Denis Mikhaylov / I Never Talk to Strangers

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I Never Talk to Strangers

Denis Mikhaylov

I Never Talk to Strangers


The Mary D.B.T. and James H. Semans Director Emeritus

Duke University Museum of Art

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future and time future contained in time past T. S. Elliot, Burnt Norton, I

It was the last hour of the last day of the 2012 Art Miami Fair. Rounding a corner I came across the booth of Dmitriy Semenov, a Moscow gallery. Hanging on an outside wall was a most unusual painting, one based on Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes in the Galleria Nazionale in Roma. It was, for me, one of the most intriguing paintings at the fair not solely because of the Old Master reference but also because of the unusual way it was painted, in a manner reminiscent of stained glass. I was introduced to the artist Denis Mikhaylov and that encounter with subsequent discussions led to the invitation to write an essay for this catalogue, one that I happily accepted as it provided the opportunity to study his career from the beginning to the present, a trajectory one could hardly have predicted looking only at the frst 20 years of his work. This book includes new paintings from three series each of which represent a new direction.


Monotypes is a group of ten black and white paintings of the human fgure handled in a “realistic” manner, images that opened a new representational path radically diferent from Mikhaylov’s earlier, fat rather

primitive, cartoon-like style with simplifed outlines rendered in un-modulated, bold colors. However, Monotypes are hardly fgure studies in the academic sensestudio poses meant to master the human form. Rather, these paintings were inspired by Mikhaylov’s chance encounter with black and white photographs: Thus his decision to use a monochromatic palette. But Mikhaylov was even more intrigued by the play of light and shadow on the fgures’ surfaces. Here, I suspect, lies the origin of the “stained glass” technique – a eureka moment – carried forward in the Gamble with Classics series. By employing pools of light and dark on fgures set against a pitch black background, Mikhaylov at once highlighted the body’s classical form and dematerialized it by fragmentary surface illumination making them “lifelike” but also mysterious, all the more so as the images themselves are unusual, evoking in the spectator an emotional response and narratives charged with erotic overtones (Catholic Girls, Altar Boy, No Name); cryptic action (Horse Latitudes, Love Me Two Times, Invitation to the Blues, Hold On, Was Alive); or athletic allusions (Arc of a Jump, No Name [Jack Knife Dive].



“And I decided to conduct an experiment – to make my favorite classics [Old Master paintings] live in the modern world. So I added new characters, new stories to their works. I began to experiment with their images …….in the painting called Michel and Angelo, …I added one more incarnation to the Virgin Mary – a sort of inner voice.” *

*Excerpt from an Interview with Denis Mikhaylov

The title of Mikhaylov’s series, Gamble with Classics, suggests the inherent danger of returning to the Old Masters for inspiration, for doing so can be a gamble, a risk the artist’s vision will be absorbed by its source, obscured by a familiar classic.

He quotes Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Guido Reni, Rembrandt, Raphael, and Jacopo Bassano, among others – artists whose art forms part of our collective consciousness.

These familiar images call to mind not only great paintings but also their religious themes.

“Religion is the most aggressive entity in the world. Maybe that’s why I take these characters – their energy is so strong that it allows them to exist in the Metro, and in the modern world, and to co-exist with other characters.”

*Excerpt from an Interview with Denis Mikhaylov

Mikhaylov’s goal is not simply to pay homage to the Old Masters. Rather his intention is to recharge our modern

environment by jump-starting our aesthetic batteries and shocking our spiritual senses with visual charges from the past that demand to be interpreted for each one tells a tale. Mikhaylov is a gambler linking past to present. How does he play his hand so skillfully?

Part of his solution lay in the mode of representation frst explored in Monotypes. However, Mikhaylov abandoned black and white and followed the polychrome palette of his Old Master sources. Discrete, irregular areas of varying color and tone defned by dark borders create chromatic islands, an archipelago forming fgures emerging from the darkness into the bright, Caravaggesque light. As noted above, this technique is inspired by stained glass windows where each section of colored glass is ftted with a lead collar then fused with others to create a luminous, multifgured composition. In appropriating elements of Old Master compositions Mikhaylov extracts them from their original context and relocates them in the present. Merging religious themes with a mode of representation referring to stained glass suggests the observer occupies a special space, a spiritual space similar to the interior of a chapel, an efect enhancing the painting’s aura and meaning.

