MOSCOW — Grisha Bruskin's Gorky Street studio is a quiet spot, high above one of Moscow's busiest thoroughfares. You enter from the alley, anticipating a visit with an artist who recently shot from obscurity to center stage of the international scene.
As you open a battered door and start to climb the stairs, you are overwhelmed by the stench of animal waste emanating from a lower apartment where a woman raises chickens and geese. When the slightly built, bearded artist opens the door at the top of the stairs, you realize that his wall-size paintings and the maquettes for an entire park of life-size figures have taken shape in an austere room hardly big enough to be a Beverly Hills closet.
The studio is a generous cut above what most out-of-favor artists have in Moscow--some would call it unduly grand for someone who has been accused of creating "subversive" Soviet art and "Jewish propaganda"--but it seems shockingly humble for a man whose painting, "Fundamental Lexicon," set a record for Soviet contemporary art at Sotheby's recent Moscow auction. Predicted to bring between $24,000 and $30,000, the 32-panel painting fetched $415,756 from an anonymous bidder at the highly publicized sale. His five other paintings also did stunningly well, commanding from three to 12 times their pre-sale estimates.
The 43-year-old artist greets you warmly and gets right to the task, explaining his work partly in English and partly with the help of an interpreter. "It is my intention to create two lines of mythology based on the mentality of socialism and Judaism," he solemnly declares, while acknowledging the "difficulty of looking at Soviet art with Western criteria."
Talking about "Fundamental Lexicon's" parade of white, sculpture-like figures who are burdened with such Soviet motifs as a flag and a big red star, he says: "Socialism has strict symbols or equivalents. You know exactly what they mean." Everyone understands the symbols in the paintings: a picture of Lenin, the Soviet constitution, a sign for equality, a Western import in the form of a Pepsi-Cola insignia, a cut of meat that stands for a food distribution program and--in the arms of a military figure--the U.S. eagle and the Soviet hammer and sickle, indicating "the possibility of dialogue with the enemy," Bruskin says.
The inspiration for "Fundamental Lexicon" came from sculpture on the grounds of a sports institute near Bruskin's childhood home. Erected during Stalin's rule and built by German prisoners of war, the painted plaster figures were "false sculptures, cheaply produced kitsch" that became part of "mass culture," according to Bruskin.
They were repulsive, but they stuck in his mind as the personification of a rigid ideological system. When he decided to use the sculpture as a springboard for fine art and social commentary, he chose an encyclopedic approach to Soviet symbolism, intuitively arranging the figures in a monotonous grid and conceiving of an endless project that would involve other paintings, sculptures and performance pieces.
Inscriptions above each figure in "Fundamental Lexicon" are taken from "How Steel Was Seasoned," Nicolai Ostrovsky's classic tale about a young communist who fought for Soviet power after the revolution.
Bruskin says that "Fundamental Lexicon" and related paintings display "symbols of Soviet life" and portray "a system that can explain anything. Authorities were accustomed to seeing the symbols in a very fixed way, like the star on top of the Kremlin," he notes. "But when the same symbols appeared in an art context, they felt uneasy and assumed the art was subversive. It's very funny because they have used Soviet symbols very foolishly at times," as when "an ugly, dirty yard" sports a sign proclaiming, "We have come to the victory of communism."
Open and Equivocal
Bruskin's paintings of Jewish characters are equally perplexing to some Soviets, though their meaning is not as evident because he has invented his own symbols. "In Egyptian or Assyrian art, there were symbolic equivalents of beliefs, but not in Judaism," he says. "I was interested in creating them not at a secular level but at an artistic level."
In his Jewish-themed works, gnome-like characters may appear upside-down, carrying an angel, a menorah or a strange beast. Snippets of Hebrew text on the background call attention to the importance of the written word to Judaism. "The authority of the text is total in the Torah," he says. "It is necessary to know how to read, but the Hebrew text in the paintings is only fragmentary. That leaves the meaning open and equivocal.
"Some people have wondered if this is serious or a joke. I don't want to dot all the I's or cross all the T's. Nobody will know what it means, but everybody asks."