A massive drawing of George Bush hangs at one end of the long, long gallery, and a massive drawing of Barack Obama is at the other. In between them is a whole lot of crude oil. It snakes through networks of thick, transparent plastic tubing that runs the length of the gallery, coloring it a rich, brownish black. Pumps are placed at intervals, forcing the oil into and out of the cavities of Russian artist Andrei Molodkin's clear acrylic sculptures. The noise of the pumps is almost painfully jarring — loud pops echo through the gallery ominously, like the sounds of indifferent mechanical hearts. Oil and its role in the modern world are the focus of "Andrei Molodkin: CRUDE" at the Station Museum of Art.
The thirst for oil is international. It is the driving force behind much American foreign policy, and in Molodkin's native Russia, it fuels the country's death grip on petroleum-rich Chechnya and its decades-old feud with Chechen separatists. Oil is also a source of the breathtaking fortunes of a number of the Russian oligarchs. It gives power to some and aids in the oppression of others.
Molodkin's interest in oil is both political and personal, as revealed by the wall text in the exhibition. The artist was conscripted for compulsory military service during the waning days of the Soviet Union, a particularly grim time. He and his fellow soldiers delivered massive petroleum cisterns to Siberia by train. Filthy and oil-coated for weeks, they had to scrape oil off the cisterns and burn it in order to heat their cattle cars. Like a number of other Soviets during Gorbachev's ill-fated antialcohol campaign, they went to extreme lengths to find a buzz. They smeared oil-based shoe polish on pieces of bread, drying them on the radiator so the bread would absorb "light particles of oil." The standard procedure is to then scrape off the oil/polish and eat the bread.
It was during this period that Molodkin used his Soviet Army-issue ballpoint to draw constantly and monotonously. "I later realized this was a bad habit," the artist writes. Americans might associate ballpoint drawings with doodles in a high school boy's notebook. Molodkin's references are different. He correlates the drawings not only with his harsh army experience but with the ballpoint drawings made in Soviet/Russian prisons. Usually executed on handkerchiefs, these drawings were used to surreptitiously communicate information within crime families.
Molodkin's portraits of our two most recent presidents are painstakingly and obsessively rendered in this cheap, sad medium. The artist's portrait of Bush depicts W. at a pulpit with a Bible raised in his hand, a cross in the background. Molodkin used 2,764 ballpoint pens to execute the work on linen (a slightly artier alternative to the cheap cotton handkerchief.) The words "EMPIRE AT WAR" are lettered across the bottom of the 2006 portrait. I remember my indignation during the Bush years at the religiosity in which he cloaked the actions of his oil-driven foreign policy. It's not like America has done a complete 180 since then, but the image feels strangely dated to me, like an old political poster. Maybe that's a comment on my attention span, the difficulty of making topical artwork or both.
The work is most interesting in dialogue with Barack Obama's portrait at the other end of the gallery. In contrast to Bush's grim preacher image, Obama smiles broadly, radiant lines executed in green ballpoint creating a halo behind him. At the bottom of his image is his inspirational campaign slogan, "YES WE CAN." The image appears more joyful and hopeful — Obama is presented like some benevolent messiah (albeit one that Molodkin renders looking slightly like Harry Belafonte).
But on a pedestal next to the portrait is one of the artist's sculptures. A long, rectangular block of transparent acrylic has letter-shaped cavities that spell out the words "FUCK YOU." The letters are made visible through the crude oil loudly pumped into the block. The pedestal puts the letters at the same height as the "YES WE CAN" in the drawing. The piece as a whole reads "YES WE CAN FUCK YOU." Is the "fuck you" the oil-driven response to Obama's hope? Or is it all one in the same? Is the artist finishing the unspoken end of the sentence? Does America's message really change, or is it just the style of its messenger? Do Bush and Obama simply represent different branches of the American crime family?
Other acrylic block sculptures are placed on either side of the gallery. Several of them use text as well. A long block with the word "REVOLUTION" is mounted on the wall, infused with oil by tubing dangling under each letter and spiraling over the floor. "JUSTICE" and "DEMOCRACY" rest on the floor and are spelled out with individual crude-filled letters. There are figurative works as well; other acrylic blocks contain the hollow forms of the Statue of Liberty's head, her torch and the Winged Victory of Samothrace.
The effect can be a little heavy-handed, with all the text and obvious symbols lined up on either side of the space. The Station made a good decision in opening up the whole gallery and covering its floors with gray-painted Masonite to provide an open, neutral space, but there is something a little too clean about the sculpture. I want Molodkin's work to have more gritty industrialness, something of those encrusted oil cisterns he helped ferry across the Siberian expanse. But it's still really interesting work.
The video projections that accompany some of the figurative works are extremely powerful. Molodkin lights and aims a camera at the acrylic block with the head of the Statue of Liberty. The wall-size real-time projection shows the crude ebbing and flowing into and out of Lady Liberty's head like her lifeblood.
One of the best works in "CRUDE" is Molodkin's monument to the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, a site-specific piece the artist did across the street from the museum. It's here that the crispness of the artist's style works best. The ornate old gas station on the other side of Alabama Street dates from roughly the same time period as the Russian Revolution, and the early 20th century was when the Texas oil boom began. Long abandoned and boarded up, the building is painted with red-and-black block letters which parody the bold constructivist dynamism of the Russian Revolution's graphics. "Neft," the Russian word for "oil," and "Revolution" are written in Cyrillic. Russia and its oil wealth are now a capitalist free-for-all, and the Houston of that quaint little gas station is now the "Energy Capital of the World." Molodkin is asking us to upset the old oil-based order. It's a wry call to arms to 21st-century comrades.
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