New York

Komar and Melamid

The works in this show could be interpreted as the frames of a film. The installation itself suggested as much, with the works arranged linearly at eye level, running the full length of the gallery walls with little space between each piece. The only exceptions were several works in the second room, arranged on two or more levels to give an effect of multivisioned projection.

We know the name of the film’s two “directors” but who are the characters and what is the plot? The characters are the stereotypes of 20th-century painting, and the plot hinges upon a juxtaposition that is amusing, mysterious, caustic, but never casual. The stereotypes can easily be rattled off; you name it, it’s on the list. Surrealism, abstraction, Socialist Realism, Pop Art, Photorealism, neo-Expressionism, and even pornography—they’re all there. It seems that Komar and Melamid, wanting to leave out nothing, mix up all these elements in the most explosive possible manner. Having previously explored and abandoned classicism, they now have entered the vast arena of quotation and reappropriation of pictorial commonplaces, without ever losing their personal hallmark, a touch for the grotesque.

Their visual irony and subversion of images seems to draw directly from Surrealist techniques, particularly those of film, with its narration through nonanalogous segments and its leaps of meaning and visual syntax. Every track, every individual scene, tells basically the same story. (If irony can kill, then this work is indeed a weapon in the hands of two unscrupulous terrorists.)

In Little Boat and Little Locomotive, 1984–85, six successive panels depict possible approaches of the memory to childhood, to American cinema, and to the parody of the Little Father. The linguistic context does not provide for an ordered succession of discursive fragments, but rather presents them in the arbitrary temporal rhythm typical of dreams. In this way, realistic and abstract geometric painting are united. A toy locomotive can be interpreted as a found object from the realm of memory, but also as a pop quotation. And the face of a baby (looking like a human version of E.T.) can appear next to the face of Lenin, shining down from the sky like a large moon—the codified figure of the Russian Revolution. In the last panel, the moon/Lenin metaphor is revealed definitively. In close-up detail, we see that his face is marked by craters and valleys, like a lunar surface photographed from a satellite. As in a dream, a science fiction character merges with the Little Father, who is wrenched by force from heroic revolutionary mythology and placed within a more banal analogy—the parascientific.

The Minotaur as Participant in the Yalta Conference, 1984, tells a more complicated story. The individual panels are interwoven in a labyrinthine, nonsequential development, closely aligned to the visual system utilized by Max Ernst in his Une Semaine de bonté (A week of kindness, 1934). An extraordinary sequence of images drawn from different contexts, real and imaginary, allows Komar and Melamid to wander about at will through the realm of quotation, irony, and paradox. The climax of the scene occurs in the central panel. Stalin, his arm raised in both authority and paternal blessing, points his index finger upward—and his finger ends in the head of a penis.

The theme of sex and blood appears frequently in these works, as does that of crime and punishment. An excessive sexuality, openly hard-core and detached, is linked to punishment. This is not the prolific and somewhat mechanical sensuality of the working class, but rather the morbid and corrupt sensuality attributed to the bourgeoisie as the end result of capitalist perversion. And punishment, the “inevitable moral consequence,” is depicted in scenes of Grand Guignol, but still in the realm of the grotesque and within the vaster context of irony.

Is this, then, an incursion into the psychological sphere of taboos? Certainly it is, and many taboos are explored: the taboo of the charismatic political leader, the taboo of sex, the taboo of cultural myths left undiscussed in the West. And all of these are made to seem absurd.

This pair of troublemakers, like Laurel and Hardy, move around in the territory of the obvious and the banal, turning everything upside down. They undermine common sense by reversing logical consequences, and, with a surprisingly light touch, they make what was thought to be heroic seem ridiculous.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.