Catalogue of works 2000–2011

In the panorama of Russian sculpture Mikhail Dronov has a special place. Well back in the early 1980s he created a style of his own, distinguishable and inimitable, which marked him out among both his elder colleagues and his peers. The generation of the 80s – brilliant, diverse, passionately craving artistic freedom, – in their desire to transform plastic art snatched the relay baton from the hands of the 'stern' generation of the 60s. And Dronov's contribution to its striking achievements, regardless of the dramatic clash of historic epochs in the country, is neither last nor least.

Owing to his energy, willpower and rare industry, combined with vast erudition, fertile imagination and inventiveness, M Dronov joined the Russian artists elite as a fairly young man: in the 1980s his works started to be purchased by the Tretyakov Gallery, followed by the Russian Museum. Today he is one of the leading Russian sculptors, member of the Russian Academy of Arts, whose works are on display in the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, the Bolshoi Theatre Museum, in various other Russian museums as well as abroad. Private collections are a different story. Pieces of sculpture rarely get there, but Dronov's small-scale, cosy-looking and compact pieces, permeated with subtle humour, easily find their way into these 'reserves' usually dominated by painting. However, the obvious marks of success, such as titles of honour, or a number of prestigious prizes, or having his pieces acquired by the crème de la crème treasuries of national arts, aren't seen by the Master as a cause to rest on his laurels. He is still keen on experimenting. Owing to his supreme professionalism and awareness of European and world culture Mikhail Dronov is capable to work in any genre and format, but what is particularly important is his ability to transform his own style, changing the method of tackling the plastic task in hand, if required by the artistic concept. Since he mainly works in small-size sculpture, Dronov not only reconsiders the function and purpose of large-scale compositions, but also gives a lot of thought to the part sculpture can play in the city. This has enabled him to cultivate an outlook of his own, which protests against the poverty of the vast spaces of Russia's huge cities. Sketches and figurines by Dronov, easily sustaining enlargement, could well grow into largescale monuments. It still makes me sad to think that the melancholy and austere Organ grinder (Cat.34) hasn't been made into a monument to poet Okudjava.

If you take the trouble of peering intently into Dronov's large-scale compositions, you will discover a philosophical approach behind their outward simplicity, minimalism, and, sometimes, deliberate comicalness. But, unlike some of his colleagues given either to exaggerated aestheticism or pompousness, Mikhail Dronov is inclined to camouflage his ideas skillfully and cover up strong emotions with a sceptic's mask. Shunning sentimentality, he is not vociferous about compassion, he does not exploit the traditional Russian theme of the small man, introduced and developed by Pushkin and Dostoyevsky. Yet, the old-fashioned word 'humanism' fits the Master's approach perfectly.

Dronov's personal microcosm can be penetrated via his theatre, consisting not so much of personages-people, but of simple everyday things, transformed by his post-modernist irony into a symbol, a sign, an archetypal image. Such is, in his interpretation, a humble Thumbtack (Cat.36), or a Lemon (Cat.24) that 'broke away' from Dutch still lifes, or a severe asphalt-spreading steamroller The Best Machine (Cat.33), or the worn-out felt boots Valenki (Cat.2), well remembered by many. This obvious preference for still life, fairly rare among sculptors, betrays Dronov's latent lyricism. The ingenious Master seeks to turn the viewer into a co-author of the performance. He is keenly aware of the fact that a piece of art can only exist in dialogue with the viewer, and doesn't disclose its implicit and explicit meanings until the moment the author's message 'urbi et orbi' is being perceived.

Definitely an introvert by nature, a serious immanent artist inclined towards critical thinking and introspection, Dronov takes a sober view of modern art realities and their perception. At the same time he avoids issuing straightforward, unambiguous statements. He knows how to be expressive without raising his voice or offering maxims about Good and Evil, and this makes his talent all the more precious. Similarly important is his ability to stop a viewer, habitually trotting about an exhibition, with a seemingly unpretentious motif and set them thinking and empathising. The emphatically minimalist set of the Sea Code Signals can serve as an example: its 26 symbols (equalling the number of letters in the Roman alphabet) were turned by the Master into an extraordinary series of reliefs in the spirit of Russian avant-garde. There is actually no imagery there except stylized signal flags; yet, the smooth bronze of each plaquette seems to rise like the swell of the sea. Thus, virtually out of nothing – to quote the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, 'out of rubbish', or to be more exact, from the 'white noise' of our time, comes a polysemous artistic image. Incidentally, none of the artists have as yet turned to this apparently thoroughly technical topic. The Sea Code Signals logically carries on the series of experiments comprising the familiar and, seemingly, quite realistic Bench (Cat.28), which, despite all the roughness of old wood, skilfully reproduced in bronze, is clearly post-minimalistic; and the paper Airplane (Cat.45), light as wind although cast from good-quality bronze, as well as Evening in Bysantium II (Cat.4), bordering on a stereometric formula, and the undisguised joke in bronze called Bikini (Cat.19)… And finally, what looks like an experiment in the absolute, least expected from such a sculptor, is the metallic SOS (Cat.31) – a two-dimensional piece, which nevertheless seems to be arranging the surrounding space: a clear indication of the author's movement towards the object.

