Aside from the fact that they're both Russian-born artists, Geli Korzhev and Ekaterina Khromin have little in common.
Khromin, a graduate of the USSR Academy of Arts who worked as a children's book illustrator, came to the United States in 1990, while Korzhev, a master painter trained in Moscow during the Stalinist era, remained in the former Soviet Union until his death in 2012.
Although the artists never met, came of age in different eras and followed different paths, their respective exhibitions at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis offer complementary reflections on the past and present.
Khromin, who now lives in Miami and the Catskills, has 23 works displayed in the museum's main gallery. Bold, colorful, layered and at times visually a bit maddening, her self-created technique, which she calls synergism — a merging of conceptual art, pop art and minimalism — emerged as a direct response to her path as an immigrant.
When she arrived in New York, she experienced total culture shock. She felt the same way while checking out museums, so she decided to leave the past behind.
"It took me years and years to develop my new technique, which is a combination of painting and sculpture, creating low bas reliefs on canvas," she explained in an artist interview on Zoom. "It was a long journey and a difficult process."
In a sense, she became a different person, but threads from her past found their way into the work. During her years as an illustrator in Russia, she often worked for a music publisher, requiring her to channel abstraction into art. In the United States, she worked as a conservator. These influences led to the idea of painting on sculpted surfaces that incorporate found objects, a technique developed with her late husband, Victor, in the early 2000s.
The works in the show are fairly recent, some painfully so in the case of "COVID-19," where a bright-red/orange background blares against a bevy of patterned figures, floating body parts, yellowish pieces of mucus-looking stuff and jagged lines. The red suggests ever-present danger, anger and warning, but for Khromin there's another layer. Red is the color of the Soviet flag, representing "oppression to a free-thinking and experimentation-prone Soviet artist."
It's not all so dark, though. Other works reference mythical animals, dreams, memory and ancestors, giving the show an overall sense of her journey inward to find self.
From there, it's a quick trip up the stairs to the mezzanine-level gallery to view 30 paintings by Korzhev, one of the masters of post-World War II Soviet art.
Unlike Khromin, Korzhev goes full-on realist, yet the symbols he uses throughout feel intriguing in other ways. His 1957 painting "In the Reception Room" shows a woman with a shawl on her shoulders, holding a baby wrapped in blue, and sitting next to a man wearing a brown cap, hunched over, looking defeated.
"He is trying to get rid of the Stalinist art mentality, and eliminate optimism and utopianism and the false, fake varnish of Soviet reality on art," curator Masha Zavialova explained in a Zoom lecture about the artist, available on the museum's YouTube channel.
The people in this painting likely lived in a communal flat and needed to apply for a bigger living space because of the birth of a new family member. The painfulness of such a wait — one that could last for years — is palpable.
"I was on a waiting list like this myself during Soviet times," said Zavialova, who immigrated to the United States 20 years ago. She assembled the show from works owned by the museum's founders, Ray and Susan Johnson, and other private collectors.
Korzhev's gritty yet contemplative paintings show the difficulties faced by Soviet citizens, but he didn't welcome the collapse of the Communist state. This is evidenced in a series he called "Tiurliki," or "Mutants," portraying the post-Soviet regime as literally full of monsters rife with moral failures and power imbalances.
In "The Fight," a gray beastly mutant with evil beady black eyes digs its teeth into the shoulder of a man who is naked, other than red underwear, while the yellow eye of some other beast watches from the corner.
The red of the underwear feels as much a danger sign as the alarming red in Khromin's COVID painting — a signal to stay vigilant about what could lie ahead.
@AliciaEler • 612-673-4437