Barbara M. Thiemann
Art Critic, Curator
Peter and Irene Ludwig Foundation, Germany
Dimitry Gerrman’s work embodies, in an exemplary way, one of the characteristic facets of – the double entendre, the play on duality, ambivalence, and then finally, doubt. His life story, anchored in socialism, and then his own personal repositioning in a system that is diametrically opposed, might explain his tendency toward sculpture that is “not only, but also.”
In the life of the artist, there was a moment which turned everything upside down. That was the moment when Dimitry Gerrman left the Soviet Union and first set his foot on American ground. This physical act, which threw a brief point in time into sharp relief, was the result of mental and emotional developments and decisions; once it was conceived understanding and memory of the events followed. As we shall see, in Gerrman’s art, everything is connected to everything else.
Let us look back to the time when his identity and personality took shape. Gerrman began his art education in the early 1970s. When he was barely nineteen years old, he finished his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the State Art College in Minsk. Thus, his early artistic socialization occurred in an atmosphere where unofficial art was separated from official, and vice versa. But within both the official and unofficial styles were the distinctions between young artists and the established ones, the 1960s representationalism and conceptualism and more. The artistic developments and political events certainly did not pass without the notice of the young artist, despite his geographical distance from them.
In 1980 Dimitry Gerrman arrived in St. Petersburg and began his academic study at the Mukhina Academy of Art and Design. He studied in an artistically polarized atmosphere, where restrictions were the order of the day. Although, if we compare these restrictions with those of earlier years, they were, in fact, less prominent. After he completed his studies in 1985, Gerrman experienced his first great success. His creations were well regarded, he engaged himself with public art commissions, and participated in exhibitions organized by the state, including exhibitions outside of the USSR. At the same time, his resentment against the regime grew, not the least due to Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika, begun in 1985, when political alternatives surfaced increasingly in public consciousness. Yet after Gorbachev was elected president, his reforms only worsened the countrywide crisis, which in turn set off a new, substantial wave of emigration.
Many of Gerrman’s peers left the country in the previous decades as many artists had left the USSR, particularly those who were nonconformist. Although successful amid the changing political climate, and with his work receiving more and more recognition, he decided to emigrate. Whether his decision, coming during Glasnost and Perestroika, and when Gerrman was gathering not simply recognition within the USSR, but internationally, to emigrate was drawn from his own expression of nonconformism or was a reaction to the events of the day.
Is it conceivable, that even while casting forms, that spoke to the official notion of true art, he sensed rebellion deep within himself? Perhaps, even unconsciously, an identity independent of collective one, asserted itself? Do the roots of his own later artistic formulations, that play on ambivalence, lie here?
Since 1990, Dimitry Gerrman has been working in the United States. He works without an exorbitant or innovative formal language, and instead favors figurative work and prefers the traditional materials of academic sculpture. In terms of content, his works, now colored by inquisitive self-reflection, arrive at an immanently critical reflection of a past, with state-driven activity. His work has little of that which would be considered Russian. It neither gestures toward traditional folk art nor toward socialist realism (the formal roots of which are classical European art), but symbolic references to his earlier home, in for example, Memories from a Childhood, (2004) or Broken Violin (1998). His attentive observation of European (classical) modernity manifests itself in motifs and formal references to August Rodin, Pablo Picasso, or Alberto Giacometti. Since at least the late 1990s, his work focuses on themes of mirroring, dialogue, polarity, and duality.
And with that, he continues the success he had in the former USSR. In 1996, he was made a member of the National Sculpture Society of America. His works appear in museums and private collections, and he continues to participate in numerous exhibitions. Since 1991 he has been exhibiting primarily in galleries, and from 1996 to the present regularly at the National Sculpture Society. Since 2003, museums have shown increased interest for his work, such as the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the Chelsea Art Museum in New York and the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
In the sculpture Reflection, a male figure, standing on his head balances his own mirror image on his feet; or to say it another way, a male figure, with his head raised, stands atop of his own mirror image. The soles of his feet and his mirror image touch, but nothing else. They are two plastic figures, molded into a single sculpture, one representing an individual’s two sides, or identities. In this sculpture, we encounter a type diametrically opposed to the muscle-packed ideal of socialist realism. We meet these individuals, ethereal and unreal-looking, who unlike socialist visionaries, do not know where to look for faith in the future. They simply stand there. Here we find pure, pointless and yet meaningful existence instead of a hymn to strength, health, boldness, and fertility. Gerrman confronts us with figures aware that they simply exist, who define themselves by themselves, and who, if we follow this idea to completion, embody the freedom to be without having to be in any particular way.
