Although the Russian bear gazes menacingly across the border, Ukraine is, at the time of this writing, an independent country. It has its own language, its own government, its own historical metropolis (Kiev) and its own distinctive relationship with its enormous enemy in the North East.
Yet, not so long ago, Russia and Ukraine were both part of the USSR, and creative people in Kiev had no choice but to jump to the tune called by the Kremlin. When Glasnost Arrived in emergency in Ukraine in the 1980s, local artists had to regain their autonomy as well as their sense of cultural identity.
Their canvases recorded these epic reverberations. The stunning, daring, sometimes terrifying “Painting in Excess: Kiev Art Revival, 1985-1993,” on display at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick until March 13, shows Ukrainian artists crawling out of from the rubble of a crumbling empire, sifting through the fragments and taking what they could pass on to a chilling future. The exhibition, shrewdly curated and curated by Rutgers University’s Olena Martynyuk alongside Zimmerli’s resident Russian art expert Julia Tulovsky, finds the Ukrainian capital reeling from a triple whammy: economic stagnation and the cultural bankruptcy of the end of the Soviet regime, the collapse of centralized authority in Moscow, and the indescribable ecological disaster of the collapse of Chernobyl, which occurred just two hours up the Dnieper from Kiev. If these artists seem disoriented, deeply unsettled and more than a little radioactive…well, you would have been too.
Considering the chaos of the moment the show captures, it’s amazing how incisive and pugnacious these paintings are. The ground may shake beneath them, but these creators are bouncing on the soles of their feet, wide awake and ready to throw their punches. Perestroika allowed Ukrainian artists to turn their brushes against the official ideology and ossified institutions of the Soviet Union, and that is what they are doing. But they are also more than willing to take on the decadent West. “Painting in Excess” makes the devastation and exhaustion of Kiev manifest, and some of these pieces are heartbreaking, but there are no nihilists in this show. As outspoken and critical as painters may be, none of them seem happy that the world they once knew is going up in smoke. Nevertheless, there is a sense of bravery that radiates from all of these works, and a belief that once the Russians are gone, the Ukrainians may be able to come together and rebuild a place of their own.
Martynyuk and Tulovsky provide a historical precedent for the 80s efflorescence of Kyiv art – an entire piece of it. Playful and colorful Khrushchev-era Ukrainian abstraction, some of which is actively suppressed by the pooper state, illuminates an interior gallery. What is remarkable about this work is that it does not look particularly Russian, or even Eastern European: it has its own rhythm and sense of color, and it is all quietly aware of its own non-conformity. However, the closer the time approaches to the cataclysm “Painting in excess”, the more its subversion becomes audacious, almost to the point of recklessness.
Did Valeria Troubina really escape with “Bowing,” a surprisingly caustic insight into Orthodox practice, with hunched figures and dripping white paint, in 1985? Pussy Riot have been pilloried for less. In “Blue Country II,” Sergei Sviatchenko stuffs a dark crew of miners into a brown box of scribbled paint and superimposes a gripping hand on top of it; it’s about as far from the glorification of the proletariat of bland Soviet realist art as you can get. The message of Serhii Yakutovych’s searing and darkly fantastic etchings of street scenes is similar. Old forms are exhausted, social cohesion has frayed, and Kiev is preparing for systemic collapse.
The exhibition is unified by this feeling of foreboding. But it also suggests that mischievousness and unwillingness to cooperate are essential elements of the Ukrainian aesthetic. Many of the artists in the exhibition are groping towards a post-imperial identity that might be cruder, more mischievous and more anti-authoritarian than Russian grandeur. The impossibly named Olexander Hnylytskyj gives us a magic marker drawing of a muscular working-class hero masturbating while walking, with emission exuding from his penis. It is difficult to see anything more than a satire of those old Soviet posters of chimneys spitting steam, supposed to bear witness to the virility of the communist enterprise but rather crying out for overcompensation. Oleg Tistol imagines a Ukrainian currency adorned with tired, dignified and damaged faces. Tistol, who is a “Painting in Excess” star, contributes a huge mural of Polish nationalist hero (and Russian military opponent) Jósef Piłsudski on horseback. This nostalgic look to the West is counterbalanced by a hopeless self-portrait of the artist, mouthless and strangled by a high black collar, with two vials of strychnine in front of him. Yes, indeed: these painters were prepared for unpleasant eventualities.
Then there is the huge toxic cloud hanging over the exhibit. For Westerners, the Chernobyl disaster represented the emptiness and ineptitude of the late Soviet system. But the Ukrainians did not have the luxury of thinking: they feared for their lives. Georgii Senchenko’s ‘Sacred Landscape of Pieter Breugel’, on display for the first time following the collapse, is pure post-apocalyptic terror. The Kiev painter reinvents Breughel’s famous “Beekeepers”, enlarging them to massive size and staining them with sinister reds and dangerous oranges. In Senchenko’s version, the flat masks worn by the pollen collectors take on the appearance of protective gear, and the man collecting the honey in the tree seems to be running away, with pathetic futility, from the coming storm. nuclear.
In this context, the older work of Tiberiy Silvashi generates disturbing connotations. His “guest”, a squatting, burly man with a tight smile, is rendered in a glowing red oil that looks suspiciously like a bloodstain. “Midnight” is even more unsettling: a nondescript streetscape in green and red, with vaguely human shapes crammed into a high-speed train car seen through an overly bright opening in a city otherwise claimed by shadows.
To get to the special exhibition galleries where “Painting in Excess” is on display, a visitor must pass by two other cutting-edge and historic art exhibits – one dedicated to activist and educator Angela Davis, and another devoted to images of the ‘new woman’ in London and Paris at the turn of the 20th century. All of this is volatile, and it makes a trip to the Zimmerli a rough and invigorating ride.
“Painting in Excess” is also reminiscent of the Zimmerli’s fine collection of Russian dissident and Eastern European fissile art, some of which is permanently visible on the second floor. Decades after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, this art seems raw and retains the power to shock. Before statesmen, and perhaps even before spies, it was artists who saw the collapse coming. It is something that we, in our own tired and tottering empire, must consider carefully.
“Painting in Excess: The Kiev Art Revival, 1985-1993” will be on display until March 13 at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick; visit zimmerli.rutgers.edu.
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