faibisovich exhibited in the 1980s. Nor is this merely a reflection of Faibisovich’s photographic source-material. Contrary to Vladimir Paperny’s assertion that Faibisovich’s painting “does not differ greatly” from photography, of course it does. The forms of the source material are blown up and simplified, the colours – originating usually in the mind of the artist – and chiaroscuro attuned to the canvas on the stretcher, intended to be hung on the wall. The nearest analogy to his approach I can come up with is that of the fresco painter, whose overriding concern is with the visual unity of the whole pictorial surface, not the expressive details that pre-occupy the easel-painter. Approach a fresco and close up you can see lines incised in the wet plaster to establish the composition. In the same way, in Faibisovich’s work, a close inspection may reveal the pencil lines he draws around the images projected onto the canvas.

If you consider only his surfaces, the artist Faibisovich in fact seems like a machine for making paintings. In fact, there is an element of sensuality in a surface by Faibisovich, but it is subliminal: in the way the canvas-weave forces its way through the absolutely regular thin skin of paint, like the grain of a paving-stone on bare feet. Faibisovich traces this extreme sensitivity to the original state of a primed canvas, and his preference for thin layers of transparent and semi-transparent paint, to his youthful training in watercolour painting.


The Evidence project substantially comprises paintings made in the period 1991-95. However a few paintings made in the period 1983-90, and too the cycle Negatives made in New York in 1989-90, foreshadow and relate to it.

In Looking at the Black Sea (1983) the artist’s gaze is directed towards a seascape. Eyelashes and nose form a foreground, eyelids create a dark-slate cave, and from these markers the viewer’s eye leaps forward through space to a distant scene of sea, sky and sun. The spatial drama is so extreme, it provokes a smile; really, it is a transformation of the venerable motif of a view out of the window. As far as the presence of the artist’s nose is concerned, there are forerunners to this painting in the work of Komar and Melamid, who in the 1970s invented the artist Nikolai Buchumov, who, being one-eyed, painted the right-hand side of his nose into every landscape.

In Looking Again at the Black Sea (1986) the eyes look out from beneath the artist’s hat. They are focused into the distance and the hat, not being in focus, fragment into interpenetrating planes. A cubistic coyness extends to the beach-scene: every one of the human faces is cut off or turned away from the viewer, a motif recalling paintings by Faibisovich’s friend Erik Bulatov such as Red Horizon (1971-72).

In the painting Looking at the Sun (1990) the sun is caught between squinting eyelids like a glass marble in a child’s fingers. The eyelids themselves are shot through by the sun as surely as the glass bottles on the windowsill in Faibisovich’s 1982 painting The Shell Truck. Floaters drift across the blue sky but everything is fuzzy and out of focus because the eye is concentrated on the congealed disc of light, understanding it as a congeries of scintillating sharp-edged stripes through which a few eyelashes may be seen curling. In his attempt to render solar brightness, Faibisovich departs from his normal inscrutable application of transparent colour and lays the white paint on thick, very precisely, with a palette knife.

The basic mise en scene of these three earlier paintings is replicated in the Evidence project. We are presented with a dialogue between the eye, considered as part of the bodily interior, and the world outside. Frequently, as in Looking at the Sun, the distinction between inside and outside the body is elided by sunshine that glows through the transparent membrane of the eyelids: the circulating blood is flooded with light (one remembers, as a child, shining a torch through one’s fingers).

The series Negatives, in which Faibisovich recorded his experience of the USA in the colours of a photographic negative, is the direct forerunner of the Evidence paintings. The Negatives are preceded in the history of art by such works as Jasper Johns’s images of US flags of inverted colour and by Richard Hamilton’s I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, in which the singer Bing Crosby is transformed into a black man. In Faibisovich’s work the negative image has a metaphorical sense: it references the strange, through-the-looking-glass quality of his experience of America. It is in fact enthralling to encounter these paintings and see the world writ large in inverted colours. Is that conceivably because such a depiction corresponds to our eyes’ own after-images? Theoretically, I suppose, if you stared long enough at one of Faibisovich’s Negative paintings, a positive image would be imprinted on your retina when you shut your eyes. It was while working on the Negative in New York that Faibisovich decided to create Evidence. But there is a clear distinction between the two bodies of work: the works in Evidence address not the metaphors of photography but the metaphors of human vision.


