Critics’ Picks

  • Maria Safronova, Ready, 2017, oil on wood, 16 1/2 x 18 7/8''.

    Maria Safronova, Ready, 2017, oil on wood, 16 1/2 x 18 7/8''.

    Maria Safronova

    Triumph Gallery
    Ilyinka St., 3/8, building 5
    March 6–April 5, 2020

    Actual and fictional, or fictionalized, catastrophes have been increasingly mixed up in modern consciousness. From recent ecological disasters resonating with HBO’s Chernobyl and the disintegration of half of all life in Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War, to speculative discussions about the dismantling of democracy in the wake of COVID-19, the postapocalyptic turn in culture and society is well underway, and we are only belatedly taking notice.

    Inspired by Soviet educational posters, the two series of paintings presented in Maria Safronova’s exhibition “What If?” portray the lead-up to and the aftermath of a cataclysm. In her “Civil Defense” works (2017–) dystopian scenes of student life slip into Foucauldian allegories of power and social regulation: Children learn how to assemble Kalashnikov rifles in a classroom; teenagers wear hazmat suits and perform rescue drills in a biohazard area. On the contrary, Safronova’s “Cabinets” series (2019–) shows us desolate spaces: abandoned schools, libraries with books scattered on the floor, and empty swimming pools. Neither body of work offers any indication of what caused these scenarios.

    As a sort of old-schooler, Safronova is stingy with the explanations. A graduate of the Surikov Institute, a conservative academic art institution in Russia, she continues the tradition of late Soviet painting, typified by faint colors, simplified compositions, neutral backgrounds, and muted details. Unlike most of her colleagues from the school, however, the artist has embraced the contemporary art context, showing her austere, anxious paintings of classrooms, for instance, in the fifth edition of the quite progressive Ural Industrial Biennial last year.

    Humanity doesn’t need a novel virus to destroy itself—we had been seeing to that already, as Safronova’s fictional apocalypses so uncannily suggest. However, in her painting Abandoned Lot, 2020, which shows children at play with a ball and a kite between endless gray apartment blocks, the artist suggests that humanity might also be the cure.

  • View of “‘We Treasure Our Lucid Dreams.’ The Other East and Esoteric Knowledge in Russian Art 1905–1969,” 2020, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow. Photo: Alexey Narodizkiy.

    View of “‘We Treasure Our Lucid Dreams.’ The Other East and Esoteric Knowledge in Russian Art 1905–1969,” 2020, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow. Photo: Alexey Narodizkiy.

    “‘We Treasure Our Lucid Dreams.’ The Other East and Esoteric Knowledge in Russian Art 1905–1969”

    Garage Museum of Contemporary Art
    Krimsky Val, 9
    January 31–May 10, 2020

    Tapping into the recent craze for spiritually minded exhibitions, “‘We Treasure Our Lucid Dreams.’ The Other East and Esoteric Knowledge in Russian Art 1905–1969” throws down the gauntlet to the formalist art history of Soviet art. It instead proposes, through a wide array of archival documents, an alternative narrative in which creative and spiritual inquiries were closely related to extrasensory perception, mystical practices, and occult knowledge as informed by the conditions of the fin de siècle, World War I, and the collapse of the Russian Empire. As in any time of upheaval, those dissatisfied with rational explanations of life and society had two choices: retreat to now-discredited philosophies or seek other ways of understanding the forces reshaping human experience.

    Curators Katya Inozemtseva and Andrey Misiano stage this aesthetic program in a gallery space with white sloping walls, made of pleated fabric, that suggest shrines of an unknown secret order. Leaving behind iconic figures of Russian esoteric knowledge such as theosophist theoretician Madame Blavatsky and painter Nicholas Roerich, the exhibition spotlights lesser-known heroes, like poet Andrei Bely and his wife Asya Turgeneva—both of whom were members of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical Society in the Goetheanum—artist Margarita Sabashnikova-Voloshina, and others who chose to live on the fringes of the empire. Contemporary artists were brought in to elucidate the exhibition’s themes: Performance collective Vasya Run transforms George Gurdjieff’s sacred movements into a manual for spiritual and somatic awareness, which is performed by teenagers from Moscow’s urban outskirts, while Alexandra Sukhareva turns the exhibition space into a sleep laboratory and holds collective “hypnotic” séances. Sukhareva aims for another kind of connection—not only between visitors, but also between systems of knowledge both rational and esoteric.