Non-Official Art, Old and New

Die Sanft-Mutigen. Moscow metaphysical painters of the 60’s – 90’s: Mikhail Shvartsman, Vladimir Vaisberg, Eduard Steinberg, Ilya Tabenkin, Dmitry Krasnopevcev. 11/17/99 – 12/16/99, Russisches Haus der Wisenschaft und Kultur, Friedrichstrasse 176, 10117 Berlin.

Neues Moskau (New Moscow). Art from Moscow and St. Petersburg: Andrei Chlobystin, Vladislav Mamyshev, Timur Novikov, Inspection “Medical Hermeneutics”/Pavel Pepperstein, Yevgeniy Yufit. 11/12/99-1/9/00, ifa gallery, NeustŠdtische Kirchstrasse 15, 10117 Berlin. Open daily (except mondays, 12/23-12/27 and 12/31-1/1) 2-7pm. 4/7/00-5/27/00 ifa gallery Stuttgart, Charlottenplatz 17, 70137 Stuttgart 6/20/00-8/5/00 ifa gallery Bonn, Welckerstrasse 11, 53113 Bonn

For Russian 20th Century Art, Berlin has proven to be quite a good environment. Recently, several exhibitions have been shown of work that, for the most part, lacks the funding or exhibition space – or the goodwill – to be shown in its homeland. This is particularly true of those movements opposed to the cultural mainstream. While artists are not frequently harrassed for their views any more, they still find it extremely difficult to make themselves heard. Two recent exhibitions facilitate a comparison between Soviet and post-Soviet non-official art. At the Russisches Haus, Marina Sandmann exhibits several founding fathers of Unofficial art in what is probably the biggest retrospective of the “metaphysical” style in Russian contemporary painting to date. True, these artists have never been part of the mainstream. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, their paintings evolved as a conscious rejection of the official subjects of Socialist realism, even if the doctrine put less stress on painters than in previous decades. But artistic explorations of spiritual reality was completely out of bounds, and it was this concern that united the “Sanft-mutigen”, the “meekly courageous ones”, as the exhibition’s title puts it. Indeed, they needed courage to withdraw from Soviet reality into an artistic universe in which their spiritual experience was the main focus. In their all but monastic withdrawal from the Soviet world of art and in their embarkment on their spiritual quests for an art that connects to some absolute, it is not the courage but the meekness of their personalities that is expressed in the paintings by Dmitry Krasnopevtsev, Mikhail Shvartsman, Vladimir Vaisberg, Eduard Steinberg and Ilya Tabenkin. Harking back to the turn-of- the-century-avantgarde, both in its formal devices and in its desire to paint what is invisible to the eye, these ascetic paintings form a link between the original Avantgarde and later, more conceptually oriented art forms, in which the importance of the artifact dwindles to a mere starting point for critical or ideological discourse. These paintings, however, are a treat for the eyes, reminding us that the ascetic and the aesthetic are separated by the blink of an eye. In his still-lives, Krasnopevtsev reduces color to mere shades of gray, the objects depicted are mostly broken or deformed, as if they were the last remnants of a lost culture, stoically waiting for their own demise. Light is almost gone from these pictures, as opposed to those by Vladimir Vaisberg, where the radiance of light renders all objects translucent. Vaisberg – nomen est omen – creates the illusion of white objects on a white surface by what is in fact the effective use of pastel shades. The most opulent paintings are those by Shvartsman who takes the Avantgarde, which after all had its origins in icon painting, full circle to produce abstract icons that in some of his “hieratures” lose the last remains of figurativeness. Steinberg is the painter who owes most to Malevich in his compositions of geometrical forms, even as in his more recent works he is attracted by brighter, shining colors. Tabenkin’s compositions, on the other hand, dissolve clear-cut forms into various shadings of color before which isolated figures stand like pawns amidst abandoned landscapes. Though their work extended into the 1990’s, the metaphysicals were firmly rooted in the 1960’s spirit, and therefore the last standard-bearers of high art in a cultural environment where these notions led, at best, to marginalization and the insight by new generations of artists that any art based on expressions of the absolute was blind to its own condition. The catalogue itself admits to this situation through a quote from Giorgio de Chirico, himself a member of the Italian “pittura metafisica”, who regarded himself as a dying species.

The exhibition “Neues Moskau” (New Moscow), which is to travel to Stuttgart and Bonn in the spring, stands at the other end of unofficial art’s history. The young artists that show their work at the ifa gallery all have the experience of concept art behind them that made them mistrust any notions of straightforward expressivity. Rather, their work sets out to question the tendencies of contemporary Russian cultural politics that wish to return to an uncritical rehearsal of national greatness in art. The visitor is welcomed by Andrei Khlobystin’s project “A new flag for Russia” by a giant toadstool standing in the middle of the gallery’s first room. It turns out that the projected flag is, like the mushroom, red with white polka dots on it, symbolizing the unity of the Soviet Union’s communal principle with the new individualist principle. Already, the visitor is assured, this new symbol is ubiquitous as toy toadstools furbish every child’s playground throughout the land. In a broad conceptual sweep, the project integrates echoes of the revolutionary avantgarde, Soviet everyday culture and the post-Soviet ambition to ironically reproduce the current search for a new symbol of national unity. After all, it is no joke that some years ago an official competition was announced to present Russia’s new national idea, and some of the submissions – which, for better or for worse, remain clouded in mystery – may have been even wilder. Much in the same conceptual vein, Timur Novikov presents his monuments to the new saints of Russia – a number of silver embroidered shrouds that feature the photographs of Tsar Nikolay II and his family, who were assassinated after the Revolution and have in fact been canonized by the Orthodox church outside Russia. As in the best instances of 70’s Sots art, the irony is visible only through the shrouds’ inclusion into an exhibition of critical art – inside, say, an Orthodox church they would seem completely in place. Another point of reference is Russian art and literature of the 19th century, a time that is regarded as the golden age of Russian culture, even as is bore the seeds of the more unpleasant cultural and artistic practices of the 20th century. In his series “Russian Questions” – the title itself being a pun on the eternal “Russian question” that generations of thinkers have never been able to answer, let alone ask properly – Vladislav Mamyshev amasses folklore and fairy tale motives that in their sheer quantity already serve to subvert the myths of the Russian folk tradition. His photographic mock-ups of Pushkin’s tales are set against blown-up computer printouts of folklorist motives, mirroring and subverting the strategies of official monumental art that attempt to recreate the images of Russia’s former greatness. Some of the more hideous aspects of this are included in the installation by Medical Hermeneutics / Pavel Pepperstein, who contrasts his own drawings of absurd monuments (e.g. to a man with very long hair) with photographs of the work of Zurab Tsereteli, the Georgian sculptor who is responsible for the gigantic monument to Peter I. as well as the giant clock on Manege square, to name but a few. The contrast works both ways here: the inclusion of Tsereteli’s works into Pepperstein’s installation serves to present the formerÕs works as true conceptual artworks that in every respect outdo the projects here on display. Just as, according to some, the avantgarde peaked in Socialist realism, the greatest work of conceptual art to be produced in the last decade may well be the New Moscow itself. This is a fact that Pepperstein is himself well aware of. In his witty, eccentric essay included in the catalogue, Pepperstein describes precisely this conceptual quality of Tsereteli’s monuments. In framing him in this way, Pepperstein manages to reclaim the discursive and artistic power over what has been going on in the last years in the New Moscow.