Sometimes, these works are accompanied by quotations from Socialist Realist art creating a jarring fusion of past and present: Biblical, Soviet, current.


I Never Talk to Strangers, based on Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of St. Francis, anachronistically contains two armed soldiers reminiscent of Viktor Safronov’s Socialist Realist warriors. But they exist in our time, here and now. The title of this painting is derived from the frst chapter of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Soviet era novel, The Master & Margarita frst published in 1967 almost 30 years after the author’s death. The multilayered structure of Bulgakov’s work is echoed in this series: debate on existence of Christ; religious themes; the juxtaposition of New Testament and Soviet periods; magical spaces; questions of belief, doubt, love and hope; the confation of good and evil; the sometimes ambiguous nature of evil itself.

A kneeling, penitent soldier holds a submachine gun, like the praying St. Jerome lovingly cradles his crucifx in numerous Renaissance paintings, as he witnesses this miraculous event. His companion having rushed forward bayonet fxed red banner billowing behind, halts and looks on. Does his action signal antipathy, spiritual connection, or indiference? There is something perplexing about these works for they ofer a narrative embracing multiple and mysterious realities just as Bulgakov’s novel does. What does it all mean? One cannot help but think of Winston Churchill’s 1939 quotation: “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”


The Massacre of the Innocents is based on Guido Reni’s painting of the same subject. Mikhaylov has removed from the center of the composition the mother with a dead baby at her feet looking imploringly heavenward and added a shouting, young, modern woman with a taped fst. The girl delivers a powerful right cross to a man’s face, the force of her punch catapulting his head backward blood spewing from his mouth.

Is this a comment on the tumultuous nature of male/female relationships set within the context of the New Testament narrative, the massacre of a modern innocent, a turning of the tables on an abusive man?

The mother has been substituted with a crouching Soviet soldier cradling his machine gun (the same soldier seen in I Never Talk to Strangers) as he looks sadly at the dead, bleeding baby – a contemporary counterpoint to the ruthless assassins doing King Herod’s bloody bidding.

We are bounced backward and forward in time as we try to untangle the story and its multiple meanings.


Deaf Conversation

quotes Caravaggio’s dramatic painting, Judith and Holofernes drawn from the Old Testament Book of Judith.Her assassination of the enemy general who became drunk in his tent as he sought to seduce Judith saved her city from the besieging army. Mikhaylov removed the old serving woman at the lower right corner ready to receive the severed head in a sack seen in Caravaggio’s painting and added in grisaille a deus ex macchina - an heroic presence, an “inner voice,” framed by a blood red cloak like the majestic, billowing fags of Soviet art. As Judith hacks through Holofernes’ neck, disturbed and repelled by her own action, her invisible companion urges her on to the completion of her grisly task. Judith’s courage saved her city from destruction providing an example of the triumph of virtue over lust – a psychomachian as well as an ethical and political drama played out with the assistance of a Socialist Realist style genius recalling Soviet era paintings celebrating heroes of the Great Patriotic War.


Criminal Code, Article 148 refers to Danish painter Carl Heinrich Bloch’s (1834-1890), Casting out the Money Changers from the Temple.

Article 148, passed by the Duma in the aftermath of the Pussy Riot controversy, makes illegal any words or actions ofending religious sensibilities. The irony is that under this law, the gun toting fgures Mikhaylov has added could arrest Christ Himself for His attack on the corrupt religious practices of the day – a comment on the cozy nature of church/state relations in Russia.


Last Supper Interrupted is based on 16th century Spanish artist’s Vicente Juan Masip’s Last Supper with the addition of two soldiers taken from Evgeni Shirokov’s famous Socialist Realist painting, For the Motherland.

At the center where Christ should be holding aloft the Eucharist a computer box has been substituted with options to: “CUT, COPY, COPY MERGED, PASTE, PASTE SPECIAL, CLEAR.” Anything you want can be pasted in to replace the original “IDEA”, and the State’s forces will be there to support the new ideology.


The source for Ioan and Karla is Caravaggio’s St. John the Baptist. The Baptist sits on the edge of a sleeping pallet to which Mikhaylov has added an attractive, nude sleeping woman. His wilderness abode, marked by bare tree branches in the background, is shared with an alluring, recumbent woman with luscious lips who he gazes upon in a manner suggestive of many possible narratives, not all spiritual, refecting the complicated and conficting nature of man’s desires, as we know from St. Augustine’s Confessions.


