Critics’ Picks

  • E. Haeckel, Acanthracts, 1905, lithograph from the book “The Beauty of Forms in Nature.”

    E. Haeckel, Acanthracts, 1905, lithograph from the book “The Beauty of Forms in Nature.”

    The Crystallography of Malevich and Leonidov

    Gallery Na Shabolovke
    Serpukhovskiy Val, 24, building 2 Shabolovskaya metro station
    December 6, 2019–February 9, 2020

    The Russian avant-garde eagerly and indiscriminately absorbed the novelties of modernity, from the invention of radio and cinema; to developments in modern transportation, electrification, and advertising; to X-rays and crystallography—the subject of curator Alexandra Selivanova’s research-driven exhibition at Moscow’s Gallery Na Shabolovke. In 1912, the German physicist Max von Laue observed that X-rays passing through crystals produced diffraction patterns, an insight that informed father-and-son duo William and Lawrence Bragg’s analysis of crystalline structures. Following her sensational 2019 show “Gastev. How to work”—which turned a spotlight on revolutionary trade unionist and poet Aleksei Gastev—Selivanova surveys the different ways in which these discoveries and technologies of vision made an indelible impression on Russia’s vanguard artists, who saw in the X-ray a metaphor for the optics of a new art, capable of revealing the hidden essence of things.

    Installed in the manner of a cabinet of curiosities, “The Crystallography of Malevich and Leonidov” makes explicit the influence of scientific imagery—such as Wilson Bentley’s photomicrographic pictures of snowflakes—on artistic experiments, placing paintings, graphic studies, and spatial constructions by the likes of El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko, and Karl Ioganson on equal footing with mineral specimens, specialist publications, and technical studies of crystals and microbes. For the Futurist composer and painter Mikhail Matyushin, the crystal represented a microcosm, an ur-form. From 1914 to 1915 he passionately painted a series of self-portraits in the guise of a crystal, which he sought to simplify and distill down to its fundamental qualities. The Suprematists, led by Kazimir Malevich, saw in crystals evidence of the rational organization of nature, while the Constructivists, represented here by architects Ivan Leonidov and Yakov Chernikhov, among others, were concerned with the systematic regularity of their lattice structures, studying the microworlds of snowflakes and minerals from an aesthetic point of view. Far from attempting the microscopic scrutiny of the kind achieved by Bentley and the Braggs, Selivanova’s exhibition merely scratches the surface of its rich and complex topic, demonstrating the extent to which the legacy of the Soviet avant-garde remains underexplored.

  • View of “Jura Shust: NEOPHYTE,” 2019-20.

    View of “Jura Shust: NEOPHYTE,” 2019-20.

    Jura Shust

    Fragment Gallery
    3-Y Krasnosel'skiy Pereulok, 19
    December 14, 2019–February 13, 2020

    Slavic mythology meets a globalized illicit industry and sacral rituals move to digital platforms in Jura Shust's “NEOPHYTE,” the Berlin-based Belarusian artist's inaugural show at Fragment Gallery. At the exhibition’s entrance, a wall installation of iron soleplates outfitted with green strobe lights illuminates a display of onions growing in wine glasses—an allusion to Soviet home gardening and to the anonymous web-browsing software Tor (also known as “The Onion Router”). The next room houses more strange things: a crushed bicycle suspended from the ceiling and encrusted with fern fronds and resin; focus group–generated graphics predicting viewers’ patterns of optical attention; mysterious packets wrapped in blue eclectic tape; and a large screen looping the exhibition’s titular video, Neophyte, 2018–19.

    Over approximately fifteen minutes, a group of young people, dressed in white and equipped with smartphones, wanders the foggy woods in pursuit of an unknown substance. They then lay blissed-out on the ground, and a done camera slowly pulls back to reveal the urban sprawl of Minsk. Shust’s video alludes to the ritual search—shared among many eastern and northern European traditions and famously represented in Nikolai Gogol’s “The Eve of Ivan Kupala”—for the mythical fern flower on the night of the summer solstice, but more immediately to the increase in drug trafficking in post-Soviet states over the last decade. The rise of the dark net has made procedure quite simple: Transfer money to a dealer and receive in return a map or picture of the place where the zakładka, or “stash,” is hidden.

    Shust’s subject is a particularly fraught one in Russia, where any non-condemnatory portrayal of narcotics can be defined as “drug propaganda” and severely punished. The artist himself has said that the show “is just a metaphor,” though its meaning remains enigmatic. It might be a vision of a lifestyle constructed around taboo practices, or of our increasingly networked, information-oriented culture’s inexhaustible search for fleeting, illusory highs.