Vladimir Potapov’s work is characterized by its innovative use of materials, while maintaining the technical rigour of traditional painting techniques. His explorations with Plexiglas and holographic film have engendered new ways of considering three-dimensional space within two-dimensional images; and here, he tells us more about all this, and the “primal fear of failure”.
You climbed Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe, and displayed your work at the top.
I ascended Elbrus in August 2017, and at the top made the exhibition Zero Height. The climb was part of the idea of the exhibition: the preparation and physical exertion make you renounce your previous experience and provide an excellent opportunity to reflect on your life as a whole, not only your work as an artist.
How did this affect my life? No fundamental changes happened in my art—only on the personal front. But I was strengthened in my understanding of art; in the path that I have chosen for myself.
Tell us about your use of Plexiglas.
As a student I had reasonably good academic painting skills, which I always wanted to modernize somehow, so I turned to non-traditional materials, such as Plexiglas, on the one hand; at the same time I was infuriated by the phrase “painting is dead”. Of course, I know that painting’s most important contributions are in the past, but I also understand that burying painting is as silly as wanting to bury dance or singing. Painting on layers of Plexiglas creates a real three-dimensional space, whereas classical painting is only two-dimensional. I put the image on three layers; each one contains a fragment, so that the image only reads properly when viewed from the front.
“A lot of modern painting techniques provide an average level of quality without any risk at all”
You have a great appetite for experimenting with different materials.
The idea of using non-standard materials such as holographic film arose from a number of causes. The first is that holography is already an illusion of three-dimensional space, but when you apply paint on it, you turn it into a two-dimensional space—the opposite of what happens in classical painting when a three-dimensional illusion is made on a two-dimensional surface. The second is the value of the holographic film itself, which is often used as a cheap material for the decoration of gifts. Brilliant, radiant, vulgar light. I wanted to tame it, even though I understood there was a big risk: the results could easily be kitsch.
I accepted the risk to get into a fight with an uncertain outcome, where you doubt, and are afraid and nervous. This wonderful state cannot be compared with that you get when you ascend Elbrus, but you definitely feel the primal fear of failure. A lot of modern painting techniques provide an average level of quality without any risk at all. That’s why I choose the unknown, where no one has gone before me—or, at least, so it seems to me.
You teach contemporary painting in Moscow: what does that phrase, “contemporary painting”, mean in Russia at the moment?
In Russia, traditional academic painting remains strong—the 150-year-old realism of Repin, Levitan, Shishkin, Savrasov, etc.—and provides the model in artistic education, with twentieth-century art completely ignored. So there is a serious confrontation between contemporary and traditional art. The distinction is institutionalized, with contemporary art mostly being reduced to a private initiative unsupported by the government. So in Russia the term “contemporary art” or “contemporary painting” is used to signify distance from Orthodox-patriarchal culture.
All Palettes Go to Paradise, a joint show with Vladimir Dubossarsky, opens on 4 December at the Winzavod gallery, can you tell us a little more about it?
It’s a conversation about painting. I plan to show works from my series Inside, where I create images through scratching a layered surface. In Russia the authorities paint the city infrastructure once a year but they do it so casually that scraps of ads, posters and dirt are trapped and visible between the layers. My works are painted with the same paint and have the same layered texture.
We could not think of a name for the show until three weeks ago. But then when Putin declared that Russians who die in a nuclear war immediately go to heaven, we realized what the name should be! It refers to a 1989 cartoon, “All Dogs Go to Heaven”, about the revenge of one dog on another—which relates to the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction and Russia’s so-called “Dead Hand”, or “Perimeter”, nuclear weapons system. The whole geopolitical situation looks very alarming.