(E-E) Ev.g.e.n.i.j ..K.o.z.l.o.v Berlin
(E-E) Evgenij Kozlov: art >>
(E-E) Evgenij Kozlov • White on Red
Five paintings from 1987
|Page 1: Image and Sign|
|Page 2: White on Red|
|Page 3: Star|
|Page 4: Star. 6. Figures|
|Page 5: CCCP|
|Page 6: The Human Being Comes First
|Page 7: Smiling Sickle|
|Page 8: Exhibitions|
Script as an element of images has always been an important of feature of (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov‘s works, especially in his collages and works on paper, but to some extent in his paintings, too. Words and sentences have references and therefore imply meaning, and Kozlov would assign such meaning to images in a highly personal, associative way. But words also have a pure sound quality, especially when presented as syllables or broken into single letters. Last but not least, letters and numbers possess a distinct aesthetic form: cut-outs from newspapers and magazines display script with specific shapes and backgrounds, while dry-transfer (Letraset) letters and self-made templates allow for unusual arrangements of characters and spaces between them. Handwritten or sprayed lettering can be particularly ornamental, especially some Cyrillic letters like Я (ya), Ж (zh) or Ш (sh), typical for Kozlov‘s comic-graffiti-style works from 1985-1987.
In 1985/1986, Kozlov started experimenting with the abbreviation CCCP, the common term to refer to Союз Советских Социалистических Республик (SSSR, Soyuz Sovietskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik), which translates as Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR. One of these sketches displays a list of country names, most ending in ия (iya), such as Росс-и-я (Ross-i-ya. Russia) or Герман-и-я (German-i-ya, Germany). In the list, the artists separated the letters и and я with hyphens, because In Russian, these letters have a proper meaning: и is the conjunction “and” and я is the personal pronoun “I”. This gives room for interpretation. For instance, the particle Герман /German is a masculine given name, Herman; Герман-и-я / German-i-ya may therefore be translated as Herman and I.
Obviously, this sound game doesn‘t work with either USA or CCCP, so Kozlov invented phonetic transliterations: USA became USЭЙ and also ЮУЭС ЭЙ, while CCCP became Эс Эс Эс Сэр. The letter э reads like an e in met. Now we get u s ey, you u es ey, and es es es ser, respectively.
We find a similar arrangement in a sketch assembling a Moscow sky-scraper and the famous Shukov Radio Tower, supplied with two vertical strips of letters: ЭСЭСЭСЭР and ЭКСЭКСЭКСЭКССССЭР. Both set of letters have connotations. If we divide the first word, ЭСЭСЭСЭР, into two halves, then its first part, ЭСЭС, reveals its phonetic identity with the German term SS, while the second part, ЭСЭР or ESER can be seen as a reference to эсеры (esery), the Party of Socialist Revolutionaries. (The SRs or Esers competed with the Bolsheviks at the time of the Russian Revolution, before the party was eliminated by the Lenin in in 1922.) As to the sound pattern of ЭКСЭКСЭКСЭКССССЭР – ЭКС or eks equals “ex”, therefore one possible interpretation is EXEXEXEXUSSR. In fact, the USSR would become the ex-USSR in 1991.
The letter C has a very appealing form, especially when handwritten. Kozlov‘s C’s look like croissants or curly opening quotation marks, and like closing quotation marks when mirror inverted.
The artist created chains of “C”s, repeating the same letter not three times, but seven times – CCCCCCCP. The most impressive repetition appeared on a T-shirt: six rows consisting of six “C”s each, except for the last row, which ended in a P.
Phonetically, the repetition of the s-sound, s-s-s-s-s, resembles the sound produced by a train running on the rails at constant speed – before it finally comes to a halt at the P: in this case the “P” must be pronounced as a Latin plosive p, and not as a Russian rolling r, which would rather be used to stop a horse pulling a carriage. As a matter of fact, Evgenij Kozlov pronounces CCCP both in Russian, as ES-ES-ES-ER, and, alternatively, in English – SEE-SEE-SEE-PEE, which offers possibilities to play with sounds. I will come back to this later.
