Contemporary Life & Avant-Garde Russian Art

Examining the world in a state of flux, Russian artist, Anna Parkina, uses collage to critique current social, political and economic trends.

Anna Parkina’s work defies categorisation; appropriating the human ephemera of modern day culture and society, she creates works that reflect the human experience and environment. A Russian contemporary artist who grew up in one “country” (under two very different ruling classes, that of the Soviet Union and Russia under Yeltsin), social agitation and revolution were part and parcel of her youth and thus of her development. When faced with her work one immediately recalls to mind the propaganda posters and art works of the Russian constructivists, film noir of the 1940s and 1950s, and Pop Art, with the collages of pop artists such as Richard Hamilton.

Parkina, whose first US solo museum show opened in February at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, culls together all of her life experiences and she sieves them through her hands to create a new image and piece of art. The exhibition, entitled Fallow Land, is part of SFMOMA’s New Work series, a series devoted to exhibiting emerging, contemporary artists that has included artists such as Luc Tuymans, Doris Salcedo and Rachel Harrison. For John Zarobell, Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA, Parkina fits perfectly into this lineage of artists: “She is a fresh, creative voice who is commenting on contemporary life and the history of avant-garde Russian art at the same time – an original and compelling presence” – praise that is not without merit. Parkina has the innate ability to meld together various styles, influences and mediums in order to illustrate and encapsulate a new Russian society.

Parkina grew up primarily in the Soviet Union / Russia, though she studied abroad – at les Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, and the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena, California – and currently resides in Moscow. Moscow was the “birthplace” as such, of Russian Constructivism; a movement founded in 1921 and one that included luminaries such as Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956), Alexei Gan (1889-1942) and Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953). Constructivism, at its most basic definition, was a movement that arose as a means to an end: the conventional, historical language of art was no longer sufficient as a means of expressing post-revolutionary society therefore a new language was required. In many ways, aside from the fact that she readily admits the impact of Constructivists like Rodchenko and Liubov Popova on her own work, Parkina exhibits the same ideological and political tendencies in her work that the Constructivists did. Her sculptures, paintings and performances operate as a conduit for her audience to use in order to comprehend a society and world that is in a constant state of flux. Zarobell argues that although she creates art work that enables and empowers her audience to understand their own place within the current world, her work is unlike the Constructivists in that “she does not produce didactic work with a specific message, but forces her viewers to reflect upon the subject matter of her collages and paintings.”

Constructivists wanted to create art that functioned solely as a means of social and artistic expression, and not as a means of interpreting or representing reality. This didactic quality was thus a key element to their ideology and a means of differentiating themselves from other artists and movements. Alexei Gan, a member of the First Working Group of Constructivists, stated that “art” was no longer sufficient in representing the sentiments of a revolutionary society: “Art is dead! There is no room for it in the human work apparatus.” This approach to art was antithetical to that of other artists and movements that existed in Russia at the time: movements such as Suprematism and its main proponent, Kasimir Malevich, whose artistic approach remained rooted in idealist tendencies.

Parkina’s work is an interesting mix of the idealism of Malevich and the structuralist, technical approach of the Constructivists: she engages the viewer with the post-Revolutionary history of Russia as well as the new emerging history of Russia as a powerful economic and cultural country that exists on the international stage. The current state of the world is similar to that which existed in the 1920s and 1930s – uncertain and in a state of constant flux – and Parkina illustrates this element of social ambiguity in her work through the literal layering of different images and mediums. Collage is used as a visual metaphor to exhibit the various undercurrents of social, cultural and political change. The canvas is both literally and figuratively used to represent a new society, the topography of each layer and appropriated image signifying the various elements and intricacies of modern-day life.

Parkina appropriates popular icons and imagery and situates them within a new picture field, subsuming their meaning as an aesthetic image and subverting it into an entirely different idea. The repetitive use of the cut-out silhouette alludes to this new “idea”, suggesting subterfuge and political intrigue, yet always remaining a representation of reality. Zarobell defines her work as political but not politically-motivated: “The political aspect of her art is to make us see the world’s complexities and subtleties as events worthy of artistic treatment, and all the significance that goes along with that. She may be a spy, but from the empire of poetry.”

