New Russian Art

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through September 24

Russia has lived under despotic rule for most of its history: Soviet commissars readily appropriated the authoritarianism of the czars and the Orthodox church; after the revolution, the holy icons common in workplaces were simply replaced by images of Lenin. But by the 1980s, communism had started to crumble. Widespread cynicism followed the revelations of Stalin’s mass murders, official privileges, and corruption; the increased flow of information about obviously more prosperous capitalist countries; and the awareness that the stagnating economy was producing shoddy products. “We pretend to work, you pretend to pay us, we pretend to buy things we cannot use” is one version of a popular Soviet saying. When a nation’s citizens regard even its money as “pretend,” all belief in the state is threatened.

But the former Soviet Union wasn’t just a state–it claimed to be the home of a utopian ideology that would create a workers’ paradise and a new “Soviet man.” When communism began to fall apart, the very possibility of faith was undercut–even anti-Soviet artists no longer had anything to react against. From the evidence of 90s Russian paintings in the traveling exhibit now on view at the Chicago Cultural Center, a nation whose religious icons helped define what it means to believe in images seems to have lost its belief in anything. Today’s Russian artists are the ultimate postmodernists. The works in this fascinating exhibit, which Oklahoma businessman Christian Keesee began collecting in 1992, vary from superb but enigmatic works to amusing, almost silly imitations of other styles; but all indicate a rootless culture thrashing about in a world now lacking fixed coordinates. The mimicry of the most pomo works here seems to deny–often amusingly–the possibility of meaning, while a few more searching canvases appear to be starting over, as if from point zero, seeking new relationships between language, imagery, and ideas.

Andrei Karpov’s Self-Portrait, which almost fills the frame with the painter’s figure, has a combined sensuality and ethereality reminiscent of Russian icon painting but also includes other, more “modern” elements. The painter’s figure is round and plump, Botero-like (though a nearby photograph shows him as thin). And in the tradition of many female nudes, he’s seen reclining luxuriously with a cigarette and drink beside him, with several softly painted female nudes on the wall behind. The way that Karpov combines various art references is a sign that he sees art movements, which for earlier artists represented worldviews between which one had to choose, in the postmodern manner–as mere styles, all equal, none “true.”

This mix of old and new is also apparent in Inessa Topolskii’s Dr. Thulp’s Anatomy Lesson, which reproduces one of the most famous Rembrandts on 16 panels. Because they adhere magnetically to a metal backing, they can be rearranged like a puzzle; the artist sees the work as “a quasi-metaphor for…entropy.” In the current installation, the panels are arranged in correct order but a bit askew–Rembrandt’s arrangement of figures and divergent gazes is certainly “entropic” here, an entropic mess. I liked the piece as a joke, and as an expression of the desire to create works that are open and variable rather than fixed and closed. But the perfection of every Rembrandt I’ve seen (though I haven’t seen this one) is far more challenging than Topolskii’s bit of whimsy. The diversity and complexity of Rembrandt’s brush strokes arguably make his work more “open” than hers.

In this collection of 39 works by 33 artists several other painters and styles are also alluded to. Forced into the straitjacket of the official style for so long, artists are now free to try anything–and several copy from Warhol, a virtual archetype of Western decadence. In Self-Portrait Like Another Artist Yurii Albert presents his own face in nine silk-screened panels, each colored differently, mimicking Warhol’s portraits. Aleksandr Roitburd copies the 17th-century painter Caravaggio, who was also regarded as a decadent in his day: his use of beggars and street people as models for saints and angels in traditional religious scenes and his vernacular, sensual compositions went against the hieratic tradition of Christian art. Roitburd’s Contemporary and Classic Art (Portrait of the Artist as Caravaggio) copies a section of Caravaggio’s St. Matthew and the Angel, and in a sense he continues the movement begun by Caravaggio, whose saints became carnal beings: in Roitburd’s work the figures are clearly mere paint–thick, highly visible brush strokes. He repeats the images twice, and since they run across three panels, the divisions are different in each rendition: the conventions of sacred image making meet the limits of Warhol-like serial-imagery production.