An attractive young woman sits on the edge of a bed holding the limp body of a young man on her lap in Michel and Angelo, a reference to Michelangelo’s Pietá at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

At the left, another attractive woman looks on impassively. The connection to Michelangelo clearly suggests religious content but the uncertain identities of the beautiful women, the locus of action in the present, and the title may also imply a narrative more carnal than spiritual or may just as well allude to an inner dialogue of the Virgin Mary.


Pietá refers to Lorenzo Lotto’s painting of the same title. However, here Nicodemus, the old, bearded man seen over Christ’s left shoulder staring out at us as he supports the body, has been replaced by a Ninja-like fgure whose blue eyes directly engage the viewer with a mesmerizing stare. Only the visible portion of his face and Christ are rendered in fesh tones - the angels in celestial red – so both are clearly of our world, if not of the same time. But is he an assassin who has participated in Christ’s execution, or a mysterious, secret contemporary observer demanding that we consider the timeless signifcance of what we see before us, even against laws or social norms that forbid such contemplation?


Madonna dell’Impannata is based on Raphael’s painting of the same name. Here the Baby Jesus has been removed from the center of the composition and replaced by a computer screen directing the viewer to choose: “Background or Select Similar Layers.” As in Last Supper Interrupted, we can delete the center of the narrative - the heart of meaning - and paste in a new text that may be a perversion of or have no bearing on the original message and so introduce a completely diferent reality in the guise of accepted “truth.”


Banquet at the House of Simon is based on Bernardo Strozzi’s painting of the same subject. Mikhaylov has endowed thirteen fgures with the features of Vladimir Putin. The irony is that Christ, who in the Gospel of Luke, forgives the woman of ill fame all her sins, appears as Putin. So does almost every other fgure in this large composition. And the kneeling woman is one of the girls from Pussy Riot who is washing Putin’s feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. Such is the power of Putin and entourage, who control everything, that he can pardon her “transgressions” and set her “free”!



“The Moscow Metro was one of the USSR’s most extravagant architectural projects. Stalin ordered the Metro’s artists and architects to design a structure that embodied svet (radiance or brilliance) and svetloe budushchee (a radiant future).

With their refective marble walls, high ceilings and grandiose chandeliers, many Moscow Metro stations have been likened to an “artifcial underground sun”.

This underground communist paradise reminded its riders that Stalin and his party had delivered something substantial to the people in return for their sacrifces.

Most importantly, proletarian labor produced this svetloe budushchee.” Wikipedia, Moscow Underground

The collision of old and new, their startling fusion seen in Gamble with Classics is continued in Underground Stories with public settings whose grandeur call to mind Renaissance and Baroque cathedrals – but in spaces built to replace sacred buildings with structures for the new Communist religion. The style is as diferent as the location of the previous series: Here the colors are fat, almost un-modulated with drapery folds indicated by short, broken black lines –no longer like stained glass - but evoking digitally manipulated photographs.

Quotations from Old Master paintings intersect with quotidian subway scenes

inserting ethical observations into a subterranean netherworld flled with contradictions between the real and ideal; the ordinary and the exalted; anger and indiference; hope and despair as a quick review of the subjects shows.


On the Way to Dinner: The two fgures draw upon Apostles by Jacopo Bassano in a painting of the Last Supper. Here, instead of discussing the meaning of Christ’s words at table, they converse across the aisle: An incongruous juxtaposition - apostles riding a subway car perhaps on the way to the Last Supper. And just what are they discussing; the results of the World Cup; the situation in the Ukraine; transubstantiation and the promise of salvation?

We are invited to look beyond the shock of fusion – secular present with religious past – to a narrative freighted with many potential meanings.



The painting is based on one by WilliamAdolphe Bouguereau in the Musée d’Orsay, which was inspired by a short scene from Inferno set in the eighth circle of Hell (the circle for falsifers and counterfeiters), where Dante, accompanied by Virgil, watches a fght between two damned souls: Capocchio, a heretic and alchemist is attacked and bitten on the neck by Gianni Schicchi who had usurped the identity of a dead man in order to fraudulently claim his inheritance.

“But no fury of Thebes or Troy was ever seen so cruel against any, rending beasts and even limbs of men, as I saw two pallid and naked shades, which ran biting like the hog loosed from the sty. The one came at Capocchio and set its fangs in the nape of his neck, then, dragging him, made his belly scrape on the hard bottom.

