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Culture news
The collector
02.02.2007 13:01

guelman By Andrei Vorobei

Special to The St. Petersburg Times

“We have the feeling that we have made history,” Alexander Borovsky emphatically said at the opening of a spectacular show at the Marble Palace of the State Russian Museum last Thursday.

This feast of Russian contemporary art celebrates the fifteen year anniversary of the prominent Moscow gallery run by collector Marat Guelman, and stands testament to its beneficial collaboration with the Contemporary Art Department of the Russian Museum, which Borovsky heads.

A series of exhibitions during the last decade organized by the ambitious art collector from Moscow and the brilliant art theorist from St. Petersburg culminated with Guelman’s endowment to the museum in 2001, the first of such size and quality in Russia since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

Now one of the oldest and most talked-about galleries in Russia, dozens of festivals and exhibitions, publications, influential cultural Internet sites and the most significant artists of the 90s bear Guelman’s stamp.

Thanks to his notoriety, much contemporary art in Russia is attributed to Guelman’s influence — even when he is not involved. In some ways, Guelman is like a Russian Charles Saatchi, the influential British modern art patron, as far as his significance in the formation of the art scene of the 90s goes.

As a newsmaker as well as a gallery owner, Guelman puts contemporary art in the public eye, makes it the object of investment and the subject of discussion. His critics — there are a lot of them — are not always motivated by dissent against his artistic taste, but by envy of the man himself. Guelman often gambles on emerging artists, and works extensively in the Russian regions, employing and promoting art in, be it Siberia (from where Blue Noses, Guelman’s latest successful group come), the south of Russia or Kaliningrad. Naturally, controversy regularly accompanies his shows, and sometimes the public knows more about the scandals than the art. Now, the owner of the most representative collection of Russian contemporary art is occupying rooms in the Russian Museum.

A feature of Guelman’s taste is its social sharpness. During the early 1990s, art had a strong political component that was imposed on it by the huge interest of the West in material that dealt with the shedding of the Soviet legacy. As the political climate in Russia changed, Guelman’s stance changed to what he called an “aesthetic participation in life.”

“Guelman works with the material of hope, the normalization of social existence and the alleviation of sorrows,” Borovsky wrote in the catalog that accompanies Guelman’s show at the Russian Museum. “Such social illusions as … normal collaborations with or positive opposition to the state, the softening of political mores, and raising the cultural profile of the provinces all acquire the status of the possible within the bounds of Guelman’s single project.”

The exhibition is divided by form. While the second floor displays works influenced by Guelman’s endowment to the museum, including such internationally recognized gems as AES+F’s “Islamic Project,” the third floor is packed with cutting-edge stuff from the collector’s current collection.

There are photographs of Oleg Kulik’s Man-Dog performances, Alexander Vinogradov & Vladimir Dubossarsky capitalist-realist paintings, works by the fantastic Georgy Ostretsov, the high-tech Aristarkh Chernishov, the poetic Valery Koshlyakov and many other international names and artistic strategies. Avdei Ter-Oganian deals with official anti-terrorist rhetoric, while the Blue Noses group’s “Kitchen Suprematism” wittily overturns the pathos of Malevich.

“This is, perhaps, the most simple exhibition I ever organized as the idea was just simply to demonstrate the artists I have been working with during the 15 years,” Guelman said at the opening of the show.

However, its precisely formulated title, “Thaw,” gives it keen historical perspective. The title emerged thanks to Dmitry Gutov’s bewitching work of the same-name, which features a video of a man (the artist himself) trying to walk along a slushy rural road in April, next to an illuminated reproduction of Fyodor Vasilyev’s “Thaw” (1871), a painting known to every Russian.

The voice of a bass singer enunciating Shostakovich music and mundane verse cements the piece perfectly, and contains an intriguing series of conversations between nature, culture and history.

There is reference to the political and social climate in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s regime — the period known as Khrushchev’s “thaw.” Muddy rural roads were also one of the favorite motifs of the Peredvigniki movement (“The Wanderers”), which signaled an aesthetic and social nonconformism during the political thaw of the reign of Tsar Alexander II in the mid-19th Century.

According to Guelman, we are now witnessing light morning frost after the thaw of the 1990s. This landmark-show embodies much nostalgia for that turbulent decade as well as giving insight into the self-satisfied, glamorous and cynical first years of the 21st century.

“Thaw” runs through Feb. 21 at the Marble Palace of the Russian Museum.,

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