How it actually happened is unknown to us, but one wants to imagine
that the sculptor Boris Tselnicker has come across his medium (at least
the kind that is buried underground away from idle stare: ivory and
mammoth bone, horn) very casually, during his travels necessary for
his first job. Because when his works are encountered by visitors at
exhibitions and websites, they produce the cheerful effect of a sudden
discovery, an unexpected find.These works, with their carefully crafted
sophistication, often purposely keeping the connection with the tradit-
ions of simple native craftsmen, attract attention with the depth and
development of the idea that is gradually revealed.
Their most important aspect is that which is no more (or not yet) there,
a gain or a loss. On one hand, tubular bone, being hollow by its very
nature, lends itself to that: when working with it the piece is composed
using the “empty” interior space. Without exaggerating one can state
that when it comes to carving this sort of hollow material the artist has
the absolute priority. No one else works in this technique, which plays
on the “non existent” interior space, filling it with ghosts and visions of the artist’s and viewer’s imaginations. Besides, even though horn and ivory and mammoth bone are normally quite often used in making articles of all sorts, Boris Tselnicker is not a traditional bone carver. In fact, he is a sculptor who works with bone to produce small scale compositions. His wooden sculpture is also executed in a non trivial manner. Here he uses a rare technique: “wood moulding” where the volume is not carved from a single piece of wood but is composed by gradually sticking together smaller pieces of wood and then sculpting.
In addition: the actual choice of material – be it bone, metal or “home made” (as the artist calls it) paper, or in contrast the widely used graphic or painting techniques – are an attempt (and most of the time a successful one) to converse with the world in an innate language, that is connected to the specific tectonics of the chosen way of representation, with its characteristic “syntax” and its underlying potential. Tselnicker is fluent in the “bone language”, “paper language”, “wood and metal language”, like others are fluent in German, Russian or English; he even manages to be witty in different language which is a gift given to few.
In general it can seem that the main passion of this artist, the major intellectual stimulus of his creativity is wit – which, in addition, is expressed in his manner of avoiding or playing on the obstacles and limitations of the nature of the material. Here is a wonderful example – “The legless invalid with a parrot”, where every detail is played with, even the additional “paint” in the overall colour scheme of withering brown spots (where special toning gives the surface a rough unfinished look). Or the hippo carved from tubular bone, which contains a hollow, concealed from the side view and suddenly opening out when one looks into the open mouth, and creates the impression of a bottomless pit. This tectonic and conceptual completeness of stylistic moves can sometimes create an impression that the sculptor is obediently following the rules of the syntax that is dictated by the “material language”.
However at a closer viewing one notices that the artist’s smile only sets off the seriousness of the questions, which, if one allows such interpretation, he is searching to answer in his work. Here we remember the paradox by Eji Letz: “In reality everything is completely different from the way things are.” What usually inspired the ivory carver from a hut beyond the Polar Circle, sculpting his figures for the needs of a museum and mass production? Was it a dream for a lost golden age, a blessed mythical period, when for every question there existed a ready answer. The work of “local craftsmen” is trying, often against the modernised techniques, to bring us to the distant Middle Ages. Boris Tselnicker, on the other hand, is stubbornly pushing the viewer out of the cozy mythological never-land, where roam the faun musicians and biblical sages, into the very midst of contemporary life. Here he is anti-traditional. His mythical centaurs are closer to the graphics of German expressionists, than to Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” or the Japanese “netzke”. His motifs are closer not to the ancient battles between the gods and the titans, but to the stylizations, reinterpreting pseudo historic epic tales and mass produced folk craftwork into the modern tradition, a la Zamiatin or Nikolas Kuzmin with his “Circle of King Solomon”.
Tselniker’s handmade epos (his “ provincial-biblical” motifs, where in the same nest under the same blanket there lie the stereotypical Moshe and king David) has an air of folk style about it, however here everyone is separate with his own song, his own hopeless dream of the past, which cannot be brought back and for this reason the past seems so cosy. Fate (i.e. the artist) has lovingly smoothed their feathers and is singing them to sleep: if they are not meant to awaken, at least let them have sweet dreams...
But not so fast: nowadays when taking a closer look, the character’s roles lose their former rigidity. Even serpent the tempter himself becomes fully dependant on his seduced centauress. He is limping behind, chained to her – here in front of us is the literal “crude” modernisation of the old motif with subtle facial nuances, where the victim and the tormentor have long traded places, and not without some sadness (how surprising, we are sympathising with the serpent!) which is not characteristic neither of the naive myth, nor the modern simplified and crude kitsch.
Or if we look at Nasreddin with his ass: here they are closer not to the oriental culture but to the subtle and sceptical Leonid Soloviev, the man who wrote the novel about them, for which the Soviet government had sent him to a place where it normally sent such freethinkers. In Soloviev’s novel, Nasreddin’s ass is the middle eastern version of Rossinant for a wandering educated mind, because the road for the latter is the only space left for freedom. Tselnicker’s ass is also given the sad acknowledgement of his mission: a successful break from prison, which threatened in the beginning of the journey does not diminish the suspicion that prison will wait for him in the end.
And in contrast, “large” female sculptural portraits remind of traditional small bone craftwork. There is something distantly matt and cool about them, as if the heroines are dreaming about something out of this world, wonderful and far away.
And the blessed old lady, who shows with all of her calm being the typical qualities of a simpleton showing off, the so called “little person from the people”, is sensibly hiding her cat behind her back, who belongs to the type of creatures, who, clutching onto a broom, happily accompany his mistress to the annual witches gathering.
When looking at works from the cycle “The Seated”, the words of the artist, that he is learning to extract sense from the hollow space that surrounds the material, can be understood literally. Here one can see that the creator of these sculptural compositions is actually capable of questioning his material, like an investigator, who is trying, whilst studying the very nature of this world, to find out how it was created. Figures have grown into their seats and are struggling (one can sense the heaviness of this struggle) to conquer the stillness, to which they have lost their sense and form. They dream of regaining both, of breaking free from the prison of non-existence.
This is why their features are barely marked out, melted substance has not quite hardened. The viewer must behave like a palaeontologist, who can reconstruct the whole from a minor detail, masterfully blurred or a nearly there line. It is disappearing, losing form or just promising to appear like that strange dog , which the character from a poem by Nikolai Zabolotski “has transformed from a plant because of his mental power”...
Here we don’t even discuss Boris Tselnicker’s graphical works, his puppets, toys, photographic cycles, i.e. more new languages and codes which he is attempting to break and learn in his dialogue with the world. However, I think, that the above is enough to leave the reader hoping that the time spent looking at Tselnicker’s art will not be wasted.