No. 4 & 5


Ilya Bernstein  


     Once, religious painting was painting. It sat on its great throne, and nothing could enter into the kingdom of art except by reflecting its light. The Holy Family, the saints, and the donors ran the whole show. 
     But the images that remained excluded could not be kept out forever. As the ages rolled on, they came crawling off the sides of wedding chests and out of the loops of capital letters in illuminated manuscripts. Details in religious paintings themselves, which had been pushed into margins and backgrounds, emerged from their proper places and crowded the canvas. Nothing could hold back the advancing tide.
     Religious painting did not depart without a struggle, and it made spirited attempts at a shaky coexistence with subjects that it had once dominated. But in the end it was compelled to shrink and retreat. The saints fled. The angels vanished. And religious painting seemingly melted away. But where did it go?

     Eric Pervukhin, relying on scholarly discipline as much as inspiration, has tracked it down in its long-forgotten hiding places. He has found the old themes rotting away in dank, dark, unhealthy corners, partly decomposed and partly eaten away by a foul variety of fungal growths. Strange lichens have transformed the texture of the traditional images (“Proving of the Cross”) 

and invasive slime molds have given them an unlovely, oleaginous appearance (“Simon Peter and Simon Magus”). 

In the representations themselves, physical deformity has become the norm, and what was once linked with grace and balance has deteriorated into visual solecisms. Pervukhin has extracted this ancient art from some kind of aesthetic sewer, he has carefully dried and restored it, and he has reproduced it, with an antiquarian’s assiduousness, exactly as it appears in its current state.

     Nothing, perhaps, reveals the full extent of its decay as much as those images which seem to have been preserved in a dry environment, as was the case with “St. Sebastian” and “St. Boris,” which have remained relatively intact on a crumbling wall. The corruption that set in once they were deprived of light, air, and human attention seems to have transformed not only their physical properties, but their very meaning as well. It is for this reason that in “The Martyrdom of St. Boris” we sense echoes of the art of public rest rooms. Over centuries of neglect, the living spirit, which once flared forth so boldly from these subjects, descended entirely into the body, and once in the body it continued to sink until it reached the lowest levels of bodily life. Here it settled down into a long and putrid stagnation. As a result, the only possible path to martyrdom and miracles in these canvases is through lechery, and the conception of sainthood evoked here carries a distinctly urological flavor.


     The question that these paintings raise and leave unanswered concerns the motivation behind Pervukhin’s aesthetic explorations. Was it an interest in religious art and the later fate of its visual canon that led him to seek out these formerly exalted images? Or might it have been, rather, a predilection for the offensive smells of corruption that made him close his eyes like a mystic and follow his nose to seek out those places where the strongest stench was coming from — only to discover, perhaps to his own surprise, that what was rotting there was in fact religious imagery? There are many putrid things in the world of art, but few of them have been rotting away for quite as long as the iconology of the sanctified church. For an artist sensitive to the nuances of decomposition, little can offer a reek as fulsome as the one developed by religious painting through its centuries of stagnation after it quit the limelight.
     It seems decidedly impossible to say which of these two paths led Pervukhin to the images so masterfully brought to life in these paintings, but whichever of them it was, we are grateful that he ended up where he did.



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