REVIEW: Danja Akulin ‘Penumbra’ at Erarta Gallery by Theodora Clarke

Danja Akulin, Untitled. 2012, charcoal on canvas, 200 x 125cm

The contemporary Russian artist Danja Akulin (b. 1977) is quietly spoken. I meet him downstairs at the new galleries of Erarta in Mayfair where he is displaying his latest works in the exhibition ‘Penumbra’. It is an interesting title for a show so I ask him what it means. “Half light and half shade” is the answer. However, he did not choose the name. The Director of the gallery Diego Giolitti interjects to explain how he selected the word. He elucidates that the term describes perfectly that quality in Akulin’s work which depicts the constant battle between light and darkness. Shadows have been a matter of interest for artists throughout the ages. In Ancient Greece, the shadow became a metaphor for human knowledge and ideas. In the nineteenth century, Nietzche equated darkness with ignorance and light with knowledge. The artist, Giolitti says, captures both darkness and enlightenment in  his works. Upstairs the galleries are displaying several large canvases of his work. Akulin is a popular artist and his delicate technique has proved a hit amongst contemporary collectors. The pictures themselves are extraordinary. They are at once large and luminous despite the monochromatic palette. The technique used by the artist is unusual. He uses charcoal on canvas, or pencil on paper, to control his depictions of light and shade. He likes to mix his pigments with water so that the brushstrokes are visible and create a sense of movement in his images of trees. The works have a shiny, ethereal quality which is explained by his decision to varnish each of the pictures; this is also the way he can fix the charcoal to the canvas. He uses exclusively black and white but his works depict seemingly infinite shades of black. This helps create his dark and shadowy landscapes that seem simultaneously to be bathed in light. I ask Akulin whom he is most inspired by as an artist. He replies that he is moved by the work of Brueghel. It is interesting that he chooses a Flemish Renaissance master whose powerful genre scenes of village life are striking by their use of vivid colours. I wonder what it is about Breughel that speaks to him as an artist? “It is the truth, the emotional response to the picture”, he explains. Emotion, it seems, is the most important thing in art according to Akulin. It is this quality that he is trying to convey in his work.

Danja Akulin, Untitled. 2011, pencil on paper on canvas, 200 x 145cm

Russian art has been rising in popularity in the UK and Europe over the last few years.  Akulin was first discovered by the gallery in Russia. Erarta is now based in locations worldwide including New York, Hong Kong, Zurich and St Petersburg. They focus on contemporary Russian art and this latest show is an example of how influential a player the gallery is becoming on the contemporary Russian art scene. Their focus is on quality art and highlighting the work of young artists, mainly in the twenties. As the Director explains, they want to present the future as well as the past. This is the artist’s first visit to London; he is currently based in Zurich. However, one feels that this is  not the last time we will see his work exhibited in the UK. With ‘Penumbra’ Akulin shows himself to be a master of light and dark.