Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of that country's most famous contemporary artists have come to settle in the West, especially in New York City. This colony of Russian expatriates has had a profound effect on American contemporary art. And the artist's artist of the group is Oleg Vassiliev, whose paintings and drawings of the past five years are the subject of a superb exhibit at the Sloane Gallery titled Windows of Memory.
Vassiliev's ambitions are great: He takes as his principal subjects the history of modern art in Russia, the way politics has shaped history and the ironic reality that contemporary Russian art is now flourishing in New York instead of Moscow.
All of these things were on Vassiliev's mind when I interviewed him last week with the help of the Sloane show's organizer, Mina Litinsky, who translated. Vassiliev speaks virtually no English, but one word that he used repeatedly was easy to make out: "television." The meticulous detail employed by Vassiliev in his signature representational paintings and drawings creates an effect more suggestive of "video realism" than of photo-realism, notes Litinsky. The point is underscored by Vassiliev's use of tiny dots of color; rather than the shiny smoothness of a photograph, the technique mimics the electronic patterns of a TV screen.
It was on TV that Vassiliev watched the Russian Parliament building burn as Boris Yeltsin's elected government put down a coup by old-time hard-liners in 1993. That attack is the subject of "White House," which Vassiliev painted while in Paris. The artist says that when he saw the events unfold on television, he felt "scared, in panic, fearful. It was like a horror movie." But though he was "sorry that people were dying," he also "knew who was inside [the hard-liners], and if they won, it would be worse for Russia." The expertly painted scene--a white building against a white sky set off by black smoke--aptly conveys Vassiliev's contradictory emotions.
Closely related to "White House" are several paintings that provide views of "Khrushchev Houses," those ubiquitous and bland high-rise apartment blocks that, believe it or not, were a great liberating force in 1950s and 1960s Russia because they allowed many people to leave communal apartments and move into their own homes for the first time. In "People Live," a large oil on canvas, Vassiliev uses the giant and anonymous Khrushchev House in which he lived for many years to symbolize "the Motherland." Just as in "White House," the light-colored building is set against a light-colored sky, and smoke again plays a role, as pollution from a nearby power plant engulfs the homes of thousands of people. (Better add environmental concerns to Vassiliev's big-picture approach.)
One group of paintings at first does not seem to relate to the others in the Sloane show. These are the works that address the history of constructivism in Russia, the style's home turf. A good example is "Space and Landscape," which sets an X-shaped prism against a glaringly lighted forest landscape. Vassiliev also puts a geometric element in the center of the frame in "Mayakovsky Square. Erik Bulatov." This time, the picture within a picture looks like a frozen video image.
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The masterful "Red Pavilion" uses the same device. In the center is a crisply rendered scene of Ilya Kabakov's installation at the 1993 Venice Bienale. The installation was essentially a pile of red-painted debris accompanied by a soundtrack of bombastic Soviet marches. This central square is placed within a larger black square to pointedly recall the work of another artist, the early twentieth-century pioneer of Russian abstraction, Kasimir Malevich. In this painting, Vassiliev attempts not only to survey modern art in Russia from the beginning, but to place the wreck of the Soviet Union right in the middle.
Also included in the exhibit are scrupulous colored-pencil drawings, most of them portraits of other major artists in New York's Russian art diaspora. The portraits, which include such luminaries as Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, are a lasting monument to Vassiliev's peers.
For more than a decade, the Sloane Gallery has been Denver's direct link to the work of significant contemporary Russian artists. It presents only one show per year, and this one closes next week. Don't miss it.