Think of perestroika and the term immediately conjures up notions of youth, increased liberties and optimism. Next, consider Russia in the 1990s and the game of associations throws up lawlessness, actionism and provocation as key terms around which to pivot. Set against this dizzying backdrop, underground art and youth subcultures experienced a renewed energy with St Petersburg leading the charge. This month’s exhibition at Calvert 22 Gallery, Club of Friends, which opens on 2 April, casts its eye on two movements that have left a particular mark on that period — the New Artists and the New Academy — and their founder and undisputed leader, Timur Novikov.
Club of Friends foregrounds both groups as self-proclaimed outsiders, more concerned with aesthetics and art’s autonomy than with art as an instrument of socio-political critique. This at a time of political and social upheaval when the USSR ceased to exist and a new Russia appeared in its wake. The exhibition brings together rare works, including painting, video, posters, photographs and album covers to illustrate the anarchic spirit that runs as a common thread through both groups. The action, Zero Object (1982) — a photograph of Novikov and artist Ivan Sotnikov taken in the rectangular aperture of a wall at the first officially-sanctioned exhibition of St Petersburg non-conformists – marked both the birth of the New Artists as a movement and their artistic credo. With a simple public gesture they recalled Kazimir Malevich, who broke new artistic ground with his Black Square in 1915, and signalled their affiliation with a history of art that was not circumscribed by a confrontation between Soviet and anti-Soviet, good and evil.
Pre-empting the relaxation of rules that progressively came into force during the 1980s, the New Artists (1982 to 1991) entered into an unfettered, self-organised mode of existence that spanned visual art, film, theatre, music, design and fashion. Their work exhibited a marked gestural freedom strongly influenced by Primitivism, and their extroversion proved antagonistic to both official and dissident art circles. Although as a group the New Artists arguably fell into an existing vein of collective creativity — it’s only necessary to consider the tight-knit structure of Collective Actions and other Moscow Conceptualists — for Novikov and friends, communalism wasn’t based on common ownership or authorship but on art’s universal communicativeness. “Community” as a framework was viable only if it remained completely porous and transparent.
Outside of the USSR, the late 1970s and early 1980s saw the appearance of a new generation of youth subcultures — Junge Wilde, New Romantics, New Wave — who were noted for their flamboyant, extroverted mannerisms and style. The New Artists — which included Sergei Bugaev (Afrika), Oleg Kotelnikov, (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov and Georgy Guryanov — shared this ethos but they partook of it behind the Iron Curtain, in an information vacuum that lasted until the mid-1980s. It wasn’t until 1984 that Novikov and his circle gained an awareness of contemporary artistic developments in the west after befriending the American singer, Joanna Stingray. Via Stingray, who became a crucial bridge between the cultural scenes in the USSR and the west, they established symbolic contacts from afar with the likes of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and John Cage with whom they exchanged work and other tokens (notably Warhol sent his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol as well as autographed cans of Campbell soup, which the Russians were quick to consume).
Despite sharing a space of economic privation and censorship, the St Petersburg group looked towards their contemporaries in the west and to history for kindred spirits, rather than to Moscow. Although Muscovite artist Sergei Shutov introduced Novikov to the local art scene, interest in the capital was fuelled more by a common anarchic spirit and quest for provocation rather than any shared aesthetic considerations. This comes as no surprise given that St Petersburg, whose European outlook has been ingrained in the city since its creation, has always seen itself as separate and different, a trait that the exhibition’s curator, Ekaterina Andreeva, is keen to point out. “We always considered ourselves as different and our city was never a Soviet one”, says Andreeva. “Neither [Pavel] Filonov nor Malevich were ever considered artists who were serving the Soviet state. Standing on the beach at the Peter and Paul Fortress, surrounded by the Hermitage and other buildings, it was self-evident that none of this contained anything Soviet about it.” The lack of a strong St Petersburg-Moscow bind is, then, a natural continuation of this self-differentiation in which the city and its inhabitants viewed themselves as distinctly not Soviet.
As the 1980s progressed, the work of the New Artists attained a wider public both locally and abroad. They started collaborating with rock band Kino and the experimental orchestra Popular Mechanics for whom they created costumes and backdrops. Guryanov was Kino’s longstanding drummer, while Sergei Bugaev (Afrika) became a cult figure for his part in the art-house film Assa (1987) that introduced Soviet audiences to the contemporary underground. Their work was exhibited at Liverpool’s Bluecoat Gallery in 1989 and Novikov, in particular, spent much of this time travelling outside of the USSR.
Given the group’s growing popularity and acceptance into a wider social fabric, coupled with the changes sweeping across the Soviet Union, it is fitting that Novikov and his circle soon reappeared in a different guise — as the New Academy. Disappointed by his encounters with art and modernism’s legacy during his travels, Novikov turned to a new aesthetic. The New Academy, which was founded in 1989 and survives to this day, propagated an idiosyncratic classicism. It looked to Ancient Greece and Rome and, at the same time, borrowed Socialist Realism’s idolisation of the body. Rather than a retrograde manifestation, however, the New Academy was a provocative counterpoint to the political anarchy that defined Russia in the 1990s and to its widely documented artistic equivalent, Moscow Actionism, a radical strain of performance art.
The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and Malevich were organically swapped for Oscar Wilde, the quintessential aesthete disguised as Salomé, in Novikov’s fabric hangings. Guryanov’s drawings and paintings featured the perfect physiques of pilots, sailors and sportsmen. At the same time, videos and performances featuring Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, infamous for his cross-dressing and chameleon-like persona, injected a note of humour and camp into the Academicians’ work.
With incursions in gay rights currently on the rise in Russia, it is tempting to see their work, as well as that of Oleg Maslov and Viktor Kuznetsov, as evidence of a thriving queer art scene, one that could not but celebrate the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993. Even though both the New Artists and New Academy members were predominantly male, and some had openly gay relationships, Andreeva stresses that sexuality never formed a conscious concern. For them, both gender and sexuality were terms as fluid as any of the dandyesque and punk costumes that they donned. In turn, this fitted with their vision of art as a means of aesthetic communication without boundaries. Club of Friends does what it says: it brings together a close circle of friends whose work and lifestyle manifest a total disregard for rules and proscribed social mores. More than 20 years after their works debuted in the UK, Novikov and company still exude an aura of insouciance.
Club of Friends runs at Calvert 22 Gallery in London from 2 April to 25 May 2014