The paintings of Evidence represent a new direction after a decade of work during which Faibisovich established himself as the supreme painter of late Soviet life. They build on the accumulated experience of that decade and are, technically and aesthetically, entirely self-assured. Their subjects: domestic interiors, beach scenes – are often idyllic. They reflect a time when “things became easier, hope appeared from somewhere”. Yet they also embody anxiety. It’s not merely Kierkegaard’s “dizziness of freedom”, a reaction to the collapse of the Soviet regime and the imperatives of an inchoate new order. The anxiety embodied in Evidence seems frankly psychological and physiological. The skeins of floaters, which are literally the cellular debris of past years, presenting a barrier between the artist and the world, hint at self-absorption, withdrawal and maybe even depression. The recurrent views from inside closed eyelids, even more so. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” wrote the poet Dylan Thomas: but Faibisovich seems to welcome it. It’s hard not to connect such anxiety to the stresses faced by the artist: the collapse of his marriage, illness (eventuating in a diagnosis of diabetes), and professional pressures “arising from the friendly activity of my peers, who were deliberately driving me out of the world of contemporary art.” One result of all this was chronic insomnia, which beset Faibisovich from the late 1980s until 1999. It’s easy enough to imagine that the artist’s sleeplessness led to a delight in darkness, and to a heightened interest in the patterns that formed beneath his closed eyelids.


In the first canvas of the diptych Ilyusha and the Sun, the artist, lying on a Crimean beach, has just opened his eye (his pupil hasn’t adjusted to the brightness, the sky is almost white). There, large in the corner of his field of vision, framed by the brim of his cap and the side of his nose, is his son. Perhaps he is an anxious parent, because the little boy is wearing a hat which ostentatiously shields his young face from the heat: surely he didn’t choose to wear that himself? In the second canvas the father has perhaps shut his eye and re-opened it: his son is now gone. How much time has passed? A few seconds at most: the constellation of the floaters in the eye hasn’t changed. In those few seconds, the iris has adjusted to the light level: the sky is no longer “overexposed”, it is blue. So we have, as it were, biological and temporal data from the scene of a crime: because this, in fact, is the highly distilled narrative of a child’s disappearance: the son, who was present, vanishes. Ilyusha and the Sun, which seems at first like a crystallization of parental tenderness, also condenses every parent’s worst dream.

Several other works in Evidence are images of Crimea, in those days the favourite vacation spot of Moscow’s Bohemia. Sunset at the Boat Station presents a view across water and beach directly into the low dazzling sun (first canvas), which metamorphoses into a striking after-image, a yellow band across a ground of stormy browns and purples (second canvas) and then into a pale grey image stained with floaters (third canvas)/ As in the case with many of the multi-canvas works in the Evidence project, the first, realistic, image is here merely a starting point, an initial point of reference for a number of abstracted images seen with the eyes shut whose fluctuations suggest the urgency and mystery of the interior life, an unruliness of blood and brain and heart. In this case, the evolution of the image is particularly dramatic and unexpected and it seems, thus, to be the painting in the project most explicitly about the optical experience of sunlight. In fact, the representation of sunshine was a constant factor in Faibisovich’s work over several years. As it happens, the name Faibisovich derives according to one etymology from the Greek Phoibos, literally “Shining One”, a term used to reference Helios, god of the sun.

In the single-canvas work Drops on the Eyelashes, the most straightforwardly lyrical work in the project, the sun makes haloes through drops of sea-water: pure elliptical forms, in which this writer senses a reverberation of the golden nimbuses of ancient religious art, here vibrating free from the heads of saints or deities. In the diptych Towards the Shore we have the view of a swimmer whose vision is obscured by water over his eyes (first canvas) and then clears (second canvas). Yet the figures on the beach, even when clearly seen, have something of the random, abstract precision of letters blown up on the photocopier: they are in this first moment of the visual encounter as much like hieroglyphs as human beings. In Kapsel – Faibisovich’s last work before he abandoned painting in 1995 – the three long canvases hang, exceptionally, vertically. This creates a more organic whole and also an extra layering of narrative complexity: we cannot rely on a chronology from left to right. It hints at developments in his painting that were perhaps envisaged by Faibisovich but which never occurred.


