New York-based artist Mikhail Gubin has a impressively versatile practice that includes sculpture, painting, photography, drawing, installation, collage and video, and explores a range of themes from the darkness of human nature, to the fragmentary aspect of memory to the joy of living.
Born in 1953 in the Soviet Union, Mikhail immigrated to the US by way of Vienna and Rome in 1989. He has participated in 36 solo shows and over 200 group exhibitions in the US and internationally, receiving multiple prizes and praise from leading media outlets, among them the New York Times. He was awarded a NYFA Fellowship in the category of Crafts/Sculpture in 2014. He is a member of Audubon Artists, the National Collage Society and the Sculptors Guild of New York.
Here is a short conversation with the artist…
You were born in 1953 in the Soviet Union, studied at an art and technology college in the Moscow region. Then in 1989, migrated to New York via Vienna and Rome. Tell us about this journey. What kind of environment did you grow up in? What were your greatest challenges and struggles as you made your way to the West?
When Gorbachev came to power, it became possible to leave the country. At that time, no one could have guessed that the USSR would cease to exist. Leaving the country, we realised that we could not return back. In the Soviet Union, there were my wife’s parents, our friends, the graves of my mother and father. Parting with the homeland was hard.
We left the USSR as refugees. All the way to the US we were supported by charitable organisations. Practically, we had no material difficulties. Life in the USSR had taught us to be satisfied with little. Life in Vienna and Italy was for us the happiest. It lasted about two months.
Your very engaging series “Contradictions” comes with the following description:
Man, his soul, his values, the ramifications of his dual nature, his needs and his ambitions are the subject of my work. Has man changed as the result of rapidly advancing technology and science? Are we more humane, more spiritual, or more cynical, more materialistic? Kind and caring, or indifferent? What kind of bargain have we made when the comforts brought about by technology at the brink of the millennium are purchased with the possibility of the mass destruction? In my work, I’m trying to create an atmosphere of mystery, paradox and dark metaphor in an impossible inquiry into unsolvable questions.
This is a multi-layered project that investigates so many topics at once: a poverty of imagination (After Caravaggio), immorality (Step-Father), immaturity (Young Don Quixote and Dulcinea). I suppose you started this collection in a spirit of exploration. Did you arrive at “conclusions” of any kind regarding human nature by the time you were done?
Of course not. The nature of man is too complex. One life is not enough for this project. I stopped my study, for the simple reason that I cannot embrace the boundless.
You have a drawing called “Enigmatic Growths”, wherein you apply different approaches: surrealist, cubist, abstract, geometric. This image, you write, is “similar to the action of our memory–from fragments we reconstruct the past”. Could you elaborate on this?
Rarely do people remember everything that has happened in their lives. I think their memory can be represented in the form of a tape, on which every minute is marked. Or in the form of a Time Machine in a computer, in which you can make backups, starting from the moment of birth. But usually, people remember the past only fragmentarily.
In my project, I am holding a white sheet of paper on the table, forcing myself to remember. I do not block the stream of consciousness, I draw automatically everything that comes to my mind. I do a lot of drawings to put them later together in one big collage, which I would call a graveyard of memories.
There is a painting of yours “Cabinet”, which I found simple and beautiful. Why did you choose to focus on this ordinary object?
Leonardo da Vinci said: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. George Sand said: “Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.” Sometimes I want to test myself with these rules. To carry out this check, the object of attention should be simple. And what could be simpler than ordinary cabinet?
Your sculptures—Free Dance, Prehistoric Bird, Silent Film Star, Through the Looking Glass—made from wood, found objects, metal, paint and plaster, are very unique. Are they inspired by the works of any prominent artists?
Perhaps, yes, there is an influence from outside. In our time, you can not escape the impact of others. Previously, one artist after another would become my idol in art. It seemed to me, that if I imitated someone I became as him. But over the years, I have developed a desire to find my own way in art. Perhaps it came with a feeling of saturation. I was filled with other people’s art. I wasn’t surprised by anything anymore. At that moment, the search for my own way in the art began, and these sculptures are a product of that.
Your photographic projects include the things that make your life interesting and rich. The collections are quite big, featuring empty streets, storerooms, mannequins, feasts, festivities, butterflies and beaches. Which of these images are your favourites?
One can only regret that the great artists of the past did not have cameras. How much more interesting would it have been for us to know them and see their lives through the lens! To avoid such problems with me, I photograph everything I see. Of course, I’m not obsessed with my own person. Shooting is my big passion. What is laid out on my website is just the tip of the iceberg. In our time, this is not surprising. Mankind is littered with photographs.
I think my best pictures are the “Magic Glass” series.
“Transmogrifications” is another great series. Your vibrant and light-hearted charcoal drawings contain a diverse cast of characters—hedonists, cats, phoenixes, animal tamers, geishas, acrobats. Is there a message here?
There are several messages – the sheer joy of drawing, a feeling of pleasure that the work has turned out well, and the joy of how beautiful life is!
You happen to be a very prolific collagist, often playing with space and proportion, showing shifts in lifestyle and values. Sometimes your scenes reveal the superficiality of our madly pornographic contemporary culture. What is so interesting about the medium of collage? Is there something about it that you do not find in painting or sculpture or photography?
Collage is a big separate topic. The life of every person, all his thoughts, all his sensations, his food, his clothes – all this is an infinite number of combinations, piled together by numerous fragments.
It seems to me that God poured out content from some kind of box into the Universe. And this content began to fly in an endless space, chaotically joining in a myriad of combinations, forming everything that the Universe is full of: stars, planets, music, living organisms, food, love, hate, clothes, thoughts, art, philosophy, etc.
This was my first experience of creating collages. Man, having appeared without realising it, became a participant in this process, creating new combinations of matter and spirit. I feel already from the moment of my birth, I was a collage artist. But I am not different from other people. Each person dresses to his taste, creating a collage of clothing items of his wardrobe. Ordering food in the restaurant, we create our own collages on the dining table and in a plate. And finally, everyone creates his own life, guided by the principle of creating a collage.
Given your range and versatility, it could be difficult for a viewer to determine your orientation and perspective. So, overall, what are your most important themes/subjects?
My main fixation is on the medium – sculpture, collage, photography, painting, drawing. This is what I like to do. I don’t have any preferences on the themes I portray. For me, as an artist, it is more important to create a form than to disclose any idea. Although, I’m always interested in the human being.
What are you working on right now?
I keep changing my activities. I have left sculptures for painting, for a while. Periodically you need to do this. It stimulates you, gives a new impetus to work.