Art beat: The non-conformist

A graphic master from the Soviet underground

We’ll be back.

There’s more work from the graphically masterful artist Oleg Vassiliev to come when The Museum of Russian Art opens the second half its exhibition on Vassiliev in its mezzanine gallery Sept. 17. That half will include a number of the underground artist’s oil paintings, but a selection of his prints and drawings already on display in late summer was an enticing preview of the work to come.

For three decades leading up to the fracturing of the Soviet Union in 1991, Vassiliev was officially employed as an illustrator of children’s books. Out of view of Communist party censors, though, Vassiliev created art that was not in the often bland, propagandistic and state-approved Soviet Realist style.

It seems he realized the dangers of pursuing his own artistic vision early on. In the ’60s, he was labeled a constructivist — an adherent of the highly influential art movement that flourished in 1920s Russia — earning a temporary ban from illustration work. And when rejections followed his first gallery show in Moscow in 1966, Vassiliev realized he likely would not ever freely exhibit or sell his art in his own country.

In private, he continued melding a native realist style that predated Soviet Realism with the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century, joining the ranks of the “non-conformist” Soviet-era artists. Like many of them, he fled his homeland in the early 1990s, and now lives in St. Paul.

In the prints and drawings already on display, Vassiliev’s graphic inventiveness proves a hallmark of his work. He boldly deploys frames to isolate characters or actions within a scene and often uses silhouettes or stark contrast — not to mention great swaths of black — to emphasize important elements.

It’s easiest to see how Vassiliev employs these tools in “The House with the Mezzanine,” a series of 30 prints based, in part, on an Anton Chekhov short story. Created in 1991 as the Soviet Union was dissolving, the series looks back a century to the end of Russia’s imperial era to examine the social and cultural costs of political upheaval.

Vassiliev places himself in the series, at first as an outsider separated from Chekhov’s characters by one of his trademark black frames. When he steps over that border, it makes the loss he depicts personal.


Go see it
“The Art of Oleg Vassiliev: Discovering 20th Century Russian Masters” runs through February at The Museum of Russian Art, 5500 Stevens Ave. S. 821-9045. tmora.org

———

Subtle influences

WHITTIER — Louis LaPierre and Jason Wasyk have shared a studio space in the Midway area of St. Paul since about 2007, when they were both in their mid-20s and just out of art school.

LaPierre, a native St. Paulite, and Wasyk, a transplanted Virginian, either met through social media or a mutual friend, or a combination of the two — they couldn’t quite remember. They were both into street art at the time (LaPierre still is) and, as LaPierre put it, the community of street artists is relatively small, so once you’re in, you’re in.

They’re calling their exhibition at Cult Status Gallery “Nay-Say,” a hint that their aesthetics don’t overlap in any obvious way. But there’s no way they couldn’t rub off on each other after four years.

“You could kind of subtly see influences, just from sharing that space for the amount of time,” Wasyk said.

A LaPierre painting mashes together industrial images: a motor dangling wires and snaking rubber tubes, power lines and, on the horizon, the decaying hulk of an old factory that might symbolize Rust Belt obsolescence. Working in latex paint that flattens the imagery, Wasyk takes the boring, boxy shape of a suburban house and repeats it over and over, stacking into a hive-like mass. One could look at them and see two perspectives on contemporary America, both unsettling in their own way.

Some preview images from the exhibition also included a delicate pencil portrait by LaPierre and one of Wasyk’s three-dimensional “sculpture paintings,” boxes topped with tufts of clouds and leaking what he called “drips,” both cut out of wood.

The two spent the last three months working together on a large, modular painting. About 6-feet tall and 20-feet long, it’s made up of different panels that will be sold off “by the square foot,” LaPierre said.

Wasyk said they worked on the piece mostly independently, one painting over the other.

“Typically, he makes it sloppier and then I go in and clean it up and make it more precise,” he said. “… It’s been a constant battle.”


Go see it
“Nay-Say” runs through Sept. 17 at Cult Status Gallery, 2913 Harriet Ave. S. 965-9162. cultstatusgallery.com