C.A.P.74024 Magazine


Text Jesse Brouns

When his career as a fashion designer left him unfulfilled, Russian artist Sergey Bondarev returned to his first love, painting. Forever a stranger in his hometown in the heart of the industrial region of Ural, he set up his studio 2648 km away. In Saint Petersburg, another city that is veiled in shades of grey, but in Bondarev’s view, «one of the most beautiful places in the world»He loves colors, paillettes, poetry and mythology. And then Lucas Cranagh the Elder, the Byzantine mosaics, the 1980’s trance. His witty, acid-laced art explores consumerism and the cult of celebrity. He has repeatedly painted Lolo Ferrari, the late French actress whose breasts were certified by the Guinness Book of Records as being the world’s biggest. On occasion, Bondarev has quoted Nietzsche: «To represent terrible and questionable things is in itself an instinct for power and magnificence in an artist: he does not fear them. There is no such thing as pessimistic art».

What was it like to grow up in Ekaterinburg? 

Honestly, Ural is not my favorite place. I’ve always felt that I was a stranger there. But, who knows, if I was born elsewhere my work might have looked quite different. It’s on the edge: the people are severe, rude, down to earth. In the Soviet era, however, many great artists were born there, and several of them could be considered geniuses. We used to joke that this eruption of creative talent was the result of harmful emissions in the atmosphere from all the factory pipes. As you know, there’s some truth in every joke.

The Ural region, in the middle of Russia, is defined by heavy industry. Living conditions are harsh: life is dominated by the hundreds shades of grey. This drabness prompts people to reach towards things that are more festive. They try to use as much color as possible, especially the women: sequins and tinsels, combining the un-combinable. Which might seem very naive, but is also profoundly beautiful in its own way. My own thrust towards dazzle and decoration was born out of the same phenomenon. I’m convinced that our lives are artificial, and that naturalism is nothing more than laziness. That’s why my images often appear overly eccentric to people of a particularly lazy disposition. Thank God I was born in a theatrical family. Both of my parents worked in theaters, and they have instilled me with good taste since childhood. Maybe that’s why I manage to flirt with kitsch without succumbing to vulgarity.

What made you want to become an artist? When did you decide: this is what I am going to do? 

As I said, my parents worked in theater: my mother in puppet theater and my father in drama theater. I spent a lot of time with them as a child. I was the boy hanging around the workshops of decorators and costumers. I always knew I would be an artist, and I thank my parents for supporting me and letting me go to Art school and the Architectural Academy.

You studied Monumental Art and Textiles, and then you became a fashion designer. But why did you stop painting? 

I studied painting for a very long time - 13 long and meticulous years. Towards the end, I just became so tired of it, all those endless sessions of confined, pressured painting. After graduating, I stopped painting for about 10 years. I decided I wanted to tackle something that I actually liked, so I focused on fashion design. Fashion has a more utilitarian purpose. It is easier to understand than art. These days we have social networks. It’s simple to follow world culture and to show our art to anyone, anywhere. But at the time, artists in Russia, especially those not in the capital, lived isolated lives. Not everyone had the opportunity to travel. So, fashion captured me. It also seemed like a more profitable occupation. In any case, the artist inside me needed to rest and gain strength.

What was the fashion scene like in Russia at the time? 

There has always been fashion in Russia, even in the Soviet period. We had houses with talented designers, who looked at all the fashion capitals of the world. They developed beautiful clothes, inspired by the works of designers like Cristobal Balenciaga or Pierre Cardin. Only the wives of Party leaders, political elites and popular artists could wear these clothes. In regular stores, ordinary people would only find grey coats and dark blue suits. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the borders opened, people were captivated by this crazy world of fashion that they had previously only seen in illegally imported French magazines, copies of which were sometimes limited to one in each city. Between 1990 and 2000, there was a real fashion boom in Russia. People felt free. They wanted to absorb all that they had been cut off from, and they wanted to do it as quickly as possible. It was a wild, funny period. I designed my first collection in 2004. I would say it was mostly an art project. The clothes were shocking rather than utilitarian.I won’t say that fashion was a bad experience. It helped me. But now the thought of me being a former fashion designer sometimes irritates me. I’ve always been an artist. For 10 years, I was engaged in fashion. After that, I resumed my work with newfound strength, new ideas, and a sense of freedom that I hadn’t learned at the Academy. Russian art schools are very good at teaching students techniques of painting, drawing and composition, but they do not always let them develop their creative side, sometimes even forbidding them to think creatively. You’re supposed to do what you’re told, and improve your technique. With fashion, I became more creative, and I developed a sense of freedom. But then, to a certain extent, I became disappointed. Fashion became too cult-like. It’s all about mass consumption now. 

Recently, I have realized that I am a post-modernist in everything I do. In the second half of the 20th. Century, post-modernism meant rejecting the principles of modernism and using elements of different styles and directions of the past as well. Often with an ironic effect. 

And here I am, a post-modernist of the early 21st. Century. In fact, my work is anti-conceptual. When you look at it, you don’t need to think, you need to feel. I deliberately try to evoke an emotive response from my audience, and often try to provoke my viewers to perceive beauty in something horrendous.

Like all artists, I work on an instinctual level. I would release my thoughts without a single ounce of control, assembling impressions of certain moments into collages, which I would then transform into paintings. My work contains irony, but also humour. I see humour as a device that can attract attention, and that can move my viewers to observe themselves and the world around them more intently. In general, it’s hard for an artist to assess his own art. That’s a job for the critics. I just do what I want.

Like a series on Lolo Ferrari.

Yes. I wanted to tell a story about female maximalism. Basically, all of my heroes are women. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because I’ve never found inspiration in the male image. Men look boring if they’re not wearing women’s dresses or wigs, ah ah. In the pictures, Lolo is shown with the attributes of cooking and food. She is there to satisfy and feed her man. But is that the whole purpose of women? That is what I wanted to highlight.

You’ve lived in Saint Petersburg for the past 9 years...

Saint-Petersburg is one of Russia’s most beautiful cities, and it might be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It has art and cultured people. It’s the only city in Russia where I can see myself living. I travel a lot, and the city gives me the opportunity to rest and absorb world heritage. That said, it’s usually very grey, cloudy and wet here. Painting requires daylight, so in the future I might find a workshop in a place where the climate is softer and the sun shines more often. Right now, I have a wonderful apartment and workshop near the Hermitage Museum, which means that even when I go to the grocery store I can admire and absorb the energy of this beautiful city. 

I tend not to take the process of creating very seriously. All the work is basically happenjng inside of me. I just need to get a canvas, squeeze paint out off the tube, and sketch what I find in myself. Everything happens naturally, and that gives me great pleasure. I paint for my own satisfaction. It’s a passion that is difficult to contain. I am happiest when I’m satisfied with my own work, and when collectors purchase my work with the same passion that I put into it. I’m working 24/7 to be an artist. It’s hard, but it’s a also great pleasure.