Several painting in the project depict fragment of domestic existence. The first parts of both Window of the Studio on Novoryazanskaya Street and Window of the Studio on Chaplygin Street are conventional compositions that could almost be by Soviet realists of the period, were it not for the scrupulous depiction of optical phenomena – floaters, haloes of extreme brightness – which interrupt the scene depicted. The initial images are transformed over two more canvases into what look like abstractions. One resembles an enlarged fragment of a Rothko; the other, something closer to School of Paris abstraction of the fifties, with a touch of Lebanese restaurant art of today. Faibisovich was never interested in pure abstraction as an outlet for his efforts, but he liked the idea that a scrupulously realistic first scene could quite logically evolve into its artistic antithesis, that here, in his words, “realism and abstraction were identical” The outcome was, as he put it, “realistcabstraction” or an “abstract reality”. In the end, of course, these paintings never deviate from the original realist terms: they do not address the fundamental concerns that arise in abstract painting, and they seek a concrete and convincing inner light, as precise in colour as the shadows in a painting by Monet.

The paintings The Cat and the Cactus and Morning in the Village, by their off-kilter composition and low viewpoint, explicitly reference the eye. We imagine he may be lying or sitting and also perhaps moving his head around. In the four-canvas work The Cat and the Cactus the first image captures the moment when the eyes open after sleep and stereoscopic vision is not quite functioning: the eyes are not seeing in unison. In the second image, vision sorts itself out. And in the nest two panels, as it were, the artist tries to go back to sleep. The painting is a tale of Faibisovich’s insomnia. Morning in the Village is set in a country house that belonged to Faibisovich’s parents for a couple of years. The first canvas records the view of a shuttered window in a darkened room. Bars of sunlight coming through the shutters expand on the sleepy retina into something like neon-tubes; they cast bright stripes on unidentifiable objects and on the floor. The second canvas records the after-images arising from multiple blinks of the artist’s eye and movement of his head. These hints at excitation or anticipation. Bars of colour criss-cross a sumptuous pink ground: we are in a kind of dream-space: the vacuity of a dark empty room is transformed into something like flesh – plump, slightly bruised and decoratively scarified, a Kustodiev-girl re-imagined as a punk.

In the paintings The Light-Fitting (Svetilnik) and Slippers (Tapochki) the sense of the artist’s shifting gaze is encapsulated in a single canvas. The artist looks at a fluorescent light-fitting and quickly moves his gaze away: the resulting after image, burning a hole in his retina, also punches a hole in the visual unity of the perceived world. Or, standing in the bath, he looks down at his slippers on the floor and then his gaze shifts a little closer to the body: perhaps, logically, to his penis? It doesn’t matter: the bright trace of the black slippers tracks the movement of his eyes.


Faibisovich in the 1990s did not absolutely cease to pay attention to the social-political milieu. And Russia itself maintained its grip on him: unlike many artists who made use of perestroika-era success to move abroad, Faibisovich, after a spell working in New York, returned home. But his interest in life on the streets and current affairs was now ambiguous: when he addressed public subjects, Faibisovich no longer documented them, rather, he created images emphasizing his own disengagement.

The Last Parade, a panorama of fragmented, dislayering, progressively fading imagery installed at Regina Gallery in 1992, was a kind of preamble to Evidence, a programmatic statement about the collapse of the Soviet world that had shaped Faibisovich’s work hitherto. But the post-Soviet reality also occasionally claimed his attention. At first sight, the first canvas of the diptych On the Church Porch might almost be a painting from the nineteenth century: but the second canvas, overlaid by a web of floaters, seems to signify a rapid cooling of interest in the scene just then apprehended. The installation A Chronicle of Current Events is a series of five paired paintings representing events of 3-4 October 1993 in Moscow, derived from CNN reportage. The subject of the first work in the cycle is a demonstration by communists that of the last a tank assault on the White House. On one of the paired canvases the TV scene is presented realistically, on the other it has dissolved and is covered by wriggling, transparent, greenish-yellowish forms which float across the image. So two “chronicles” are formed: one reflecting the external succession of events that was seen around the world, and the other occurring simultaneously in the eyes of someone punch-drunk from lack of sleep and intense, round-the clock attention to the CRT.

