St. Petersburg, Russia

“Thaw”

Marble Palace, State Russian Museum

“Thaw: Fifteen Years of the Marat Guelman Gallery,” at St. Petersburg’s Marble Palace, is a tribute to the ingenuity and taste of the gallerist who changed the rules of Russian art. The show’s title refers to a second political thaw in Russian expressive freedom (following the earlier one under Khrushchev) that has characterized the last decade and a half; during this same time, Russian art made the leap from the arms of the state to those of the private gallery. Cemented by Guelman’s donation of thirty works to the State Russian Museum, the exhibition reads as a formal historicization of this short period, and as an official public endorsement of contemporary art.

As described in the show’s substantial catalogue, the post-perestroika generation of artists did not attend art school, avoiding instruction in the socialist realist style. Instead, they thrived in a new art scene in which the aesthetic of capitalism was personified by the stark white walls of modernism. Ironically, however, “Thaw” demonstrates that, amid the sparkle of the flashy new painters of “Capitalist Realism,” the security of the white cube persistently attracts the mangy dog of Soviet abjection. “Thaw” is filled with an ambiguous nostalgia for a particular hue and texture of Soviet filth that is vanishing from the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Oleg Kulik’s famous Mad Dog, or The Last Taboo Guarded by the Lonely Cerber (enacted in collaboration with Alexander Brener) documents a performance in which the artist—dirty, naked, on all fours, and collared—attacks cars and passersby outside the Guelman Gallery in 1994. The Blue Noses’ series “Kitchen Suprematism,” 2004–2006, brings Malevich’s abstract forms crashing down to earth as geometric wedges of cheese and salami arranged on worn Formica. Tractor, 2006, Valery Koshlyakov’s sloppily painted cardboard tractor, which sags limply on the floor, and his expressionistically splattered paintings of Russian cities exchange sloshings of paint for the unpleasantness of an urban Russian springtime.

The signature piece of the show is Dmitri Gutov’s installation Thaw, 2006. In a video, a slow-motion pan shows an aging man, the artist, failing to make his way down a country road that is little more than a quagmire of melting snow and mud. He stumbles, loses his glasses, finds and wipes them, and again topples into the slush. Near the projection hangs a light-box reproduction of a well-known socialist realist painting, Yury Pimenov’s A Wedding on the Street of Tomorrow, 1962, in which a bridal couple cheerfully negotiate a path of planks set over a muddy work site.

The magnificence of the Marble Palace creates an ironic distance from the misery reflected in these works. This is not the case, however, at the show “Contemporary Russian Art” at the Manezh Exhibition Hall. In this imperial venue, with soaring sculptures of horses flanking its entrance (the interior has been rebuilt in the Brezhnev style), work by artists of Gutov’s generation (he was born in 1960) and earlier hang on dirty, damp-stained canvas partitions. These artists, formerly supported by the state through the Artists’ Union, at one time produced optimistic paintings such as the one Gutov recontextualizes in Thaw; now they make valiant but spookily anachronistic forays into Abstract Expressionism and the previously forbidden sentimentality of domestic scenes. Viewed from the Manezh show, it seems that what advanced Russian art has gained from figures such as Guelman is the privilege of being able to peer out from inside the white cube rather than blurrily into it.

Emily Newman