Inferno, Canto XXX 24-30.”

The violent attack witnessed by Dante and Virgil has been relocated to the Metro. Instead of the poet and his guide watching the assault as they do in Bouguereau’s painting, here two men visible through open doors, stand inside the subway car oblivious to the scene on the platform, an example of urban callousness and indiference, a scene based on the artist’s experience of two homeless men fghting in the Metro –their personal Hell.


Passing Train: The female fgure on the tracks is a quotation of the kneeling woman in the foreground of Raphael’s Transfguration. She looks at the Apostles at her left who stare in amazement toward the possessed boy she points to about to be cured by Christ, a physical and spiritual doctor. Mikhaylov has reversed the geography of Raphael’s painting from a high mount, site of the transfguration, to the tracks of the Moscow Metro. Christ is the vehicle that carries us from the earthly to the heavenly realm just as the subway is the vehicle that carries us from place to place underground. The subway is no substitute for Christ but a reminder that our life’s journey is not simply physical but can be laden with the promise of spiritual healing.


After Supper is based on a photograph recently taken by Mikhaylov while riding in the Metro. Two sleeping drunks (?) lying head to head in the early morning hours have been transformed into sleeping Apostles resting on their way to the next gathering.

There is a beautiful symmetry about this painting, peaceful and comforting, a transformation of the mundane into the mystical.


Telephone Call from Istanbul: The Old Master source is Caravaggio’s David Beheading Goliath in the Prado Museum, Madrid. Two policemen – one taking a call on his cell phone – are oblivious to or just ignore the violent beheading happening before their eyes suggesting that, even in this underground wonderland, people have become inured to cruelty and death.


I’m On My Way:

Michelanglo’s Pietá now is set in a subway car rather than on an altar –an incongruous, even disturbing sight, but one even more apt to shock us into contemplation and self analysis. Moscow’s Metro becomes a cathedral, the subway a moving chapel; the subway car a portable altar confronting the traveler with one of the most iconic images in the history of art, one whose meaning of self-sacrifce and salvation suddenly appears before us as the doors open and we board the train. We might ask of the painting’s title: “On my way to where?”


John When You Dream: From Caravaggio’s St. John the Baptist. The Baptist is now seated in a subway car looking of to his left, a desert hermit riding the Metro, recoiling from something or someone unseen. Is he dreaming; what is he dreaming; why would the Baptist dream in a subway car; or is he in fact our modern alter ego projected through the precursor of Christ?


I Can’t See My Face In Your Mind: Source is El Greco’s, Christ Healing the Blind here set in one of the grand galleries of the Metro where the miracle occurs with hardly a notice from busy travelers absorbed with their own problems as they rush to catch a train to their fnal destination.


Let’s Dance: from Jan Brueghel’s Feast of Achelous. Two of the scantily clad serving women from Bruegehel’s lavish dinner scene disembark from a subway car and make their way down the platform possibly to attend a party at a friend’s fat; a strange sight causing us wonder, curiosity, and concern at the meaning of this “out of their time” presence.


The Underground Watch: Two central fgures from Rembrandt’s Night Watch stand on the tracks in the center foreground back-lit by the lights of a distant station or the headlamps of an oncoming train: The triumphal arch in Rembrandt’s painting has been replaced by a dirty tunnel receding into the distance, the very antithesis of the Night Watch’s setting, an ironic reversal of its classical architecture and prosperous burgher society.


In these last two series of paintings Mikhaylov presents visually rich, complex and historically nuanced images drawing on religious themes of famous Old Master and Social Realist works. He reminds us of the complicated nature of belief throughout history as well as in our daily lives and in so doing ponders the ever-evolving status not only of the “New Soviet Man” the hero of Socialist Realist art, and the “New Russian Man” of today, but also Modern Man everywhere. One wonders if Bulgakov and Mikhaylov had Chekhov’s story of The Student in mind where the seminary student’s tale of Peter’s denial of Christ brings to tears two village women.

“’The past is linked to the present by an unbroken chain of events fowing one out of the other.’ and it seemed to him [the student] that he had just seen both ends of that chain; that when he touched one end the other quivered.” And Chekhov noted further “truth and beauty that guided human life there in the garden and in the courtyard of the high priest have endured to this very day and evidently have always been the most important thing in human life.”

