Public statues are fair game for both pigeons and critics. But to Russian painter Leonid Lamm, the Moscow statue of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky was a particular affront: a bronze, in the worst neoclassical, socialist realist tradition, of a revolutionary avant-garde poet. Lamm decided to act as he thought Mayakovsky would have. Armed with bottles of red paint, he approached the statue by night and let fly. When he returned early the next day, firemen were already scrubbing off the dried paint.
That was in 1967. Six years later, when he applied for an exit visa, Lamm was arrested for his offence against public art and sentenced to three years in jail.
While there, he occupied himself with two sharply differing bodies of work. One consisted of unadorned sketches of daily prison life—portraits of guards and fellow inmates—which caused no problems with the authorities.
Far less acceptable were the organic, cosmic shapes that he conjured up to feed his fantasies of freedom. That, the state decreed, was bourgeois individualism, a preoccupation with esthetics that would alienate the artist from his fellow prisoners.
But Lamm persisted. On leaving prison, he worked the private abstract sketches into larger canvases—his chief artistic freight when he finally succeeded in emigrating to New York in 1982. There, in the land that produced Jackson Pollock and abstract expressionism, he was to face an ironic twist: abstraction was most definitely out. What was in was personal anguish, or at least its nearest local, postmodern equivalent.
As a result, it is Lamm’s prison pictures that appear in Sots Art, an exhibition of largely émigré Russian work organized by the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, and at the Glenbow Alberta Institute in Calgary until Jan. 20. The show features some of the watercolors Lamm made in prison, but also larger canvases that re-create the claustrophobia of life inside. In The Cell Door at Butyrka Prison, the guard Nikolai stares in with a certain bovine curiosity. Everything in the painting—latrine, garbage can, even Nikolai’s rather large ears—has
been obsessively measured and noted. This may be the sign of a life filled with meaningless, time-wasting tasks, or of a society in which all aspects of life are measured and controlled. Or it may be a way for an artist to anchor
himself in a confusing new world.
Lamm’s paintings are certainly the most personal in the show, the only ones to speak of private experiences. Acceptable to the prison authorities, they take on, in their new context, a clear denunciatory power. But they are not typical of a show in which the dominant tone is irony—an irony that occasionally erupts into a savage, high-riding satire.
The term Sots Art—a kind of pop-art diminutive of socialist realist—was coined in 1972 by the leaders of the movement, and its most visible duo, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. At that time, the main opposition to the Soviet Union’s official house style were underground modernists, who became dramatically evident in 1974 when an alfresco show they had organized outside Moscow was flattened by bulldozers. Komar and Melamid chose to subvert from within, deploying a formidably correct, dead academic style to desecrate the icons of socialist realism.
Indeed, anyone entering Sots Art absentmindedly, and seeing the preponderance of the color red, the benignly vulpine features of Josef Stalin and the bald, arched dome of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, might be forgiven for asking the way to the tractor display. The tone is set by Komar and Melamid’s Double Self-Portrait as Young Pioneers. The artists have placed their own slightly seedy adult faces atop the uniformed bodies of children, standing on a red-draped plinth in obeisance to a bust of Stalin. The mockery is blatant. But as Margarita Tupitsyn, the show’s curator, suggests in the catalogue, the artists may on a subconscious level be dealing with frustration arising from a loss of ideological paternity. “The cult of the father is central to the structure of totalitarian mythology,” she writes. “For Russians, Stalin constitutes the canonical father figure.”
Equally patricidal, and perhaps even more iconoclastic, is the sculptor Leonid Sokov, who has produced a series of caricatures of Soviet premiers from Stalin to Andropov. But his most provocative work is a mechanical pairing of Stalin and Hitler, each malletarmed, alternately hitting at an already battered tin globe—an uncom-
fortable reminder, at least for Soviet citizens, of the infamous 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov (Nazi-Soviet) nonaggression pact, a treaty that no longer exists in official Soviet history.
Alexander Kosolapov is an altogether cooler artist, draping himself in the eclectic clothes of postmodernism, ransacking art history from ancient Egypt to the baroque to produce deadpan, incongruous juxtapositions of socialist dogma and classical themes. Kosolapov’s is a world of broken classical architecture and exhausted mannerism, a reminder of art critic Herbert Read’s dictum that “in the back of every dying civilization sticks a bloody Doric column.”
At first glance Eric Bulatov is the odd man out. His paintings have the run-of-the-mill, touch-of-the-airbrush look of the average North American photo-realist. But the clues are there. In one painting of a couple picnicking in the country, the two are boxed in by the Russian word for “dangerous.” In a companion painting, the words have been replaced by a room that literally boxes the holidayers in. Bulatov’s caution, his muted criticism, becomes understandable when one learns that he is still working in the Soviet Union. He is an artist who has to work both sides of the censors, creating Sots Art pieces for his friends and acceptable works for official approval.
According to curator Tupitsyn, the members of the Sots Art movement— Lamm excepted—can best be described as only “elliptically political.” In Calgary the exhibition seemed about as elliptical as the butt of a Kalashnikov—and had the effect of throwing an adjoining collection of thoroughly respectable Canadian realist paintings into curiously pallid relief. What is certain is that as the Russians move further from the roots of their discontent, something akin to nostalgia is setting in. Komar and Melamid’s Nostalgic View of the Kremlin from Manhattan, included in the catalogue but not the show, depicts the seat of Soviet power as an island as idyllic as anything painted by Arnold Boecklin and other 19th-century German romantics.
There are signs, too, that the émigrés are turning their parodie gaze on the West. In the Sots Art exhibition, Kosolapov produced a print that had Lenin proclaiming “Coca-Cola. It’s the real thing.” Proudly framed next to it was a letter from the Coca-Cola company citing infringement of trademark and advising the artist to keep his hands off Tab, Sprite and Fanta, too. The Sots Art exhibition proves that if an artist works hard enough, he can be marginal anywhere.
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