At the same time, and contrasting these ornamental letters, Kozlov developed both the C and the P as three-dimensional block letters. Here, the C and P are almost square, slightly higher than wide, looking rather compact and somewhat technical. We find them, for instance, in the sketch of a personal computer, where CCCP has been inserted into the luminous digital background grid of the monitor. In the painting CCCP (Computer) that followed from this design, Kozlov kept the all-in-one design of keyboard and monitor – a computer design of the late 1970s and early 1980s – but removed the monitor’s grid and simplified the letters.
In a next step, the artist adapted variations of these simplified block letters for his slogan ART из CCCP (Art from the USSR), completed with ART для USA (Art for the USA), or simply CCCP USA. Between 1987 and 1989, these slogans, and sometimes CCCP on its own, appear on objects and paintings – often in combination with constructivist motifs. This is why I defined this particular period of Kozlov‘s work as “Art from the USSR”. Strictly speaking, only part of Kozlov’s works from those years belong to the category of “Art from the USSR”, as figurative painting continues to play an important role. Yet the artist‘s systematic approach in developing a whole range of signs, shapes, and images to define art coming from the USSR makes “Art from the USSR” a logical definition – all the more so because E-E‘s methodical exploration of this concept makes him stand out among his fellow artists.
CCCP from the White on Red series is by far the largest work from this period. The painting is in a 1.93 x 5.83 m format – eight panels of red calico sewn together at the selvedges and accomplished with hemlines on all four sides. A pattern of horizontal white stripes alternating with red lines half their width defines the background. Against this background, the red (unpainted) letters stand as negative shapes, each 114 cm high. Kozlov used the square block letters from CCCP (Computer). The letters are massive, determining the entire composition. They build a sort of chain: the C’s connect like chain links to the P, the end link. In the lower right corner, like a full stop behind the letters CCCP, is another, smaller red rectangle bearing Kozlov‘s signature.
However, working conditions were different in Leningrad, more precisely at “Galaxy Gallery” in Peterhof, the apartment Kozlov lived in until 1989. CCCP was too large for any of the walls of the apartment, and the material had to be fixed around the corner, to adjacent walls.
Even so, the work had to be executed in several steps. The artist couldn’t just fix the fabric to the wall, carry out the design, and then take the finished painting off the wall. Because calico is very thin, the white paint seeped straight through it into the wallpaper. In order to keep the material from getting stuck to the wallpaper upon drying, Kozlov had to detach it while the paint was still moist, and since the paint dried quickly, he had to repeat this process a number of times. Traces of CCCP left on the wallpaper tell us how this was done.
Kozlov started with a vertical section of the painting of between 50 cm and one metre width, applying the paint in parallel stripes from top to bottom. Following this, he removed this piece from the wall before the paint had dried, and then fixed the fabric to the wall again to continue with the next section. The wallpaper shows these intervals as vertical breaks between the stripes or lines, and we also notice that the stripes continue slightly unaligned on the wallpaper. The composition itself, however, displays these stripes – twenty-three altogether – in a perfect parallel layout, giving us absolutely no reason to believe that they were the result of such laborious work. Only the back side of the painting reveals where exactly the brush strokes started and ended.
When asked (in 2020) why he chose such a large format for CCCP, (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov answered that the Soviet Union was a large country and that a small format wouldn’t have done it justice. On the other hand, a work of 100 m length, although possible, wouldn‘t have made any sense – if you want to say that something is large, there is not much difference between large and very large. Therefore the idea was to choose a format that was large enough to be large. The size created for CCCP seemed perfect.
There is a slightly ironical note in this comment. We know, of course, that the Soviet propaganda loved to emphasise the CCCP’s unique grandeur (“One Sixth of the Earth”), and we also know that it cherished large figures, for instance with respect to the production output of the five-year-plans.
