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Socialist Surrealism : KOMAR & MELAMID by Carter Ratcliff (Abbeville Press: $50; 208 pp., illustrated; 0-89659-891-8)

June 18, 1989|Dubravka Ugresic | Ugresic is a prize-winning Yugoslav novelist and a scholar in literary theory at the University of Zagreb. She taught this spring at Wesleyan University. and

In all my visits to Moscow, I have failed to catch a glimpse of Lenin; I have always been daunted by the Red Square crowds queuing patiently to see the most famous mummy on Earth. "If Lenin jumped out of the mausoleum every hour on the hour like a cuckoo," my Moscow friends joked, "he would solve our greatest line problem." That was 15 years ago and quite daring for its day. Now you can take a stroll along the Old Arbat and buy a Brezhnev piggy bank.

The reason I have begun with anecdotal details is that they illustrate the beginning and, I daresay, the end of a phenomenon that playfully replaces the Pop in Pop Art with the first syllable of the Russian word for "socialist" to call itself Sots Art. Sots Art is an unofficial or alternative movement most commonly associated with the Soviet emigre artists Komar and Melamid, now the subjects of an intelligently designed, beautifully produced monograph.

Its author, Carter Ratcliff (who has previously written on Fernando Botero, John Singer Sargent, Andy Warhol, Red Grooms, Willem de Kooning among others), is clearly equal to the task. He gives us an interview with the artists themselves, a thorough essay on them, and the essential scholarly apparatus (chronology, exhibitions, public collections, a selection of pertinent documents and a bibliography).

Despite the serious nature of the enterprise, the book makes enjoyable reading and not only because Komar and Melamid are fun to look at. By holding his interview with the artists at the recent Metropolitan Museum Zurbaran exhibition, Ratcliff conveys the message that the museum is, in fact, the place for Sots artists and Post-Modernists like Komar and Melamid, that sooner or later even the most unofficial of artists end up under official roofs.

Komar and Melamid have made the journey in record time. The book under review represents a kind of institutionalization of their work, a tribute reserved for classics. If only for this reason, we must talk about their branch of Russian alternative art in the past tense.

Alternative culture arose in the Soviet Union parallel to the eventually unsuccessful de-Stalinization process. Its goal was to create an aesthetic actively opposing the values of official Soviet culture, and its program consisted of developing a subversive language capable of lifting the taboos from certain types of subject matter, redefining genres, bridging the gap between "high" and "popular" culture, and questioning established patterns of thought. It made itself felt in underground political jokes and cartoons, the samizdat prose of writers such as Yuz Aleshkovsky and Vladimir Sorokin, the performance poetry of Dmitry Prigov, the multimedia presentations of groups such as the Mukhamory.

As its name implies, the Sots Art component of this alternative culture combined the iconography and devices of Socialist Realism and Pop Art. Appearing in the early 1970s when the signs of official Soviet culture had lost their ideological functions and could thus serve purely decorative ones, its goal was to use the myths of Socialist Realism to break down patterns of automatic response and make viewers aware of how deeply ideological their everyday surroundings had been.

Thus, Komar and Melamid are not only the godfathers of Sots Art, they are the creators of a monumental "museum" of Socialist Realism, a wax museum of sorts, where we continually find the figures of Lenin and Stalin. The paintings are first and foremost an essay in the "Soviet subconscious," a grotesque psychoanalysis of totalitarianism in which the libido plays a leading role. Stalin, for example, is always the inviolable leader, lover and father, who giveth and taketh away. The titles are as telling as they are amusing: "The Origins of Socialist Realism," "View of the Kremlin in a Romantic Landscape," "Natasha With a Bust of Stalin," but also, more recently, "The Yalta Conference" (featuring Hitler, Stalin and E.T.) and "Ronald Reagan as a Centaur."

The book ends with an epilogue based on a recent Komar and Melamid series entitled "Bergen Point Brass Foundry." It includes a photograph of the small factory in question and a portrait of two of its workers. What is this new direction in their work supposed to mean?

In April of this year, a few weeks after the book appeared, they had an opening at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in Soho with the same title. The epilogue, then, marks the beginning of a new project that still appears to be taking shape. Or Ratcliff's monograph marks the end of Komar and Melamid's sovietiana period.

Now the artists have set their sights on a new myth, that of the small American industrial city. They have chosen Bayonne, N. J., as their model and have begun painting the Bergen Point factory and its workers in a kind of Hyper-Realism or Post-Post-Modernism--or perhaps nostalgic Socialist Realism.

I was there. I went on the excursion to Bayonne (which now leaves every Saturday by school bus) with Komar and Melamid as guides. All of us--grandmothers from Brooklyn, men of leisure, art critics and I--bumped our way to one of the most absurd and boring corners of the Earth, and yet we experienced Bayonne as if it were the Louvre. Komar and Melamid, as the true Post-Modern hipster-hypster-hypnotizers they are, managed to sell us on their combination of irony, magic, wit, fable and dust in the eyes. It was an excursion into happy realism.

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