Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow.
Despite the suffocating grip on culture imposed by the Soviet state, a rich literary scene continued to thrive underground. This fecundity was the starting point for artists such as Viktor Pivovarov, whose long-awaited retrospective “The Snail’s Trail” includes paintings, works on paper, sculpture, and installations. Pivovarov was a founding member of the Moscow Conceptualists, along with artists Ilya Kabakov, Dmitri Prigov, and Erik Bulatov—many of whom illustrated children’s novels, using the format to disseminate subversive thought. While the government sponsored Social Realist portraiture, nonconformist artists such as Pivovarov looked inward to communicate the individual’s solitary journey—engaging painting as if it were a literary genre.
Stylistically, the artist’s more recent oil paintings, like Moscow Gothic, 2008, with its primary-colored block figures in domestic settings, share similarities with Giorgio de Chirico’s graphic fantasies, while works like Metaphysical Composition, 1972, made with enamel on fiberboard and depicting an isolated form caught in a thought bubble of architectural constructions, recall René Magritte’s own dreamlike figuration. But what sets Pivovarov apart are the forlorn antics of antiauthoritarian characters, which he developed like a protagonist in a novel. Visual motifs recur throughout, such as the repetition of circles representing utopian wholeness or the flora and fauna of gardens promoting growth. However, one of the most poignant tales is catalogued in an album called Where Am I?, 1975, with thirty small watercolors on paper, each illustrating the mundane surroundings the artist would witness on a given day. They start with a bedroom and move to the studio, back home to dinner, and then into the woods and up to the sky, upon which the Russian phrase “Где я?” begs the titular and eternal question.
First published on Artforum.com, May 2nd, 2016.