The Art of Valentin Popov
“Irony is a disciplinarian feared only by those who do not know it, but cherished by those who do,” the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once famously wrote. Unlike humor, which opens the mind with hilarity and kindness, irony seeks a deeper, less comfortable understanding. Derived from the ancient Greek word eirōneía, or “feigned ignorance,” it represents a mockery, a sophisticated challenge and subversion of what is ostensibly expressed. At once comical and bitter, sharp-witted and swift, irony rarely works to reassure the viewer, propelling us instead toward us the realization of a darker, hidden truth.
Ukrainian-born artist Valentin Popov leans heavily on irony, satire, humor, and comedy to convey his artistic message. Born the son of one of Kiev’s most preeminent artists, he was formally trained at the Academy of Fine Art of Ukraine and at the Kiev State School of Art. An all-around talent equally adept at printmaking, drawing, painting, collage, sculpture and installation, Popov frequently mixes media and genres, blending academic art with tongue-in-cheek commentary rooted in popular culture. His iconic large-scale painting Early Morning, for example, is based on the 1817 canvas L’Amour et Psyché by the neo-classical French painter François-Édouard Picot. Painted on aluminum, it shows the mythological god of love and desire, disguised as Batman, leaving the bed of his lover after a tryst. In other works, Popov embeds comic strip heroes in traditional Russian icons, contemplative art works long associated with Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In lieu of the holy figures typically seen in such paintings—Christ, the Virgin Mary, the saints, angels, the Lamb of God, or the Holy Cross—we encounter Superman, Wonder Woman, Mickey Mouse, and Batman with their colorful retinue of masked helpers and handmaidens. Commercial logos, too, are seen against an icon’s gem-encrusted sterling and gold cover, blurring the line between the sacred and the profane and pointing to the fictional character of both the image and the figures depicted.
Of all American superheroes and heroines, Valentin Popov clearly favors Batman, who, for a series of works in this book, has become his creative alter ego and avatar. “Poignantly, he was, more than any of the others, just a man,” the artist explains. “He was not endowed with any super powers beyond his intelligence, athleticism, and an exotic array of weapons, devices, and vehicles at his disposal. This sense of power mixed with human vulnerability made him an irresistible choice to incorporate into my art.” In Popov’s thought-provoking work, the mysterious Dark Knight and Caped Crusader becomes the ultimate stand-in for the contemporary artist him- or herself, a truth teller and dispenser of irony in an age where meaning is perpetually in flux.
Dr. Claudia Bohn-Spector
Long Beach Museum of Art