Fate is a word rarely encountered in the dictionary of the modern critic. Strategies, positioning or representation are a different case. Yet this is a concept one cannot do without when characterizing the art of Michael Hazin. Without foisting or pedaling the drama of the quest for national identity, the artist thematizes this concept – only not on the level of theme or subject or even biography. While these planes are of course present, the main thing is the plane of form-creation. “Fate turned out that way” is transformed into “the vision turned out that way.” This “turned out” incorporates a sense of process or development in time. Multi-layeredness. Hazin has been able to thematize this multi-layeredness of vision as a form of optics. His polystylism is organic; this is not postmodernist pastiche, but the quality of poetic optics corrected by fate.
Michael Hazin was born in Odessa in the family of an artist and studied at the Mitrofan Grekov School of Art (1963–68). Odessa has given the world a dazzling array of remarkable writers, violinists and artists – the latter particularly actively in the early twentieth century, from the avant-garde (Nathan Altman, Samuel Adlivankin and Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné) to the veterans of Realism (Isaac Brodsky and Mitrofan Grekov). A battle-painter who sung the praises of the Red Army, Grekov gave his name to the college in Soviet times, even though artists of a much greater scale taught and studied there.
In Odessa, back then and as late as the 1960s, there was a special human type – now, unfortunately, mostly an extinct relict. Reflecting the specific status of Odessa as an international town and port, largely identified by the outstanding writers of the South Russian school of literature (from Isaac Babel, Yevgeny Petrov and Eduard Bagritsky to Mikhail Zhvanetsky) and the powerful narrative style of the traditional Odessa anecdote, this type was, by this time, more of a historical-cultural character. But there were, also, the real, live, outside-museum features of the Odessa character – the special liveliness, the enterprising spirit, the magical and often grotesquely forced joie de vivre. There was another side – an innate love of freedom, a responsiveness to Western trends and a traditional distrust of the authorities.
Michael Hazin was not indifferent to this behavioral pattern and Odessa gave “much room for growth”, i.e. for later on in life. Like many citizens of Odessa, he moved northwards, to Leningrad. In 1968, Hazin enrolled at the department of industrial art in the Vera Mukhina School of Art and Industry. He was twice lucky. The Vera Mukhina School of Art and Industry was experiencing a golden age in the 1960s, when it was much more progressive than other colleges of art. Graduates contributed to the “modern style” that transformed Soviet applied art in the 1950s and 1960. While Communist pressure was, of course, also present, it was not all that oppressive.
Hazin’s second piece of luck was coming into contact with Professor Josif Vaks – head of the department of industrial art. This unique individual had studied under Ivan Fomin, leader of Neoclassicism, at the Academy of Arts (alongside Levinson and other architects responsive to both Constructivism and Classicism). He had an excellent knowledge of modern design and even invited surviving masters of the Bauhaus to lectures. When, much later, Hazin found himself in Tel Aviv, he realized why the architecture in the spirit of the Bauhaus and the modern movement seemed familiar to him. He had, of course, seen similar constructions in the slides and lectures of Josif Vaks.
Michael Hazin received an excellent schooling – both in the sense of a broad professional and cultural outlook and in the sense of the academic skills of constructing form and the “madeness” of the work as an object. The very concept of “techno”, articulated at the department of industrial design, took root in his artistic consciousness. This theme reappeared many years later in the paradoxical, technicalized and simultaneously anthropomorphic images of the Pipes in Life series.
What the Vera Mukhina School of Art and Industry could not give Hazin, he himself found in museums. Most importantly, he mixed with a group of free-thinking artists in Leningrad and Moscow, who did not reconcile themselves to the oppression of the official art – Mikhail Shemyakin, Oleg Tselkov, Vladimir Yakovlev and Anatoly Zverev. The artist did not lose touch with Odessa and Odessa intellectual circles; he joined in the human rights movement and studied the foundations of national and religious life.
Emigration to Israel in 1972 was a logical and timely turning-point in Michael Hazin’s fate. After a natural pause, spending much time on getting used to this new life and culture, heading a silkscreen print studio in order to get back on his feet again, Hazin threw himself into the exhibition life of first Israel and then other countries. He showed that he was an artist of the European cultural tradition who freely orientated himself in a number of diverse creative movements, ranging from Impressionism to Hyperrealism and Pop Art. Yet he also had a feature that, to a certain extent, unites (and potentially transforms into a new quality) different stylistic trends. Hazin is fully armed with something only rarely encountered in modern art – academic mastery. He has no difficulties in visually implementing any task of a stylistic order. Yet he comprehends that outside a large-scale idea, outside a reflected, rich in content orientation, this implementation, albeit impeccable, remains a technical matter, even a matter of craftsmanship.
