The retrospective of work by Leonid Sokov, at Rutgers University’s Zimmerli, followed an exhibition last year at the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art. The American show was smaller, but thanks to loans from Sokov’s personal collection (not included in Moscow, but about a quarter of the 80-odd works shown here), it sketched not only a more intimate but also a more Russian portrait of the artist.
Sokov (b. 1941) shares bitterly honorable credentials with other Soviet nonconformist artists. Shown in non-official exhibitions, his work was nearly invisible in Moscow. When, in 1976, he applied for an exit visa, he was expelled from the artists union. Without a member’s card, it was impossible to find work; it was illegal even to buy paint.
With Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, Sokov took part in Sots Art, a movement begun in the early 1970s that parodied official Soviet art as a way of exorcizing Russia’s still undead past. The Zimmerli show included Sokov’s grandiose 2005 painting of Stalin. The “Gardener of Human Happiness” stands in the “rolling green open fields” of Russian song, where the “heroes go riding.” Approved portraits made Stalin taller—and much better-looking—than in real life. Here, his mustachioed head is attached to the beautiful body of Michelangelo’s David. Sokov paints in the flashy gestural style associated with official Soviet portraiture. Handling speaks; it testifies against the heroics it was once marshaled to represent. For American viewers, Sots Art requires some decoding; we have not seen enough official portraits of members of the Politburo. Reduced to the images it appropriates, it is in danger of turning into amusing free-market kitsch.
Sokov now lives and works in New York, but, in his sculptures, he still declares himself as Russian. References to folk culture abound. Totemic wooden bears are everywhere—drinking, dancing, trying in agony to fly, buggering the American eagle, enjoying a comradely pissing contest with Comrade Stalin. Considering the angry nationalism promoted in Russia today, Sokov’s carnivalesque sense of Russian identity comes as healing balm.
The sculptures of human and animal clowns may be Sokov’s strongest works. In them, we find a rich, raw, seemingly unfinished quality, which has actually been carefully constructed. Forms are geometric, but broken off with ragged edges. Marks of chain saw and chisel give energy to each surface, but destabilize the relationships between the surfaces as planes. Lines daubed in black paint emphasize volumes while at the same time flattening the carved marks. The every-which-wayness borders on 3-D slapstick. However, the lack of resolution can be experienced as positive, since by conveying such formal potential the pieces suggest hope.
One of Sokov’s influences as a young man was a book on the sculpture of Siberia’s native peoples. He calls it his “textbook” and has kept a copy with him for 40 years. There are visual relationships with his own work. Sokov’s flattened shapes have exaggerated silhouettes, like those of the cookie-dough animals made for Siberia’s Great Bear Festival. For Sokov, it may have been still more helpful, more hopeful, to encounter what his “textbook” described so wonderingly as the shaman’s world of “unbounded thought.” Here was a cultural reality the artist could love and claim: a living Russian past, where the logic of Marxism-Leninism never did dwell.