The Arts: Freedom and Exile
Russian-born artists have much to contribute to the American creative scene. They combine reminiscences of their former homelands with ideas absorbed in the United States.
Vitaly Komar refracts his dream of a happy family into a utopia of personal, political and religious images.
In “Self-Portrait in a Mandala on the Roof of 718 Broadway”—his current New York address—his 6-year-old face, taken from an old family photo of himself and his parents before their divorce, peers out from the center of a primary-colored mandala. The layered universe of circles and triangles forms the symbolic landscape of a project he calls Three-Day Weekend, its vision of ecumenical coexistence clear in three white words that frame the innermost triangle: Friday, Saturday, Sunday.
In other works in the series-in-progress, Komar varies his icons: Sometimes he superimposes the childhood picture—a trinity of togetherness—with a legendary photograph of Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the Yalta Conference and a Jewish graveyard in ruins (“Yalta Conference at the Jewish Cemetery”); sometimes Magen Davids, crosses and crescents create a complicated celestial geometry. One of the pieces has a mandala with a hole into which viewers can put their own faces.
Komar, a 63-year-old mos- cow-born artist, has lived in New York since 1978. His work illustrates the directions Russian-born artists are taking in America as they search for self-discovery and experiment with techniques and concepts that flow from the openness of American society. While they have embraced the newfound freedom, many continue to struggle with the transition between cultures and a difficult fact of life: Once the dramatic collapse of the Iron Curtain receded from memory, interest in Russian artists also dissipated.
Dissident artists in the Soviet Union “pushed the limits of Russian tolerance” with art that challenged the system and critiqued Soviet culture, says Emil Silberman, a New York-based, Russian-born sculptor and physician. Their work gained notoriety from reports of repression, particularly with publicity from the “Bulldozer Show,” an open-air dissident artists’ exhibition destroyed by bulldozers on September 15, 1974. Jewish themes were officially forbidden and relegated to the underground. Quotas even kept aspiring artists out of academies, denying them a prerequisite for professional advancement.
New York gallery owner Ronald Feldman mounted the first American show of works by Komar and his former collaborator, Alex Melamid, in 1976 (many of their pieces had been smuggled out). “What attracted me to their art is its irreverence, its black humor of survival,” says Feldman, who continues to represent Komar as well as other Russian Jewish artists.
They have transferred the “bite and punch” of their artistic critiques to American soil, Feldman adds, but they are now competing with American artists.
One of Komar and Melamid’s earliest serial projects in the United States, We Buy and Sell Souls, parodied commercialism by replacing products such as Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup can with a bitter spirituality. Almost 600 viewers—including Warhol—signed contracts and “sold” their souls outright or on consignment. A black-and-white print from the series, “Auction of Souls,” proclaims “Fine Quality Souls for Every Taste.”
Unlike the acclaim Komar attained before he even emigrated, for Mikhail Gubin, leaving Ukraine in 1989 meant unveiling a clandestine artistic career. Barred from the Kharkov Art Institute, Gubin, 54, is self-taught. He worked in theater and stage production and became an electrician while painting on the side—largely in a surrealistic style—and participating in “apartment exhibitions” secretly mounted in private homes only for a few hours at a time.
After he emigrated, he recalls being “shocked by the many gorgeous styles of art” to which he had had no exposure, including Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollack. Much of Gubin’s work is now Expressionist, distorted for emotional affect, often bold and sometimes disturbing. He tries to change his style yearly, he says, to reflect his feelings. He also embraced Abstract Expressionism in part because his own instincts parallel the biblical commandment against creating graven images.
Gubin, who has had 22 solo and 200 group exhibitions, calls himself an “artist of the world.” He is proud of both his Jewish and American identities and marked his 15th anniversary in New York with a series of paintings about the city. In “Spring Street in New York,” yellow, white and red tulip-like splotches bloom in an urban landscape. The city’s energy—people, cars, homes—spills out as spontaneously as the paint Gubin mixes directly on the canvas. “I am striving for maximum emotional liberation,” he says. His mixed-media collages use junk mail and bills. Layering the collages with 19th-century etchings and lithographs, he says, his predecessors “come back to life and collaborate with me, or I reinterpret them….”
Younger artists who grew up in less restrictive conditions in the Former Soviet Union continue to daub their canvases with Russian colors, painting with brush strokes of nostalgia instead of negativity. In “Arrow 2,” Kiev-born Yevgenia Nayberg, 32, who moved to the United States in 1994 because of anti-Semitism, depicts a girl in pigtails pulling her home behind her in a red wagon. The white roof is separated from the rest of the house, decapitated by tree branches. “Your past is always with you, wherever you go,” says Nayberg, who describes her native country as her first love. She adds, “You may see its faults, but it doesn’t mean less to you.”
