Collage panopticon of Sergey Solonsky

Sergey Solonsky, “Self-portrait”, 1995, gelatin silver print, duping, toned, hand-painted.

The most challenging thing about discussing any artistic ‘school’ is finding the exact balance between common and unique features in its representatives. The transition point at which influence of the surrounding artistic context becomes the part of one’s personal practice or vice versa is extremely subtle, especially when talking about such complex phenomenon as Kharkiv School of Photography. On one hand, it has that bold, immediately recognisable method of working with photographic material, manifested through the range of typical local techniques, on another, that method was contributed by the masters with the highly-individualistic approach towards photography. Thus, value of their artwork can’t be limited only to the fact of being a historical part of the cultural “puzzle” of that time. And Sergey Solonsky was arguably one of such bright ‘individualists’, who were ‘in’ and ‘beyond’ the School at the same time.

As most of the colleagues, Solonsky has his personal myth: probably, one of the influential facts in his biography was the succession of the practice – the artist’s grandfather made a living with photography and had a laboratory Sergey was allowed to visit. His uncle was a photographer too. Solonsky himself got interested in photography in 1981. In 1986 he joined the regional photoclub of the House of Trade Unions. Since the master appeared on the local  art scene in the late 1980s, he is traditionally referred to as a representative of the second generation of Kharkiv School of Photography. However, that classification seems to be a convenient simplification that should be treated with caution. The photographers included into the second generation (like “Gosprom” group, Victor and Sergey Kochetov, Roman Pyatkovka, and others) formed a rather heterogeneous environment: they were aware of the ideas introduced by the elder masters (like Mikhailov, Pavlov, Rupin), trying to adopt them to the late Soviet and Post-Soviet situation. Moreover, the “first generation” itself wasn’t in stasis and continued its development.

Sergey Solonsky, “Untitled”, from Boudoir series, 1997, gelatin silver print, collage.

The basis of Kharkiv school of photography was shaped by the balance of two directions in photography – extravert one, focused on social reflection, and introvert one, focused on exploring the language of medium.  If we imagine those vectors as the poles of one scale, where we locate the art of this or that author, Sergey Solonsky clearly inclines towards the second, aesthetical, pole. His signature works were created in the technique of collage. Almost all representatives of Kharkiv school of Photography had periods of engagement with the technique, yet, their styles differed significantly. Jury Rupin, Oleg Malovany in his Gravitation polyptich, and Evgeny Pavlov in his pieces from the late 1980s-1990s, weren’t masking and sometimes even underlined  the artificiality of the compositions: even when ‘stitches’ between the details were hidden, the spatiality of the images and relations between their elements immediately revealed their illusiveness. Oleksandr Suprun and Sergey Solonsky, on the other hand, strived to eliminate the common connections between things, trying to preserve the impression of the visual coherency of a piece at the same time. But if Suprun was rather interested in keeping the syntaxis of reality and recreating harmony, Solonsky courageously used dissonance. That dissonance hinges on the active mutation of the bodily images: his collages are inhabited by women with many breasts, hermaphrodites, antique-like sterile torsos without heads or hands, or personages without body (Bestiary series, 1986-1991, Boudoir, 1997). All these anomalies belong not to what Umberto Eco called “ugliness in itself” (rotting, ulcers, etc.), but “formal ugliness”, that appear because of the organic imbalance and disproportions. As a perfect illustration to the concept behind Solonsky’s ‘modus operandi’,  we can quote Norman Bryson, as he talked about the portraits by Cindy Sherman: “… that in the shadows of the ideal body, that one is supposed, as a social agent, to subscribe to and internalize, there lurks another sense of the body as a place of secret horrors”. In Kharkiv photography body often turns into the marker of the borderline states – psychological, physiological or social ones  (“Psychosis” by Evgeny Palov, 1983, “Case History” by Boris Mikhailov, 1999, “Maternity Home” by Roman Pyatkovka, 1988). Solonsky envisions corporeality as the collision with the Otherness, which after all occurs the manifestation of one’s own subconsciousness.

