New York

Eric Bulatov, Oleg Vassilyev

Phyllis Kind Gallery

Whatever the sociopolitical import of these paintings as commentary on Russian life, past and present, they are marvels of ironic realism. Oleg Vassilyev employs dissolves and blunt inner frames to isolate and monumentalize photographic details of Russian reality, suggesting the macabre prison Russian society is. Eric Bulatov’s quasi-Impressionist technique and use of glaringly bright colors perversely understates a drab but dangerous social reality. Thus, a menacing image of Lenin on a poster in Farewell, Lenin, 1991, dominates the scene. Indeed, his image has appropriated all its brightness, reducing the lives of the painting’s inhabitants to a relative colorlessness that reflects the joylessness of daily life. Similarly, in Happy New Year, 1990, it is the bright, high-flying banners in the otherwise innocuous scene that signal the horrific power of the Communist dictatorship. For the colors ironically announce the reappearance of the police-state soldier in the streets of everyday life, going about his sinister inquisitional business. In The Twentieth Century, 1990, an abstract, impersonal sea of red floods the old, personal Russian world. In Vassilyev’s Twilight and Walk in the Rain, both 1990, a very public blackness frames private, intimate human activities and nature like pincers, threatening them with extinction.

The strategy these artists use to bespeak the nothingness of Russian society is one of seemingly innocent, but in fact ironical, contrast. However, it is not clear from their works that irony is a successful instrument against the overwhelming drabness and banality of the Russian world that Communist ideology has created. Irony is at best a finger in the dam of grim Russian reality, but the dam has already burst. Rather than conveying a sense of ironical resistance, their works leave us, no doubt unintentionally, with a sense of the regime’s triumphant mundaneness. Egalitarianism has had a leveling effect, or, rather, the state has appropriated all color and joie de vivre.

Behind the understated, even bland facade of these works, one senses forboding and hidden disaster. It is as though these pictures do not dare to speak their minds, just as nobody in the USSR did until recently, when it become evident just how distraught and dissatisfied the citizenry was. In other words, Bulatov and Vassilyev use a version of official state realism to convey the air of unreality typical of a repressive regime with many skeletons in its closet. More subtly, they have shown how the official, bright face, intended to convey social- and self-satisfaction, that this society puts on is ironically truthful, for it bespeaks its tragic hollowness.

Donald Kuspit