InRussia

Arts

One's Own Worst Critic

St. Petersburg’s beloved artist and designer Sergei Bondarev recounts his artistic trajectory.

Exquisite, grotesque, and striking – Sergei Bondarev’s multi-layered paintings and garments are certainly a feast for the eyes. Here, the St. Petersburg based artist and owner of two clothing brands discusses his creative trajectory, how he deals with criticism and the importance of training for the contemporary artist. 

AO: How did you initially come to art? 

SG: Both of my parents worked in theatre – my mother in a doll theatre, and my father at a main stage. This immediate exposure to creativity played a role in my artistic development. My mother saw my artistic inclination early on, and enrolled me into art school. 

In total, I spent about thirteen long and meticulous years studying art. Towards the end, I became so tired of it – the several hourlong sessions of confined, pressured painting. As a result, I stopped painting for about ten years after graduating, during which I focused on clothing design. 

My road took me from Yekaterinburg, to Moscow, to Istanbul and eventually brought me to St. Petersburg. 

AO: Why did you settle in St. Petersburg? Does the city somehow influence you?

SG: I immediately felt so akin to Petersburg that I decided to stay. The easy rhythm was perfect for creative work. I quickly opened a clothing line, a showroom, a store – all of which laid the foundation that later allowed me to pursue my personal, non-commercial work. I genuinely think my move to the city prompted my newfound desire to paint. 

My first painting exhibition was in 2013, for which I spent a year preparing. I hadn’t painted for ten years up to this point. I’m grateful for the break though, because it allowed me to formulate my own style without committing errors along the way. Young artists often try different styles before unraveling their own. My style just appeared during these ten years, and now I’m materializing it.

AO: And how would you characterize your style? 

SG: It’s difficult to describe it without using cliches. 

Regarding technique, I really like collage. When I began working as a fashion illustrator, I used it very actively. Now I do sketches for paintings on photoshop in a collage format. Then I transform this collage into a live painting. Or I’ll print a photograph on a canvas, and paint over it. 

Since I like everything with an element of mysticism to it, and an element of grotesqueness, I discovered a technique where I hand-sew gold paillettes over my paintings. It’s my very own version of a mosaique. 

AO: You once quoted Nietzsche in an interview saying that there’s “no pessimistic art.” Why this phrase? 

SB: Because I agree, there’s no pessimistic art. An artist and his art create. They never destroy. They only flourish, inspire and evoke emotions. I’ve noticed that very few people experience zero emotion towards my art — whether it’s admiration or revulsion, there’s always a reaction. 

AO: How important was your artistic education for your work? Both for design and painting.

SB: When I first finished art school I felt that my time was spent in vain, because it completely diminished my desire to create. 

But now I realize that it wasn’t in vain. Evidently anyone can be a self-made artist without an artistic education, but their style won’t be reliant on rules of harmony, and they won’t know how to place the “artist hand.” Even for abstract art you need to study for a very long time — learn every artistic period to the core. Many people believe there’s no purpose in training to become an abstract artist, but in actuality one that is formally trained strongly distinguishes in technique from one that isn’t. The single stroke of an artist who devoted their whole to the practice will differ entirely from the stroke of a person who just started. Simply mixing three paints on a canvass takes skill.

That’s why I think studying is necessary: the longer, and the more in depth, the better. Unfortunately our outdated Soviet method of teaching is solely for students to perfect technique. Composition, color mixing, human anatomy – this is so strictly imposed on the students that it leaves little room for creativity. I’ve heard that in art schools in London or Paris the students are first taught to create and fantasize, think abstractly and conceptually. Hand placement and color theory come afterwards. Here we were always told: “finish your studies first, then you’ll start to create, but for now, do what you’re told.” 

AO: Did you ever think to open your own art school here that would incorporate this creativity-oriented method?

SB: No, I wouldn’t make a good teacher. I’m too passionate about my art to share my secrets with others.

AO: What do you prefer? Clothing design, or painting? 

SB: Painting. My clothing lines gave me a financial foundation to paint freely. I also sell my paintings now, and get more money from them than from my clothing business. The fact that my art is purchased from collectors all over the world propels me forward too. The realization that my paintings are necessary for people was reassuring, especially considering the fact that I once almost abandoned painting. 

AO: Is there a unifying aesthetic between your clothing design and your painting?

SB: Yes, although I often feel that I lose focus. I’m driven to do so much: sew, collage, paint. Right now I’m making objects from ostrich feathers. But people who know my work say that it seems as if it’s made by one person, which is good to hear.

I’ve reached a point where I can assess my work positively. I’m my own biggest critic, hence why I don’t deal well with criticism from the side. An external viewer only sees the finalized product, which takes me a tediously long time to create. Along the way I already expose and amend all the errors as I see them. 

AO: Do you believe that you’ve reached certain consistency in your style that prevents you from further development?

SB: No, of course not. Something always changes inside of us; around us. Obviously there needs to be one major line that guides the artist his entire life. But, for instance an artist like David Hockney can change all the time while remaining himself. If you look at his trajectory, you’ll see he’s tried so many different methods, but you can still identify his work as his own. After seeing his exhibition I realized that I’m alright. But this doesn’t mean that I’ve found a finite formula for my work. 

AO: What do you have in store for the future? 

SB: I’m working on a clothing line for skeletons made out of hand-sewn couture. It’s the perfect example of how my design and art fuse. I’m starting to redefine my clothing design as art. If a person practices several trades at once, the trades starts to follow one path. It’s impossible to reprogram your mind from one thing to another: today I’m sewing a dress, tomorrow I’m forgetting about the dress and painting a picture. The dress and the painting ultimately start to flow into each other.  

Check out Bondarev’s Instagram for more of his work here