In the same year as Reflection came Circle of Time (1999). At first glance Circle of Time appears to deal with a different subject—time. However, Gerrman’s visual language also relates to later works. We are moving in a thematic circle, in which we also pass through works like Mirror (1999), Dance with a Shadow (2000), Hide and Seek (2000), Conversation (2001) and Duality (2003), as well as one earlier work, Solitude (1998).
In Circle of Time Gerrman again uses the formal art motif of duality, and again positions two (identical) figures in a circle, and as in Reflection, he mirrors them across the imaginary horizontal line, the circle’s diameter. The circular arrangement implies in its natural dynamic, change and development, rather than a more traditional arrangement on a pedestal, which ennobles and stabilizes the figures. Subtly and effectively, he stands the temporality (circle of time) on its head through formal aesthetic. In so doing, he touches on a fundamental aspect of his work.
If we include the earlier work Mirror, the inevitable question presents itself: Who is looking into the mirror? The question of who, prepares the way for his next works.
The work, Mirror came seven years after Gerrman’s arrival in the United States. During those years, he began to assimilate, and make contacts, seal friendships; celebrate successes and perfect fluency in a foreign language, English. At age 34, Gerrman arrived on new shores. He found himself in early middle age, in a life phase usually characterized by solidifying one’s own accomplishment; when in previous seven-year phases he had acquired skills that served his perceptions, comprehension, and consciousness, suddenly his personality was free to organize its own relationships and to formulate things according to his own temperament. This independent viewpoint allowed him to look at one’s world anew. Independent and entrepreneurial artistic individuality can attain much more than whatever socio-cultural conditions might prevail. He could express this freedom in his intentions as well as in his own visual language.
Emigration and immigration are fairly one-dimensional in their psychological effects and more than anything, necessarily refer to the particular nation-state. Emigration means a massive change in psycho-social identity. The emigrant experiences alienation, and sooner or later his individual and collective identity must come into question. What he does, or what he leaves behind, in his new life-world, is not always clear from the beginning. Where laws can be read, the vernacular, the meaning of gestures, eye contact, and social signals are not always understood. Lack of awareness can lead to difficulties and misunderstandings. Using, and depending on, a foreign language often means that one cannot convey one’s meaning, or lend the appropriate expression to one’s own emotional experience, which only leads back to feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Then, who else if not Dimitry Gerrman himself, might he be, who meets his own shadow, whose head stands and turns in a circle? The “who” is represented in these images (self and shadow) may seem easy to answer, but still depends on the viewer’s interpretation. What we perceive is an individual with a double identity.
Now we can understand the connection to Dance with a Shadow. In terms of formal composition, however, this work is bold. It is a dialogue between stability and instability and the use of static and dynamic factors. Previous thoughts of instability, stability, stasis, and dynamics never stray far from us. The dancer and his shadow are positioned only above his left foot, a relatively small area of contact, connected to the concrete slab, while the right leg steps far away from the slab, which forces the figure to position himself in a precisely defined way so that he can still seek his own center of gravity, and with it, his own equilibrium.
To find equilibrium, and to hold onto that balance – the cornerstone of a dignified human existence – might be an extraordinary task for the emigrant, the individual who exists between two poles. In the shadow dance, in a conciliatory discourse with the past, might lie his hope for harmony and stability, the basis for the identity, and the integration of different aspects of his identity. Conversation advances this conciliatory element, which can already be detected in Dance with a Shadow. The title suggests a dialogue in which the dueling sides have been reconciled. Noteworthy is the formal analogy with the spectrum between stability and inability: the foothold is intensification as almost as the art trick, to allow the tabletop between the two figures to remain only a tabletop, not to furnish a (fully-fledged) table out of it, whose legs would have to bear all the weight. Here, the external (table legs) does not secure stability – rather the individual himself (two figures) takes on the responsibility for assuming the burden in the broadest sense possible.
