From Russia, With Lust

Photo by Jack GouldIf I could feel sorry for a genre—and guess what? I can!—it would be for poor Russian Constructivism, which is usually greeted with the hearty sound of a thousand souls retching. A few years ago, sassy Russian artists Komar and Melamid decided to create universally beloved artworks by polling Americans on their aesthetic preferences, from canvas size to color to subject. The work that resulted (an improbable George Washington plopped down next to a flora- and fauna-filled riverbank) was patently ridiculous and wonderfully absurd. But their depiction of America's least favorite artwork was a tiny canvas filled with orange triangles. Russian Constructivism once again was getting no love.

Russian Construct-ivism was a response to the Soviet state's practice of forcing subject matter onto its artists. The jarring, ugly shapes denoted a fierce—even rabid—meaninglessness, like Dada in Germany and Wyland in Laguna Beach.

So thank God for Postmodernism, huh? Today's Russian artists take Constructivism and use it as the base note for their paintings. They fill their canvases with its eensy building blocks and then overlay them with Cubist and Expressionist figures (figures!) and landscapes (landscapes!). The original Soviet rebels would probably roll over in their Siberian mass graves.

But the works themselves? They're not ideologically pure, certainly, but ideological purity is such a bloodless bore. The works are bitchen, straight up.

Russian tastes, connected or not, are both elegant and sophisticated, and more dangerous than Patrick Bateman. It's a palate imbued with a lush, seedy decadence, like Soho before it got coopted by clean-scrubbed German financiers trying to catch the attention of the Uma Thurmans of the world.

And Viatcheslav Kalinin's Constructivist/Cubist/Expressionist paintings at Laguna Beach's Elena Zass Gallery are the most dangerous of all, even when depicting women in Colonial Williamsburg lace-bibbed frocks, just standing there minding their own business. It's the perilous points of the triangles, I think, the ones that make up the buildings and street tiles and even the canals and the golden spires of Hagia Sophia-like minarets. Electric wires crisscross crazily overhead like fractured prisms, and every centimeter of canvas is filled with lines and points as sharp as Basic Instinct's ice pick. They could almost send one into epileptic-like convulsions, if they just incorporated a fast-flashing light.

Kalinin sees depraved people everywhere, especially when those people are tall and slim and look at you with almond-shaped eyes. He sees greed and envy and his own lust, as with Two Muses, in which two skanky yet gorgeous nudes preen, self-satisfied, on the streets of Venice, Byzantine mosques behind them. Inside a shack, a bearded troll peeps on them, paintbrush busy on paper.

There are selfish, noirish dames and men in makeup and Cabaret hats made dumb with brute lusts. There is a maniacal guy on in-line skates suffused with love. There is a fat dancing child. There is a Power Ranger in the sky.

In Portrait With Mandolin, a long-faced, Holbein-like quiet beauty dressed in Martha Washington blue seems fragile, her long fingers almost elderly. They don't look as if they could wield a pencil. She has curlers in her hair, and there is scaffolding on the mosque behind her. There is careless decay everywhere.

Kalinin's "Still Lifes" series is danger-free and not nearly as successful. The idea—six still lifes based on the traditions of other cultures—is a fun one, but, in practice, the concept is forced and static.

Venice features scrotum-like pears and a picture of a kitty. Pheasants and geese fly overhead, their bodies overlapping, almost Kandinsky-like, so the effect is one of stained-glass panes fitting together, if stained glass came in shades of tan. Japan has a woman in a kimono, but she's painted on a fan, so it's still a still life, kind of—Kalinin cheats a bit. There are exploding volcanoes and soaring Hueys and gourds and pomegranates. It looks Japanese-as-painted-by-an-American-serviceman. France's cellulitic cherubs flit over apples and a framed photo of a beautiful woman. On a table are wine and a corkscrew and a conch that screams vagina dentata, its spikes shooting forth from its vulvic pink center.

In Holland, Freya or her equivalent races a chariot through the sky over snow-covered houses tilting drunkenly, while a hooker and a lazy flneur lean on walls, smoking. A giant flagon stands, house-sized, amid the bare, snowy trees. It is possibly the least Dutch painting I have ever seen.

It's the cheating that's interesting, the need to put life on the canvas even when it's ostensibly silent. Photos of people rest on tabletops; angels cavort; fowl migrate. Because Kalinin can't resist people, even when their inner pettinesses make them ugly and feral, when their blooms hide cankers. He is fascinated and wrathful, judgmental and sympathetic. That, and like those frantic Japanese cartoons, he gives you epilepsy.

"Life of Things in Six Still Lifes" and other works by Viatcheslav Kalinin, Elena Zass Gallery, 330 N. Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-1969. Through May 1.


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