The sculptor expertly shifts the vector, effortlessly switching the plot from the commonplace over to the eternal, although 'lofty' topics are treated in an up-todate, visually simple language which, though allegorical, is easy to understand. In Dronov's creations nature is subjected to uninhibited and bold transformation, bringing forth an extremely wide range of associations. The sculptor's language is terse, sometimes paradoxical, while the austere, thoroughly checked-out near-geometric form is enriched with the element of play. Using minimal plastic means, the artist achieves a polysemous image, profound emotionality, and keen expressiveness.

Still, the most typical works created by the Master in the last ten years form an unusual ensemble, where the author seems to put the borders of his very own universe to the test. It looks as if the post-modernist, unwilling to ignore the trends of the turn of the 20th–21st centuries, the contemporary successor to the Paris school struggles in him against the neo-romantic who is also an admirer of archaic cultures, antiquity and the Renaissance. Dronov belongs to the few artists who profess the principle 'change the style as often as you can' and are not afraid to abandon the once found, easily identifiable manner. He is willing to keep up dialogue with old masters, displaying a rare knack for a sophisticated fusion of forms, – and then suddenly, as if by chance, offers a glimpse of his secret, private world, confessing loyalty to his ideals. When the sculptor turns to historical or literary topics, he adds numerous new overtones to today's interpretation. A workman with an iron crowbar, named Lomonosov (Cat.29), a weary Dancer (Cat.1) who still tries 'to keep a straight back'; the stout St Peter (Cat.25) clanging his bunch of keys… All these characters are an honest and strikingly unconventional homage to the classics. Much the same function is performed by the antiquitizing drapes in the compositions Evening in Bysantium I (Cat.5), Angel (Cat.26) and Swamp (Cat.13), the latter is a kind of the artist's manifesto, a metaphorical embodiment of his civic stand. Mikhail Dronov is not afraid of being unusually versatile, but there only seems to be a chasm between the minimally detailed fragment of the face mask Untitled Fragment (Cat.39) and the thoroughly worked out texture of the relief series Elements (Cat.16–18), as if in competition with Donatello. A sculpted landscape is quite a rarity. Yet, who knows? Perhaps, the future belongs to this art, as old as the world?

The proclaimed rejection of the narrative element challenges the viewer accustomed to narration, by condensing it to a sign which is not easy to decode - or probably just requires the ability to notice anxiety and beauty in everyday life? Mindful of the basically timeless nature of his craft, the Master resolutely leads his interlocutor away from the fuss of the notorious 'nine days wonder' to silent pondering about the essential. In this respect the multi-figure Swamp (Cat.13) turned out to be a landmark composition. A direct opposite of another piece, Swan Lake 1994, it shows up the sculptor's vast scope and his philosophical view of the world on the one hand, and on the other, it plays up his urge to comprehend reality and give his own interpretation of the latest history of his country without bombast or didacticism. Rejecting the momentary effect, he remains a true realist and still seeks – and manages to find! – the artistic image par excellence.

As is well known, sculpture is an art born probably together with humanity itself. But, according to Mikhail Dronov, this art is not ready rest on its laurels and rehash old themes. On the contrary, his plastic art, never giving up its vitality, seeks to transform itself and find new ways of development in keeping with the 21st century. Sculpting like Phidias and laughing like Molière seem to be two ideal but incompatible professions. Yet, such is Dronov's choice, for he believes it his duty to answer the cardinal questions of the second half of the past century, with its doubts about the right to existence of classical, traditional forms of art. It's no secret that Renaissance harmony has long been non-existent; the clear and orderly picture of the world has come apart, broken almost to smithereens as a result of what homo sapiens has done by stubbornly debunking ideals in arts and destroying real lives. Fortunately, on seeing the scattered fragments of the past world, Mikhail Dronov takes the trouble of collecting them and putting them together to form his own universe. His picture, of course, cannot be as idyllic as that of Old Masters, but in this new world – in the universe of one single Master – it is easier to get over the bitter losses, to overcome the breakdown and urge the man to move on.

Yelena Titarenko