The result was a long-running theme of anthropomorphic-hieroglyphic images, bent from hollow pipes, running through a large group of Hazin’s works. This theme has several planes – metaphorical, historical-cultural, purely plastic and even thematic and narrative. In each concrete case, any of these constant components of the series can be the leading one. The painterly environment is born of different stylistic systems – from naturalism to Impressionism and Surrealism – immersing in each style with equal mastery. This is accomplished with an equally high quality of implementation and material objectivity. Embodying a high degree of madeness and mastery, these works were “stitched” with a common sign – the hieroglyph of a bent drainpipe man.
What lies behind this “drainpipe” subject? One instantly recalls Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Futurist metaphor: “And you could you perform a nocturne on a drainpipe flute?” This brings together the high and low – the name of a very important exhibition, in the cultural sense, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – a balance that became the basic principle in the art of the twentieth century. It was realized in a multitude of movements – both Russian and Western – articulating, in one way or another, the techno. Hazin appears to have been particularly attentive to the experience of Fernand Léger and his plastic metaphorics of the industrial. Among Russian artists, it was possibly Klement Redko and his Electroorganism group. He may also have based himself on other visual sources. Whatever the case, the result was the appearance of a bent figure from a hollow pipe – independent, separate or modular, representing part of a complex composition.
The figure is present in works in different qualities. It can lurk in an architectural detail (Balcony) or part of a garden (Garden). It can behave extremely modestly and unnoticed. It can turn into a sign of writing, referring to the Book as a form of defense from a harsh and aggressive reality, in a work of a symbolical plane (Shma Israel). It can depart from the anthropomorphic for the sake of the biomorphic in Surrealist compositions (The Banishment from Paradise), join in the rituals of everyday or religious life (Purim, Sukkot) and enjoy a sense of humor or parody (Thinker).
There is one more plane – the metaphysical. Consciously or not, playing the “drainpipe” card, Hazin seeks another result. We have already seen the special material “madeness” or objectivity that is such a typical part of the painterly component of this series. Despite all the stylistic metamorphoses, the “tactile” quality of the painting does indeed remain. The anthropomorphic “drainpipe” creatures are, by definition, nominal and emblematic; they have a technical-designer character. Even in the situation of departure from the emblematic, they are “hollow men” (the title of a 1925 poem by modernist poet T. S. Eliot). In the course of the development of the theme, however, metamorphoses sometimes occur. The painterly environment acquires an extra-emotionality, collectiveness and average (sign of style). The figures of the “hollow men” acquire vitality and energetics. I am not convinced, however, that this effect is reflective. Yet what is clear is that the artist is extremely sensitive towards the dialectics of the tactile-optic lying at the heart of the modern understanding of the media role.
What, in my opinion, is the media role? Above all, it is the articulation of the means of visualization, which are often technical and instrumental (tools). They are linked – whether by principle of analogy or criticism is unimportant – to the established types of mass communication. This is, essentially, what Pop Art is based on. Its resources are orientated on mass visual channels – the dot matrix of magazine printing, photographic clichés, advertising images, etc. They are employed and simultaneously subject to critical and manipulative types of operations.
The media role is always linked to the optical – both perceptive and optical-mechanical. New issues appear in works by Michael Hazin that might seem to be traditionally figurative or narrative. For example, the Klazmers and All The World is a Circus series. The images of the artist’s clowns clearly belong to the classical European tradition, marked by a mass of famous names, right up to Jean Dubuffet. Hazin openly addresses the conventional archetypes of the École de Paris, with their expressive painterliness and cultural and even literary connotations. Which is where the most important thing begins. The succulence and expressiveness of the masterly and tastefully depicted characters come into conflict with the media-optic aspects. The means of organizing the form, mainly on the periphery of the canvas, unexpectedly becomes the main event of the work.
The background and fragments of the figure in Clown 2, for example, collapse like a kaleidoscope into color squares. In Clown 1, stains appear in the background, while the form seems to be swallowed up and discolored by a toxic solution. In Klazmer 2, the background disintegrates into granular components shining with some luminescent light. In Klazmer 1, the expressive and confident image of musicians is laid on a painterly field made in quite different – decorative-symbolist – stylistics. Everywhere, there distinctly arises the theme of optics or focusing, i.e. frame – square, frame – tondo, frame – enlarged detail.
