New York

Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid

The relation between conceptual art and painting remains an uncertain marriage. It was in defiance of their rigid separation by the cultural status quo that Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid first sullied their “pure” idea art with the sensual, and therefore more marketable, trappings of painting. It’s now been long enough since this collaborative duo returned to the academic style in which they were trained, a gesture at once sentimental and satiric, that the irony one expected to find in their most recent show stemmed in part from the eclipse of their conceptual status, the ease with which they have settled into the art world’s commodity machinery. Komar and Melamid may have drifted away from the art-market innuendo that barbed much of their previous work (such as their project of buying and selling souls), but the paintings they now produce are equally sarcastic as allusive caricatures of global cultural politics. The ambiguous duality of wealth and poverty that art may embrace, on either commercial or conceptual terms, was but one teaser in their earlier work, and it stemmed from the same disorienting cultural schizophrenia made explicit in their new paintings.

Komar and Melamid’s appropriated Old Master technique, that of layering glaze overglaze to build up form, stands out like a historical albatross even in this appropriative age. It is specific to the cultural politics they address, a contrived slant on the propagandistic grandeur of the officially sanctioned Socialist Realist genre in their native Russia. These latest works are multi-paneled canvases executed in their previous mock-historical style, to which they’ve applied an eclectic hodgepodge of Modernist and Post-Modernist gestures. The large scale of the panels and the jam-packed installation emphasized the overcrowded, claustrophobic condition of our current art politics and economy The ridicule levied on the standards of taste established by socialistic governments has now been applied to the broader (but just as narrowly conceived) spectrum of Western (capitalist) Modernism. Each cliché of invention is a specimen selected from an endless rack of styles without content. The pluralistic glut of current artistic production is exposed as a laughable excess of commercial hype, “new and improved” commodities churned out to satisfy the appetite of a bourgeois consumer society Komar and Melamid’s expanded cast of esthetic follies acts out a farce of accepted values—social, political, sexual, esthetic, or whatever else comes into the artists’ line of fire.

Komar and Melamid’s attitude is a rare one of distance without dispassion. Their peculiar relation to their subject matter, that of identification on one level and alienation on another, is due, one would suspect, to the bizarre schism in their heritage. They are caught in a global power rift: expatriates of a communist regime living and working in the most capitalistic art system ever, they are neither entirely Russian nor Western, but uncomfortably both. With two homes that fail to equal one, they remain displaced, alien creatures whose mixed cultural program cannot help but measure the differences and similarities between its opposing cultural factions. They can see that New York is the warehouse of America’s cultural colonialization of the world, just as they have seen the cultural stagnation caused by the Soviet government’s control of art. They have the proper perspective from which to see the joke, and the gift of making it just as obvious for anyone to see.

Carlo McCormick