But when CCCP becomes SEE-SEE-SEE-PEE, this creates a number of associations with other Russian words, as Evgenij Kozlov found out over time. The reduplication of simple sounds generates a sort of baby talk, and more associations appear when reading the abbreviation not only forward, but also backward: си-си (see-see), the plural form of сися (sisia), means female breast, and пи-си (pee-see), the plural form of пися (pisia) is the equivalent of English pee-pee or wee-wee. The magnified becomes small again!
There is a kind of inverted relation between the “real” Soviet flag and CCCP. The Soviet flag displays its emblem (hammer, sickle and star) like a modest appliqué piece, while in CCCP, the lettering covers most of the surface, leaving a border of just 40 cm on all sides. Yet, as we have seen, the meaning of CCCP is by no means unambiguous.
Thus, is this painting a plurivalent sign? Or is it an image, in the same way as discussed for the other works from the White on Red cycle ? There can be no doubt – because of the multiple visual and sound references of CCCP, it is the one closest to a sign among these five works.
On the other hand, the white stripes break the dull monochromatic red that characterises the Soviet flag. I defined these white stripes as motion lines earlier. Because these white stripes are twice the size of the red stripes, this pattern confers the composition a degree of lightness and liveliness that softens the massive “squareness” of the letters: the letter seem to somehow “sit” loosely on the background. This would support the argument that CCCP not just a sign, but also is an image.
Yet, stripes are a typical feature of flags, especially in a horizontal arrangement. Looking for references, we shift once again from image to sign and find such a reference in the red and white stripes of the U.S. flag.
In Evgenij Kozlov‘s works, a reference to the U.S. flag appears as early as 1980. The painting Рюкзак / Rucksack (gouache on cardboard, 77 x 64 cm, 1980) displays a paraphrase of the American flag above a red-orange rucksack, and the flag’s soft texture is reminiscent of Jasper Johns’ iconographic portrayal of the American flag dating to 1954 / 55. (At the time, Johns was 24; Kozlov was the same age when he painted Rucksack.) In Kozlov‘s painting, white and red stripes, intersected by a light blue square, form a rectangular pattern, and these linear-angular shapes complement the rounded shape of the rucksack and the loose ends of its shoulder straps. Rucksack is doubtlessly an image.
Here we could stop the game of shifting between image and sign. It turns out that even the most obvious of Kozlov‘s "sign” paintings gets us into infinite regress, as a true work of art is a hybrid. If we return to the metaphor of a quantum system proposed in the introduction, (“it’s either the impulse or the location”), we may say that if a quantum object possesses a wave–particle duality, then a work of art possesses an image-sign duality. And when we no longer perceive its duality, is has become a mummified artefact, a simple sign.
There is, however, an addendum to these conclusions. It relates to the Liverpool 1989 Leningrad festival “Perestroika in the Avant-Garde”, which I mentioned earlier with respect to Kozlov‘s painting Star as the festival‘s logotype.
The festival‘s main exhibition took place at the Bluecoat Gallery, but there was also a parallel one-week exhibition at the Tate Gallery Liverpool – a so-called “exhibition of banners”, organised on the occasion of Timur Novikov‘s lecture about the New Artists at the Tate Liverpool on 1 February 1989.
The BBC festival documentary – available on YouTube in two parts under the heading "Sergei Kuriokhin & Pop-Mekahnika” more >> – shows Timur Novikov and Sergei Bugaev in the process of hanging Kozlov‘s painting CCCP to one of the walls of the Tate Liverpool. In the context of Novikov‘s and Bugaev‘s much smaller works, CCCP really looked like a huge banner – a banner any fan of Liverpool F.C. could have taken to support the team at Anfield. After all, Liverpool F.C. banners are painted White on Red.
Text: Hannelore Fobo, April/May 2020
Uploaded 4 May 2020