A spirit kept underground

The Museum of Russian Art explores faith and spirituality in art during and after the Soviet era.

"Jonah" by Alexander Zakharov Credit: Submitted

WINDOM — In his 1992 painting “Jonah,” the Russian-born artist Alexander Zakharov seems to identify with the torment and dislocation experienced by the Old Testament prophet, who reluctantly accepted a divine mission after three days in the belly of a fish.

Zakharov’s frenzied retelling shifts the setting to Russia’s snowy taiga, with the giant fish paddling beneath the ice of a frozen lake and Jonah trapped inside. A new exhibition at The Museum of Russian Art places this strange vision within a tradition of spiritual artistic expression, a tradition that survived despite the communist government’s attacks on religion.

Zakharov completed “Jonah” just months after the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, while he was living abroad in New York City. But before he left he was a “noncomformist,” a member of the artistic underground who ignored political taboos on artistic subjects and styles.

The show includes more bits of weirdness from the underground, including a multi-media piece by Petr Belenok, who coined the term “panic realism” to describe his unusual fusing of photorealism and science fiction. Like the cover of a cheap paperback thriller, Belenok’s “Phenomenon” shows a frightened crowd being absorbed in an ominous white light.

But there are, as well, heartfelt expressions of faith. Olga Bulgakova’s monumental painting “Return of the Prodigal Son” depicts the parable’s titular son in a tender embrace with his forgiving father. Its size and thick layers of oil paint give it a sculptural presence in the gallery.

Soviet leaders apparently viewed even depictions of churches as dangerous propaganda, and in 1979 Tatiana Levitskaia dripped thick streams of enamel automotive paint, Jackson Pollock-like, onto cardboard to paint “Church of St. Trifon.” It’s one of many reminders that the noncomformists kept alive the fire of the Russian avant-garde.

The conceptual art duo Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid come off as brainy, witty pranksters in a late ’70s piece, “Corporation for Buying and Selling Souls.” They “bought” American souls for resale in Moscow on the premise that, if an artwork contains a bit of the artist’s soul, then an object with a soul in it must be art.

That object is a wooden cage containing a document signed by the American art collector Norton Dodge, recording the sale of his soul for 98 cents. Dodge drove a hard bargain, apparently; Andy Warhol gave his soul to Komar and Melamid for free.

“Concerning the Spiritual in Russian Art, 1965–2011” runs through June 9 at The Museum of Russian Art, 5500 Stevens Ave. S. 821-9045.tmora.org