Though American illustration techniques opened a new world for her, “everything is still Russian about my art,” Nayberg admits. “In many ways, I mother my homesickness, nurture my nostalgia a lot.” She does not move in Russian art circles, but wishes she did. “We share a symbolic language,” she explains. A room with a bare light bulb, for instance, may suggest poverty to an American, but to a Russian it may be a sweet and intimate memory of childhood.
The question of Jewish art intrigues many Russian artists. “They don’t wear their Jewishness on their sleeve,” says Feldman, but their ethnic identities definitely find expression within their art. The Three-Day Weekend project was inspired partly by Komar’s memories of his grandfather, who, to observe Shabbat, went to great lengths to exchange Saturday for Sunday—the one day off allowed by the state. After Stalin’s death in 1953, two-day weekends were established, to his grandfather’s delight.
Iconoclasm plays an important role both in Komar’s understanding of Judaism and in his art. “I prefer to call it ‘idoloclasm,’” he says. “In Soviet Russia, the place of idols was occupied by official propaganda art. In the U.S., that role is occupied by popular culture, consumerism and the overproduction of things.” With Melamid, whom he met when they were students at the Stroganov Institute of Art and Design in Moscow, Komar created a Soviet version of Western Pop Art that focused on the overproduction of ideology, which they called SOTS-art (SOTS for socialist).
People’s Choice, a series from the 1990’s, grew out of the Soviet slogan, “The artist is the servant of the people.” An artist was not to depict his own understanding of beauty but what the masses wanted to see, Komar explains. “But how does the government decide what people need?” he asks. Komar and Melamid engaged pollsters to conduct surveys in the United States and Russia (and, later, in other countries) about the public’s preferences in painting. “America’s Most Wanted” shows a blue landscape with George Washington; “Russia’s Most Wanted” is eerily similar, except that Jesus sits in front of an evergreen tree.
Following the series the two stopped collaborating, and Melamid now lives in Europe. Their works are part of the collections of New York institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art as well as several European museums.
Komar’s desire to “imagine and represent the main hero of history—more powerful than even Lenin or Washington,” led him to create Symbols of the Big Bang, a series of canvases and drawings that depict the beginning of time and contain a variety of Jewish images: Magen Davids interlocking with swastikas, serpents, triangles, squares, circles and hourglasses. It debuted in 2004 at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York.
While komar’s brush sweeps his judaism onto a cosmic canvas, Gubin struggles with how to integrate his identity into his art. “It’s hard to make paintings that will be recognized as Jewish,” he says. “When you begin to work in this style you will be like a second Chagall. I want to be the first Gubin.”
Nevertheless, he remains sensitive to his ancestry: His grandfather was one of 15,000 Kharkov residents murdered by the Nazis, and he himself learned about being Jewish from street anti-Semitism, underground literature and government-sponsored books critical of religion that nonetheless gave examples from Torah stories. These inspired charcoals of biblical characters, such as Adam, Eve and Abel. Ever the observer, making dozens of drawings daily, Gubin even once sketched a Hasidic man on jury duty with him (“Waiting Room”).
Nayberg’s great-grandmother and great-aunt were killed along with 6,000 Jews from the town of Klintsy during the Holocaust; these losses have thrust the historic aspect of her identity forward. In “Homage to Roman Vishniac” (the famed photographer of European Jewish life before the Holocaust), a Jew carries a battered suitcase tied with string, but Hebrew letters spill out nonetheless.
“I feel a deep emotional need to define my existence and the fact that I’m still here,” says Nayberg, who has designed sets for two plays about World War II. “The war lives in me.”
In general, Nayberg explains, her art reflects her Jewish identity mainly in its simultaneously pessimistic and hopeful approach. And everything she creates is in some sense a self-portrait. In “Jewish Girl With a Balloon,” for example, a planet hovers on a string behind a sober-faced girl, her home tiny in the deep-red distance. A paper boat made from a map balances on her head and stockings hang on clotheslines. She is out of the orbit of the ordinary.
“When I lived in Kiev, everyone [said] my art looked Jewish—the art of an outsider,” she says. “Here, everyone says it looks Russian, but it’s still the art of an outsider.
It’s better than being mainstream.”