The distanced or ironic view that these artists take toward established, even venerated art styles is partially explained by the imagery Soviets were force-fed for decades. From the 30s onward, artists were compelled to work in the officially approved socialist realist style, their subject matter restricted to that which was thought to serve the state. I once saw an official portrait of Brezhnev that made him look almost angelic, with heavenly clouds behind him. It could have been camp, but its deadly seriousness made it merely ridiculous.

So it’s no surprise that many of these artists use postmodernism, which questions the authenticity of all image making, to debunk official Soviet imagery. Valerii Koshliakov in Soviet Square depicts a group of typical neoclassical Soviet buildings, with a proud equestrian figure (Lenin?) on a tall pedestal to the left, but he’s undermined the heroic realist style by making the painting look unfinished and streaking paint across it, inspired by the fiction “that housepainters came into my studio while I was away,” he says, “and dripped paint on my unfinished canvas.” He calls this his “offhand way” to “overcome tradition.” At the same time the picture splendidly simulates a beautifully ruined fresco, and the cracks and drips and near-blank areas add an organic beauty to the austere, forbidding geometry of the buildings.

Swan Lake, by Arsen Savadov and Georgii Senchenko, is more acerbic. An image from the most famous of Russian ballets is painted within a metal, cameolike oval placed at the center of a piece of a Red Army canvas tent. One way of reading this is as a juxtaposition of opposites, the delicate ballet image contrasting with the rough fabric of the tent. Another is that ironically the Red Army is, or was, needed to support Russian culture, keeping the USSR together by force. But my favorite of these anti-Soviet images is Natasha Turnova’s Lenin and Tolstoy, What to Do? Part fauvism, part child’s drawing, it simply outlines the heads of these two “icons,” smearing each face with irregular daubs of paint. The artist says she was responding to “stiff,” “serious” traditional poses; by replacing that pomposity with imagery suggestive of child’s play, she suggests one way artists can make a new beginning–that a culture, like a child, needs to start with the simple pleasures of color and shape.

As represented in this exhibit, the Russian art scene is adrift. Past styles are both worshiped and mocked, often within the same work. Donald Kuspit in his helpful catalog essay speaks of a “blend of irony in sincerity,” but many of these artists seem sincere only in declaring what they are not. Belief no longer seems possible, but little is offered to replace it; for how long can one make art by turning Rembrandts into puzzles? Some of the best pieces in the show, however, take the postmodern mistrust of imagery as a given but also seem to seek a new language. These sometimes combine text with images, or use subtly changing images arranged in grids to suggest language–they don’t seem to have fixed meanings but rather encourage a variety of responses.

Unconventional artists in the USSR had to create “coded” works to survive, and there’s something hermetic about some of the better pictures here as well–a suggestion that once the viewer unlocks some secret code, the world will be comprehensible again. Ivan Kolesnikov suggests that his Searching Mechanism That Eats Himself and Is Triumphant in Finding It depicts “a birthday cake that is tired of being a cake and wants to transform itself into a landscape.” He repeats the image of a fancy cake six times against a brown background but removes progressively larger pieces from it, so that finally only its outline remains, superimposed over a traditional rural landscape. But within the cake’s outline is an image of interlocking gears as if the cake had a transforming–or self-destroying–machine within it. This amusing, even silly painting is also compellingly strange, with its suggestion of some other world whose rules we have not yet learned. The picture may not succeed completely for those who don’t know the rules (as with other works here, one wonders whether allusions to Russian culture are being missed), but Searching Mechanism certainly engages.

Aleksandr Sigutin–like Turnova and the artist who calls himself Afrika, whose playful “rebus” is part of the exhibit–draws on children’s art. An untitled painting from his series “Samples of Children’s Works” consists of eight canvases arranged in a square around an empty center. All eight contain a geometrical line drawing with three of the figures colored in, one each in red, blue, and yellow. The drawings and the locations of the colored figures are a bit different in each canvas. No system readily predicts the coloring or the shapes in this elegant enigma, and its empty center suggests that it’s impossible to create meaning in the traditional way. Instead the work seems to make the almost childlike assertion that the pleasure of its designs is enough. The doubts about the past expressed by some of these artists, accompanied by suggestions of first beginnings by others, perhaps signal that a new Russian culture is being born.