The conflict between the traditional figurative-narrative and media-optic orientations led to an interesting outcome. The most important aspect of these series is not the life material, interesting per se and expressively “captured”. Neither is it the subject drama, historical-cultural associations or appeal to cultural memory (although all these component images, undoubtedly, play a role). Everything done by Hazin is ultimately directed on bringing out (thematizing) perception and contemplation as an event. An event that has its own subjects, its own drama and its own emotional incandescence. The “poetics of perception” is a fitting term for this.
As far as the media element is concerned, Hazin has original tools. This term, we recall, implies the articulation of the means of visualization, which are often technical and instrumental. The role of the instruments of the media – interpreted not mechanically, but figuratively – in these and subsequent series appear to be played by two sources. One is the transformed experience of silkscreen printing, with its discipline of color- and form-creation, technicism and systematicness. Aesthetically, as a means of expression, although it has only recently caught the artist’s interest, it seems good enough in the instrumental sense. The second is such a rare instrument of vision as a kaleidoscope. Childhood memories of playing with this optical toy appear to have stuck in the artist’s memory – fragmentations and transformations of color, magical geometry and the playful kinetics of form.
A third source was gradually added to these two – Op Art. This does not, however, concern the stylistics. Op Art is employed outside the stylistic or historical-cultural connotations, as a pure instrument of visualization, another piece of glass in Hazin’s multi-layered optics. While manifested in the continuation of the series of images of Jewish musicians, the experience of Op Art is most prominent in the Wet Dreams series.
The Wet Dreams series demonstrates Hazin’s effective use of the means of expression. The series is, of course, dedicated to sexual experiences and desires. Correspondingly, it is based on the dialectics of both the tactile-tangible and sensual and the cold and aloof. The body is subjected to various forms of media manipulations, sharpening these dialectics. The image focuses with extreme starkness – the motif of the lens, training on or fragmenting the object, is particularly prominent – before defocusing, dissolving and “floating”. First it deincarnates and dematerializes, then it acquires corporeality and sensuality. The same thing happens with the Op Art elements of the picture. With their geometry and unnatural brightness and harshness, they are, by definition, designed to evoke a sense of estrangement, mediation and overcoming of the tactile. The artist, however, is capable of changing the situation. The corporeal is reduced to a sign, while the color stripes, segments and stains acquire unexpected corporeality.
A large series of paintings on Jerusalem (2001–05) – several of which were shown at the Direct Report exhibition at the New Manège in Moscow – represent Hazin’s poetic optics in its modern state and active regime of “tuning”. This series is nevertheless based on something often forgotten as we attempt to decipher the stylistic impulses and analogues. This is spontaneity of vision or what Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin called “flushing out the eye” – the sensitiveness of the reactions of the retina to open sunlight and bright new impressions, free of associative loads or responsibilities. Stains, iridescent aureoles and threads, laminating into optically distinct fragments, followed by other layers…
In New Jerusalem, somewhere on the level of the middle grounds, the artist arranges a rectangular screen. The “direct” image is magically illuminated and consists of multiple arrays of color. Some are atomized, as in the celebrated dot manner of Pavel Filonov. Others recall the cellular, partially biomorphic architectural constructions of Paul Klee. Still others… But the matter does not lie in the quest for analogues. In all this diversity of approaches, there is neither eclecticism nor the head montage principle. Only a single, living, breathing environment, created by multi-layered optics. Why a screen? Although semi-transparent, it is partially reflective. The movement of our gaze, normally directed into the depth, seems to run up against it and turn back.
What lies behind this important motif? The meaning seems to lie in the thematization of the vision as an event, its concentration and rejection of inert communications. Our look or gaze turns back, filled with new information — visual confirmation that not everything evident is accessible and that the penetrative (or even a simple penetration of the image) demands explicit expenditures of energy.
In Muslim Neighborhood 1, the “tuning” is different. The middle group of the composition stands out as an oval, evoking associations with a lens. The image in the oval is, nonetheless, direct and tactile – an energetically, precisely and expressively painted landscape. The foreground is defocused and dematerialized, breaking up into granules permeated with color. There is a sense of disquiet, a need to visually bring the image back together again.
The eventfulness of the vision is complicated and denoted by concrete historical allusions in Wailing Wall 1. The detail of the landscape and historical monument in the oval is surrounded by a monotone surface with a single texture. This texture is associated with powder, the film of time and oblivion. Or a hostile environment and a danger zone.
