New East Digital Archive

Odd man out: inside the secret world of Voronezh’s outsider art star

By day Sergey Brudanin guards a school, by night he paints in the basement. Step inside the bizarre and beautiful world of an outsider artist

13 April 2017

There is a public school on the outskirts of Voronezh, a city in the south west of Russia. During the day it’s a busy place, full of children from the neighbourhood studying. When evening arrives the school empties, the lights go out and the place grows quiet. Every night, though, one light in the basement remains on — Sergey the school security guard is keeping watch.

“Nobody knows what goes on here, it’s my secret room”

A shorthaired young guy in camouflage uniform, he is almost invisible to the people who live in the neighbourhood. He looks like a typical security guard, one among thousands that work in Russia. It is practically impossible to discern the artist beneath his outward appearance. “Nobody knows what goes on here, it’s my secret room. Perhaps the plumber knows, and Prokopych, the school maintenance man, drops by – they are also artists, in a way,” Sergey laughs.

If you’re lucky enough to receive an invitation, however, you can experience a bizarre and beautiful dimension where ordinary things gain new meaning. Once you step over the threshold into his basement, a private universe opens up before your eyes. Welcome to Sergey Brudanin’s world.

The entire space is filled with his works: paintings are hung and arranged along the walls in several rows, while art objects and sculptures inhabit the middle of the room. The shelves display various strange objects: vintage vials, bird feathers, pebbles, hundreds of nuts and bolts sorted by size. There are even several skulls in this collection, including that of the artist’s favourite dog, a bull terrier called Chuck. It looks like the artist is in danger of running out of space.

Sergey’s works attempt to explore the world beyond the limits of the workshop, to sneak away somehow into other rooms. Following the artist deeper into the basement, in the shadows between boiler pipes you find the silhouette of his latest work, entitled Rex in reference to the prehistoric tyrannosaurus: it’s a monstrous construction put together from the carcasses of school chairs.

There are even several skulls in this collection, including that of the artist’s favourite dog, a bull terrier called Chuck

Sergey spends 48 hours in a row in his workshop, four times a week. He paints on a daily basis; all his free time is occupied with art. Why? Sergey says that painting is his way to escape from the deadly boredom of everyday routine. Still, it’s pretty hard to regularly spend 48 hours underground away from your family. Brudanin is married, and last year he became the father of a baby girl. When he talks about his daughter he becomes euphoric, his gestures expressive. He sings her lullabies and talks lovingly about her first explorations in the world. In such moments he bubbles with tenderness and inspiration, his love for life clearly reaching its zenith.

Security guards are very much in demand here. If you have been to Russia you will have noticed that most businesses and institutions are guarded by stern looking men sporting t-shirts and jackets stamped with “охрана” — “security”. Security services operate in shops, hospitals, business centres, parks and other public spaces. It’s easy to get this kind of job if you’re a young, healthy male. Most of the time these guards do nothing, and it’s a dull, monotonous job. Many start drinking; Sergey paints.

Despite the monotony, the school guard says he’s lucky to be doing this kind of work. “I’m not grumbling at fate. It’s great here: I’ve got freedom, I can work on my projects without being disturbed. I got this job soon after I graduated from a local art college. There wasn’t any other job for me. I’ve spent nine years here. I am the gatekeeper.” Brudanin studied at the Voronezh College of Fine Arts, starting late, when he’d already turned 25. Sergey’s tutor said he’d already formed his artistic identity by the time he arrived at the college. After graduation Brudanin immediately came to this school to work as a security guard.

Brudanin’s works engage the observer in an active way and without pretence. Creating an effect of understatement and incompleteness, they make you decide yourself where to place the emphases. Sergey does not paint landscapes any more: his paintings are objects rather than pictures. He rejects the idea of the canvas, and his works do not need frames; any surface that catches the artist’s attention can be used, whether it’s an old school chair or a disused washboard. Unlike paintings that put the viewer in a contemplative state, Brudanin’s objects are extremely concentrated, energetic, even aggressive.

Guards do nothing, and it’s a dull, monotonous job. Many start drinking; Sergey paints

Sergey also creates collages reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg, which make manifest his rebellious young spirit, his boldness and his irony in the face of reality. It becomes evident that the creator is someone who grew up in the provinces, where the main tools of self-expression are force and rebellion. In this way, the very texture and originality of Sergey’s works are determined by his environment.

Sergey is certain that were he to live and work in a different place, his art objects would look completely different. In his abstract landscapes he showcases new interpretations of his home village of Grafskoe, not far from Voronezh. Handmade sculptures and larger objects are effectively the result of his work shifts, a kind of dialogue with the city around him. These surroundings and everyday existence within them can prove monotonous, provoking a need to escape, but at the same time Sergey Brudanin finds meaning and poetry in these material things, these plain details.

Sergey doesn’t know what it means to be waiting for inspiration. Artistic searching and creative doubt are unknown phenomena for him. “I see a weird little wooden block and I feel I need to do something with it. I absolutely have to paint on it – so I do. Oh, I love little wooden things! Chipped on one side, a crack on the other: this is the best thing about it. You can find charm and mystery in those imperfections, empower them, make them more appealing. All those little objects by themselves inspire me.”

His workshop is filled with all kinds of “little things”. It’s hard to pass through without stopping in front of his amazing collection of old toys: Soviet tin soldiers, baby dolls, roly polies. Sergey often uses them in his work. He has been collecting these toys for a long time and even now he spends quite a lot of money on artefacts such as these. He showed us his favourite exhibit — a red plastic crocodile with an accordion. This is the sentimental aspect of Brudanin’s art. In a way, his is the art of a big child forced to play by rules created by adults.

“I cannot not do it. I am very determined. I dare you to try and stop me”

Sergey was brought up by his grandmother, surrounded by family relics and imbued with a deep respect for family history. In the countryside these things are much more significant than in a big city. Family honour was the top priority, even when forced to demonstrate strength and aggression in fights with other boys. In the village no one attempted to limit the riotous spirit of local teenagers, and Sergey got used to living freely, boldly, without restraint. This was the time when he fell in love with painting.

At some point you realise that his job as security guard represents a conscious choice for Sergey, his means of interacting with the reality of working routine and city life. Beyond that he has a cosy home with his wife and baby girl and a quiet life deep in the countryside. Despite being slightly withdrawn, Brudanin’s artistic life is not isolated from the world of modern Russian and European art. He has over 2,000 friends on Facebook and most of them are active in contemporary art.

Sergey Brudanin creates his art outside the limits of circumstance, both in spite of and thanks to his environment. “Sometimes I wonder: the world is so huge, there are so many things in it, is there anything fundamentally new and precious that I can bring, does any of it have a point?” he ponders. “I am a microscopic part of the universe. Why am I doing it? Because I cannot not do it. I am very determined. I dare you to try and stop me.”

This article was produced as part of The Calvert Journal’s New Writers Programme.

Text: Maria Bazhenova and Anna Marsters
Image: Val Starilov