Even usual lips, eyes or palm mounts below fingers turn out monstrous, when photographed enlarged and isolated from the rest of a model’s appearance. The artist’s attention towards bodily textures (skin, wrinkles, stretch marks) reminds of the works by John Coplans, who started his Body Parts series in 1984. It was dedicated to the beauty and ugliness of (his own) aging body. However, there’s no post-processing in Coplans’s images, while it became the key aspect in creating pieces for Solonsky. Collage interrupts usual relations of photography with Time, in which a picture is seen as the recurring reference to an episode from the Past. The artist places his golems in the completely neutral setting, against the plain background, so they are perceived as time-less. The only element that identifies Time is the body of photograph: Solonsky ages it, faking, if to quote Walter Benjamin, the “aura” of a piece. 

Sergey Solonsky, “Untitled”, from Bestiary series, mid-1990s, gelatin silver print, collage.

There is a huge temptation to present Solonsky’s works as if rooted in the aesthetics of the early photography of the Victorian epoch, with its love for illusions and abnormality. And indeed the master’s collages have a lot stylistical parallels with the visual culture of that age, like elegant monochrome palette, bizarre personages and voyeuristic tunes (“Boudoir” series was presented in envelopes, decorated with braid of lingerie and cut-out window). However, it would be wrong to think of Sergey as the author who stuck in the nostalgia about fin de siecle. The ‘archival’ fleur of the pieces was dictated by the atmosphere of the final decade of the 20th century. The experience of time-less-ness, or, to be precise, between-time-ness (between socialist and new capitalistic eras), is one of the traits that is often mentioned in the discussions of the Post-Soviet 1990s. As Moscow artist Semyon Faibisovich wrote in his essay “Objectivity” on the art of the 1990s, the totalitarian Soviet period was defined by a huge, almost suffocating, visual tension. After collapse of the USSR, “… new visual reality felt like fragmented and totally irrelevant. But after the external pressure was gone, the inner one appeared, as it happens to a deep sea fish that was pulled out onto the ground; eyes are popping, but what to look at? What to do if the tension is gone, yet, the habit of intense, constant peering remains? Gradually, attention found itself an object and focused on the visible manifestations of physiological processes occurring in their own eyes”.

The 1990s were the period of vaguety, marginalisation and frustration. This chaos produced various personal, social, artistic vibrations Solonsky captured in his Oscillations series (1992). It is a set of nude  selfportraits, done in a very blurrish manner, so only limbs can be seen clearly. At first sight, the images are close to the famous sequence of portraits of Andy Warhol by Duane Michals (1972). However, in Sergey’s case, there’s a different motivation behind it.  When displayed at the show in Berlin, those pieces were accompanied by metal plates with a sort of an engineering drawing of movement, engraved by Sergey Bratkov, another Kharkiv author. They were meant to amplify the notion of rhythm / oscillation as the essence of all existing things. Moreover, the concept was visualised not only in the compositions and metal plates, but in the very printing process: multiple refraction of light between the film surface and glass resulted in Newton’s rings, which illustrate the wave nature of light. And light is the bases of photography, so with such a wide gesture Solonsky embraces all imaginable forms of rhythm.

Sergey Solonsky, “Untitled”, from Bestiary series, mid-1990s, gelatin silver print, collage.

he whole series is strikingly sincere, as such a global topic and powerfulness of its representation is combined with the sense of fragility, which is always associated with naked body imagery. But contradictions were in the air of the epoch. Artists finally had significantly more freedom after the decades of state control. And still, the ghost of that control remained powerful, slowing down changes in the mentality of both artists. The fear of KGB couldn’t have evaporated immediately, so experiments were perceived as risky and, when taken, produced serious resonance. The first Kharkiv art venue targeted at innovative, contemporary projects, was “Up/Down” gallery, created by Sergey Bratkov in his own studio (functioned in 1992-1997). It was launched  with the show of collages by Solonsky, and, symbolically, it was the first solo exhibition for the photographer himself (he had two more shows there later). “Up/Down” became a significant location for experiments and communication for the local artistic society. Specifically,  this was the place, where Solonsky and Bratkov created some of their collaborative pieces. Black and white pictures of Bratkov,  (or the one together with Solonsky) were on the edge between photography and performance, trying to provoke the conservative Kharkiv public and show the mood of the transitional times that provided new possibilities but no resources. Featured wearing a stocking mask (as robbers do), posing with dollars, their photographs were a very insightful reflection of the ‘hungry’ ‘dashing’ 1990s. And the only way to survive then, as the photo of artists with a chain in their mouths and eye-catching “manes” suggests, was to pretend to be young lions of Kharkiv, as they humorously ‘cosplay’ Bridge of Four Lions in St-Petersburg.