In 1995 Faibisovich painted Together with Spielberg (Experiment in Deconstruction), a six-part painting which records the eye perceiving, and then closing on, a frame from Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. Faibisovich was attracted to the film as an unfashionable presentation of the subject of the Holocaust in contemporary Russia; it seems appropriate that the great story-telling painter should have crossed paths in his art with the great story-telling movie maker. The particular frame (a dramatic moment from the film: children hide from Nazi guards in a ditch) was chosen because of its intense chiaroscuro, which permitted an extended observation of the gradual deterioration of the image across six canvases. The original black-and-white image (first canvas) is blurred by the closing eye’s refocusing (second canvas) and succeeded by a blue-orange after-image seen by the closed eye (third canvas). The after-image metamorphoses across three more canvases; the final painting (sixth canvas) is executed almost entirely in shades of red. The original image has been liquidated, to be replaced by a generalized agitation of the retina, which registers the colour of white light filtered through blood in the eyelids. There are references here to the blood spilt in the Holocaust, and also to the girl in a red dress colourised by Spielberg in the movie itself. This work, the largest in the Evidence project, was shown at an exhibition by Faibisovich and the sculptor Boris Orlov called Farewell Jubilee, to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. The artists’ presumption then, since proved erroneous, was that this date would no longer be celebrated in democratic Russia with such a degree of Soviet-style pomp-and-circumstance.


Faibisovich’s retirement – as it turns out, temporary – as a painter in 1995, after completion of the six-part work Together with Spielberg and the large triptych Kapsel, was to a large extent a reaction to the hostility he was facing in the Moscow art world. He was involved in a struggle for recognition in a milieu whose leading figures had decided that the correct mode of art in the post-Soviet dispensation was, in one way of another, conceptual art: they regarded Faibisovich’s “photorealism” as provincial and retrograde and the artist himself a failure or an irrelevance. The critics didn’t write much about him any more, and what they did write often had a sarcastic tinge: curators ignored him.

There was also a financial aspect to his decision. Faibisovich was an unfashionable artist within Russia and foreign interest in Russian art was on the wane. His sales were few and far between; his gallerist, Vladimir Ovcharenko, declined after some consideration to purchase Together with Spielberg; and the bills were piling up. In fact, after the collapse of Sergei Mavrodi’s MMM ponzi-scheme in the mid-nineties, the finances of all Moscow’s gallerists and artists worsened considerably.

In fact for a couple of years he had been preparing a new project: he had been making notes and drawings about the visions, entirely detached from the real world, that he observed on his eyelids while lying awake with his eyes closed: this was preparatory work for a series to be called Sleeplessness. But the projected canvases the colour of luminous darkness were never painted, and the notebooks in which Faibisovich recorded his visions have been lost.

Although they diverge from the Moscow mainstream, much in Faibisovich’s work of the nineties seems very much of its time. His programmatic references to the end of an era and the end of political engagement recall Francis Fukuyama’s enormously influential essay (1989) and book (1992), The End of History. In his work there is a distinct echo of the contemporary obsession with the gaze, popularized by Foucault, Lacan and feminist theory. One can well imagine a nineties-style critique of Faibisovich’s work analyzing his “scopophilia” and the “power-structures” implicit in his visual system (although in fact, due to his estrangement from the Moscow art establishment, there were very few reviews of his work of any kind at this time). Faibisovich himself has ascribed the influx of lyricism, intimacy, eroticism into his work to the hope engendered by the collapse of communist system.

Yet what remains most compelling in the paintings of Evidence is the distilled image of our sensual relationship with the world. We come face-to-face with the blood warmed by sunlight, kaleidoscopic patterns of things seen imprinted on the retina, crystalline drops of glistening salt-water poised on eyelashes. The paintings confront us with our own physiology, of which we are usually only dully aware, reminding us not only of how our bodies are penetrated by light, but also of the dying of the light.