Viewing the intense imagery in painter Slava Sukhorukov's exhibition at the Momentum, there's little doubt from whence the artist comes, or how he views his homeland.
Soviet life is depicted in the darkest possible light, shaded with scorn and bitter satire. Faces of Soviet leaders hover about the gallery, the ghouls with the thumbscrews. References to cruel political games--chessboards, playing cards--thread throughout the show. Reverence, meanwhile, is reserved for his tempera-on-wood icon paintings, rendered in the venerable tradition of the Russian Orthodox church. In this show, church clearly wins out over state.
At a time when many contemporary painters tend to devise heady agendas and court roundabout routes to expression, it is refreshing to see paintings as brutally honest as Sukhorukov's. He wears his passion and his rage on his sleeve, without it getting in the way of his painterly skill.
Back in the Soviet Union, Sukhorukov knew firsthand the sting of the state. Because of inflammatory messages woven into the fabric of his art, he wasn't given the official stamp of "approved" artist, which would gain him entry into galleries and museums.
Denied access to the marketplace, he set up shop in his Leningrad apartment, selling his wares and gaining some measure of attention inside and out of the Soviet Union. He moved to Ojai just over a year ago, but his mind and his heart obviously lie elsewhere. He has yet to become Westernized.
Although allegory is the artist's chosen road, sociopolitical censure is never far from the surface of his works. Lining the main wall of the gallery are a series of playing card paintings in which historical figures are compared and contrasted. On the joker card, Jack Nicholson's "Joker" meets Salvador Dali. Hitler meets Mao on the jack of clubs. Christ meets Buddha on the ace of hearts.
In the series, "The Gamblers," Soviet leaders are depicted as faces of folly. Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev take their rightful places on cards, like emblems of a gambling game in which the chips are the lives of the Soviet body politic.
His religious icon paintings, brightly colored on backgrounds of gold, are in the tradition, with distorted figures placed in unreal, frontal pictorial space. They are little miniaturist wonders.
Religion enters into other works in strange ways, as the artist takes conventional religious subjects and injects tense political statements. "The Last Supper" finds chairs dispersed evenly across a sparse gray ground. In the chairs are smug political leaders and officers, desiccated-looking prisoners, a ghost and a gagged Christ.
"Universal Mother" is a deceptive spinoff on the "Madonna and Child" theme. The large work initially has the look of New Age portrait, with the mother and child bathing in deep space and ringed with space shuttles. Closer inspection finds a nuclear explosion in the mother's womb.
Other paintings equate Soviet life with a fierce hellishness. "Galley" seems to depict Soviet citizenry in the form of a slave ship dry-docked in Hades.
Perhaps the strongest image in the show is "Moscow Halloween," with an ominous atmosphere reminiscent of Giorgio De Chirico's haunting sense of space, but now tied into a real-life menace rather than just a surrealist dream world. We see Gorbachev, identifiable by his now blood-red port wine stain on his head, taunting the ghost of Lenin, who casts a looming shadow on a fortress wall.
A small girl, symbol of innocence and intuition, flees into the corner of the picture, literally off the painting. Her startled face can be seen on the side of the painting. Depictions of dread and cross-historical resonance don't get much more potent than this.
Sukhorukov's exhibit, through July 5, is highly recommended viewing. Some of the best Soviet art--film, music and plastic art to which we've had general access through the open-door policy of glasnost --tends to combine gut-level expression and a heightened sense of allegory that often eludes the more jaded, more media-blinded West. Here is a riveting view from the front by one artful escapee.
DEPARTURES DEPARTMENT: The current Momentum exhibit signifies the curatorial swan song of Ventura Arts Council Director Maureen Davidson, whose heroic efforts over the 3 1/2 years of her tenure have galvanized the council and aided Ventura's art scene's maturation. As of June 15, Davidson will be joining the northward migration to take a post as head of the Spokane Art School in Washington.
About New Year's, Davidson spoke optimistically of the state of the Arts Council's forward (pardon the pun) momentum. Davidson showed up in Ventura in September, 1987, after working at the Long Beach Museum, a representative of the demographic that she calls "the new urban refugees, who like to have their cake and eat it too."