Cold War/Hot Culture
Interenational Festival of Russian Art and Culture

Hot For Red October
The Cold War is given a Pop-like treatment at a must-see UNLV exhibit

By Claire Christian
CityLife, December 14, 2000

One of the meatiest exhibits to grace our fair city currently occupies the temporary exhibition space at UNLV's Marjorie Barrick Museum. America and Russian Non-Conformist Art (Cold War, Hot Culture) includes works by numerous Soviet-era and post-Cold War Russian artists working in a variety of media. For many of us, America and Russian Non-Conformist Art marks our introduction the Russian phenomenon of "Sots Art" nearly identical in visual form to American Pop Art, but sprung from a vastly different impetus. The Sots artist also met societal stigma diametrically opposed to the relative adulation enjoyed by Pop artists. Regina Khidekel, the curator of a Sots Art exhibition at the University of Minnesota, sums up the difference between Sots and Pop quite succinctly: "Both expressed and exposed the core elements of their societies: in America, consumerism, and in the USSR, communist ideology. Pop and Sots artists used irony, parody, and mockery as their modus operandi. However, their destinies were different. Pop artists and Pop art became part of the mainstream; Sots, at least in its first phase, remained underground and marginal and its artists were harassed and misunderstood. Pop and Sots, though similar in style and intent, evolved differently because of radical dissimilarities in the political climate and artistic opportunities in America and Russia."

Thank you, Ms. Khidekel. I couldn't have said it better myself. In any event, Sots art, including much of the work on display at the Barrick, seems to critique not only Soviet communist ideology, but also America's materialism and habit of playing the part of the big brother‹or, dare I say, bully. Take, for example, Yuri Albert's 1991 work entitled “Masterpiece.” Executed in the unmistakable style of Roy Lichtenstein, Albert's work exhibits neither the more famous artist's precision nor inimitable design sensibility. And Albert completely ignored Lichtenstein's “Ben Day” dot technique; the Russian artist's crude replication of the effect of a newsprint comic strip is distantly removed from the American Pop icon's uptight graphic quality. But paying homage to Lichtenstein, however imperfectly, is clearly not the point of "Masterpiece." The Brenda Starr-knockoff female figure in the painting has a talk bubble above her head that reads something to the effect of, "Why Yuri, darling, this painting is as good as that American Pop poseur, if only you had his instant name recognition, you'd be famous too!" I've taken some poetic license in the retelling (regretfully, I didn't jot down the whole blurb), but I swear the message is mostly intact. Bottom line: Comrade, you're on to something. Or, bingo, as we Yanks say. American fame is, by all visible accounts, a mysterious and unearned phenomenon. It is worthy of worldwide scrutiny and deconstruction. It's snotty, I suppose, to point out Lichtenstein's seemingly kindergarten-simple tableaux actually are more than a few shades better than Albert's "Masterpiece." His point is well taken regardless of this small fact.

Another work that flies in the face of the Sots-as-Communism-critique idea is Vagrich Bakhchanyan's "America Through Russian Eyes," a compilation of caricature Enlargements from 1982-1983. Bakhchanyan's work comprises a grid of 21 black and white caricatures of American stereotypes, mostly military in nature. My three semesters of college Russian were an utter loss, save for the fact I can painstakingly sound out words spelled with Cyrillic characters; I picked out "Pentagon" penned underneath one pushy-looking, scowling fellow. "Terrorism" (thank God for cognates) scrawled across another menacing figure's chest said it all. It is fair to say that not only is Soviet propaganda being reflected through the critical prism of art here, but also general American aggression and, perhaps, its overblown sense of entitlement. All 21 caricatures amount to a small army of swaggering, foaming-at-the-mouth blowhards for the good of the democratic (read: capitalist) state interesting, in light of the literature accompanying the exhibit that describes it as a "tribute to America." In many cases, any tribute seems backhanded at best. Wherefore art thou, o promised critique of Soviet propaganda? Not all the images on display here are provocative in exactly this fashion. Vagrich Bakhchanyan contributes another image series to this show called “Save Time! 30 Exhibitions on the Same Day.” For this performance/photographic project, the artist had himself photographed holding a sign reading "Save Time" in plain block letters. In each of 30 different photographs, he stood in a different New York City art gallery on Nov. 18, 1977. The viewer of Bakhchanyan's streamlining exercise is, therefore, privy to many examples of 1970s gallery fodder: Some large black ink markings look like Franz Kline, while what appear to be pages torn from a notebook covered with scribble marks could be Raymond Pettibon. The sculptures fashioned from crunched car parts can only be by Richard Chamberlain. In any event, with some exceptions, most of the work pictured in this glimpse of the day in the life of the New York City art world suggests one thing‹most art from 20-plus years ago looks entirely forgettable today. Bakhchanyan's compression idea was brilliant for this very reason. In retrospect, would it really have been worth it to traipse all over New York City to see this stuff in person?

Leonid Sokov's "Locked Hammer and Sickle" from 1996 looks at first like a bonafide piece of Soviet criticism. What appears to be a medieval torture device fabricated in iron and wood, the large sculpture suggests the painful paralysis of a once formidable regime. Even this work may be sending critical impulses toward America, though; the Immobilized hammer and sickle might stand for the economic perilousness that has met Russia in the wake of Communism's downfall, which has been blamed on some inherent fallacy in the capitalist premise.

How a similar exhibit, described in the show's literature, in 1959 could have hinted at a "thaw in Russian-American relations" remains quite mysterious. This show seems, in many cases, to point at America as the oppressor. All in all, though, the work is interesting and conveys a kind of desperate courage on the part of the artist. It is believable the Soviets would not have gone for much of the work on display; the work doesn't have the sanitized look of the didactic art favored by these kinds of regimes.

It's definitely a must-see as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the termination, for better or for worse, of the strange society that fostered this work.

America and Russian Non-Conformist Art continues through February 9, 2001 at UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum. The exhibit is part of a larger festival commemorating the end of the Cold War. For more information, call 895-3381.

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