Back to the Classics

The Russian artists of "Perestroika" turn the past into something new.

Tobreluts's witty video Academism Manifesto is also on view at Spring Street. In it, you see the members of the movement in 19th-century costume, with Novikov dressed as Pushkin. The live action is cut with computer-generated scenes comically showing a figure in a boat painted with the word "Neo-Academism" moving through scenes created by digitally collaging historic paintings. Silent film-style text panels appear offering up statements about beauty and the dawn of Neo-Academism.

Fellow Neo-Academist Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe offers up more video, a satirical remake of the classic Stalin-era film Volga-Volga. The 1938 musical comedy was made during Stalin's Great Purge, when he was executing around 1,000 people a day. It tells the tale of a plucky provincial postwoman traveling the Volga River to an amateur musical competition. It was Stalin's favorite movie, and he screened it over and over, watching it during his bouts of insomnia. The dictator was an ardent admirer of the film's star, Lyubov Orlova.

Mamyshev-Monroe is known for his portraits of himself in costume, often cross-dressed. His lush color photos from his 1996 series Lives of the Remarkable Monroes are on view, featuring the artist as Marilyn Monroe, Dracula and Peter the Great. For Volga-Volga, Mamyshev-Monroe made himself up to look like the film's heroine and digitally inserted his face over Orlova's, singing along with the hokey soundtrack. It's great even without the back story, but knowing that this "musical comedy" extravaganza was filmed during the horror of the purges makes Mamyshev-Monroe's alteration darky absurd. The fact that a guy in drag has replaced Stalin's favorite actress adds yet another layer — Stalin recriminalized homosexuality in the Soviet Union after the Revolution had decriminalized it. (There is a whole other show to be curated around art and sexual identity in Russia — and given St. Petersburg's now-infamous new ban on "gay propaganda," it would be timely.)

A Russian bodybuilder plays Hercules in a video by Olga Tobreluts.
Courtesy of the artist, FotoFest
A Russian bodybuilder plays Hercules in a video by Olga Tobreluts.

Location Info


Spring Street Studios

1824 Spring St.
Houston, TX 77007

Category: Community Venues

Region: Heights

Through April 29. Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring St. and at Winter Street Studios, 2101 Winter St, 713-223-5522.

Novikov has work on view as well: tapestry-like wall hangings from plush fabrics ornamented with gold cord, with vintage photographs placed in their centers. An untitled work from the Lost Ideals from the Happy Childhood series (2000) frames a black-and-white photo that looks about five-by-seven inches, in the middle of a deep, rich, reddish-purple velvet panel. The photo is of a white marble statue of a young boy playing a drum; it's the white of Greek statuary, but it looks to be Stalin-era. The boy is wearing the shorts and kerchief of the Young Pioneers, the Communist version of the Boy Scouts, who, in Stalin's day, would be asked, "Are you ready to fight for the cause of Lenin and Stalin?" and would reply "Always ready!" With very simple elements, Novikov has potently evoked a blend of disillusionment, loss and nostalgia. The works on view were created after Novikov lost his sight in 1997 from an unknown/unrevealed illness. The artist had amassed a huge collection of fabrics and photographs that he used by memory, instructing his family on their combinations and feeling out their placement.

Novikov died in 2002 at age 43, from the ongoing illness that had taken his sight. He was the founder of the New Academy of Fine Arts and Neo-Academism and is often compared to André Breton or Warhol. Pre- and post-Soviet era, he is considered one of nonconformist art's most influential figures. His loss was a great blow to his friends and fellow artists. I interviewed Novikov in 1996 around the same time I interviewed Tobreluts, and I wish to hell I could find the tape. Novikov had an incredible presence — he was sharply intelligent and media-savvy, which was still relatively rare in the mid-'90s. (Artists had been working underground for so long that the kind of promotion and press information that was the norm in most of the art world was slow to take hold — just finding a show could become an epic quest.)

In our short conversation, Novikov wasn't some messianic character advocating a retrograde agenda. He had developed Pirate Television in 1989 with Mamyshev-Monroe, Russia's "first independent television channel." He had been the artist for the rock group Kino. Warhol had come to meet him in 1992. Novikov was a creative, boundary-pushing figure, and Neo-Academism blended theory, aesthetics, humor and satire in a way that I couldn't and still can't pin down. It wasn't a rigid agenda, it wasn't satire and it wasn't the postmodernism of my grad school. It was intellectual and playful, sincere and insincere, something shaped by a unique cultural, political and historical climate.

Next week I'll cover more of the "Perestroika" show, as well as the other FotoFest exhibitions, "After Stalin, 'The Thaw,' The Re-emergence of the Personal Voice" and "The Young Generation."

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Sebastian Melmoth
Sebastian Melmoth

It is very impressive to learn that Andy Warhol came to St. Petersburg to meet Timur Novikov in 1992, considering that Warhol has been buried under a heavy granite tombstone in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania since 1987.