Washington, DC

Rimma and Valeriy Gerlovin

Robert Brown Gallery

Before emigrating to the United States in 1980, Russian artists Rimma and Valeriy Gerlovin were involved in linguistic experiments centered on language’s role in the construction of social reality. Like the work of other young and unsanctioned artists in Moscow during the ’70s, their work took the form of artists’ books, performance, and installations; it had political overtones not only by virtue of its content but because of its underground status. In such an environment, the very act of viewing unsanctioned exhibitions made one a participant in unofficial cultural/political activities.

Because there is no significant division between “official” and “unofficial” culture in the United States, viewing art is not participatory in the same sense as in Russia.Thus, to involve the viewer more actively in their art, the Gerlovins have had to develop new approaches, including those seen in this exhibit of 12 works entitled “Photo-glyphs.” In these pieces, the artists posed for the camera with words and signs painted on their faces and arms, in an attempt to produce simple images that also present visual and linguistic conundrums that the viewer must decipher. The results are what they call “still performances,” a carefully composed combination of close-up portraiture and theatrical pantomime that uses words, images, and abstract symbols. Tic-Tac-Toe, 1990, shows Valeriy’s face with a tic-tac-toe game of X’s and O’s painted on it; his mouth, open as if he were about to speak, forms the winning O in the bottom row of the grid, while at the same time revealing an X on his tongue that cancels the game. BE-LIE-VE, 1990, is a word piece in which Rimma pulls two clumps of hair across her face to form a large X; the word “BELIEVE,” written across her forehead, is divided by this X isolating the word “lie” that is its center.

In these photoglyphs, the Gerlovins treat the body as the primary site in the process of signification. This is a result of their contention that life’s meaning has its source in instinctive and unconscious psychological forces; their use of the body as both prop and canvas is a literal and figurative demonstration of this. Their conundrums—conundrums the viewer must decipher—show these forces to be contradictory but held together in a paradoxical union/balance of opposites. This is suggested in Breathe, 1990, a word piece in which Rimma, posed obliquely before the camera, is shown holding a leafy branch. Appearing on either side of her mouth, which is covered by a leaf with the word “eat” written on it, are the letters “br” and “he,” which combine with the word “eat” to spell “breathe.” The double meaning underscored by this division of the word “breathe,” suggests the cycle of plant and human life as a symmetrical process of eating and exchanging mutually beneficial and mutually toxic gases through expiration and inspiration.

This work’s lack of formal symmetry, however, raises an interesting question. If the symmetrical balance of opposing forces is as fundamental as the Gerlovins contend, shouldn’t it also exist at the formal level of composition? It does in works such as Tic-Tac-Toe, BE-LIE-VE, and Aqua Vitae, 1989. These efforts are particularly convincing because the head—through frontality and bilateral symmetry—is divided by a vertical axis producing a symmetrical visual framework. When placed within this kind of composition, the symmetrically arranged texts become integral to the visual scheme. In this way, the arrangement of text and body, at the formal level, fuse with the double meanings expressed by the words, symbols, and images. In these works the idea of life as a complex balance of opposing forces is profoundly and convincingly revealed.

Howard Risatti