Although we still say, through inertia, that contemporary artists “create”, in practice their activities are often limited to work with finished objects, which makes them more similar to collectors. In this situation, Irina Nakhova’s approach is totally different: in a strange way she preserves a fundamental artistic impulse of creation, an almost archaic gesture of turning raw substance into something finished, something that many would call “female”. In Nakhova’s installations, architecture and sculpture are often present but painting does not take a lesser place – not a picture as an object but painting as a gesture, with which Nakhova paints the tarpaulin of camp-beds («Camping», 1990) or the cloth of a coat («Friends and Neighbors», 1994). This gesture brings something lively and corporal into the installation. Painting – which is especially clear in the Russian word for it – acts as “giving life”, filling dead substance with energy. This is why Nakhova’s inflatable sculptures («Big Red», 1999) do not stand out from her other works, although life swaying within them may also be frightening.This feeling of fear is important, although one does not immediately understand what causes it.
The creation of space from within, stimulating its growth and formation of sophisticated spatial universes installed into one another, are the main driving force of Nakhova’s painting – an art genre she once started with and is still doing. If there is something that unites all different projects by Nakhova – from objects to paintings – this is the principle of gradually, layer by layer, shaping space by pictorial means.
This is the technique used in her most prominent series of the early 1980s period: «Rooms» a series of five environments in an empty room of the artist’s Moscow apartment, created by pictorial means (and partly collage). While in the same period and in the same city Ilya Kabakov was inventing his form of installation as a quasi-museum combination of trivial objects, Nakhova created a consistent and soft illusory environment, masking real spatial and lighting relations.
Her «Rooms» was one of the best works of the 1970s-1980s Moscow unofficial art, which at the same time broke with its tradition. The conceptual circle to which Nakhova belonged cultivated forms that were generically linked to books. To mention only artists from her closest entourage, Ilya Kabakov and Victor Pivovarov created the genre of an album, Lev Rubinstein was making visual poetry and the group Collective Action, led by Andrei Monastyrski, accompanied all of its performances with detailed documentation and commentaries issued in the form of typewritten journals. This was due to the fact that all artists in the country, totally deprived of an art market in a material form, were considered employees of the state system of media distribution of images and texts (Nakhova also worked for state-run publishing houses as a book designer). And since this market was controlled by the state, artists focused on unofficial projects that were alternative to the state ones, and created a paradoxical private media market – a system of art shows in private apartments for a close circle of artists, with works of art circulating in the space of idea exchange and being material for dialog, a means of communication and its theming. Therefore a quasi-book – a book with no print-run – was the main art form in the Moscow conceptualist circle.
To some extent, Nakhova’s first paintings are also alphabets of forms and spaces, theming principles of manipulating with signs, as in the multi-part compositions «Replacement» (1976) and «Plafond/Seasons» (1979). But Nakhova soon moved from these sophisticated but clearly readable sign systems, from these pictorial “books” with their minimalist flat forms (the equivalent of print characters) to the maximalist staging of consistent and total space – initially in the «Rooms» series of installations (begun in 1983), then in pictorial diptychs «Amphitheater» (1987), «Double Vision» (1989), «Moebius» (1990) and others.
An obvious break with tradition was in moving towards what at first sight could pass for formalism. Unlike almost all of her colleagues in the Moscow conceptualist circle, Nakhova principally rejected local material, the Archaeology of “Soviet”, radically blurring the concreteness of the subject – even if it was something as loaded with sign content as celebrating audiences of a Communist party congress in «Amphitheater». The artist did not appeal to social or ideological motifs but to art history, turning to the silhouette of a cathedral in Arezzo or even antique statues, and predicted the future demise of the Soviet Union as a collapse of a classical statue (as it was staged in the 1989 «Partial Triumph» installation.)
But the idea was not a conservative revolution or notorious “postmodernism”.Art history paradoxically acted here not as an instrument for narrowing perspective or as a move towards “pure art”, but as a tool of expansion and versatility. In the Soviet Union, where physical movement of citizens across the border was strictly tabooed, a very special role was given to classical education, focused almost entirely on world (rather than local) culture, which was a universal means of entering civilization. Soviet citizens in general and the Soviet artist in particular were astoundingly well-educated, and education worked as a means of virtual travel between different contexts. Education obtained in the Soviet Union paradoxically gave artists a feeling of great intellectual freedom, which allowed them to make any stylistic or ideological comparisons that were often morally tabooed in other countries. Now, living in the USA, where she moved in the 1990s, Nakhova is still using this universal potential gained back in the USSR.
