New York

Anton Solomoukha

Since 1991 the paintings of Anton Solomoukha, an artist born in Kiev but living in Paris, have been playing with imagery derived from a catalogue of mechanical toys printed in the ’20s. Not surprisingly, nostalgia and reverie are key elements of these pictures. Yet they are about everything but naiveté or innocence. In earlier paintings from the series, shown in a four-person exhibition at this gallery in 1991, the images from the catalogue—not always recognizable in the paintings as being of toys—were mixed with fragments of nude figures, or rather fragments of pictures of nudes, since, like the toys, these were clearly versions of already existing images. So this nostalgia, this reverie, this yearning even, in which Solomoukha indulges—and in which he is inviting us to indulge—is at least in part erotic in nature.

In these newer paintings, the images of toys, meticulously rendered as printed, stand alone. Their dialogue is with the surfaces that contain them rather than with other kinds of imagery. Those surfaces are earthy and metallic, at once mineral and organic, but, also, almost too elegant—their highly refined painterly touch and rich, subtly modulated color camouflaged as a moody monotone field. They are the “ground” not only in the usual art-critical sense of the word, but also the ground from which an archaeological find is excavated. For these paintings evoke, if only to contradict it, an archaeological model of memory. Memory is seen as an artifice, a device—a toy.

The images—mostly animal toys and musical instruments, but also guns and airplanes—often speak of the cultivation of the love for exoticism and adventure, of the arousal within a child’s mind of the desire for things distant and mysterious, for worlds to be conquered. Certainly there are references to colonialism and warfare, but more to Solomoukha’s point is how toys can function for children as art does for adults: as models for cognitive and affective behavior. Perhaps even more significant is that in both cases their effectiveness in this role may be dependent on those exposures of artifice or mechanism,those flaws in verisimilitude or gaps of implausibility which imagination readily fills with its own overflow. This is confirmed by the very construction of Solomoukha’s pictures. There is indeed something “mechanical” about his recourse to the expedient of a ready-made memory, a childhood lived by the artist only through the dissolution into paintings of shards and fragments of imagery, which—accompanied perhaps by cryptic and equally disjointed captions, and planted there by the same hand that unearths them—gather around themselves an atmosphere of suggestive mystery.

“Only the Germans and the Russians, of all Europeans, possess the real genius for making toys,” wrote that great connoisseur of European bourgeois childhood, Walter Benjamin. The reason, he wrote, has less to do with any simplicity of form than with a self-revealing construction that allows the child to imagine how the toy is made. Likewise, even when he is most cunningly contriving an air of mystery, Solomoukha is always even more craftily “baring the device,” not in order to demystify, but to make room for the deeper mystery the viewer’s perception brings to the work.

Barry Schwabsky