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“Deleuze, Cubism and the becoming of durée: crystallized space and Bergsonian flux in the paintings of Dimitri Kozyrev”
By Colin Gardner
Professor of Critical Theory and Integrative Studies
University of California, Santa Barbara
It is the work of art that produces within itself and upon itself its own effects, and is filled with them and nourished by them: the work of art is nourished by the truths it engenders. – Gilles Deleuze
Until recently, Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze’s complementary theories of the virtual have had very little scholarly or critical application to the visual arts, particularly painting. This is hardly surprising given Henri Bergson’s early antipathy towards the analytic, ‘scientific’ Cubism of modernists such as Braque, Picasso and Gris, which he dismissed, along with cinema, as a static and distortingly linear Euclidean spatialization of the real experience of durée, which he more accurately described as an internal, qualitative multiplicity of pure intuition that defied both segmentation and traditional distinctions between virtual and actual, memory and objective matter. Instead, in Creative Evolution, Bergson called for a philosophy of science where the philosopher will see “the material world melt back into a simple flux, a continuity of flowing, a becoming.”
In many respects, the works of Russian-born Dimitri Kozyrev can be read as an attempt to update and revitalize this stalled Cubistic debate by paradoxically making the fragment itself – obviously anathema to Bergson - the vehicle for a direct access to Time as a manifestation of incommensurable difference. For example, in the early (2001-3) “Lost Landscapes” and “Black Square” series, Kozyrev’s sun-drenched Southern California topographies expressed a specifically Deleuzian (and by extension, Bergsonian) sense of time and space: clear-cut Euclidian geometries were subverted in favor of a more hyperbolic, ‘autopian’ trajectory, as if the world were viewed from a speeding automobile or airplane cockpit, or through the splintered, kaleidoscopic fragments of shattered glass. In other words, Kozyrev employed a fluidly dynamic painterly vocabulary alongside montage-like segmentation in order to deny the spectator the comforts of a sustaining visual ground. Occasionally, we were encouraged to focus on a specific detail but more often than not Kozyrev deterritorialized our perception, as our mind was quickly caught up in the overall ‘line of flight’ of anticipating what is yet to come, grasping the immediate moment in our peripheral vision, or recalling what we have just witnessed in our virtual memory, as if simultaneously viewing the world through a rear view mirror. Thus, for Kozyrev as for Bergson, “Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances. And as the past grows without ceasing, so also there is no limit to its preservation.”
Kozyrev attempted to express this middle ground between objective specificity and subjective incommensurability by representing the gaps in our attention rather than the concrete object or landscape per se. Thus in this body of work details are sketched in - a line of trees, a rough horizon line, the receding lines of street lamps, a curved section of freeway - so that topography is reduced to a series of minimalistic signifiers. Instead of a picturesque or panoramic spectacle, we are made more aware of vast expanses of cool, billboard-like colors which “invade” the scene so that it is often difficult to discern the dividing line between nature and simulacrum, sky and earth, foreground and background, aerial view and ground-level perspective. This constantly shifting spatial dynamic undermines the cone-of-vision, single point perspective of the traditional landscape so that we are caught in a cubistic spatial limbo, unsure whether we are in virtual or actual space. The result is a collapse of linear or chronological time into overlapping shards of active memory, in which past (or more accurately, the virtual, which for Bergson contains the sum aggregate of all pasts), present and future collapse into pure durée.
In “All Is Well,” a subsequent series of diptychs, Kozyrev applied similar principles to his appropriation of 1920s avant-garde historical sources. Drawing upon the Cubo-Futurist, Constructivist and Suprematist design principles of his native Russia as well as the utilitarian pragmatism of the German Bauhaus, Kozyrev juxtaposed these modernist tropes with a Vermeer-like Dutch interior or the depiction of a ruined bunker in Finland, exploding the images’ specifically avant-garde contextual logic into a postmodern pastiche of historical culture, folding together the legacy of 16th-century mercantilism with the brutal effects of mechanized warfare (it’s no accident that camouflage was invented during World War One by a painter, Guirand de Scevola, modeling its optical effects on lessons learned from Cubism). In this way, every picture becomes grist for the painter’s cubistic mill, acting as building blocks in a new constructivist aesthetic, in which anything can be juxtaposed against anything else, and in which genealogical history dies in order to be reborn as pure production, as pure painting. Thus even a series of Malevich-like monochromatic squares lose their Suprematist, trans-rational theoretical origins and become another form of mental landscape, isolated cogs in a much larger, untotalizable artistic machine, a machine of pure resonance.
