Moscow Made, American Born.
Driving from Palm Beach to Disney World is daunting. The road is flat and boring. Central Florida may have tourist attractions galore, but I had no interest in rides. My job that day was that of chauffeur and tour guide to an old friend visiting from Moscow: a former oil baron, a Russian sheik, a chain smoker of cigarettes puffed through an elongated filter circa Hollywood, USA, 1928.
Sasha had a daughter. She was ten. Promises of Mickey Mouse were made. So off we went, cruising the highway before daybreak and breakfast. Windows cracked. I hate cigarette smoke. And then out of nowhere...
A kto etot Lenin, blya?!” asked Sasha, a bit incredulously, which translates something to the effect of “So who is this damn Lenin, man?!”
He was referring to the recurring face of a lit-up Colonel Sanders visible from miles away, as if he was watching over us in the night, keeping his flock of customers safe and alert to where his Ministry of Fried Chicken was located.
For years I thought of the same thing, but couldn’t boil it down to a clear sentence. It took a child of two cultures, and one flustered by that duality, to recognize the logic and imagination of what was just said. I had grown up on KFC and Rachmaninoff and in my later years was very much aware of the visual connection between commerce and say, Karl Marx. Before I knew it, we had passed another identical sign. And in that moment, the genesis of this project was born.
The mock-heroic style of Hero mimics the manner by which Russian colonels and Soviet military leaders were adored and honored in Cold War visual culture. In America, with the promise of self-invention, we respect captains of industry and hustlers alike – and in no way are the two mutually exclusive. Before discovering his secret recipe of eleven herbs and spices and later franchising his business, “honorary” Colonel Sanders worked as a steamboat pilot, an insurance salesman, a railroad firefighter, a gas station operator, an amateur obstetrician, a lawyer, and a farmhand – a real American hero.
The more sinister, Kentucky Government Bureau, focuses on the darker side of this cult-of-personality type advertising. As the watchful eye of Big Brother gazes upon us, what is being sold is the consumption of fear, not chicken. Wordplay deconstructs a recognized logo and familiar text into a new kind of sales apparatus. The manipulation of Sanders’ famous trapezoid is now consistent with examples from the Russian avant-garde and Soviet monumental propaganda. The visual perversion of both Capitalism and Communism work for and against each other here in hopes of expressing something personal, and often, in flux. In turn, it becomes a larger motif of a developing body of work, later seen in both, “Centennial of the Square” and “Signs and Wonders,” respectively.
Whereas red stars were used to communicate ideological power and control in the USSR, Macy’s uses the same symbol to market housewares and discount prices in honor of President’s Day, Memorial Day, the 4th of July, and of course, Thanksgiving. That day’s iconic parade is another device of duality – used in Russia to extol dominance and in America to promote a three-day sale. The Psalms series covers this paradoxical ground.
This irony is also true of Texaco’s red star logo, first trademarked in 1909. Reinterpreting the “T” as a hammer, one can see multiple variations of Soviet iconography playfully rendered in its design. In Lone Star and Crucifix, the push towards a text–based reinvention of both images stems from a writerly need to expand the use of letters in the creative process. By repurposing “official” Soviet typographic posters into contemporary, conceptual translations, Letters, Big Letters, and Small White Letters, help break down the barriers of exaggerated, politicized language to reach the widest audience in the simplest manner possible. This compliments The Colored Banners, whereas a symbolic use of color (Green, Black, White, and Red) is best utilized to express what Soviet revolutionary-style slogans might look like if employed by government decree in the USA.
Four Centuries of American Sloganism pays homage to the pioneering work and influence of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid who turned ubiquitous, sociopolitical, and above all, anonymous slogans into art objects that adorn museum walls. In an attempt to document the limitation of language and failure of the written word, transliteration from Russian to English is employed in a mini-narrative that views our nation’s founding to the present through a parallel lens.
Stalinbucks can be viewed as an exercise of Pop Art and a comment on proliferation and deconstruction. I mean, does Starbucks really have plans for global expansionism and aggressive control of market share? It does and it reminds me of a specific Soviet strategy to dominate the world far beyond Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Central America, and Cuba.
The late, great writer/illustrator, Vagrich Bakhchanyan, excelled at the art of ironic mashup and coined the word, Pravdada, a witty play on the masthead and typography of the “official” daily newspaper of the Communist Party “Pravda.” Translated as “Truth,” his concept was to prove that everything written in it was Lies, hence the addition of the “Da,” or yes. As separated from the root “Prav,” which translates as “Right,” “Dada” stands on its own, revealing a deeper, more personal meaning of self expression in a time of State-controlled press and misinformation – a double entendre declaring the artist’s view of “Dada is Right.” Marcel Duchamp would have surely approved of the lift. This informs, but does not define my own view.
I have never read “Pravda,” but I have heard of Prada. I’ve seen countless ads of beautiful people pitching me jeans, sunglasses, suits, shoes, home decor, and handbags. By means of production, Prada has become mass culture’s gold standard – sleek, imported, expensive, and silky smooth. In distorting both brands and by showcasing rare imagery of atomic test dummies and mushroom cloud swimwear, my goal is to respect the look of a cutting edge, high gloss Prada print ad – Duchamp “readymade” and all – while underscoring both the fetishization of war and conspicuous consumption.
All of which leads to a new positioning when considering the role of influence and satire in contemporary art, specifically related to the work of Ilya Kabakov. Among the most respected of living artists, his visual platform is deceivingly simple: an overt examination of the relationship between image (often found objects) and text, of that which is written vs. that which is shown, and the ‘hidden’ dystopian space in between the two. Moreover, Kabakov’s color palette eerily evokes the drab hallways that are universal to everyday living under a totalitarian system. He’s not interested in politics, rather, like an anthropologist, he explores what existence really is in an impossible, oppressive place and how to live life in it. In his seminal Communal Kitchen series, Kabakov repeatedly ask the question of “Who?” For instance, in Whose Cup is This? (1982), one fictional character, Ekaterina Lvovna Soyka, inquires as to the ownership of said object to another imaginary character, Fyodor Sergeevich Malinin, who replies “I don't know.” Although appearing to be an innocent question, the piece unearths the complexity of the implications of it’s potential answer. Why does she want to know whose cup it is? Could the cup belong to an adulterer, a thief, an informer, or merely a neighbor? In Soviet Russia, nothing is as it seems.
In the later series, “Dedicated to Kabakov,” by repurposing the schematic-like design of his imagery, I am conscious of my own family’s history with Moscow communal living. It’s in the borrowing of Kabakov’s forms that I’m able to further illuminate the duality of “Moscow Made, American Born” and explore the dichotomies that make up a very personal utopian space: the Hollywood dream factory and its built-in ideas of escapism, in tension with the physical acts of migration and assimilation – something I’m very much rooted from. Above all, and in so many many ways, movie going is, to me, what being an American felt like. As framed by references to movies that subvert and reshape the conventions of film, this flight from reality plays out in the conflict of how everyday people talk vs. how characters in cinema speak. The continuous recognition of the language of the screen, in tandem with the conceptual world of Kabakov, reveals its limitations, fragmentations, ambiguities, and kitsch. Additionally, the curbs and confines of language in art and life – whether transliterated, transcribed, interpreted, or dubbed – also reflect the dominant theme of my work thus far.
Many years in the making, this series is a statement of cause and effect, of call and response. Having been brought up within an émigré community of Soviet artists, dissidents, writers, and musicians, there is no separating my family’s journey to America from the task of finding a common thread among the images featured here. Like Sanders, I had lots of gigs and this too is a discovery. Since 2011, one I’m happy to share as a professional debut.