PACE GALLERY | DECEMBER 11, 2015 – JANUARY 23, 2016
A collaborative husband-and-wife team, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov began to jointly sign their works in 1997 after separate, but concurrent, careers in Russia and the United States. The Kabakovs have been working on an ever-expanding scale that is evidenced in the evolution from their 1995 Pompidou exhibition (which occupied two entire floors of the museum) to their 2014 Monumenta presentation, The Strange City, that filled ten buildings of the Grand Palais in Paris. Of their 1995 Pompidou installation, the Kabokovs wrote that it was “like a movie […] except they were paintings.” A filmic sensibility again reveals itself in the series The Two Times (2014 – 15) in which transcriptions of fragments of Baroque masterworks are paired with film-still like “glimpses” of everyday life in Soviet-era Russia.
In the first gallery hang nine large paintings (each measures 75 by 112 inches) from the “Two Times”series. In Two Times #7 (2015), an image of two nurses (at right) is paired with a fragment (on the left) of an Arcadian scene that could be a Titian or Poussin—the source is not explicitly available. On the left half of the painting a group of cloaked and semi-nude figures idyll at the base of a tree. One golden-robed figure is cradled in the branches as she presides over the scene. The image is loosely sketched in, the colors are saturated: jade sky, sap green, Indian yellow, alizarin red. The two nurses on the right, by contrast, look earthbound and a little grave. One of them is sitting with her uniform draped over her right shoulder and the other stands behind her, a crisp white uniform complete with paper cap.
Without direct access to the specific artworks (or photographs in the case of the “memory” images) from which the Kabakovs quote, one is left to sift through one’s image-bank of art historical references to try to locate their source. But the seemingly random pairings here leave one adrift. During the Soviet era, censorship pervaded all aspects of the state, including education and museum collections. The Kabakovs have said, “Our education in the art school and institute was constructed in such a way that Western art history was presented up until the Barbizons. There were no Impressionists, Picasso, or Matisse.” This lack is felt in the paintings in their absence of context.
In the second gallery hangs the 2015 series “Six Paintings About the Temporary Loss of Eyesight”(2015). These paintings present cartoon-like tableau (in the 1950s, Ilya Kabakov began his career a children’s book illustrator) over which a mesh of pale gray, nickel-sized dots is painted. The occluded image reads as if we are viewing the under-image through a snowstorm. The dot trope here serves as a direct reference to perception and its disruptions at the same time as it suggests the evolution of modernism (think Seurat, Lichtenstein, Kusama, and Hirst.) The images depict banal country life with surreal inflections. For example, in Six Paintings about the Temporary Loss of Eyesight (They are Painting the Boat) (2015) three laborers in a rural seaside landscape paint a large boat red while a fourth figure in the foreground mixes large vats of red paint. The vessel, upended on its side on land looks unfamiliar, estranged from its context.
In the rear gallery, three wood block prints from 2012, titled Print With Dots I, II, and III (2012), continue the dot trope. In some instances, pieces of comic-like domestic images appear amid the field of otherwise solid colored circles. The overriding (if vague) theme that threads these disparate bodies of work together is perception as a mutable, variegated set of phenomena. Because of the various disjunctions that they incorporate into their representational work (baroque against modern, cartoon against realism), one is inclined to spend a moment or two longer with the work to locate the points of contact between the disjointed elements. In this way, the Kabakovs seem to be reacting against more grandiose perception-oriented artists of recent years.
A subtle, but important undercurrent in the Kabakov’s recent collaborative paintings is their use of transcription. In studio parlance, a transcription is a copy, or study, of another painting (generally a masterwork) which can function as an exercise in understanding how a particular painting was made. The works look back, not out of nostalgia, but as a kind of re-orienting device by which one can test the legibility (and reliability) of images of modernity against those from more distant pasts. However, the anonymity of the images leaves one unable to orient oneself within either the history of the Soviet Union, or the history of Western painting, so that the results of their juxtapositions are always inconclusive. The Kabakovs are identified primarily as conceptual artists, and as overwrought as the term may be, it accounts for the impression that this exhibition is a fragment of larger, unfinished whole.
ERIC SUTPHIN is a critic, artist and curator based in New York City. Publications include Art in America, Frieze, The Brooklyn Rail, and Artcritical, in addition to several exhibition catalogues and artists’ books. Eric has been a visiting critic at Delaware College of Art and Design, the School of Visual Arts, and Rutgers University. Rosemarie Beck: Letters to a Young Painter and Other Writings is scheduled for publication by Soberscove Press in 2017.