Saint Petersburg, Russia

Vladimir Grig, London Calling, Moscow Speaks, 2010–11, acrylic on canvas, LED light, 63 x 70 7/8".

Vladimir Grig, London Calling, Moscow Speaks, 2010–11, acrylic on canvas, LED light, 63 x 70 7/8".

Vladimir Grig

AL Gallery

Vladimir Grig, London Calling, Moscow Speaks, 2010–11, acrylic on canvas, LED light, 63 x 70 7/8".

Today, Russians approach the legacy of the USSR with a growing historical distance and a peculiar sense of introspection. They perceive it in a less conflicted manner than they once did, acknowledging the playfulness of its mass culture while, at the same time, linking its graphic language to social and cultural (rather than political) transformations. A fascination with the Soviet past might also reflect the renewed upsurge of Slavophilism, which encourages Russians to admire their national heroes and to savor the uniqueness of their experience, closing the gap between grim reality and a profound mysticism, quickly resurgent after the fall of Communism.

In his exhibition “Kustrakita over the River”—whose title refers to a famous patriotic song of the Soviet period—Vladimir Grig challenges both nostalgic yearnings for the mythical Russian past and adversarial attitudes toward the Soviet era. In five large acrylic paintings included in this show, he recycles images associated with the 1960s USSR and presents them as products of a mass culture that, although rooted in local experience, reflected a widespread fascination with the lifestyle of the West. In the video Vasek Karasev and a Spy, 2008–11, Grig returned to the aesthetics of official book illustration and design under Communism, which interest him also as an influence on Moscow Conceptualism in the 1970s. The work’s protagonist, Vasek Karasev, is a smiling young pioneer modeled on canonical characters from Soviet children’s literature, whom the artist charged with a mission to spy on Soviet citizens as they go about their daily lives. Karasev’s portrait was featured on the cover of an old board game, an interactive video of which was projected onto the gallery’s floor. But the idealized pioneer’s main mission seemed to be the representation of popular culture—whose graphic language and aesthetics Grig has appropriated in many of his works—rather than watching over his fellow Russians.

The paintings on the gallery walls provide windows into ’60s mass culture in the USSR via Grig’s culling and reworking photographs from illustrated magazines and using the graphics of period neon signs. DND (Voluntary National Team), 2011, depicts three young women walking the street, cropped in such a way that their heads are outside the picture plane. The focus is on their sexy appearance, with fashionable boots, skirts, and handbags painted in bright colors. A neon-style LED sign with dnd (for Dobrovolnaya Narodnaya Druzhina, a sort of neighborhood watch) written in Cyrillic, mounted on the lower part of the painting, further obscures the identity of the women, suggesting an advertisement rather than a snapshot of ordinary people, in this case volunteers on a local patrol. In London Calling, Moscow Speaks, 2010–11, a young couple sits on the floor listening to records played on an old gramophone. A sign written in the stylized neon fonts of the 1960s juxtaposes the title (in English) of the famous album by the British punk band the Clash, which enjoyed cult status among the youth of the USSR in its day, with a standard greeting (in Russian) used in news programs on the state radio.

Grig’s works, executed in a style that might be called neon impressionism, do not carry any overt message about the harshness of the economic system in the USSR or, for that matter, the same system elsewhere, focusing instead on colorful and conflict-free media representations of leisure, vanity, and pleasure. The Russians are portrayed playing board games, listening to popular music, dressing fashionably, and watching TV. In this world of simulacra, it is the saccharine graphic language—designed to turn gray reality into a consumer fantasy—that conveys Grig’s critique of the surface aspects of Soviet experience and evokes its fading memory today.

Marek Bartelik