The feature that distinguishes Solonsky among other Kharkiv masters, is the deliberate rejection from colour (with the very few exceptions), while most of his colleagues used to experiment with polychromy. It is not just the indifference towards colour, but its perception as an alien element that hinders the understanding of photographic nature. Another detail, untypical for Kharkiv School of Photography, is little to no interest to the social criticism Solonsky demonstrates in his works. Even in the only two documentary series he has (Let’s Have a Drink!, 1995, and Moonshiners, 1998), he is concentrated not on the revealing of some social problems, but on capturing interesting characters without ‘masks’. Taken in the train “Kharkiv-SImferopol” and in the neighbour’s apartment, those unstage shots are united around the topic of alcohol, sacralised in the Slavic culture. The distance between models and the photographer here is brought to that minimum, when camera loses its judging function and handles this mission to the viewers. Those small groups Solonsky managed to get it in were really closed, so only making the presence of the author almost invisible made those series possible. It’s important to note, that the artist himself believes those works to be an ‘accident’ and dabbling, and we cannot but agree that they look out of Solonsky’s approach, despite corresponding the Kharkiv tradition of alternative social reportage.

Considering this, the fact that in 1994-1997 Solonsky was a part a short-living “Gruppa Bystrogo Reagirovaniya” (Fast Reaction Group), together with Sergey Bratkov, Boris Mikhailov, Vita Mikhailov, might seem slightly odd. The group was known for their socially-oriented and performative projects, and, at first glance, Solonsky, with his aestheticism, hardly fitted into its principles. But a more careful analysis shows the works of the group were the result of a prolific cooperation, in which every member had his/her own role. Solonsky’s attention towards formal nuances can be felt in the visual appeal of Fast Reaction Group pieces (for instance, in If I Were a German, with its almost classicistically honed compositions). Probably, it was irony that served as the unifying background for the whole collective. And irony allowed Solonsky’s collages to transgress restrictive formalism and become the expression of the attitude.

Sergey Solonsky, “Untitled”, from Bestiary series, mid-1990s, gelatin silver print, collage.

The master believes there’s no work, if there is no attitude. An explicit perspective helps in shaping up a sharp mental image of the future piece. As Solonsky said in one of our conversations, “I think with images”. In such case, having a clear outlook makes even the smallest intrusion enough for the eloquent result, as the collages for “The  Elections” environment (together with Bratkov, 1995). To describe the environment briefly, it was mocking the election procedure; apart from the various soviet election attributes, like a red carpet, voting box (in form of a plastic buttox), there were several collages. Just a couple of movements with a knife transformed portraits of politicians into the grotesque illustration of the absurdity of then-contemporary political situation. 

Nevertheless, Solonsky’s method was far from ascetic laconicism. He has a taste for baroquish structured chaos and lavishness of the details, as well as the inherent sense of monumentality. Unlike many photographers, the author likes experimenting with different formats. A good composition is equally impressive in both small and large format. And this is exactly the case with Phallic Heraldry (1996) – a set of module collages featuring recognisable symbols (svastica, menorah, sickle and hammer, etc.) composed of penises. The large scale and fractal structure of the pieces contrasts and enhance the uncovered sarcasm over fetishisation of cults and their attributes. 

Sergey Solonsky paradoxically unites the refined aestheticism and profound understanding of disharmony, extravaganza and intimacy, cold objectivation of what he sees with his camera, and deeply involving, almost childish curiosity, reservedness and sincerity. He battles with the photographic material and aspires to mask any signs of that battle. This striking duality make Solonsky one of the key personages of Kharkiv School of Photography.

1. История уродства / под. Ред. Умберто Эко. Москва: Слово/Slovo, 2014. С. 15.

2.  “… that in the shadows of the ideal body, that one is supposed, as a social agent, to subscribe to and internalize, there lurks another sense of the body as a place of secret horrors.” (Quoted from: Bryson, Norman. The Ideal and the Abject: Cindy Sherman’s Historical Portraits. Parkett: Kunseitschrift = Art Magazine. 1991. No. 29. C. 93.

3. Faibisovich, Semyon. “Objectivity”. Moscow Art Magazine, no. 8 (1995). http://moscowartmagazine.com/issue/65/article/1371

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