However, another more radical “betrayal” of conceptualism by Nakhova was in the fact that starting from «Rooms» she camouflaged the architecture of conceptual systems, on which her works were based, and the principles of creating her art in general, immersing viewers into a tonality in which they lost orientation, being caught up in a spatial “whirlwind”. Later, Nakhova’s art merely developed this principle: since the 1990s, she has been making paintings that appear more and more visually consistent, while based on sophisticated and at times weird techniques of overlapping and displacement of forms and viewing angles.
It is easy to notice similarities between this system and creation of exalted totalitarian spaces in 1930s Soviet architecture and theatrical mass scene projects where people were called to “lose their heads” due to a feeling of belonging to a single organism. In this way, Nakhova’s evolution is curiously similar to the evolution of Russian avant-garde’s greatest figure, El Lissitsky. From the 1910s, he was trying to find a suggestive “total form” that he believed would replace passive and individualist easel painting. Initially he considered an abstract sign system as such a viewermobilizing form. In the 1920s, it was architecture and book, two systems developing in spaces corresponding to the real and to the intellectual and incorporating the viewer/reader/participant into its orbit. But in the late 1920s, Lissitsky moved to a totally new institutional form, designing a consistent exhibition world – basically, what is today called installation. Spatial effects in these especially suggestive installations (at international exhibitions «Press» (1929), «Hygiene» (1930) and others) were achieved by inclusion of what Lissitsky called “photo-paintings” – huge photo montages, creating spatial distortions and camouflaging real architecture with its clear-cut angles and borders between walls. In this way, architecture was fully subdued to painting, albeit in its new technological variant of photography.
Nakhova’s «Rooms», partly based on collages from magazine photographs, continue that tradition. But the next step of both artists was also similar. In the 1930s, Lissitsky moved to “organic” photography montages, in which borders between different images were blurred so that a finished work looked like a painting with “seams” hardly concealed, as in computer collages.
Nakhova, although continuing with installation and similar projects, has been finding more suggestive and even astounding solutions in her paintings. The extensive series «Home Paintings» is based on weird techniques that result in complicated spatial schemes. Initially, a color photograph from an interior design magazine is copied by hand to a canvas, then it is covered with a network of small figures and numbers, after which all is covered with paint, and some motifs fall away, forming a system of positive and negative forms (through which the initial pictorial motifs transpire), which confuses the viewer.
Thus a painting turns into a trap, a suggestive whirlpool, and the use by Nakhova of mass culture imagery – magazine pictures - is no accident. One of the adepts of such an impact on viewers – whereby they should “lose themselves” and immerse into some collective state - was Vassily Kandinsky, who found a sample of such collectivizing environment in Northern Russia’s wooden houses covered with paintings. They taught him, as he said, to make viewers “circulate in a painting and live in it.” Turning to painting as a tonality that draws viewers in, Nakhova follows this tradition, deeply rooted in Russian avant-garde art – to see one’s artistic mission in a highly maximalist way, as an instrument of creating some human community. Russian avantgarde art saw its role in building up a tradition of a total, collective new modernism, differing from the Western version. As one of the alternatives to classical modernism, this idea fits together with other ones, such as the feminist alternative, which looks for “other” creative basics in the paradigm of maternity and birth and in the paradigm of unification rather than individuation. No doubt, in feeling creativity as constant “building up”, “bringing up” and “giving birth,” as is the case with Nakhova, something is present that is normally viewed as “female”.
However, Nakhova, having moved from the Soviet Russian artistic and social context into the Western context, looks at all these alternative traditions – both Soviet Russian and feminist – from a somewhat skeptical distance. Therefore, in her installation «Stay with Me» (2003), which consists of a marquee filled with pictures and the sound of a voice expressing a mother’s demand for attention, she is theming the “maternity form” as a trap, and the paintings surrounding the viewer as manipulation and moral blackmail. Irina Nakhova’s maximalist paintings, built upon huge creative ambition, simultaneously discover the danger of this ambition: having swallowed us, these paintings confess what they have done.
Translated from the Russian by Vladimir Kozlov