The perceptive experience unexpectedly crossed over into an almost gestural experience and a (mental) movement – the concept of “gestural force”, employed by Yury Tynyanov, is also related to imaginary, potential and adjourned, impellent reactions. The artist employs the energetics of this potential movement, the essence of which is the need to shake off this film, protect and clear away… This is achieved not by mimetic measures or by a show of gesture and movement, but by an appeal to the perceiver and by provoking a definite perceptive experience of movement. The exact same thing applies to War. Here, for the first time, the optic is concretized. The optics, into which the town is “taken”, are likened to taking aim. And the reaction of tearing away is unexpected…
Chronologically, Hazin’s last large-scale series is a body of twelve works, made within the bounds of the Jewish Still-Life project, created in collaboration with photographer Boris Belenkin. This project represents a contest of two systems of visualization – the traditional-painterly and the photographic. Both artists work on still-lifes of identical objective and symbolical content (Judaic symbolism is activated). The still-life is generally complex in composition – wholly in the spirit of the Dutch masterpieces of the seventeenth century or Chardin’s set-ups, with inner compositional tasks, organization of the different grounds and inner dynamics. What is the task of the photographer in the given context? Besides the purely representational tasks, he resolves a representative task – overcoming the ambition for absolute fixation immanently typical of photography.
Contemporary photography in general, one way or another, returns to this issue, overcoming the original claim to the absolute adequacy of life. This is a feature of today’s camera culture. Overcoming the “optical-unconscious” aspect of photography is implemented in several ways, most frequently by avant-garde or conceptual means. Yet it can also be done through “pictureness”, creating a form of trompe-l’oeil (French for “deceives the eye”). This historical genre, manipulating the effect of illusion, exists today in our description of contemporary photography – a genre of the imitation of the traditional illusory picture. This deceives the naive viewer; trompe-l’oeil contemporary photography deceives the optical-unconscious, mechanically objectivizing, something permanently typical of the photographic recording of reality. The genre and compositional devices, cultural codes and potential symbolics of the classical still-life are imitated to this end. Boris Belenkin conducts these manipulations intelligently and fittingly, without parody or superficial stylization. He seems to slot not only into the form-creation, but also into the passage of time of the classical still-life – unhurried, thorough and calm.
If the photographer imitates a “picture” representation, what remains for Hazin to do? His task grows more complex. Although he demonstrates a high degree of mastery in the representation of reality, he does not compete with or imitate photography. Conveying the purely material – objectivity, weight, texture and position in space – Hazin is armed with a thorough academic schooling. In line with the task, he does so selectively. Such aspects of this school as idealized nominality and self-sufficiency of the visual implementation, linked intermediately to the external “reasons” – the realities of life – seem to be “switched off”. In compensation, a form of attraction of “madeness” is switched on. The artist is so masterful and adroit in conveying materiality, objectivity (weight, color, texture and optical illusions), reflections, reflexes and lighting effects that this alone creates the effect of attraction and involvement. The viewer explores and experiences all the upheavals of the process of what Mikhail Bakhtin called “externalization”.
Such emulative aspects are of little concern to Hazin, although he is no doubt delighted by his purely optical victories. Something else seems to be far more important to him, for the sake of which he embarked on these, to use a theatrical term, “proposed circumstances.” The most important thing is to show the pithiness of the dialectics of the relationship between the object of reproduction and the painterly reproduction – in comparison with this relationship, but already between the object of photoreproduction and the photoreproduction itself. Remaining within the bounds of materiality and even illusory representation – the rules of the game and the background for the competition with photography – Hazin is obliged to mobilize all the possibilities of his own original, poetic optics. He must fully “authorize” the still-lifes, retaining their objective and symbolical-associative content and illusory principle of visualization.
Michael Hazin achieves this authorization, employing the devices of multi-layered poetic optics masterly developed in his previous works. What is new here is the special control of the visual. Before, there were individual pieces of glass; the lenses of these optics could work independently, sometimes achieving self-sufficiency. Now, everything is subordinated to a special visual discipline. A strictly defined zone is assigned to the lens of Op Art. The same can be said of the pieces of glass of kaleidoscopic abstraction or the expressive painterly splash-gesture. Although everything is under control, this control is dignified and non-aggressive. It is designed not to suppress a neighboring channel of communication, but to bring out the inner possibilities of his own – in this case, a special “tuning” corrected by the artist’s fate, the viewer-friendly, multi-layered, poetic optics of Michael Hazin.
Honored Art Critic of Russia
Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, State Russian Museum