Exhibition Review: Red Horizon at the Columbus Museum of Art
There are times when an exhibition is just monumental. When the stakes are high, and the artwork reveals as much about the historical moment of its conception as it reflects our contemporary society. But then again, we find ourselves in unusual times.
“Red Horizon: Contemporary Art and Photography in the USSR and Russia, 1960 – 2010,” now on view at the Columbus Museum of Art, is an astounding show of nearly 300 works representing an incredible stylistic range across several artistic mediums.
The show is a glimpse into the Columbus-based collector, Neil Rector’s extensive collection. With the help of CMA curators Tyler Cann and Drew Sawyer, “Red Horizon” acts as a history lesson, or a warning shot to the public.
And, just when you think the exhibition couldn’t get more historical or more drenched in politics, you realize it coincides with the centennial of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
I’m not sure what is more enticing — the work being placed between the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 through the 1980s in the USSR and Russia, or the reoccurring theme of an artist navigating the space between documenting (or creating emotionally evocative works in response to) the grim realities of life in the USSR at this tim,e and how it clashes with “official” government sanctioned imagery.
Photography plays a major role in this exhibition, as it did during the 1960s – 90s in the Soviet Union and Russia, as simultaneously a tool under strict government regulation which circulated official imagery, and an opportunity for artistic self expression among professional and amateur photographers alike.
Yuri Rybtchinski’s photographic series Town juxtaposes everyday people, like a smiling woman in her kitchen for instance, with official imagery which is often represented within the photograph itself (in this example, official imagery lines her kitchen walls). In another example, Mikhalevkin’s Exercise portrays the juxtaposition generationally, through the inclusion of two teenage youth who appear to practice ballet-inspired moves in a precarious position along a fence, in rural setting with an older woman looking on. The clash of youth and the elderly, along with the reference to the long history of ballet in Russia (which at least initially stood in as an idealized way of behaving) against a rural backdrop creates a sense of visual tension.
Additional photographers include Igor Moukhin, whose Leningrad photograph pictures Soviet youth inspired by the Western music scene in the late 1980s. Igor Savchenko’s gently (but obviously) altered photographs quietly reference a systematic distortion of history. And perhaps one of the most clear and powerful works is Sergey Kozhemyakin’s four-part series Transformation of the Image in which he photographs a statue of Lenin in various tones, the final image in the series showing nothing but a black silhouette, referencing the sun setting on Lenin and his political ideology.
Painting and conceptual art are widely represented in “Red Horizon” and cover a distinct range of styles, which include suggestive surrealist imagery as in Alexander Kosolapov’s Hero, Leader, God or the fantastic and photorealistic imagery of Oleg Vassiliev’s large scale paintings which feature light exposed landscapes with sometimes ghostly central figures.
Komar and Melamid are a conceptual art team who, like Savchenko and his altered photographs, subtly reference the idea of false realisms and a constructed, or altered, history. Their most well-known project, the People’s Choice Studies, is on display in the exhibition. In this series, the team surveys regional groups of people about what they like most, or dislike most, in works of art. The team then combine the results and produce paintings based on their findings.
Komar and Melamid found a painting by an anonymous artist in the trash once. They proceeded to construct an entirely fake biography of the artist, along with other examples of work from his studio.
Eric Bulatov uses red in his paintings as a reminder of order and control enforced by the USSR. In his Red Horizon, a group of individuals are pictured walking toward the sea as a low horizon hangs in the background. Bisecting an expansive seascape is a thick, red line. Not only does this line block the viewer’s ability to move through the picture, but it also references the highest honor of the USSR, the Order of Lenin.
It’s in the subtleties – in Bulatov’s red, Kozhemyakin’s Lenin, and the myriad of artists who subtly stand in opposition to the official imagery of the USSR, that you start to realize creativity comes in many forms. Although the work in “Red Horizon” is specific to post-Stalin Russia, it also becomes a more universal symbol of how creativity can thrive in the most constraining of circumstances.
Red Horizon: Contemporary Art and Photography in the USSR and Russia, 1960 – 2010 is on view at the Columbus Museum of Art through September 24, 2017. For more information visit www.columbusmuseum.org