“Soviet Realities” at the Telephonebooth Gallery features American and Russian artworks involved in anti-authoritarian politics and critiques of the Russian government. Curated by artist Marc Saviano and gallery owner Tim Brown, the exhibition is made up of digital images printed on paper. The exhibition might be daunting to some, as much of the text is in Russian, but also because American left/right political dynamics don’t map onto Russian politics so easily.
One image that highlights the complexity of the exhibition is Siberian artist Artem Loskutov’s “To Save Russia We Need To Burn Moscow.” The image takes the form of a traditional Russian Orthodox icon painting of a saint holding an open Bible, except the saint is replaced by General Mikhail Kutuzov, notorious for abandoning Moscow to Napoleon’s armies in order to engage in a strategic counter-attack.
Loskutov’s image isn’t about a 19th-century general, but rather the current regime in Moscow. “To Save Russia We Need To Burn Moscow” can be compared to the Trumpian rallying cry “Drain the Swamp,” that something corrupt at the center of power needs to be removed. Portraying the general as an Orthodox saint is a direct criticism of the current Russian Orthodox Church, with its ties to Putin’s regime (not unlike the church’s older ties to Tsarist Imperialism), that seem out of step with traditional Christian anti-authoritarianism, best illustrated by Christ’s resistance against Rome.
Artem Loskutov is likely the most famous artist in “Soviet Realities.” As a political artist in Siberia, he walks a tightrope between being honest, being provocative and engaging in sedition. Loskutov is best known for organizing an annual artistic demonstration and street march called “Monstration,” that has been banned by authorities some years and other years incorporated into official May Day rallies. After being arrested for insulting the police, he told the press “You’re not a real Russian until you’ve been arrested.”
Other images in “Soviet Realities” are easier to understand for an American. Marc Saviano uses the iconic Uncle Sam poster, replacing the typical “Uncle Sam Wants You” with Russian text that translates to “Speak Russian or Get Out,” implicitly drawing a comparison between anti-minority sentiment in America and marginalized ethnic groups within Russia.
An image by the collective Маратели пространств (roughly translated as Space Writers) features a policeman wearing a pink balaclava mask while carrying a tray of tea and a newspaper. The pink mask is an overt reference to the banned punk group Pussy Riot who wear similar masks, and the tea service and newspaper refer to the contradictory friendliness that the Russian police display to counteract their notoriety for violence.
Soviet Realities is an interesting, but very dense exhibition. For an American viewer, many of the images lack necessary context. It’s also strange to see these artworks printed onto paper for an art gallery as they seemed designed for social media or street posters; indeed, some of the artworks are available as stickers. But the exhibition is a reminder: despite the way the internet connects people across the globe, language preferences keep many of us from seeing this kind of art. “Soviet Realities” is a rare opportunity to get outside of American politics.
“Soviet Realities” was on view for the month of October at the Telephonebooth Gallery, 3319 Troost Ave. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and by appointment. For more information, 816.582.9812 or www.telephoneboothgallery.com. The gallery will hold a reception for Fried Pickle Ghost: Recent work by Christopher Beer & Natalie Myers” from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3.