New York

Komar and Melamid

Masters of the telling displacement, Komar and Melamid recontextualize Soviet experience in other cultures, particularly in that of their adopted country, the United States. Their works often express the “unthinkable”: that despite their differences in economic conditions and their diametrically opposed state ideologies, the Soviet Union and the United States shared far more than they were willing to admit.

In their exhibition “American Dreams,” Komar and Melamid examined the cult of personality around George Washington—whom the artists, progeny of Lenin and Stalin, refer to as “Stepfather George.” The opening of the show coincided with the last performance at The Kitchen of Naked Revolution, a captivating multimedia opera about falling statues by Maita di Niscemi and Dave Soldier, for which Komar and Melamid designed the sets. The themes of Naked Revolution, a videotape of which was shown at the gallery, carried over into the exhibition: the dream-life of a Russian taxi driver—something of a comical figure in the émigré community—is haunted by George Washington. The man who could not tell a lie comes to life along with Lenin, Marcel Duchamp, Molly Pitcher, and Isadora Duncan in New York’s Washington Square.

Komar and Melamid divided the space into two areas.The first comprised a gallery of portaits in a fictitious office, with a large desk flanked by two white busts of Washington. Behind the desk hung a majestic portrait of Stepfather George bearing the trappings of the American eagle—a branch of leaves in one hand and a cluster of arrows in the other, a serpentine ribbon above him bearing the ur-text “E Pluribus Unum.” Elements of the Washington portrait figured in all the paintings in the room, the most striking among them Founding Father of the Nation (subsequently retitled The Wings Will Glow), 1997. This painting scrambles aspects of Rembrandt’s Ganymede, 1635, in which Jupiter in the guise of an eagle abducts a beautiful child. Komar and Melamid model the boy’s body on Rembrandt’s depiction but give him the head of the eagle; Washington, then, takes on the role of Jupiter.

In the second room, Komar and Melamid filled vitrines with “readymade” Washingtonia: engravings, postcards, children’s books, ice-cream molds, perfume bottles, and banknotes, the results of years’ collecting. Such homey Americana (what speaks more immediately, to an American audience, of innocence, trust in leaders, and faith in politics?) was paired with relics of Lenin and Stalin and artifacts of Soviet Socialist-Realist popular culture (what speaks more blatantly of propaganda and manipulation of the masses?). Above the vitrines were collages that combined Washington-cult images with a photograph of a psychoanalyst’s office (complete with an analyst in his leather chair and a patient on the couch), driving home the pair’s interest in psychic relations with symbolic fathers.

As committed absurdists, Komar and Melamid revel in unexpected associations. With “American Dreams” they mined a symbolic connection between three revolutions: the Russian, the American, and the cultural revolution of twentieth-century Modernism. They reminded us, for instance, that in the year the Bolsheviks seized power, Duchamp proclaimed the independence of Greenwich Village while standing atop the Washington Square arch. Of course, one needs to be careful in ascribing too broad a significance to the artists’ provocative conflations of historical events and figures. Seduced by Komar and Melamid’s suggestive interventions and carefully realized presentation, one can analyze too earnestly, forgetting that their art, drawing on both Socialist Realism and Pop, is conceived as much to entertain as to stimulate the intellect.

Marek Bartelik