Denis Mikhaylov is an artist whose talent, informed by the past, equals his insight into our complicated and often confusing human condition, a condition where conficting realities and difering philosophies distill good and evil into an intoxicating potion that can confound the intellect and the soul. By anchoring his art in the past, he illuminates the present and shows us a path to the future.



I frst saw Denis Mikhaylov’s works at the “Born to fy … and crawl” exhibition at the Russian Museum in St Petersburg. He exhibited several images of diferent bugs, made in diferent techniques on aluminum base. I had a childish wish – to understand how all this visuality was organized. What was the principle of the realization of the material plan: what was the foundation – direct drawing or virtuality based on scanning technologies? One thing was clear: he is not simple, this painter, not at all simple. On the one hand – a clear simulacrum: images that were too bright, ideal in their formal orderliness, teasing with a sort of illusionist power. Everything that made possible for G.Deleuze to call images-simulacra “cunning, crafty and immoral”. On the other hand – something archaic, something born not out of techno: rather out of visual mythology of scarabaei of Ancient Egypt. However, modern cinema farced with visual computer efects does not hesitate to exploit the enthomophobia –the fear of insects. More than that – this fear is concretized – for example, into arachnophobia: there has been created an endless series of flms about spiders – real and imaginary, mutant spiders, cosmic and artifcial spiders, etc.

All these flms have one thing in common –the representation of fear of ‘strange’, alien attacking the territory of ‘ours’ - human. But the main horror – that makes the skin crawl – is caused not by FX! It’s caused by

something atavistic, mystic, hiding on the subconsciousness!

Denis Mikhaylov once worked as a graphic designer – he’s got experience in dealing with mediate, indirect, symbolic. Generally speaking, an artist is experienced in working with many materials, he is capable of giving the maximal aesthetic surcharge to the material and technological realization… But all this is nothing but pre-conditions to his independent development. The important thing is how the artist will use these pre-conditions.

And in these ‘crawlies’ Mikhaylov seems to have established the formulae of the main principles of his poetics: his own balance of techno- and psycho-. When I say techno- I mean, just as M.Foucault did, “the reality, the materiality and, so to speak, physicality” (cf M.Foucault’s writings about Manet’s works). When I say psycho – I mean the whole complex of sensuality and subjectivity to which the artist appeals.

Of course, this balance exist in a certain context. Thanks to refections or intuition Mikhaylov approaches the problematic formulated by Giorgio Agamben in his Profanazioni . The philosopher actualizes the old Roman defnition of sacral and profane.

“Sacral or religious were the things that somehow belonged to the Gods. Profane was any act that violated or circumvented


this their special inapproachability, that reserved them exclusively for heavenly (in this case they were called ‘sacral’) or subterranean (in this case they were called just ‘religious’) gods. ‘The word profane - as the great jurist Trebatius writes – is used in that very sense that what was sacral or religious is returned to people to use and possess (cf. Giorgio Agamben. Profanazioni)

Agamben examines the instances of mutual inter-transition of sacral and profane.One of these instances is a game. In Mikhaylov’s insects the same element of a game is present: being the simulacra, agents of the world of games, deceit, “asking to be held” world, they are ready to become “products of mass exploitation”.

Being the representatives of sacral (scarab of the Ancient Egypt –a symbol of rebirth in the afterlife) they are mysterious, elusive, dangerous (they are no more welcome in our hands – the hand involuntarily jerks back). Agamben goes on with his discourse about the sacral and the profane in the context of capitalist development. He creates the total image of the Museum as the incarnation of the “absolute impossibility to profane”. In other words the antique profaning represented the “natural use”, possessed a humane resource.

A comprehensive capitalist Museum is

the “exposition of the impossibility to use, live, experience”.

Mikhaylov chooses his own “Museum” and his own way of “profaning” (in the true antique sense of the word) as a way to resurrect the practice of “use”. He creates a series of largeformat compositions which he calls “Monotypies”. The title evokes not a specifc print technique – the artist rather means a fxation on monochromaticism. And –typy (from the Greek týpos – a print) makes us think of a print on the retina of an eye. (This visual-optical interpretation is supported by the fact that soon after this series he would create a new series called “Stereotypies”: “3D painings” that could be looked at and examined only in special glasses). Maybe this series appeared as an attempt to represent Mikhaylov’s photographical experience: the manner of the resolution of the form –the gradual materialization, “apparition” of the image – was based on the prolonged process of the development of a negative print. Nevertheless during the process of the creation of the series this factor was somehow moved into shadows: a new problem, a problem of carnal in its artistic realization was moved to the forefront. In other words, the theme of physical and chemical ‘development’ is replaced by the theme of ‘hand-made’: a sort of modernistic


