Wind from the East 

Despite a cold, windy Friday with snow flurries flying, large crowds flocked to the Elaine L. Jacob Gallery at Wayne State University’s Old Main for the opening of the current show, "Modernism and Postmodernism: Russian Art of the Ending Millennium." Viewed as a gauge of the current status of contemporary art, this traveling exhibit of 13 Russian artists (some of whom no longer reside in Russia) is truly art history in the making.

A panel discussion at the opening included gallery director Sandra Dupret, curator Alexandre Gertsman, and artists Michael Odnoralov and Irina Nakhova. During the discussion, Nakhova, once a beloved professor at WSU, was asked in what direction artists were moving, whereupon she sincerely replied, "I don’t know."

It’s true that no one really knows, but what’s striking is our obsession with what’s going to happen. With this show, as perhaps with all exhibits, there’s an underlying sense that critics and audiences alike are restlessly waiting to see what artists will come up with in order to propel us forward. Isn’t it possible to simply sit back, enjoy the ride and see where art takes us?

"Flux" best describes the current situation of postmodernism – studying yesterday and anticipating tomorrow so as to figure out today. Consumed with looking back in time (the "retro" pursuit of days gone by), the artists in this show choose from the past whatever seems useful and recombine it to create something new. According to Gertsman, the art of today "contains in itself a nostalgic remembrance of the past while attempting to foresee the future."

Symbols of the recent past abound in this collection: classical figures and architecture, Marlene Dietrich and Stalin, all stirred together to create a new ideological soup. The works recall for us Soviet nationalist beliefs (Lenin’s regime admonished artists to produce only works glorifying the proletariat), while simultaneously deconstructing traditional Russian mythology and breaking free of the old ideology.

Andrej Barov’s photocollage, "The Old Farytale," shows this restructuring of antiquated beliefs, as a young child inspecting a rose towers over classical architecture – thus youth (or new ideas) conquers the authority of the worn-out system. These collages, including Donald Duck in Nazi garb, are both humorous and grotesque.

We find Odnoralov also absorbed in juxtaposing disparate objects. His fantastical paintings live inside dream and memory, which reveal, he says, "the kitsch and the political" or "kitsch and propaganda." His painting "Tarrot Cards" combines abstract landscapes of flattened geometrical patterns and saturated blues sandwiched between a prone nude figure and architecture suggesting the Victorian Age.

Nakhova’s sculptures, part of her "Campings" series, prove her unique ability to astound. In these, she has painted three worn-out, rusty old cots with images of draped classical figures. Here something sacred is applied to something so banal yet extraordinarily beautiful.

We seem to be looking ahead to what comes next in the name of progress – but it’s especially poignant for the Russian people striving to reform their country. The turning of the dial usually sparks enhanced creativity, so these artists, who are also members of our avant-garde, are being particularly scrutinized. Through their art, will we be able to "foresee the future"?

Liz DiDonna writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com

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