This allusion to spies, mystery and subterfuge is evident in many of her works, and is both an inspiration from the environment that she grew up within as well as the influence of the cinematic tradition of film noir. It is not surprising, given that the term “Americanitis” was coined in 1922 by Lev Kuleshov, in reference to the Soviet Union’s obsession with Hollywood films – specifically films based on detective stories. The silhouetted figure of a man in a trench coat and fedora in her 2008 work The Hollow, instantly calls to mind the generic character of the private eye / detective of film noir. In a still from the 1955 classic John Alton film, The Big Combo, this shadowy figure is situated in a back alley, facing another silhouetted figure, that of the femme fatale, showcasing the battle between protagonist and antagonist. This silhouetted figure becomes visual shorthand for our own subconscious fears and desires, and is a figure that appears again and again in her work. Its very presence creates a sense of anxiety and is, in many ways, a Hitchcockian visual motif for fear. Parkina outright declares the danger inherent to the silhouette, as with Untitled-5 (2010) which depicts a hand holding a knife, mimicking the iconic Psycho (1960) shower scene. The very fact that it is a silhouette, a void black space, suggests a lack of identifiable human characteristics and thus a lack of humanity.

Parkina utilises colour in two ways: as a vivid flat pigment applied to a surface to be perceived by the eye, and as a unit that exists within a structural framework. Malevich argued, in his 1919 essay Non-Objective Art and Suprematism, that “colour, in its turn, must pass out of the pictorial mix into an independent unity, a structure in which it would be at once individual in a collective environment and individually independent.” The depicted “object” ceases to be of primary importance, with colour taking centre stage, mutating into a tangible object unto itself by the transformation of the space it occupies. Parkina’s silhouettes are an exemplary example as through the negation of the space the object or figure should occupy, she formulates a new composition, based on the annulling of identifiable characteristics. The fedora thereby alludes to subterfuge and spies, yet we are not allowed to recognize a human face and hence any facet of a political or historical reality to align the fedora with a specific revolutionary element.

One hesitates to describe Parkina’s work as driven by feminist theory or purpose, yet there is an element of desire manifest in her canvas-based work that is difficult to ignore. The act of “looking”, of the gaze, is a primarily masochistic act; it is an act of ownership as by “looking” at something, one desires and then inevitably possesses that view. Parkina’s figures tend to either have their heads turned away from the audience, or to be without human characteristics (e.g. silhouettes), and it is the exceptions to this generalization that are intriguing. Untitled (2009), depicts the female as aggressor, with the female head, vertically repeated on the canvas, turned towards the viewer’s gaze, looking directly outwards, almost challenging its audience. The female protagonist, the femme fatale to the private eye / detective silhouetted figure, is an empowered individual, whereas the male antagonist is always a slightly indefinable, sometimes prying (e.g. the figure looking through a pair of binoculars in her 2009 work, Divergence in the Gorge), dark individual. It is the male that is the spectacle, which is on view, not the female figure, as was typical in art produced prior to the nineteenth century.

The historian, Thomas Richards, stated when discussing the Great Exhibition of 1851 in his text The Commodity Culture of Victorian England, that: “By encapsulating the past in the glossy shell of the present, the Exhibition both commemorated the past and annihilated it.” Though referencing an exhibition which occurred over 150 years ago, this is an interesting statement to consider with regards to Parkina, as this dualism, of commemoration and simultaneous destruction, is evident in her work. She does not necessarily mix the art historical past with the present, but rather shrouds each within the other, using the medium (whatever it may be) as a tool to mask the destruction of the lingua franca of art history. Zarobell argues that Parkina is not aggressively attacking art history or contemporary society but instead sympathises with the regression that she sees occurring: “There is also a sympathy with the imagery she employs, almost a fascination.” This fascination with contemporary society is employed through her use of specific visual imagery – cars, mobile phones et cetera – imagery that is identifiable and universal and depicted in a graphic style. Her work is thus redolent of that of the photomonteur Gustav Klutsis (1895-1938), who used photography and visual images culled from Soviet culture in the propaganda he produced for the Soviet state. Klutsis primarily designed agitational posters and billboards for mass consumption, though he is also known for the photo-collages he produced for consumption within his own private social sphere. Parkina’s work, though philosophically and ideologically antithetical to the propaganda designed and produced by Klutsis, is similar to his in many ways. An important quality of graphic work is the ease of comprehension it provides for the viewer, and though Parkina’s work is much more abstract than Klutsis’, both exhibits this quality. Parkina’s is presented as an onion: each layer needs to be pulled back and away from the surface to reveal a different form and meaning, whereas Klutsis’s posters are much more literal. The meaning is clear-cut, and the work is as one views it: the layers are there purely to make the posters slightly more visually appealing.

Parkina’s work is as much fantasy as it is a coded reality. Each piece is structured as a visual language to be read, deciphered and understood. Her development as an artist continues as she is quite young (at just 31), and though it has been contingent upon the environment and culture within which she has grown up and trained, it is this phantasmagoric space, a space riddled with uncertainty, that will lead to her success as a burgeoning artist.

New Work: Anna Parkina, ran at SFMOMA 26 February – 19 June 2011.

Niamh Coghlan