New York

Leonid Sokov

Trabia-Macafee Gallery

In this show of recent paintings and sculptures, Russian émigré artist Leonid Sokov continues to view political and cultural figures as tokens of increasingly indistinguishable ideologies. Whether depicting Stalin, the Gorbachevs, Genghis Kahn, or Marilyn Monroe, Sokov renders his subjects in crude caricatures whose pronounced two-dimensionality is deliberately metaphoric. He attacks other symbols in his three-dimensional work. Upside Down Kremlin, 1988, consists of a column of wood with an outsized emblematic star for a base. (While still in Russia Sokov was a member of Sots Art, a group of artists who treated Soviet icons subversively.) Sokov often borrows the techniques of Russian folk art in conscious reaction to the officially sanctioned style of Social Realism; in so doing, he joins a tradition of artists who have reacted against cultural Westernization by turning to folk art and literature, in an attempt to retrieve their country’s indigenous culture. But Sokov does so with a knowing irony.

Sokov sometimes combines Minimalist strategies (flat, solid-color backgrounds and simple geometries) with a naïf style. His use of buoyant color and crude humor tempers the anger of his art. In Red Temptation, 1988, a gold snake made of wire-wrapped wood splinters slithers around the edges of a rectangle of pure red. In Sokov’s paintings on metal, figures are set against ubiquitous red backgrounds and framed by sprays of splashy, sketchily rendered flowers. In one, Stalin is portrayed as the perfect bourgeois, ensconced in an upholstered armchair in a setting reminiscent of a 19th-century salon. By combining historical and fairytale figures, Sokov reduces politics to the simplicity of folk legend while revealing both to be born of mythmaking. In Michael and Marilyn, 1988, a black bear (a figure of Russian mythology, here associated with Gorbachev) confronts the prototypical American sex goddess beneath a plaque reading “Glasnost”; both figures are reduced to brainless puppets of their respective “industries.”

Sokov’s art is a fusion of opposites: modern politics and folk mythology, high art and folk art strategies, East and West. While the humor in his work is often easily grasped (Hammer and Sickle, 1988, transforms the stern symbol of Communism into a fur-covered stuffed toy), much of its significance is less accessible to Western viewers. References to specific folk legends that Soviet viewers would understand immediately are opaque to us. Yet by mingling elements from two worlds, Sokov produces complex commentaries that will tax the understanding of all viewers.

Lois E. Nesbitt