New York

Oleg Vassiliev; Erik Bulatov

Phyllis Kind Gallery

The work of Erik Bulatov and Oleg Vassiliev lost much of its urgency with the dawn of freedom; the moral impetus that had been its primary interest in the pre-Glasnost period seemed to give way, post-1988, to self-conscious formalism. It was as if only their impeccable technique could hold onto viewers uninterested in and unacquainted with the difficult circumstances their art had previously resisted. As those Soviet structures disappeared, Bulatov became often banal, and Vassiliev, kitschy and sentimental. Both artists settled in the West—Bulatov in Paris, Vassiliev in New York—and there seemed to be ample evidence that their work was going to be permanently marked with the apologetic unimportance of immigrant disengagement. This winter, back-to-back one-man shows demonstrated clearly that each artist had transcended his new circumstances to make work of unimpeachably high standards.

Vassiliev’s practice in the past was overly indebted to Bulatov; in joint exhibitions, his paintings often seemed to cower behind Bulatov’s stronger colors, clearer messages, and purer conceptualism. This winter, he suddenly broke into full artistic maturity with a series of pale, shimmering paintings. Most Russian art is nostalgic, but it frequently fails to evoke the process of memory: nostalgia is a euphemistic word for a national tendency to drape the past in attractive colors and pretend that it was a time of happiness. Vassiliev’s pictures are like actual memories, painted in those pale dream colors that are just this side of black and white, portraying what is obviously stark and unlovely in an almost unbearably lovely fashion—bleached by a light so concentrated it obscures what it illuminates.

An Abandoned House in Tarusa, 1993, shows a rather run-down dacha behind a row of leafless trees by a puddle-splattered mud road. The canvas fades out toward the right side like a print from an overexposed old negative that is relinquishing its short store of information. It’s obvious that the house is decrepit, and that even at its best it wasn’t Chenonceau; the sky is gray here, and you can almost feel that damp Russian wind penetrating your coat. But the mood is one of helpless love: this is what it is like to remember, Vassiliev seems to say. There is a beauty to memory itself, even at its saddest. Vassiliev’s tenancy in the U.S. has allowed him to speak of Russia in a way that is inclusive, that embraces us instead of pushing us away, that speaks with love of flawed nationality, not just of his flawed nationality. If this is the experience of someone here recalling another country, then how might we recall America if we went somewhere else? Vassiliev’s technique is, as always, exquisite: from ten feet away his work looks almost photorealist, but up close it becomes apparent that it is a series of thin, almost Twombly-like scratches on a surface in many areas altogether untouched by paint —slight marks invested with indelible care.

Bulatov’s theme is always the difficulty of proscribed signification, and he has been struggling for a while with Western symbols. Now he seems to have come to terms with their relation to Soviet ones. As he once stamped the USSR Seal of Quality on the sky (The Seal of Quality, 1986), he now puts a logo from the Galeries Lafayette there (La France, 1993). As he once portrayed an image of Lenin on a billboard that was more alive than the actual pedestrians passing (Krassikov Street, 1976), so now the people on a T-shirt are more lively than his wife, who wears it (Tee Shirt, 1993).

His best work moves beyond these capable parallels. In View of Moscow from Madrid, 1991, which is perhaps his most impressive painting this decade, we find Madrid painted in the elegant fashion of an 18th-century architectural study. Behind it looms a threatening black silhouette of Moscow against a blood/communist-red backdrop, which breaks off above the skyline into menacing clouds. The barren, flat shapes of the Kremlin, the perilous scope of the sky (which occupies two-thirds of the picture space)—Bulatov’s home has become impossible and terrible, and no matter what sumptuous locations Bulatov finds for himself, it continues to surround him. There is no experience, Western or Eastern, that is free of it. It has been a long time since Bulatov wove social, political, and personal narrative into such a completely successful work of art. Like Vassiliev, Bulatov is a master of technique; his painterly skill, that abstract ideal of Socialist Realism, is used with an almost unparalleled self-assurance and panache.

Andrew Solomon