ART : The Unknown Soviet Artist Who Won the West

Grisha Bruskin's Gorky Street studio is a quiet spot, high above one of Moscow's busiest thoroughfares. You enter from the alley, anticipating a visit with an artist who recently shot from obscurity to center stage of the international scene.

As you open a battered door and start to climb the stairs, you are overwhelmed by the stench of animal waste emanating from a lower apartment where a woman raises chickens and geese. When the slightly built, bearded artist opens the door at the top of the stairs, you realize that his wall-size paintings and the maquettes for an entire park of life-size figures have taken shape in an austere room hardly big enough to be a Beverly Hills closet.

The studio is a generous cut above what most out-of-favor artists have in Moscow--some would call it unduly grand for someone who has been accused of creating "subversive" Soviet art and "Jewish propaganda"--but it seems shockingly humble for a man whose painting, "Fundamental Lexicon," set a record for Soviet contemporary art at Sotheby's recent Moscow auction. Predicted to bring between $24,000 and $30,000, the 32-panel painting fetched $415,756 from an anonymous bidder at the highly publicized sale. His five other paintings also did stunningly well, commanding from three to 12 times their pre-sale estimates.

The 43-year-old artist greets you warmly and gets right to the task, explaining his work partly in English and partly with the help of an interpreter. "It is my intention to create two lines of mythology based on the mentality of socialism and Judaism," he solemnly declares, while acknowledging the "difficulty of looking at Soviet art with Western criteria."

Talking about "Fundamental Lexicon's" parade of white, sculpture-like figures who are burdened with such Soviet motifs as a flag and a big red star, he says: "Socialism has strict symbols or equivalents. You know exactly what they mean." Everyone understands the symbols in the paintings: a picture of Lenin, the Soviet constitution, a sign for equality, a Western import in the form of a Pepsi-Cola insignia, a cut of meat that stands for a food distribution program and--in the arms of a military figure--the U.S. eagle and the Soviet hammer and sickle, indicating "the possibility of dialogue with the enemy," Bruskin says.

The inspiration for "Fundamental Lexicon" came from sculpture on the grounds of a sports institute near Bruskin's childhood home. Erected during Stalin's rule and built by German prisoners of war, the painted plaster figures were "false sculptures, cheaply produced kitsch" that became part of "mass culture," according to Bruskin.

They were repulsive, but they stuck in his mind as the personification of a rigid ideological system. When he decided to use the sculpture as a springboard for fine art and social commentary, he chose an encyclopedic approach to Soviet symbolism, intuitively arranging the figures in a monotonous grid and conceiving of an endless project that would involve other paintings, sculptures and performance pieces.

Inscriptions above each figure in "Fundamental Lexicon" are taken from "How Steel Was Seasoned," Nicolai Ostrovsky's classic tale about a young communist who fought for Soviet power after the revolution.

Bruskin says that "Fundamental Lexicon" and related paintings display "symbols of Soviet life" and portray "a system that can explain anything. Authorities were accustomed to seeing the symbols in a very fixed way, like the star on top of the Kremlin," he notes. "But when the same symbols appeared in an art context, they felt uneasy and assumed the art was subversive. It's very funny because they have used Soviet symbols very foolishly at times," as when "an ugly, dirty yard" sports a sign proclaiming, "We have come to the victory of communism."

Open and Equivocal

Bruskin's paintings of Jewish characters are equally perplexing to some Soviets, though their meaning is not as evident because he has invented his own symbols. "In Egyptian or Assyrian art, there were symbolic equivalents of beliefs, but not in Judaism," he says. "I was interested in creating them not at a secular level but at an artistic level."

In his Jewish-themed works, gnome-like characters may appear upside-down, carrying an angel, a menorah or a strange beast. Snippets of Hebrew text on the background call attention to the importance of the written word to Judaism. "The authority of the text is total in the Torah," he says. "It is necessary to know how to read, but the Hebrew text in the paintings is only fragmentary. That leaves the meaning open and equivocal.

"Some people have wondered if this is serious or a joke. I don't want to dot all the I's or cross all the T's. Nobody will know what it means, but everybody asks."

'Jewish Propaganda'

This work has been branded "Jewish propaganda" in the Soviet Union, according to Bruskin, but the criticism doesn't always follow blood lines. "We have no prejudice here," he laughs. "Even Russians can feel something for art. Some Russians understand the Jewish paintings and some stupid Jewish people do not. It depends upon the person."

