Alexey Stepanov: Dasha is posing, lifting one foot and leaning on the bar-chair 2015. Oil on hardboard, 25 x 34 cm
Round Trip Stuckism
I often have to remind myself that Russia is not an English-speaking land. I spend some time surfing VK, the social media site popular in that country, and I forget that I am looking at hieroglyphs of a living people thousands of miles away.
I rely on the pictures to tell most of the story, and Google Translate® to clear up the rest. Still, I often get it wrong, like the time I saw a photo of Darya Serenko carrying a poster facsimile of Alexey Stepanov’s paintings being escorted into a paddy wagon by Moscow police, and I thought, “Oh no, they’re arresting Stuckism in Russia!”
It turned out that she was protesting the government’s bombardment of Syria, and just like in the United States, was arrested for complaining about it outside of her designated Free Speech Zone. Stepanov’s paintings were a prop she carried — a series of government buildings entitled “State Power”.
Or, I can listen to any of these painters talk on the many videos shared over social media, and become entranced by the romance of their unknown language. Alena Levina could be talking about an aggressive squirrel she saw in the park, and I’ll imagine she’s espousing on the virtues of monasticism in the arts. In effect, I entrust the language barrier more not to judge a personality. It is a strange bias, but I rate anyone who does not speak American as an intellectual step ahead of me on life’s road. And usually I can trust my instinctual bias. These young painters are serious about their work. Unlike contemporaries in America, (at least the ones who I have met) they know that they’re artists. There doesn’t seem to be any confusion about it. No cat videos posted on Facebook — the closest I’ve seen was a Lena Ulanova painting of two cats on the sea entitled (via Google Translate®) “Navy Seals”.
Of course I am projecting. Still, I have longed for camaraderie among artists for most of my adult life, and have concluded that, in the United States, there is none. Is this the canary in the coal mine of western civilization? This artistic loneliness coupled by the realization that no one about me seems the least bit interested in shaping a personal philosophy that on a daily basis, elevates the good life of practicing the arts of cooking, painting, parenting, sculpture, laundry, wood working, perambulation, love making, etc. As Emerson wrote 160 years ago:
“There are as many pillows of illusion as flakes in a snow storm. We wake from one dream into another dream. The toys to be sure are various, and are graduated in refinement to the quality of the dupe. The intellectual man requires a fine bait; the sots are easily amused. But everybody is drugged with his own frenzy, and the pageant marches at all hours, with music and banner and badge.”
I will have lived a half century by next year, and it has taken me this long to see the absolute truth in Emerson’s musing. Just look around you. Can you see differently? Then prove it. Stop by my studio for a conversation. Lord knows, we can use one or two of those natural human exchanges free from the ever-present squirrel-like fear and trembling ramblings in our own heads.
There is no common ground that anyone over 10 years of age will admit to. We must face the obvious. Adults suck. They give us official words like Homeland and International Affairs. They keep the world on edge with their manufactured fear-mongering. They seek enemies in flowers. They teach children the virtues of sharing, and then hoard their little pennies like fanatical Scrooges. True artists are the adult-children of the world. They know what the masses are sacrificing, and that is this: their own lives among the living.
You painters of Russia I want to call my friends. However, first I need to complete a private revolution. I promise that I am working on it.
I do not even know how to pronounce your names, let alone spell them in cyrillic, or even in the correct English translation. I do not know a Russian rock and roll band, a modern day Russian philosopher, actor, psychologist, botanist, architect, house husband, etc… I am an ignorant boob from America who paints. I perform a meaningless task seeking communion. My countrymen seem to desire a life of tripping themselves up avoiding strong and meaningful contact with their brethren. They fear their own neighbor (they fear especially words like “brethren”) because he or she might call them out to be the exact same phony in kind. They too know nothing about your beautiful country—your geniuses and ignoramuses, flora, fauna, architecture, and imagination. I pity them so much while laughing out loud at myself. Do you see why it is so easy for me to be an artist? Yes? Then let me call you comrade.
I know this for certain. Any one of you dedicated painters could fluidly lead a nation or retire to Siberia to follow the sober sun each day gathering faggots for the fire. You are of stronger stuff than either of our countries’ man-stink militaries, corrupt dignitaries, or laughable presidencies. The world is topsy-turvy, and we are the right side up.
I am in debt to each of you for your kindness and warm reaction to my latest whims. You have carried my work onto trains, you have hung it in the woods, sent parcels to me with much difficulty, made live video feed to my basement studio and dining room, wrote me back when I wrote to you, said my name out loud in a speech I could not understand…
My intention with this exhibition is to return the many favors and catch up to the kindnesses you have given me. My dreams tell me to buy up all the work you send if my countrymen save the coins in their pockets for another night out at McDonald’s®, or a $7 beer at a millionaire’s bar. We are a country of abstractionists—we hate material things, especially the handmade stuff. Your great neighbor to the south, China, thrives because Americans seek shopping for trinkets and not satori. Oh well.
Here is a toast to our stupendous failure or success! In a topsy-turvy world, it’s anybody’s call. Thank you for existing on such a grand scale in my small, inspired reality. Thank you for dreaming with me, and allowing me to sense and attempt to interpret your dreams.