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by Robert Flynn Johnson

Valentin Popov’s collection Ironic Icons is simply, but aptly, named. The title of this group of works tells the viewer both what they can expect from it and how the artist hopes it will be received. His juxtaposition of well-known American pop culture figures–Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman–with the techniques and imagery of medieval iconography is both a meditation on the nature of American society, and an invitation to be in on a sly joke. We live in a world where we don’t always get to smile so much, and these works are very humorous–I value that in them. 

I love this collection because of the ideas presented, but also because of the impressive execution. If these works were badly painted or less meticulously executed, they would still be funny, but they wouldn’t have as much substance. Likewise, if they were beautifully painted but not as clever, they wouldn’t be as notable. You need both elements, the intellectual and the artistic, to hold the fine balance which makes these pieces so remarkable. 

This collection shows that Popov is a risk-taker; these works are not uncontroversial. Although the pieces are in many ways about America, there are many places in the US today where they might not be received in the tongue-in-cheek way the artist intends. While it’s true that at first glance these modern icons could be taken as irreligious, they are too joyous, and too meticulously conceived, to be pigeonholed that way. 

The exceptional craftsmanship of a piece like “Mary and Facebook,” in which the faces of the Madonna and the Christ Child are replaced by the logos of McDonald’s and Facebook respectively, belie the work’s apparently mocking intent. Certainly there is an element of satire, but there is more meaning layered within the oil paint and silver plate. There’s a jest there, but there is also sincerity, which takes seriously the idea of reverence–regardless of its object. 

These images also remind me of the pop art of Andy Warhol, his Marilyn Monroe series in particular. For centuries the ultimate object of female veneration was the Virgin Mary, then one day Warhol decided that his modern equivalents could be found in women like Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Instead of John the Baptist with his cross, Worhol gave us Elvis Presley and his Western revolvers. Similarly, Popov integrates popular culture into what are, I believe, genuinely religious works of art. 

You can witness Popov’s deep understanding of early Christian iconography in the composition of his images in this series. One of the things you often see in early religious paintings is that artists would put multiple scenes from the life of Christ, for example, in the same painting. You see the same thing in this collection, where in addition to the central image you have a town, the landscape, and other saints depicted in the same work. This puts these modern icons in a similar stylistic category to, not only the Russian iconography Valentin draws on, but with the beautiful illuminated manuscripts of the same period. 

The marvelous combination of cultures Popov gives us here is emblematic of our era. We’re living in a moment defined by creative collaboration, friendly appropriation and increasingly shared artistic antecedents. Thanks to artists like Valentin, we’re able to enjoy a wonderful cultural salad, with many differing ingredients tossed together, which I find exciting and very, very interesting. 

The excitement, the originality, that emanates from these icons causes me to wonder what will possibly come next from such an original mind. The truth is we don’t know, and neither does the artist. Popov’s art is evolutionary–you’ll rarely see him exploring the same set of ideas twice. From his large-scale portraits capturing an individual moment in time, to his evocative landscapes, to the irreverent icons of this collection, one thing you can count on is that this artist is always creating something new. So we will all just have to wait and see what comes out of his studio next. 

Curator Emeritus
Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

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