Nayberg has a successful freelance career as a painter, illustrator and set and costume designer for over 30 productions. She views herself as a translator of verbal metaphors into the visual. A graduate of Kiev’s School of the Arts, she received her master’s degree in theater design from California State University under the tutelage of Russian set designer Danila Korogodsky. Continuing the traditional Russian aesthetic, Nayberg creates alternative worlds onstage that reflect emotions rather than realistic settings.
Her paintings and illustrations juxtapose unusual and contradictory elements: heads sprout boats, typewriters and gourds, perhaps expressions of the artist’s journey from childhood to adulthood and her obsession with literature or simply the outgrowth of an exuberant personality that cannot resist a joke. Chagall- like floating characters in her illustrations expose her “big love” when she was younger.
Nayberg is now experimenting with collage and assemblage. “An artist should change lovers,” she explains.
Many artists have faced obstacles in their quest for recognition, struggling emotionally and financially to gain respect and to market their work in the unfamiliar commercial American art world. “Most Russian artists are on the periphery of the American art scene—even marginalized,” says Dr. Emil Silberman, who studied medicine because he feared he would not be able to survive as an artist. “Language and cultural barriers keep us out. Today, it is how you package your art as an investment.”
“There is a different style of presenting yourself in America,” agrees Nayberg—a more aggressive one that many Russians find jarring.
In addition to the commercial emphasis, artists here do not have the same intellectual and social standing as they did in the Soviet Union, adds Dr. Silberman. Consequently, some adopted other professions, continuing their art as an avocation; others have returned to the FSU. “Americans don’t tolerate art that screams and turns your soul upside down with emotions,” he notes. “Russians will salivate over a scene of social injustice and Americans won’t buy it. They want more decorative and calm work. Once the art undergoes that change it stops being Russian.”
Many Russian artists find it easier to sell their work in less competitive environments. Dmitry Gershengorin, a collector and promoter of Russian art who lives in Colorado, explains that these artists struggle less when they can “fit their art into the market” and when they depict American landscapes and themes.
Russian artists are passing on their knowledge to a new generation, Gershengorin notes. Museum exhibits of contemporary Russian art educate the general public as well as build a Russian audience. Gershengorin was cocurator of a recent show at Denver’s Mizel Museum called “Building Cultural Bridges: Art from the Former Soviet Union to America.”
Irina Kopelevich, one of the artists showcased in the exhibit, says it is much easier to find galleries to represent her in Denver. “I tried New York galleries, but since I don’t really have a name, they didn’t want to look at my work,” she says. Her fluid paintings in watercolor, tempera and ink wash play with color and movement. Whether she depicts a black-frocked Hasid striding forward against a gray office building and pink sky (“Jew in the City”) or a couple tangoing down a vivid street (“Tango”), Kopelevich says she tries to “paint music…. I am trying to freeze a moment.” Cities and their architecture also fascinate her: Prague, a postcard of romantic purples, greens and reds; Riga, with its bright cobblestone streets.
Like Gubin, Kopelevich, 56, was shut out of the art academy in her hometown of Riga because of Jewish quotas. “I was 17, and it was shocking to me that anti-Semitism was so open in state institutions,” she says. In 1980, she and her husband immigrated to Denver, which at the time had 40 Russian Jewish families (today it has thousands). She soon became pregnant and studied business to make a living. For the past 25 years, she has been painting seriously.
Kopelevich explores Jewish themes and characters in contemporary settings. “Simchat Torah” dances with three elongated blue Hasidim, one carrying a Torah, one holding a siddur and one with his thumb and forefinger making a circle, a gesture Kopelevich has observed older Jews using in conversation.
“Women of Power” parallels “Simchat Torah” in form: three pregnant women strut down a street, fetuses in their protruding bellies. A frog perches on the first one’s shoulder; the second has a penguin on a leash; a pink jaguar stands before the third. Women figure prominently in many of Kopelevich’s works: they gossip, knit, paint a room, admire collections in a museum. “The older I get, the more I appreciate women in my life,” she says.
For Nayberg, too, portraying women comes naturally. But she also fills her art with fish, giraffes and birds.
“They are all me,” she explains.
Nayberg has exhibited in national and international shows and recently had a show of 90 paintings, theater designs and photographs in Moscow.
“Maybe,” she says, “they forget I am Russian and want to see an American artist.”
Russian Art Online
- Mikhail Gubin: www.gubinart.com
- Vitaly Komar: www.komarandmelamid.org;www.feldmangallery.com
- Irina Kopelevich: www.mizelmuseum.org
- Yevgenia Nayberg: www.nayberg.org