Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Hackneyed interpretations of Malevich

An icon of modern art, Malevich's Black Square hangs like an albatross on the neck of contemporary Russian art. In order to show they "understand the history of Russian art" many contemporary artists very literally refer to Black Square in their work. There is a feeling of obligation in these pieces - almost as if an art professor assigned a project to comment on the looming presence of Black Square despite whether its presence is negative or positive or even understood.

At least five or six artists completed this project to a somewhat mediocre finish, and they are currently on display at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art's (MMOMA's) indiscriminate retrospective of the last 20 years of Russian art. There's the pregnant black square - a huge bulge protruding from the surface - perhaps signifying the weight and pressure that Black Square has placed on Russian art. There's the transparent square - a large plexiglass window which frames whatever is around it. There's the giant black pixel black square ... and the list goes on. While at first glance I found this "project" quite amusing, the repetition by different, unrelated artists and the lack of deeper meaning (aside acknowledgement of Malevich) felt more like a pointless obsession.

In the last 20 years, Black Square has become a sort of pop icon of the art world. In 1915 the work crushed the then common notion that art had to be representative or point to something from reality. Malevich knew he was creating an icon. He placed it in the corner of the gallery on its first exhibition, which is the traditional Russian place for religious icons. Despite the celebrity of the work, contemporary Russian artists need to free themselves from the specter of Black Square and move forward, rather than constantly looking back.

.10, Last Futurist Exhibition, 1915

After wading through the jumbled mess of Black Square interpretations, observing ignorant museum goers touch art work, and being overwhelmed with 30 different sound art pieces, the works of Irina Korina and Alexander Sokolov were a breath of fresh air in an otherwise overcrowded, over-thought mixture of Russian contemporary art.

Sokolov's work "Insects" Cycle, 1997, showcased square wooden cases, with glass windows, which each displayed a large art insect. At first I looked past them, but on second glance, the intricate detail work and the humor of the binomial nomenclature caught my attention. The first I saw was a bit shocking. Entitled something like Insectus injectus, the body of this insect was a large syringe and reminded me of a mosquito. The others were commentaries on consumerism, something like Consumerus vulgarus with an Adidas sneaker body, time management, with the body of a clock, and "Black Square" Metamorphosa Malevich with hard outer wings of Black Square. Sokolov's unique approach to an otherwise ubiquitous art subject caused me to look twice.

Korina's art, as always, was intriguing. Her main piece in the show, Tank, was a large wooden tank constructed of found parts of Soviet furniture. Aside from the atrocious display - visitors were forced to view this imposing installation piece in a small gallery with at least 10 other works crowded around it and without the ability to see it fully in the round - this piece was fascinating. Had I been alone in the room with it, I would have been tempted to find a way inside the tank. It reminded me of a child's fort, and I felt as though there had to be something hidden inside - perhaps this was due to the light emanating from it or the childlike curiosity that Korina's work inspires.

Korina, Tank

After an overall disappointing museum experience at MMOMA on Petrovka Street, I was relieved to have found both of these artists. Sokolov's humor and Korina's playfulness stepped out of Malevich's shadow, out of the disorganized clutter of artwork on display, into a bright new realm of Russian art.


  1. I love reading your rich commentaries. Critique, critic, or cryptic (like the inside of the tank)!

  2. VERY INTERESTING! We too enjoied your comments, next best to being there beside you as you scrutinize the exhibits.