Hide and Seek, even if it came eleven years after Gerrman’s emigration, deals with the point of departure and that intellectual-emotional disposition which seemed most influential when he traveled from one place to another. While true reconciliation means the end of idealization of what is new and the end of vilification of the old, here we have something like the exact opposite of reconciliation: a rigid polarization that invites debate. This polarization is visually represented by a wall, which separates two figures in such a way that the viewer can only perceive one figure at a time. The result is that the viewer becomes involved in the process of seeking and hiding, provided that he doesn’t prefer one or the other.
While it is easy to understand the meaning of “seek” for someone who is leaving his homeland the meaning of “hide” in the present case poses questions, because in contrast with his “unofficial art” colleagues, Gerrman never had a reason to hide himself, or his art. Or did he hide himself behind a formal language, which he knew that he would not need to hide?
In any case, Solitude belongs in the context of introspection, as well as the much later collage Memories of a Childhood in which the element of time becomes manifest and with the element of time, its ephemeral nature. The closely related connections among Dimitry Gerrman’s works become apparent with a glance at his Circle of Time. This work, refers back to the contrary dimension of time, and the ephemeral, its cyclical nature of time, which naturally belongs to the notion of eternity. On the next level, then, we encounter polarization again. In Gerrman’s oeuvre, ephemerality and eternity, past and future, all run together.
With this last theme, dealing with life and death, also belong works like Stairway to Heaven (1999), Last Voyage (1998), Lost Time (1998), and both versions of Broken Violin (1994 and 1998). More than anything, our intuition demands, whether Memories of a Childhood is really about what the title suggests, which seems obvious from the cyrillic letters in the newspaper clippings and the strangely grown-up looking doll; if not the childhood of Gerrman, then whose childhood is being remembered here?
The conspicuous persistence of not-only-but-also, which finds its strongest expression in the appearance of mirrored figures, is rooted in its complexity. Careful observations, sensitive judgments, a particular decisiveness, are always necessary under such conditions. Every decision in one direction always means something changes in another direction, too. This is exactly what Dimitry Gerrman brings to the discussion as an artist.
Art Critic, Curator
Kolodzei Art Foundation, USA
Constant Search Through Form and Space
Dimitry Gerrman has developed his art through two seemingly opposite themes: the search for order and the destruction of order. He juxtaposes and unites rough and polished surfaces, geometric elements and rich textures, connecting chaos to harmony. His works breathe life, arousing a broad range of emotions in viewers who discover his unique visual language. A Russian cultural heritage, combined with the modernist tradition of abstraction of form and expressionistic modeling, underlie Gerrman’s sculpture. He constantly searches for new forms of expression by exploring variations on different themes and compositions, and by experimenting with plasticity of form and rhythm.
Since 1990, Gerrman has lived in the United States where he has found a new audience as well as collectors for his works. The notion of the hyphenated American or Russian (as in a “Russian-American” or “American-Russian” artist) has been problematic for both cultures and people in either culture. As with many artists who have moved to the West, the problems of self-identification and assimilation in different cultural space are present in Gerrman’s art. While many artists of the older generation arrived from Russia with reputations already established, Gerrman emigrated from the Soviet Union (at the age of 34) before his work had become widely known. Gerrman does not bind his work to the past, but benefits from his academic training and cultural heritage.
The division between personal and political, between private and public, had been the result of communist ideology in the Soviet Union. After his arrival in the United States, politics and history re-entered some of Gerrman’s art, for instance in Prisoner (a model for the Monument to the Victims of Persecution) and Crying Violin (Elie Wiesel Holocaust Remembrance Award). It is as if Gerrman needed the distance of exile to contemplate his personal history and memories to create a series of collages, which combine found objects, where every object becomes part of the epoch's psychological and social record. In these works the artist rarely restores any of the found objects; dirt and holes are part of the memory that objects carry in themselves. The subjects of the past which had been chosen as superfluous, and which not so long ago seem so uninviting, so ordinary, now found artistic value and importance, sometimes exhaling nostalgia and detachment. Utilitarian function has disappeared but form remains, personified by time and memory. Sometimes objects carrying biographical baggage revisit nostalgic memories and the remnants of the otherwise deceased Soviet empire. Gerrman combines visual images and impressions, memories and recollections, by capturing the intangible memory with a depiction of the subjective world.
