(UPDATE: This show has been extended to April 10.)
Though the Russian bear glowers menacingly across the border, Ukraine is, at this writing, an independent country. It has its own language, its own government, its own historic metropolis (Kyiv) and its own distinctive relationship to its hulking frenemy to the Northeast.
Yet it wasn’t so long ago that Russia and Ukraine were both part of the USSR, and creative people in Kyiv had no choice but to jump to the tune called by the Kremlin. When glasnost came to Ukraine in a rush in the 1980s, local artists had to rediscover their autonomy as well as their sense of cultural identity.
Their canvases registered those epic reverberations. The astonishing, gutsy, occasionally terrifying “Painting in Excess: Kyiv’s Art Revival, 1985-1993,” on view at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick until March 13, finds Ukrainian artists crawling from the wreckage of a collapsed empire, sifting through the fragments and carrying what they could forward into a scary future. The show, shrewdly organized and curated by Olena Martynyuk of Rutgers University alongside the Zimmerli’s resident Russian art expert Julia Tulovsky, finds the Ukrainian capital reeling from a triple whammy: the economic stagnation and cultural bankruptcy of late Soviet rule, the crumbling of centralized authority in Moscow and the unspeakable ecological disaster of the Chernobyl meltdown, which occurred a mere two hours up the Dnieper River from Kyiv. If these artists seem bewildered, thoroughly destabilized and more than a bit radioactive … well, you would have been, too.
Given the chaos of the moment that the show captures, it is amazing how incisive and pugnacious these paintings are. The ground may be shaking beneath them, but these creators are bouncing on the balls of their feet, wide awake and ready to throw punches. Perestroika allowed Ukrainian artists to turn their brushes against the official ideology and ossified institutions of the Soviet Union, and that they do. But they are also more than willing to take sideswipes at the decadent West, too. “Painting in Excess” makes the devastation and exhaustion of Kyiv manifest, and some of these pieces are upsetting, but there are no nihilists in this show. As frank and critical as the painters can be, no one among them seems thrilled that the world they knew was going up in smoke. Nevertheless, there is a sense of bravery that radiates from all of these works, and a conviction that once the Russians are gone, Ukrainians might be able to find themselves, and rebuild a place of their own.
Martynyuk and Tulovsky provide historical precedent for the ‘80s efflorescence of Kyiv art — an entire roomful of it. Khrushchev-era Ukrainian abstraction, playful and colorful, some of it actively suppressed by the killjoy state, lights up an interior gallery. What is remarkable about this work is that it doesn’t feel particularly Russian, or even Eastern European: it has its own rhythm and sense of color, and it is all quietly aware of its own nonconformity. Yet the closer in time to the cataclysm “Painting in Excess” gets, the bolder its subversion becomes, almost to the point of recklessness.
Did Valeria Troubina really get away with “Bowing,” an amazingly corrosive peek at Orthodox practice, with bent figures and dripping white paint, in 1985? Pussy Riot was pilloried for less. In “Blue Country II,” Sergei Sviatchenko stuffs a glum crew of miners inside a brown box of scrawled paint and superimposes a grabbing hand atop them; this is about as far from the glorification of the proletariat of bland Soviet realist art as it is possible to 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 Kyiv is braced for a systemic collapse.
The exhibit is unified by that sense of foreboding. But it also hints that mischief and an unwillingness to cooperate are core elements of the Ukrainian aesthetic. Many of the artists in the show grope toward a post-imperial identity that might be cruder, more impish and more anti-authoritarian than Russian grandeur accommodated. The impossibly named Olexander Hnylytskyj gives us a magic marker drawing of a muscular working-class hero masturbating as he strides, with an emission exuding from his penis. It’s hard to see this as anything but a satire of those vintage Soviet posters of smokestacks belching steam, meant to testify to the virility of the communist enterprise but screaming of overcompensation instead. Oleg Tistol imagines a Ukrainian currency decorated with weary, dignified, battered-looking faces. Tistol, who is a breakout star of “Painting in Excess,” contributes to a huge mural of Polish nationalist hero (and Russian military opponent) Jósef Piłsudski on horseback. That longing look Westward 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 contingencies.
Then there is the massive toxic cloud that hangs over the exhibition. To Westerners, the disaster at Chernobyl represented the emptiness and ineptitude of the late Soviet system. But Ukrainians didn’t have the luxury of reflection: they were afraid for their lives. Georgii Senchenko’s “Sacred Landscape of Pieter Breugel,” first exhibited in the wake of the meltdown, is pure post-apocalyptic terror. The Kiev painter reimagines Breughel’s famous “Beekeepers,” blowing it up to massive size and staining it with lurid reds and hazmat oranges. In Senchenko’s version, the flat masks worn by the pollen collectors take on the quality of protective gear, and the man gathering honey in the tree appears to be fleeing, with pathetic futility, from the arrival of the nuclear storm.
In this context, older work by Tiberiy Silvashi generates ominous overtones. His “Guest,” a crouched and behatted man with a tight smile, is rendered in shiny red oil that looks suspiciously like a smear of blood. “Midnight” is even more destabilizing: an undefinable streetscape in green and red, with vaguely human shapes crammed into a speeding train car seen through a too-bright aperture 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 through two other pointed, historical-minded art exhibitions — one dedicated to the 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 stuff, and it makes a trip to the Zimmerli a rough and invigorating ride.
“Painting in Excess” is also a reminder of the Zimmerli’s fine collection of dissident Russian and fissile Eastern European art, some of which is permanently on view on the second floor. Decades after the disassembly of the Berlin Wall, this art feels raw, and retains the power to shock. Before the statesmen did, and maybe even before the spies, it was the artists who saw the collapse coming. That is something for us, in our own tired and tottering empire, to consider carefully.
“Painting in Excess: Kyiv’s Art Revival, 1985-1993″ will be on display through March 13 at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick; visit zimmerli.rutgers.edu.
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