In this respect, Kozyrev’s method closely resembles that of Marcel Proust, particularly in their common use of transversal trajectories that bridge the gaps across and between seemingly autonomous spatio-temporal entities. A transversal is a passage without interval that affirms a specific difference, all the better to disclose the essence of time that underpins all apparent artistic “unities.” Thus, in his two most recent series, “Lost Edge” and “Lost One,” Kozyrev creates transverse intersections between actual, physical landscapes – particularly those ravaged by war - man-made military structures and architectures, and their corresponding mental equivalents, blurring the distinction between material and immaterial. Once again his main building block is the fragment, or perhaps more accurately, the ruin. It is significant, for example, that in Proust, the little patch of yellow wall that young Marcel admires in Vermeer’s View of Delft becomes a greater manifestation of the essence of art-as-time than the picture as a whole, instigating an implicating series of signs and correspondences that reach across linear time and space. Thus, as Deleuze points out, “The dragons of Balbec, the patch of wall in the Vermeer, the little phrase of Vinteuil, mysterious viewpoints, tell us the same thing as Chateaubriand’s wind: they function without ‘sympathy,’ they do not make the work into an organic totality, but rather each acts as a fragment that determines a crystallization.”
Kozyrev employs this crystallization to implicate and critique both past and current totalitarian regimes (most significantly the U.S.S.R. under Stalin), their policies of militarist expansionism and their tendency to co-opt and/or censor all avant-garde movements into an overriding ideological purview. “Lost Edge” thus has a double register, connoting the blunting of the cutting edge of the avant-garde in both its artistic and military definitions, raising the question of whether this edge can ever be re-honed and sharpened for future creative use. Kozyrev achieves this transversal connection between avant-gardes through manifest and latent reference to an aggregate of spatial fragments that interlock and imbricate each other like cogs and gears in an elaborate machine. Thus we see allusions to Malevich’s early, iconic pictures of peasant women (c. 1912), which represent an uneasy fusion of neo-primitive style with Cubism and Futurism, the Cubo-Futurist masterpiece, The Knife Grinder (1912-13) and the then infamous Black Square of 1915. These early utopian references resonate in juxtaposition with ruins of the fortifications of the Mannerhiem Line, which, like its more famous equivalent, The Maginot Line in France, was built to protect Finland from the advances of its bellicose neighbor, in this case the Soviet military avant-garde. Like all such attempts at clear cut demarcation, Finland’s attempt at self-defense proved impotent in the face of modern techniques of warfare (Blitzkrieg, like Shock and Awe, paid no lip service to the linear bulwarks of bunkers and trenches, no matter how sophisticated) and today the fortifications lie in ruins, reclaimed by nature as they have become progressively overgrown by weeds and grasses.
Interestingly, this model of the vegetal is perhaps the work’s metaphorical saving grace, for although it alludes to an intrinsic and inevitable degeneration and co-option within both areas of the avant-garde, it is also a driving force of art’s potential renewal, for, as in Proust and Bergson, the machine of eternal decay is also proof positive of the forced movement of Time, and, by extension, the creative force field of durée. Like Proust, Kozyrev combines the idea of death with a dilation of time in which the fragment or ruin becomes the self-determined producer of resonances that transcend historical specificities. A broken fence, the silhouette of a German steel helmet, giant shards of concrete, jagged Suprematist geometries (as if El Lissitzky’s sparring squares and wedges had been torn asunder by an unforgiving shredder), the bared skeleton of a looming Modernist edifice, a wintry landscape – all collapse together as an assemblage of difference(s), where time is dilated as if viewed through a telescope. “Such a work,” says Deleuze, “having for subject time itself, has no need to write [or, in this case, paint] by aphorisms: it is in the meanders and rings of an anti-Logos style that it makes the requisite detours in order to gather up the ultimate fragments, to sweep along at different speeds all the pieces, each one of which refers to a different whole, to no whole at all, or to no other whole than that of style.” A transverse style, one might add, that will save painting so that it can live on, live to die yet another death, the better to affirm the creative evolution of duration itself.
 Gilles Deleuze, Proust and Signs, trans. Richard Howard, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, p. 154.
2 Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983, p. 369.
3 Ibid, p. 4.
4 Deleuze, Proust and Signs, p. 115.