Dialectic with Stass Shpanin

The Dichotomy of War, 2011. Oil on Canvas – 7 x 8 feet.

The work of Azerbaijan born (in 1990 in the former USSR) and U.S based Stass Shpanin is currently exhibited in the group show Story of a Story, curated by Shlomit Dror, at the Brooklyn based non-profit gallery Smack Mellon. The three paintings currently on display (The Dichotomy of War, 2011; Flying Away, 2012 and A Trialectic Hour, 2012) are from a series that the artist calls “Triealects,” which are large scale paintings containing fragmented vignettes appropriated from archival documents relating to the history of Europe and Russia from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. As an artist born in the USSR, but raised in Massachusetts, these paintings are a personal attempt to interact with his own heritage as well as the larger public history of the Soviet period. Shpanin’s work investigates the recording and retelling of history as a synthesis of many conflicting parts by manipulating archival photographs and re-contextualizing history that had been forbidden in the USSR, or forgotten in Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Shpanin combines vignettes from multiple moments in history, which illustrate that history consists of different parts. It is part of the human psyche to try and connect these parts into a comprehensive narrative.

I cannot help but to draw socio-political references of my own when viewing these epic paintings. The fact that these images come from times of conflict give a sense of tension to these large canvases, which is intensified by Shpanin’s varying of hues, textures, and brushstrokes. About his process, Shpanin told me: “I juxtapose those images to create compositional unity, but generate optical conflict within those layers. I am increasing this conflict on the canvas by treating those layers with different color schemes and diverse paint applications, as well as shifting angles between those layers.The images that I use are not from my own archive; all of them are in the public domain due to their historical and public nature.”

Below is a Q + A with Stass Shpanin:

First, do you identify as a figurative painter? 

I’ve never thought about myself as a figurative painter. I certainly understand that I am using some figurative language in my paintings, but I see that as a one of many strategies to use, while working on bigger conceptual ideas.

Secondly, these works feel like they’re addressing fragments of history in a rather intimate way. I understand that your series of “Triealects” is, in a way, an empirical engagement with recorded Soviet history. I’m curious to know how interconnected your personal narrative is to your work’s themes. 

I hear that question quite often from the audience. In many cases I use the word “visual journalism” referring to my artistic practice. I try to keep a distance between me and my work to keep some objectivity. I feel, as I am a historical witness to many visual narrations I am creating in my paintings. My relationship to this history is based on a certain cultural memories presented to me through the numerous random encounters I’ve been experiencing. It’s an internal balance between personal understanding of the matter and public history.

Do you consider these paintings to have a certain political or socially engaged element? I am aware that they’re not overt references to any one particular moment and that the blurring and fragmenting of vignettes alters the perception of what is actually fact and what is widely perceived or distorted as fact. However, I cannot help but to draw socio-political references of my own when viewing these epic paintings.

I do. To be honest, that was the main reason I’ve started working with the history, more specifically with the pre-revolution history of Russia. Being born in the USSR, I’ve been witnessing how history was changing and how people’s reflection and understanding toward history had been changed. My main argument to work with historical photographs, artifacts, coat of arms and other elements from the Tzarist history was the fact that most of the information was either prohibited for the public view or highly filtered through the propagandistic machine of the Soviet Union. So, after the collapse of the USSR, we were able to explore, study and play with the history that was closed for almost all of the XX century. I couldn’t resist.

Lastly, your paintings remind me of Ken Bowman’s work. He isn’t very known at all today (or during his heyday, although he is largely collected and his work coveted and sought after). He was primarily a collagist and part of the Rhino Horn Group. I have been researching this group and I am looking for connections (a similar zeitgeist or painterly dialog) between their work and contemporary artists. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Here is a link to a particular work that was realized from old town archives in a blue collar mining town.

Unfortunately, I haven’t heard about Ken Bowman’s work. However, looking at them now, I find them extremely interesting and open. They remind me some of the German artists working in figurative painting today, like Neo Rauch and his followers.

Are there any artists who have had an influence on you? 

Gerhard Richter, Luc Tuymans, Anselm Kiefer, Michael Borremans, Eric Bulatov, Ed Ruscha, Ilya Kobakov, Fred Wilson, Kara Walker…

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