(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|
Nothing seems to be more obvious than to rearrange the emblems printed on the Soviet flag into a smiling face: the stars as eyes, the hammer as nose and the sickle as mouth – although I‘m not sure whether such an idea occurred anyone before 1987. Actually, nothing seems more obvious once you have seen it, because all Evgenij Kozlov had to do was to rotate the symbol 45° clockwise, so that the hammer is now a vertical position and the sickle in a horizontal position. He subsequently turned the star to make two of its points projecting downward again, and added a second star as left eye.
There are also some other, minor changes with regard to the Soviet emblem.
Kozlov flipped the sickle horizontally so that the handle, forming the corner of the mouth, stands to the right, like a comma after a phrase. He flattened the curved blade of the sickle, making the smile more natural. The hammer’s head has become asymmetric and its handle tapers towards the lower end – a strangely elongated nose, pierced through the mouth like a square hook. Yet the overall impression of the picture is that of a friendly and kind-hearted creature.
If I were to decide on its gender, I would attribute it a feminine gender – because of its friendliness, but also because there is a trace of refinement and secrecy in its facial expression, like in the famous Mona Lisa smile. This comparison might be somewhat unexpected, but it nevertheless occurred to me.
A T-shirt from 1987 has a particularly radiant version of this smile. In this T-Shirt, red contours surround the yellow stars – the exact opposite of the star in the flag, where yellow surrounds red. Contrasting a lighter inside with a darker contour turns the stars into starry pupils. As a matter of fact, in German, “Augenstern” – eye-star – is a poetic expression for the pupil of the eye; accordingly, “du bist mein Augenstern” means “you are the apple of my eye”. The pupil is the essence of the essential.
The concept of a smiling sickle first appeared in two ballpoint sketches from 1986. Both sketches are two-sided, displaying more complex figurative drafts on the other side. The drawing of a smiling sickle with the encircled number 2 on top also shows a figure, and this figure overlaps the other objects – the hammer, sickle and stars. Because the figure’s contours are marked with faint dotted lines, it easily escapes our attention, but a second glance reveals how the artist inserted this figure into the objects.
Thus, the figure’s body corresponds to the vertically placed hammer, and the figure’s head to the head of the hammer. The arms are forming a zigzagging “w” line, with the elbows touching the vertical sickle and the left and right hands touching the left and right star, respectively. This concept may have been inspired by da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, where the proportions of the human body are defined by a circle, but it is even closer to Agrippa von Nettelsheim’s pentagram referred to earlier, where the head, arms and legs of a human body correspond to the points of the pentagram.
E-E Kozlov did not pursue this concept further, but experimented with different combinations of a smiling sickle and a skyscraper in his drawings from 1987. In this way, the smiling sickle, having itself become a living creature, humanises the skyscraper – the symbol of urban industrial life represented in Soviet iconography by seven Moscow skyscrapers built between 1947 and 1953. In the chapter dedicated to Star. 6 Figures, I showed that such a skyscraper appeared in the painting on photographs entitled CuCsCaP (One hundred questions and answers).We must, however, look at the respective sketch in order to be able identify it there. A similar, “hidden” concept of a skyscraper is present in the painting Smiling Sickle; I will come back to this point.
In the previous chapter, we already saw a reproduction of the painting Smiling Sickle in a picture taken at Evgenij Kozlov’s studio Galaxy Gallery. See page 6 >>
I shifted this picture to a ninety-degree angle counter-clockwise in order to display the work correctly. For some reason, the curators of the exhibition had decided to present the smile vertically, although there can be no doubt about its horizontal position. It is difficult to understand what motivated their choice, but perhaps the smiling sickle inspired them to a joke.
Unlike the other four paintings from White on Red, this one was not painted on red calico, but on a multi-coloured material, two pieces sewed together to make a square. The painting’s main colours, however, are again white and red: stars, hammer, and sickle, all applied with red paint, stand inside a grid of white lines. The intersecting vertical and horizontal lines create small rectangles displaying the original colour of the material – shades of dark blue and green. These rectangles build a regular pattern, like grainy pixels in a computer image. Kozlov pointed out to me that these pixelated dots refer to the dense, regular arrangement of windows in a skyscraper.
Contouring the red shapes like shades, white paint fills up this pixel grid scheme. The contrast between those white contours, on the one hand, and the dark “windows”, on the other, enhances the luminosity of the red colour.
This effect is particularly strong with regard to the slightly rounded stars. With their soft, almost sculptural appeal, they seem to pulsate, like small animals, and remind us rather of a starfish than of an exact pentacle, like in the painting Star.
Yet if we use the image of a starfish, it is not so much the Asterias rubens, the common or sugar starfish from Kozlov’ drawing from 1986 (E-E-186053), but the Pteraster tesselatus– the slime star or cushion star resembling a pentagonal pincushion.
Just as important to create the illusion of life – or indetermination, as defined earlier – are some technical features: dots and threads of dripped paint and a barely noticeable irregularity of the white brushstrokes, slightly deviating from the parallel scheme of the grid. I discussed the intentional randomness of these features for Star. 6 Figures and The Human Being Comes First, respectively.
