Anybody with a taste for the absurdist and surrealist strains found in certain artistic responses to the Russian State – lovers of Gogol or Bulgakov, to name but two – will find much to enjoy in Rinat Voligamsi’s paintings currently exhibited at Erarta Galleries, London. Whilst these paintings are apparently based on found photographs of Russian soldiers in winter, they are anything but documentary representations of reality (though a notion that describes Russian photographs as documents of reality is questionable in rather itself, as certain Stalinist era images remind us). A recurring theme in these works is that of the masquerade: paintings masquerading as photographs (and occasionally as wood cuts); fantasy masquerading as realism; snowflakes masquerading as glowing cigarettes, light masquerading as halos, the badges on soldiers’ caps masquerading as stars; clones masquerading as individuals. In these depictions Voligamsi seems to be identifying the instability of the image and the untrustworthiness of the photographic medium which constitutes his source.
All of the works on show possess the uncanny aura common to many hyperrealist paintings, but some have an explicitly surrealist content; Along the Alley (2010) shows a strapping young man walking at the head of what appears to be a parade, followed by seven disembodied pairs of legs in crisp white belted trousers. Merchant Court (2009, above) looks at first glance like a photographic shot of a snowy Russian town centre; but all the many figures populating it are standing on their heads. Inverted human figures is a visual trope common to Voligamsi’s series of paintings from whose title the exhibition draws its name; in these the tiny upside-down figures are placed in geometrical patterns to form a graphic foreground detail within an otherwise apparently normal urban background of snowy-roofed buildings. In these latter paintings there is some comedy produced by these farcical inversions and partial anatomical absences, but in others like Along the Alley and 1.5 the unsettling uncanny vision of amputated legs points to something more sinister; to some sort of peculiar and systematic violence done to the human body by an inexplicable, unseen power.
The notion of the systematic menace wrought by a greater power is underpinned by Voligamsi’s focus on the military, the strong arm of the Russian state. The paintings of soldiers, with their beautifully rendered sculptural chiaroscuro give their bodies a monumental quality reminiscent of the Socialist Realist art of the Soviet era – but each has some uncanny twist designed to raise questions about the truth and reliability of each representation. According to Voligamsi, the uncanny subversions of his paintings are designed to exemplify “the fragile balance between rationality and utter insanity” to be found in Russian army life.
If, as he states, his “mission” is to make the viewer ponder the “mysterious presence” of his paintings’ darkly comic undertones, then in this he has undoubtedly succeeded.*
Rinat Voligamsi: The Conditions of Winter at the Erarta Galleries in London, runs until 19 November 2011