Bruskin's dream is to mingle the two strains of his work--politically didactic and magically religious--in an installation of life-size sculptures that spectators will "penetrate as in a forest." A year ago he despaired of realizing the idea because costs were prohibitive and technical assistance was unavailable to him in Moscow. But now it appears that his dream will come true.

Under the auspices of a Chicago arts organization called the Lakeside Group and with the help of Chicago art dealer William Struve, Bruskin is now in Chicago on a monthlong artists' exchange that was arranged before the auction earlier this month. During his short stay he is designing a poster for the Chicago's upcoming International Art Fair and making plans to have his sculpture produced life-size. The first of these works will be shown along with paintings in Bruskin's first solo exhibition in the West, in January at the Struve Gallery.

Asked about his first impression of the United States during a telephone interview, Bruskin hesitates, then laughs, "It's in another century."

Ironically, the Soviet Artists Union--which has not looked kindly on Bruskin's mature work--is partly responsible for bringing him into "another century." In cooperation with the Lakeside Group, the union selects Soviet artists for the exchange program (now in its second year) and transports them from Moscow to New York and back. The Lakeside Group pays the artists' expenses in the United States. The union was not eager to give Bruskin coveted travel privileges, but Struve intervened, convincing the Soviets that Bruskin needed the trip to plan his American exhibition and produce the sculpture.

Like many other artists in Moscow, Bruskin is a skeptical member of the union. "I joined easily after I graduated (from art school) because I was not making art that caused trouble then. After I began to create my personal work, I had a lot of trouble. They thought it was Jewish propaganda. That's nonsense," he says.

Struve has made several trips to the Soviet Union in search of contemporary art and had found that some collectors were receptive to Bruskin's art before the auction, but even he was stunned by the artist's success.

"Nothing like this has ever happened," Struve said in a telephone interview. "When a Van Gogh brings $53.9 million at auction, at least we know that his paintings have been getting high prices all along, but Grisha came from almost total obscurity. There are a dozen paintings in this country--I know because I've sold them--and in Europe, maybe five. He's never had a (solo) show (in the West)."

The auction gave Bruskin publicity that he couldn't have bought at any price and probably changed his life overnight. But there were early indicators of his rise. For one thing, his "Fundamental Lexicon" was reproduced on the cover of Sotheby's catalogue and on posters advertising the sale. If the estimated price ($24,000-$30,000) was only half what the better known Ilya Glasunov's works were expected to bring from his coterie of collectors, the figure was still high for an unknown artist.

The second clue to Bruskin's sudden fame was his personality. Unfailingly friendly and intensely concerned about his work, he made himself available to the press and potential buyers during the exhibition preceding the auction. He logged many hours patiently answering questions in his native Russian, fluent French and fractured English.

Toy-Like Charm

But the most important component of Bruskin's success is his art, which wraps up the esoteric and the accessible in a distinctly Russian package. A toy-like charm smoothes the way to incisive social criticism as Bruskin paints row upon row of figures on gridded canvases. Tackling the deadening, official aspects of Soviet life as well as one of its forbidden undercurrents, he has produced a group of emblematic paintings based on Stalin-esque sculpture and Soviet symbols as well as a relatively whimsical body of work that's rooted in mysteries of Judaism. Neither series has been popular with hard-line Soviets, but Westerners can't stop looking at them.

When Czech film director Milos Forman saw Bruskin's art last year in Moscow, he tracked him down and bought a major painting. Bruskin's work has also attracted attention this summer at an exhibition of contemporary Soviet art this summer in Bern, Switzerland, and at Chicago's last International Art Fair.

But if he saw his extreme change in fortune coming, Bruskin is still struggling to put it in perspective. Until recently, he says, "We have not be able to participate in the cultural life of the world. That made our art very insular, but there are two sides to the situation: The negative is that we could not watch the process of world culture. The positive is that we created a very special climate here. Because we could not feel the cultural winds, it was more interesting for artists here to rely on the relativity of that issue."

Like other Soviet newcomers to the international art scene, Bruskin finds some Western practices baffling. "This is all so new," he says, drawing close to emphasize his point. "It is very difficult to understand the nuances of dealers, what it (the unfamiliar system of commercial galleries) means. When we meet someone, we can't know what level that gallery represents. Of course we know Leo Castelli--the god--but after that, the choice is very difficult and very important."

But the change is exhilarating, if warily watched. "During the time of Brezhnev and Chernenko, it was impossible to participate in exhibitions," Bruskin says. "In fact artists were working in their studios or apartments without any hope of exhibition or sale. I couldn't believe that this could happen. It's fantastic."

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