With artist GeorgII Uvs, it feels as though we’ve had parallel lives. `Being of the same age (he was born two months later than I), we both spent our childhoods in the Soviet Union’s ‘secret towns’ – Uvs in Arzamas-16, which today is known as Sarov – I in a smaller one near Moscow which didn’t even have a name and was designated by numbers alone.
I was luckier, for my parents took me out of that claustrophobic enclosure – with over 40,000 people (mostly scientists and engineers) living and working behind a concrete fence – when I was three. Arzamas-16 was much bigger, with nearly 100,000 people, mostly working for the All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Experimental Physics – a nuclear weapons design facility known in the West as VNIIF. GeorgII [sic] first left his compound at the age of 17.
Childhood impressions are extremely potent. The harder and the longer you press down the proverbial spring – the higher, and in a more disorderly fashion, it will jump up afterwards. In Uvs’ case, the enforced entrapment in the dull reality of Arzamas-16 led to his ongoing craving for vast spaces and bright colours, something that becomes readily obvious in his works.
To understand Uvs’ abstract works, it is essential to be aware of his heavily restricted childhood, as well as of his adventurous youth, for after leaving Arzamas-16, largely in search of wider spaces, he went to study at the Geological Faculty of Moscow University and became a frequent participant of the geological expeditions to Central Asia, the Soviet Far East, Siberia and Kamchatka.
‘The Soviet Union then invested a lot of money into geology and in the search of new mineral resources,’ explains Uvs. His second degree, after geology, was in fine arts. It is perhaps not accidental therefore that two of his most successful series of works are called Mesozoic and Genesis.
As was described by art critic Denis Stolyarov, ‘the Mesozoic series creates a space of emptiness that precedes the beginning of any life. The geological term helps to formulate the perception of ontological non-existence, a subject-less world, always preserved as an unshakeable balanced constant.’
Similar to the description of a good wine by an experienced sommelier which sounds deliberately incomprehensible and contorted until you actually try that very wine, Stolyarov’s words do not make much sense until you see Uvs’ actual canvases which – almost literally – stop you dead in your tracks with their inimitable colour palette and deep philosophical meaning. No explanations are needed, because – just like best vintage wines – the paintings speak for themselves. Describing them in words is next to impossible, and not just because they qualify as abstractions.
‘Abstract art is freedom,’ says the artist. ‘You can do not just what you see, like in realism, but also anything you want.’ He carries on to compare realism with arithmetic, impressionism with algebra, and abstractionism with high maths – the best and the least convoluted definition of abstract art I have ever come across.
We are sitting inside Uvs’s incredibly spacious hangar-like studio in Hertfordshire, to where he moved a couple of years ago. Having seen lots of artists’ and writers’ dens and garden offices, I am dazzled by its sheer vastness and am totally mesmerised by the paintings which are everywhere: on the walls, on the floor, on multiple working desks and tables. I have never seen works of art that can compare with Uvs’ compositions, perhaps better described as installations, for they are certainly much more complicated, much more meaningful, much brighter and much more ‘alive’ than just paintings.
Neither are they ‘paintings’ by literal definition, as the artist uses neither brushes (‘they control paints too much’) nor ordinary paints for creating them. Instead of oils or watercolours, Uvs uniquely uses ultraviolet reactive pigments, which can be fluorescent under special UV light.
‘UV pigments are light and fluid – not sticky like oils. They are like living things, with little lives of their own,’ he replies when asked why he uses such a complicated technique.
This technique is roughly as follows. Uvs pours the pigments onto the canvas straight out of the containers and leaves them to dry – a long process which can take anything between several months and several years. In the meantime, he exercises daily control (‘with minimal intervention’) of the painting from underneath the canvas with the help of numerous devices he has himself invented. These allow the lifting and lowering of the painting, or parts of it, at different angles. Until the work dries up completely, natural chemical reactions keep happening inside and between the pigments which – with Uvs’ expert manipulation – can alter their shape and structure forming beautiful folds and creases. Iin a way, nature itself becomes the artist’s helper and co-creator.
‘Rather than imitating nature, I allow it to manifest itself in my compositions which are all products of the interaction between mind, hand, material and environment,’ he explains.
The results of that ‘interaction’ are truly astounding. Particularly, if viewed under the UV light, but just as breathtakingly beautiful in normal daylight too. Uvs’ creations are slowly but surely conquering the world, as confirmed by the recent exhibition in London’s Saatchi Gallery under the somewhat mysterious title The Beauty of Inevitability.
I asked the artist in Russian (our whole conversation was conducted in Russian, for Uvs speaks very little English) to explain what the title meant to him. To my mind, the only real inevitability in this highly impermanent and fluid (like the UV pigments?) world of ours is death, and death can hardly be regarded as beautiful. At that point, we both discovered that what he really wanted to convey in the title was the inevitability of beauty, not the other way around – a not-so-small ‘nuance’ that had been entirely lost in translation!
Suddenly, it all made perfect sense. All his life – from the claustrophobic drabness of the Soviet ‘secret town’ to the rain-soaked deep-green meadows of Hertfordshire – was (and continues to be) a never-ending anticipation of a yet-to-come Era of Beauty – as inevitable as the Mesozoic and the Cenozoic ones were millions of years ago. A sophisticated artist and a trained geologist, Uvs has certainly brought that time a tiny bit closer.
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