creation in a manual mode – molding, materialization, re-coding. A source may be a sort of a summary image of the carnal plastique of a realistic or academic kind, or a photo image (“Noname”). The carnality itself can be traumatic, and victoriously athletic, have narrative, symbolic or citatory functions. In the “Monotypies” series Mikhaylov maps out a sort of basic method that he would develop later on. This method is form-setting (accordingly – physical, palpable) and at the same time emotionssetting (ephemeral, illusory, metaphysical). The carnality means volume. It seems that the artist “cuts” the volume with the planes of light to show the space plans of corporal. In any case he “lights up” the highest, closest to the spectator points (plans) of the “high-relieve” of a human fgure or a group of bodies, and then “moves” inward. Gradually you are beginning to feel, that no common succession exists: the artist feels that it’s enough to outline the volume, after that the plans “act independently” in space as well as in their relation to the luminosity (calculated calibrated clarity).

On the other hand there appears a sense of decorativeness and dynamism: the movement of more bright spots against the darker and more static silhouette. This method gets more active in the next series – “Gamble with Classics”. The colour appears, the moulding of the corporal by means of “lighting up” is replaced by the interaction between colours. But the light still plays a signifcant role in the form-

setting: it’s just that the “mission of the light” is fulflled “through the colour”, through its own inner luminosity. References to the stained glass are inevitable, particularly because the form-setting fragments (small islands, samples, scales) of the colour get more distinct defnition associated with lead partitions of a stained glass window. And acryl with its specifc material certainty “corresponds” with the stained glass. The form-setting, of course, has an image background – a sort of metaphysical light penetrating the material plane of the work (“But the source of light is mysteriously hidden” – Anna Akhmatova). Associations with the stained glass are used yet in another image-bearing key: the artist gives us the feeling of the melted glass – cracks, swellings, etc.

This is a sign of the intensity of emotions, spiritual and even carnal (“Michel and Angelo”).

If we examine the “project”, program side of the series we see that Mikhaylov addresses the classical works of diferent times and artistic levels – Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Bassano, Guido Reni, C.H.Bloch and others, - subjecting them to re-forming, reconstruction, transformations of the collage type. For example, to the composition of the work he called – “after M.Bulgakov” – “I Never Talk to Strangers” which iconographically is the descendant of the “Ecstasy of St. Francis” by Caravaggio he adds a fragment


of quite diferent origin - images of the Red Army soldiers from a typologically socialist realism painting by a littleknown Soviet painter V.Safronov. There are foundations in these stratifcations – game foundations (hence – the theme of gambling in the title of the series) and content-related. In the “Criminal Code, Article 148” the iconographic scheme of the “Expulsion of the Money-Changers” presented in the version of C.H.Bloch, Danish academist of the XIX century is interpreted in the spirit of recent Russian political events around the Pussy Riot punk group. The title refers to the article in the Russian penal code that was the basis of the conviction of young women artists who appeared in the Temple of Christ the Savior in Moscow with an anti-government performance. Modern personae appeared in the composition –Pharisees in fashionable clothes, terrorist girls with weapons (that’s the way the guardians of the regime see these performance girls in their nightmares), etc. New meanings were quite evident. On the outside it all reminds of a wellknown practice of the contemporary art – a postmodernist deconstruction as well as political conceptualism. But I think that the most important meaning of the series is hidden deeper. Typological postmodernist procedures usually leave a feeling of utter artifciality, of being intellectually pre-programmed. Mikhaylov’s aim is quite diferent. He

“works upon” not only classical paintings but also upon the emotional and cultural complex of interrelation with them – a sort of new subjectivity.

Yes, subjectivity – a fusion of analytical mind and moments of trance, of sudden inspiration. A resource of transcendental is set free – and then new personae are sucked in, as into the funnel, into the classical iconographical schemes and spiritual meanings of evangelical parables. Not only those personae that are painted by the artist but also those left “behind the scenes” – those that belong to the spectators, to the audience. I think that it is just the sucking in”, the impulse where the physical is integrated with the spiritual, that is of most interest to the artist.

