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POST-SOVIET ART - Alexander Kosolapov: art and  controversy

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

The art of Alexander Kosolapov stirs controversy. In Russia, his works have been refused exhibitions, attacked, and even destroyed. In 2003, he took part in the exhibition - “Caution: Religion! Religion! Religion! ” at the Sakharov Museum in Moscow, where the painting "My Blood" was shown. After the opening, several of the pieces in the show were attacked by angry protestors; Kosolapov's work was among them, and it became the subject of a three-year court battle.

Kosolapov explains: "The idea of depicting Christ's image against the Coca-Cola billboard was an inspiration I had in 2000. Most of my work is a postmodernist interpretation of philosophical ideas, translated into art." Christ marketing Coca-Cola is based on a text by S. Zhizhik, about a God and a people who have lost their ability to communicate."

Alexander Kosolapov - JM Art Management
This Is My Blood (2001), Alexander Kosolapov

Alexander Kosolapov received his art training at the “Stroganovka” (Stroganov Moscow State University of Arts and Industry), one of the most ideologized art institutions; it trained specialists in the auxiliary genres for the general system of Socialist Realism, designers and commercial artists. This school’s degree guaranteed steady income that was not directly tied to executing ideological commissions. Most of the nonconformist artists earned a living in these marginal areas, making a very clear distinction between “hack work” and “real art”. It was only in the early 1970s that a group of young designers of the happy socialist present, which included Kosolapov, decided to unite these two incompatible forms of activity. “Aurora” (1974) describes this state of dual worlds — externally, it blends in completely to the point of indistinguishability from the standard ideological production. However, this object, if you look at the cutout in the box, outlining a recognizable ideological sign, you discover a completely realistic landscape. It’s a romantic picture, ready-made, found by Kosolapov in a garbage bin. We can imagine that it was painted by an official artist who found moral and ethical respite in such work from official commissions.

Alexander Kosolapov - JM Art Management
Aurora (1974), Alexander Kosolapov

There is every reason to suppose that this project was inspired by the ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin, who was a cult figure in the 1970s for the late-Soviet period intellectuals. The young admirers of the 1920s philosopher decided “to try on” his ideas of carnival and the medieval culture of laughter. The work “Cosmonaut and Ballerina” is seemingly drawn by an overly diligent but not very bright designer, who confused the two undeniable symbols of the success of socialism building—the conquest of space and the achievements of Soviet ballet. But the character in the spacesuit cannot support a ballerina in a classical tutu on the theater stage. Another of that series, “Study, Son!” (1974), depicts a man in a Soviet officer’s uniform lecturing his son, who will also join the military. But only if he gets good grades. However, this extremely banal message is flattened by the translation into a playful form—the figures are cut out of plywood and represent a kind of flat sculpture.

Alexander Kosolapov - JM Art Management
“Study, Son!” (1974), Alexander Kosolapov

These works, created in 1975-1975, despite all the pretend simplicity and calculated directness, are distinguished by a certain opacity. Only viewers versed in both Soviet ideological products and the carnival world of the Soviet political joke could fully read the hidden codes in the works. But by 1975, Alexander Kosolapov had to change his strategy in a cardinal way. He had immigrated to the USA, home of Pop Art, where many other artists of the Sots Art movement would end up. There, he discovered that the consumer society was no less repressive than the Soviet ideological system. This discovery came on the level of the figurative surface. After all, Kosolapov had a degree in design and could easily analyze the visual moves made by the creators of advertising posters and brands of big companies. This led to one of the most striking and emblematic works of the American period of Sots Art: “Lenin—Coca-Cola” (1982). On a rectangular canvas, the profile of Vladimir Lenin is added to the company’s logo, and the company’s slogan (It’s the real thing) is signed: Lenin. Undoubtedly, the slogan had an author, just as does the prototype of the Lenin portrait. But both delegated their individuality to the cause of an advertising (or propaganda) campaign. The work itself was executed by the same dumb but diligent worker who had toiled in the 1970s for the Soviet ideology machine and then had moved to the USA. He overdid it in his zealousness, and the Coca-Cola people thought that the company was advertising Communism. Kosolapov replied that, on the contrary, Comrade Lenin was advertising capitalist wares. We can only imagine that the representatives of the global brand must have studied the translations of Mikhail Bakhtin, a very popular author among American Slavic scholars. The suit was dismissed. But the project to have this image on a billboard in Times Square never did happen.

Alexander Kosolapov - JM Art Management
“Lenin—Coca-Cola” (1982), Alexander Kosolapov

Let us note an important detail: while Kosolapov’s Sots Artworks of the Moscow period were distinguished by brutal negligence, in the American works, the facture of world brands is replicated with terrifying mathematical precision. So much so, that the substitution of “Malevich” (1990) for “Marlboro” on the label is done much more convincingly than some Chinese manufacturers do for their fake products when they just change a letter or two in appropriated ads of world brands.

Alexander Kosolapov - JM Art Management
“Malevich” (1990) for “Marlboro”, Alexander Kosolapov

However, these critical analyses of the lofty and the profane passed relatively painlessly, despite the power of transnational corporations. In the new Russia, things are much more complicated: “Caviar—Icon”, 2009 was removed from a show at the State Tretyakov Gallery, and recently an ultra-rightwing group named the artist as one of the hundred most dangerous enemies of the Russian people. Yet the artist living in New York simply wanted to point out the hypertrophic scale of consumerism in his homeland and that the spiritual sphere had also become part of the endless consumer hysteria.

Alexander Kosolapov - JM Art Management
“Caviar—Icon” (2009), Alexander Kosolapov

Alexander Kosolopov studied and graduated from the School of Art of Surikov Art Institute, then continued his studies at the Moscow Higher Arts and Crafts College, in the Department of Sculpture (1962-1968). In 1975, he emigrated to the USA and now lives and works in New York.

Kosolapov chooses subjects in the social context (socialist realism, western pop culture, systems of power) as the main object of his irony.

His ideas were formed in conditions of binary geopolitics. The main topic of his art is the ironic deconstruction of the ideology of mass society. Using the principle of combining opposites, Kosolapov achieves unprecedented severity: he unites political symbols, consumerist icons, and different ideological contexts in his works. One can find the reflection of philosophical ideas of Warhola, Baudrillard, and others in his work.

Alexander Kosolapov - JM Art Management
“Hero, Leader, God.” (2007), Alexander Kosolapov

Kosolapov's artworks, associated with the use of religious symbols, became the subject of attacks on the artist. A Moscow court found these symbols to be extremist in 2010.

Aleksander Kosolapov participated in numerous art exhibitions in several European countries and the United States. His works are represented in leading museums such as MoMA, New York; the Guggenheim Museum, New York and Cantre Pompidou, Paris, as well as in many private collections. Additionally, his "Lenin Coca-Cola", "Malevich Malboro", "McLenin's", and "Mickey-Lenin" have become widespread and massively replicated as souvenirs and posters.

Andrei Kovalev

* All images are courtesy of the artist


JM Art Management


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