A T-shirt from 1987 shows Kozlov’s emblem inside a circle; here the painting’s rectangular pixels have become rounded dots. Again, the alignment of dots is not completely regular: there is a tiny extra dot in the upper line, virtually squeezed in between two neighbouring dots.
In a picture from 1988 taken at Galaxy Gallery, we see E-E Kozlov wearing this T-shirt in combination with shorts and two handbags he also painted. Shorts and handbag display the hammer and sickle in its traditional layout, without starry eyes, but with a perfectly constructivist intersection of geometrical circle segments instead. The design of the other handbag, the skull shouting ART из CCCP (Art from the USSR), is most likely from 1988, when it appeared on different objects and paintings as logotype.
An entirely different image of the smiling sickle is in Kozlov’s painted Soviet calendar poster from 1983, displaying one of these cute pet pictures that know no boundaries of nation and ideology: a fluffy white terrier mix with its tongue sticking out and a cat peeping out from behind its back. Evgenij Kozlov applied translucent ink to several places, with red as the dominating colour.
The smiling sickle notwithstanding, this cat looks now quite mischievous, like a little red devil, whereas the dog is a happy know-nothing, a dunno unaware of the letters inscribed in its tongue, because there is no way it can perceive its proper tongue.
But perhaps it is just the artist’s logotype? In this case it would be a sign. The dotted smiling sickle on the T-shirt suggest such an interpretation: Kozlov is not only signed it, but put a small copyright © in front of his signature.
This brings to mind a similar, though less specific concept: the smiley, a pictograph composed of minimalistic features arranged inside a yellow circle – two black oval dots as eyes and a black arc with oval dots left and right as mouth.
The smiley is primarily a humanised sun, just in the way pre-school children draw facial features on objects. It became a huge success in the West and a mass phenomenon since the 1970s, when the 1960s prototype of a smiley began to conquer the world.
In his article for The Guardian “A design for life” (21 February, 2009) Jon Savage wrote:
The same cannot be said about Kozlov’s Smiling Sickle, because it is not “such a bland symbol”. Smiling Sickle incorporates symbols that had already been subject to rebranding – in the first place in the Soviet Union, where the hammer and the sickle were no longer perceived as working tools of workers and the farmers, respectively, but as something expressing “sovietism”. A different question is what kind of emotions this “sovietism” evoked. For Kozlov, like for many other artists of his generation – and not only artists –, “sovietism” was definitely not hip. In terms of style, the image of the Soviet Union had suffered a steep decline in status, from leader in international avant-garde design to leader in provincial retrograde oddities and bizzarreries.
By 1987, this uncool image of Soviet style was deeply rooted outside as well as inside the Soviet Union, and Kozlov’s attempt to create a new Soviet brand – a trendy Soviet brand – was successful only in part, “in part” meaning that his painting Smiling Sickle was sold the very first time it was exhibited, at the 1988 New Artists Kulturhuset exhibition. It therefore remains an entirely hypothetical question whether Smiling Sickle could have been the logotype for the Liverpool festival “Perestroika in the Avant-Garde”, in the place of the cosmic Star.
It is even less possible to predict what would have been the history of Smiling Sickle as logotype, had a capitalist market started to commercialise it, but for the sake of curiosity, I adapted a fragment from Jimmy Stamp’s article on the Smiley, published by the Smithsonian online magazine on 13 March, 2013. I simply changed two dates and “yellow smiley” to “Smiling Sickle”:
Yet the smiling sickle has remained a logo without a history. And although its reference to the Soviet symbol is evident, it has a strong individual personality. These two points allow us to enjoy a moment of indetermination when we are looking at it, because we are not immediately perceiving it as a sign. In the introduction, I related “indetermination” to “image”. The smiling sickle is a hybrid of image and sign. We can check this using the distinction suggested earlier – a sign answers the question “what does it mean?”, while an image answers the question “Why am I touched by it?” We will find out that both questions are of equal relevance, and this is true regardless of the context, that is, whether the smiling sickle stands in a more painterly context, as in the large painting, or in a context of a particular design, as is the case with Kozlov’s T-shirts.
Finally, if we wish to rate all five works from the White on Red cycle on a linear scale, with “image” as one endpoint and “sign” as the other one, I would put Star, Star. 6 Figures and The Human Being Comes First closer to “image”, CCCP closer to “sign”, and Smiling Sickle somewhere in the middle between both.
Such a classification is nevertheless a matter of individual perception, and a very approximate classification, in addition. Concluding my discussion of the five works from the White on Red cycle with such a grading, I did not intend to settle once and forever the question of what these works really are..
But if we look at works of art that possess an evident sign quality, this kind of differentiation can be helpful to develop and broaden our understanding of what we might otherwise simply perceive as an artist’s critical approach towards the political or social system of a particular moment in time – while neglecting the more sophisticated aspects proper to art.
Text: Hannelore Fobo, April/May 2020
Uploaded 20 May 2020