This series as a whole seems to be the continuation – let’s recall Agamben’s thesis in the beginning of this article –of the interrelations between the sacral and the profane. Mikhaylov has his own “Museum” as an “exposition of the impossibility to use, live, experience”. And he is searching for his own way to overcome this impossibility, to revive the “practice of use”. In the series “Underground Stories”, for example.

We see approximately the same poetics of lightning a-la Caravaggio, to the


extent of the achromatic white, adapted to the stained glass principle. The same – maybe more sophisticated – stays the operational base – deconstruction, reforming, through-citation, editing.

In this series the “Museum” (classical works in Mikhaylov’s interpretation) is moved underground, to the subway. It is an ambivalent procedure.

On the one hand – can there be a more apparent manifestation of the “profane” in the meaning of Trebatius, that is “out of sacral or religious, that it had been, returned to people for use and possess”. On the other hand – the subway has its own sacral – just remember “the Gods of subterranean” referred to by Agamben. The more so in Moscow, Stalinist subway. (There exists a lot of writings about the symbolic meanings of Moscow subway). So, the protagonists of Mikhaylov’s “Museum” as well as those involved, “sucked in” during the process of “return of the classics to people for use” fnd themselves “between the hammer and the anvil”. It stipulates the intensity of emotions. They are “authorized” by the artist: sometimes they add to the emotions “forced upon” by the original work from the classical archive (“Museum”), sometimes they lead astray, sometimes they contradict the original. Of course, there are examples of external contemporarization –“The Polite Man”, for example, referring directly to the critical political problems

“around Crimea”. But I consider much more important works, painted in the meditative key. This anti-newsworthiness is declared I think in the “Telephone Call from Istanbul”. The basis of the painting is “David beheading Goliath” by Caravaggio, but the original dramatic efect of the plot is ‘canceled”: we hardly see the bodies on the platform. Everyday routine of the subway: policemen lazily calling in, reporting the event. The main theme of the work is the purely emotional alienation. Hence the title without any cause-and-efect relation to the events – “Telephone Call from Istanbul”. Why Istanbul? It’s just a sign of total alienation – does it matter where the call is coming from?

The basis for “Downtown Train” is the “Selfportrait” by Deineka, a wonderful master, who sacrifced a lot for the sake of the celestial place on the top of Soviet artistic Olympus. Deineka was a poet of optimism, that in his work associated with athletism, direct victorious action, youth.

The artist painted himself in a boxer’s gown with an open chest - not young, but still frm, sportive. Placed in a swaying subway car that is rushing nowhere, this images suddenly gets a dragging existential character: confusion when faced with the sudden insight about the fniteness of the personal existence, ephemery of its durability.


One of the main emotional themes of the series becomes the loneliness. In the “Passing Train” a female image crossed over from the famous “Transfguration” by Raphael embodies this emotional state: what can be sadder than a lonely woman on the railway tracks… Especially successful examples of the “return to people to use ” I consider to be two works onspird by “The Last Supper” by Bassano. Apostles transported “out of Bassano” feel absolutely at home in Moscow subway. Their clothes can not surprise anybody: the subway is the Babylonian mixture of languages. Migrant workers, most likely homeless. They seem immersed in a sort of argument facing each other: “One said, that Our Life is a Train// The Other replied – no, it’s a Platform” (“Before Supper”).

In the “After Supper” they are lying head to head on a car seat – image of peace

and trust, as if contradicting the theme of alienation, so vibrant in the same series.

Well, Mikhaylov is an artist of balance. Techno- and psycho-, sacral and “profane”, “Museum” and everyday routine. I’m sure this balance will assure his further development.



Keith 2018 canvas / acrylic / marker 120х120 cm
Gods Need A (Brake) Break 2018 canvas / acrylic / marker 120х120 cm

Just Don't Care 2018

canvas / acrylic / marker 120х120 cm

City Melody 2018 canvas / acrylic / marker 120х120 cm

All or Nothing at All

2018 canvas / acrylic / marker 120х120 cm



“And I decided to conduct an experiment – to make my favorite classics [Old Master paintings] live in the modern world.
So I added new characters, new stories to their works. I began to experiment with their images …….in the painting called Michel and Angelo, … I added one more incarnation to the Virgin Mary – a sort of inner voice.” *
*Excerpt from an Interview with Denis Mikhaylov from Essay by Dr. Michael P. Mezzatesta
Beyond Here Lies Nothing 2017 canvas / acrylic 175х85 cm
Birth of Venus 2017 canvas / acrylic / marker 130х100 cm 57