In Russia, today as always, the personal is also the political. Alexey Beliayev-Guintovt, one of the most celebrated of a new generation of Russian artists, demonstrates the new self-confidence of Russia's post-Communist culture. He paints monumental canvases that serve as a visual summary of the turbulent years that Russia has experienced since the collapse of the Soviet Union. From the time of the great icon painters, chief among them Andrei Rublev, Russian art has embraced the symbolic. It has also, very often, tended to bring together elements that are at first sight incongruous, deliberately out of step with one another. That is certainly the case here. The subjects include iconic architectural monuments, none of them Russian. Among them are the Parthenon, the Coliseum in Rome, the Temple of Heaven in Beijing and the Palazzo Ducale in Venice. There are also images of red stars that adorn the Kremlin, and others that show a phalanx of marching men, apparently shouting or chanting in unison, and of a sniper crouched under a huge church bell. Two versions of a single image, one red on gold and one black on white, derive from a highspeed photograph of a drop of water hitting a liquid surface.
Several things unify these apparently very different subjects. The first, most obviously, is the artist's distinctive and immediately recognizable technique. The pictures are made using stencils, with a drastically reduced color range - each canvas is dominated either by red or by black. The stencil technique links them to Andy Warhol's paintings of Marilyn Monroe, but even more directly to the methods used by Banksy, the British graffiti artist, who has recently built an international reputation for himself.
Many of the compositions, which are deliberately forceful and confrontational, recall Sovietera propaganda paintings. The images of marching men, for example, carry an echo of the work of Alexander Deineka, who was perhaps the most gifted artist to work in this official Soviet style. A relevant example is Deineka's "Left March" of 1941, now in the collection of the State Literary Museum in Moscow.
It is, however, clear that Beliayev-Guintovt is not an official artist of any kind. The aim is to create a personal synthesis - a meditation on recent events in Russian history, seen against the backdrop of Russian culture as this has developed in the course of the past century. The culture of the intelligentsia in Russia has always been international, and the buildings depicted in some of these paintings are emblematic of this, while other images speak just as clearly about Russian nationalism. Two colour versions of an initially neutral image of a drop of water - "Red Gold" and "Black Gold" - are dramatically transformed in to key symbols of contemporary Russian (and not only Russian) reality: Blood and Oil. The two water drop paintings add a comment about the continuing Russian fascination with science, and maybe serve, in addition, to suggest that even the most minor events in the external world can entail major psychic consequences - an earthquake in the soul. The paintings of Alexey Beliayev-Guintovt are in their own way secular equivalents of the rigorously stylized images of the saints on an Orthodox iconostasis, which both shields a mystery and makes it manifest.
Isn't contemporary Russian art just such a mystery?