He's an odd one, that Vladimir Kush. You expect a surrealist painter's art to be odd, but Kush's is odd in a way that other surrealists aren't. Most old-school surrealists take us into dark territory, nightmare landscapes where scissorwomen and mechanical animals gather to perform unwholesome acts beneath an eyeball moon. But you'll find none of that darkness in Kush; sure, he's got the scissorwomen and the mechanical animals, but his art is as resolutely wholesome as an episode of 7th Heaven. These are dreams without the nightmares, surrealism for the whole family.
In his native Russia, Kush endured a mandatory two-year stint in the Soviet military and struggled to express his vision while working as a muralist for the state. Forced to include military imagery in his fanciful art, in one painting, he gamely stuck a radio transmitter into an iceberg in the middle of the ocean. It was the kind of experience that would leave a lot of artists embittered about human nature. But Kush just isn't the moping kind, and after he immigrated to this country in the early '90s, he set to work making a name for himself as the sunshine surrealist.
Kush's technique is stunning, his visions never less than arresting. Departure of the Winged Ship, a gicle print on display at the artist's own gallery in Laguna Beach, depicts a galleon with giant, living butterflies for sails gliding across a sparkly sea while little Dali-esque silhouette-people wave fluttering banners from the shore. It's an intoxicatingly lovely scene, so vivid you can almost smell the salt of the sea and hear the distant but heavy flutter of those big bug wings in the wind. But even as this painting illustrates so much of what is absolutely right about Kush, it also smacks you upside the head with the essential dippiness of so much of his work. It's like a caramel apple: utterly delicious on first bite, but lacking in true nourishment and ultimately just a bit too sweet.
In many cases, Kush's work is much more effective if you can manage to avoid reading the title or the artist's often clumsy commentary. (True, English is not the man's native language, but even given that, it's clear that words are not what he's best at.) All by itself, his painting Family Tree is a fascinating thing, depicting a great tree that is simultaneously a kind of homey fortress, with little windows dotting its trunk and a tangled, twiggy understructure visible along the branches where construction is still under way. It's like something out of a Bosch painting, a work any artist could be proud of. But ugh, that literal-minded title! And double-ugh, the artist's thumpingly unsubtle statement that this piece serves as "a hymn to the family remaining the principal element of human society." Oh, and just in case you missed it: "The trunk of the tree symbolizes the unity of the family, while its branches represent the diversity of life."
There's little truth to the old saw that every picture is worth a thousand words (a thousand Thomas Kinkade pictures, for instance, will never be worth as much as the singularly glorious word "voluptuous"). But every one of Kush's words somehow actually manages to make his pictures worth a little less.
Kush's sculptures, cast as they are in various elegant shades of bronze, lack the color and variety of his paintings. They also feel strangely incomplete, like (hugely expensive) collectibles based on the artist's work, rather than wholly effective works in their own right. Walnut of Eden depicts Adam and Eve as lovers snuggled up within the meat of a walnut. It's a cute little thing, so much so that it kind of looks like an overgrown locket. It also inevitably makes you think of that Austin Powers bit in which he describes himself in a nutshell. ("Help! I'm in a nutshell! How did I get into this bloody great big nutshell?!") In Kush's world, the genuinely extraordinary and the hopelessly kitschy are as one.
All of this is not to damn Kush with faint praise, but rather to praise him with faint damns. There is something undeniably '70s and Pink Floyd-album-cover about his art: You look at one of his paintings, and you can practically smell the sticky clouds of bong smoke all around you. But for all that, he is an artist you cannot afford to dismiss. He creates the kind of art that lowbrow art pope Robert Williams once described as "visions, something you can fucking see." We can fucking see Kush's visions, and if we strain in vain to find a bit of shadow in the midst of all that blinding sunshine, maybe that says more about us than it does about him.
He's an odd one, that Vladimir Kush.
VLADIMIR KUSH AT KUSH FINE ART, 375 S. COAST HWY., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 376-8017; WWW.KUSHLAGUNA.COM. CALL FOR HOURS.
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