New York

The Peppers

In 1991, Ludmila Skripkina and Oleg Petrenko, who as a duo are known as the Peppers, installed Potato Room at Ronald Feldman Gallery. The Peppers were part of a loose-knit group of artists, dubbed “Moscow conceptualists” in the early 1980s, whose best-known member was Ilya Kabakov. The ’91 show was their first—and until now their only—solo gallery exhibition in the US. The Potato Room included, among other things, six large paintings, six wall hangings made of peas and book fragments, and numerous potato sculptures, hung on and stacked atop cerulean blue walls and pedestals. Seven gnarled potato vines dangled menacingly from the ceiling, and eighty pounds of the vegetable slowly rotted in the corner.

For the Peppers’ recent show, also at Feldman, the work was reconstructed and presented alongside twenty-eight paintings and sculptures by the couple, all from 1989 to 1991. The exhibition revisited and solidified the gallery’s own role in bringing this work to New York during perestroika (in a manner similar to its 2006 exhibition “Artists Against the State: Perestroika Revisited”), and, considered in the light of the recent Sots Art exhibition that traveled from Moscow to Paris, it reasserted the significance of the Peppers, who have not shown actively since the early ’90s.

Potato Room is clearly indebted to Kabakov, a mentor to the artists, in its animation of mundane items of byt (everyday life) with an element of fantasy. The sardonic world that the Peppers create—most clearly in the potato installation but also in charts such as Data Concerning Discharge as Related to the Degree of Vaginal Cleanliness According to Hermin, 1989, and Methods of Provocation, 1990—is pervaded by absurdist irony (although theirs lacks Kabakov’s sense of melancholy). Here is a world in which pot lids are used to map bodily secretions, piles of peas sport breasts, and potatoes come equipped with fish-eye lenses, the better to see you with.

In the painting 1. See Article by B. Groys, “Knowledge, Madness and Individuality,” 1989, potatoes recede into a seemingly limitless expanse. The Russian title runs along the bottom edge of the canvas, over the potatoes but beneath a dividing line, suggesting a footnote. In the lower left-hand corner, a lumpy, bespeckled plaster face emerges: Groys peeking out from beneath the mass of pommes de terre. The five other paintings in the show, each with a combination footnote/title, also serve as homages to Moscow conceptualists and their critical champions (several of whom, by the late ’80s, had emigrated to the West).

The Peppers captured a moment in which the private—be it the inside joke, the secret code, the under-the-table reference—seemed to have the potential to impact the public. The pair’s veiled signifiers represent both a tendency towards protective hermeticism and an indictment of their group as possessed of an ambition that reached beyond its immediate surroundings. In one painting, on a found handkerchief, a nurse lectures before a group of students while holding a jar of peppers, sealed with one of the artists’ charts. The image would be just another drab social realist illustration were it not for the inclusion of this prop, modeled after a sculpture by the Peppers. Compared to It’s Not a Bomb, 2003–04, three shrink-wrapped jars of pickled vegetables wired with explosives by David Ter-Oganian, one of a number of younger Russian artists who might be said to carry on the tradition of Moscow conceptualism, the Peppers’ projects—now two decades old—clarify the extent to which contemporary art has waived its claim to radical absurdity: Now, even the most farcical of utopias, populated by potatoes and peas, are trumped by literalism.

Rachel Churner