SAN DIEGO COUNTY : ART REVIEW : 2 Soviet Architects Build on Imagination


“Paper architecture” was once a derogatory term used to berate the Soviet avant-garde of the 1930s. As practiced by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin, it is a conceptual endeavor that nourishes the mind and spirit as much as its 3-D counterpart shelters the body.

In the 11 years since they graduated from the Moscow Architectural Institute, Brodsky and Utkin have only seen one of their projects realized, the interior of a Moscow restaurant. Like practicing architects, these “architects of the imagination”--as critic Jamey Gambrell calls them--address fundamental needs in their work, but not those of traffic patterns and space requirements. Instead, their etchings and sculptural

installations respond to emotional and philosophical concerns. They propose places to facilitate the search for truth and structures to satisfy egoistic dreams.


Their show at the San Diego State University Art Gallery--supplemented by a small selection of work at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art--merges the vocabularies of architecture, fantasy, history and humor. With acute insight and impressive technical skill, Brodsky and Utkin translate their musings into plans for physical structures. Each of their intricately detailed, marvelously rendered etchings contains a montage of trademark architectural elements--the frontal view, the section, the aerial, the plan--as well as a short text.

In “Crystal Palace,” the artists liken the seductive quality of false hope to a stunning but useless glass structure that lies just beyond town. A mecca of clarity and purity, the palace can always be seen on the horizon, just on the other side of chaos.

The pursuer of this vision must pass through dumps and slums to arrive there, according to the diagram on the etching, only to find that the palace “will prove the other thing than it seemed afar.” In one view, a visitor to the disappointing palace stares wistfully into the distance, and the artists ask, “Did he learn the very essence of the Crystal Palace; will he have a desire to visit it once more?”

In many of Brodsky and Utkin’s etchings, a structure serves as a metaphor for the individual. In “Villa Claustrophobia,” they state, “A house with an atrium is similar to a reserved man wholly plunged into the endless space of his inner world.” In “The Intelligent Market,” the passage through a steep-walled labyrinth symbolizes the evolution of one’s knowledge, each new turn giving a new perspective and new “niches” from which to observe and learn.

The idealism of the artists’ solutions gives their plans a futuristic feeling, but the etchings themselves, with their fine script and meticulous sepia markings, appear antiquated. This knotting of the past and future results in an arresting tension that is present as well in the installation “After a Big Celebration (Still Life).”

Atop a long shelf spanning the width of the university gallery stands an array of carefully placed objects, all rendered in an ivory-colored plaster. Stones, bottles of various shapes and sizes, shards of architectural ornamentation, human heads and a sphinx-like creature, with a heart etched into its hindquarters, balance neatly, mutely, on the shelf, as if unearthed by a future archeologist. With their darkened cracks and abraded edges, the objects appear to bear the stress of time.


Through the preponderance of bottles and inscribed slabs, Brodsky and Utkin pay homage to the hedonism and the earnestness of the culture they uncover. In their production of new yet weathered objects--unused but of exhausted function--they raise questions of obsolescence and the short skip from drafting table to material remains.

The artists-architects seem drawn to things that endure . They dedicate their proposal for an “Island of Stability” to “those who are tired of plastic vanity . . . those who feel sick of foam rubber life . . . those who believe in heavy things that are difficult to move.” One of the images in this etching pictures a man pushing a massive egg.

This same scene, fully staged in plaster in the center of the gallery, exudes a wrenching power. The man, life-sized, leans into the giant, unyielding orb, his head upturned, fine striations on his forehead, and cheeks articulating his stoic effort. The egg, scarred, pocked and incised with lines, words and drawings, rests on a bed of sand. Its mottled gray shell looks organic, not the product of recent, carefully controlled assembly.

Again, the past, present and future collide in what reads, ultimately, as a metaphor for the eternal human condition. The man’s hat and coat are those of a contemporary urbanite, but his fate recalls that of the mythic Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to push a heavy rock up a mountain, follow it down, and hoist it up again, ad infinitum.

Brodsky and Utkin’s title for the work, “Portrait of an Unknown Person in a Coat or Peter Carl Faberge’s Nightmare,” gives equal nods to the existential and the whimsical sides of this situation. Whether the work represents anonymous man toiling against hope or the famed craftsman’s weightiest challenge, its substantial presence in the gallery also endures in the mind.

The university show closes Dec. 6. The etchings at the La Jolla Museum remain on view through Dec. 10. Both are offerings of the San Diego Arts Festival: Treasures of the Soviet Union.