In most of Gerrman’s sculpture the political context disappears. His sculptures do not become post- or anti-sculptural; they remain sculpture in their technique, modeling and casting, deeply connected to the human figure and leaving space for artistic and philosophical investigation into understanding of human nature and duality. Gerrman, even before his arrival in the United States, had a vast creative range; since then his skills have been developed and perfected and placed in the service of new challenges. The new environment inspires the artist to novel ideas. Over time, Gerrman has shifted from streamlined academism to adventurous modernism. He masterfully incorporates elements from different time and space, constructing them into his sculptures. Gerrman arranges them according to the logic of the “energetic” state of the composition.
With change of the subject matter, the plastic language of the artist and the attitude toward subject and details varies. Gerrman goes through an internally reflected cycle, from the detailed surface, through the fading and disappearance of a subject, until finally the subject occurs in a new quality, brought on by new experiences. Stylistically his works divide into two simultaneous directions: a flattening of form and an expressionistic modeling, along with an emphasis on texture with traces of the artist’s hand (as in Last Voyage, 1998 and Man with a Cigarette, 1997). Gerrman’s sculptures are executed with technical mastery, characterized by complex composition and a variable density of form along with the combination and juxtaposition of textures which resolves into a wholeness through the artist’s nuanced and inventive touch. He charges form with inner spirit and animates solids and voids with a sense of personality and presence. The principal theme of Gerrman’s sculptures is the coexistence of extremes; this theme has endured since his earliest works conceived while he was in the Soviet Union and continues to the present day.
Sometimes Gerrman starts his creative process from a very personal memory, the safeguarded inner center that he connects with the visual image. He extracts and elevates intimate visual images from the past and present, dramatizes and transforms them in order to arrive at something more universal, something common to all human experience. Gerrman’s sculpture is a combination of classical and contemporary means of expression. He explores human existence while reminding the viewer about the process and construction of sculpture. His philosophical reflections on art and life drive his art process; he addresses the ephemeral nature of contemporary society and the passage of time. In an era of technological progress and the invasion of virtual reality, when the boundaries between "private" and "public" spaces become blurred, it is important for Gerrman to bring to his works his own experiences and discoveries by using classical methods of modeling and casting.
The themes of duality, polarity and reflection are dominant in Gerrman’s works. As a whole the history of the European consciousness reminds one of a game of mirror reflections: flashes appear, but all the higher true individual existentialism up to the present does not reveal itself. This is the kind of vision which tracks down reality in all its suddenness and intensity and, despite our resistance, presents it to the world. And there is also a notion of looking at oneself in the mirror while sinking into one’s own infinity. Gerrman does not impose his own definitions on his sculpture; instead he plays on the ambivalence of meaning, encouraging discussion of his work. He asks the viewer to enter into a direct dialogue with the subject, thus revealing a concrete and tangible relationship between the human and the objective world in order to see what is behind it, reflecting his own personal philosophy and his private vision.
Gerrman distills the essence of the human figure to the silhouette, giving them an abstract aura which strengthens their individuality and endows them with a craftsman-like elegance. He eliminates detail without denying the image’s recognizable identity; in some of his works there are allusions to constructivist lucid symmetry. Smoothly stylized figures, such as Reflection (1999) and Meditation (1999), are filled with philosophical and metaphorical images searching for a code of visual language that tells more than what is noticeable at first sight. Sometimes the artist gives great importance to fine detail, executed with artistic meticulousness. Combining elements of symbolism and surrealism, Gerrman constructs his sculptures on the intensity of coexistence of opposite extremes, and remains open to a multiplicity of interpretation.
Gerrman’s explorations are very organic, as his primary motif is the internal need for creativity which gives rise to an emotional condition, ultimately realized in sculpture. His art invites viewers to reflect, meditate, and find their own interpretation.
Dimitry Gerrman believes that “A human being in the process of creation comes closer to an understanding of Nature and his own duality. Art is the gateway to an unknown reality; sculpture is the poetry of form.”