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Flights of Freedom and Imagination : Art: Ilya Kabakov survived the ‘fence of communism’ in Russia to become a world-recognized figure. His works are on view in Santa Monica through Aug. 12.

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“Life in Russia is an experience of deprivation and my work is about the human soul trapped in unpleasant circumstances,” says emigre artist Ilya Kabakov, whose mixed-media exhibition, “The Artist’s Despair,” is on view at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery in Santa Monica through Aug. 12. “Of course, every soul in the world is in a state of tragedy, and that’s why my work is understood everywhere.”

The truth of this statement is reflected in the fact that Kabakov’s work is drawing enthusiastic audiences around the world. Virtually unknown prior to 1988, Kabakov worked for decades in obscurity in Russia, where he was branded an “unofficial artist”--the euphemism Russian authorities used to describe those they disapproved of after Stalin decreed a ban on Soviet vanguard art in 1932. With glasnost , Kabakov was finally allowed to leave Russia and begin exhibiting the work he’d been making in secret for 30 years.

Taking as his central theme confinement and the flights of imagination that enable one to endure it, Kabakov employs a wide range of materials to express his ideas. He’s created 50 elegantly bound albums that combine text and images, made paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture, and written a book. He is best known, however, for elaborate installations that infuse the mundane with elements of mysticism and poetry.

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Kabakov’s had a phenomenal number of exhibitions throughout Europe and the United States since making his American debut at New York’s Ronald Feldman Gallery seven years ago. Currently occupying two floors of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, where a survey of his installations is on view through the end of the year, he’s also done permanent public works in Spain, France and the Netherlands, created costumes and sets for two ballets, and is presently en route to Basel, Switzerland, where a survey of 10 years of his work opens this month.

Based in Manhattan, where he lives with his wife, pianist Emilia Kabakov, the artist will spend the next three years on the road overseeing exhibitions of his work.

Meeting with Kabakov at Felsen’s house, one encounters a man of enormous warmth, vigor and humor. Many of the questions asked elicit a quizzical smile from the artist, who clearly finds much in life absurd beyond belief, and describes his own work as “funny from the top to the bottom.” He explains that this world view is an unavoidable result of having lived in Russia for 55 years.

“Communism was a brightly painted fence that existed as a face for the West, but we in Russia had to live in the strange world behind this fence, where every aspect of life had a double meaning,” he recalls. “What was said in public had nothing to do with what people really thought, and everything was perverse and double-minded. There are aspects of my work that are impossible for Westerners to grasp, because only a Russian who’s lived in this peculiar reality could understand them. Central to these subtle meanings is the fact that Russians have a communal sense of identity and see themselves as one among many; America, on the other hand, is the land of the individual.

“The fence of communism is gone now, so my work is about a world that no longer exists--it’s a strange feeling too, having the world I lived in for so many years disappear,” he adds. “I don’t feel optimistic about recent changes in Russia, because every project for improvement there ends up a failure, but this isn’t to say everyone in Russia has a tragic life. People accommodate themselves somehow and know how to adapt so they can live.”

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Often described as the “father of Russian Conceptualism,” Kabakov says the description is incorrect and that there were Russian artists before him who explored similar terrain.

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“Russian Conceptualism differs from that of the West in that it tends to be highly romantic,” he says. “Western Conceptualism seems like an attempt to drain human meaning from forms and to transform them into a kind of science. Russian Conceptualism is built on the development of human forms, and on feelings and passions one is forbidden to express openly. Russian Conceptualism exists in the space between desire and expression.”

Adds Emilia Kabakov: “Because Ilya is no longer in Russia, he’s become a mythical figure for artists there. Some see him as an important teacher and make pieces with references to him, while others vehemently reject him. Either way, you can’t look in a Russian art magazine without seeing his name.”

Born in the Ukraine in 1933, Ilya Kabakov showed a facility for art from early childhood. He graduated from the Moscow Art School in 1951 and the Surikov Art School in 1957. The art education he received was a rigidly traditional one designed to prepare him to create state-approved art--something he had no interest in doing. Instead, he developed a successful career as an illustrator of children’s books to support himself and devoted his free time to the clandestine creation of his unofficial art.

“Living in Russia in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, I had no exposure at all to Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism or Conceptualism--it simply didn’t exist there,” he recalls. “It was such a closed world we couldn’t even see magazines depicting this art. When I finally came to the West I wasn’t surprised to find other artists working in ways similar to how I work, because I’d always imagined there was a world out there like the world in my mind,” adds Kabakov, who says that on leaving Russia the art he was most eager to see was that of Mario Merz, Joseph Beuys and Jannis Kounellis.

“Before I came to the West I imagined it as a paradise where you could feel like a human being rather than a dog on a leash. Of course, the West has its problems, but still, it’s a human world and the same can’t be said of Russia. And for artists, the West is paradise. In Russia, the moment the authorities learn that you have a project, they do everything in their power to destroy you. Western artists don’t understand how precious it is to be able to express themselves freely.”

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