CONCEPTUAL COLLABORATION
Across Centuries, Cultures, and Distances

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

Valentin Popov’s evolution as an artist is an amalgamation of his stringent fine art training in the Ukraine and his absorption of modern popular culture in the United States, where he has resided as a citizen for the past twenty years.

In his mature work, Popov has always been obsessed with the notion of the superhero both as savior but at times also sacrificial victim leading to sainthood. There is humor and irony in his work, but beneath that seeming superficiality is a seriousness of purpose. We live in an uncertain world that yearns for heroes to rescue us from the terrors that surround us on
a daily basis, whether it presents itself as crime, poverty, or a deadly virus.

In recent years Popov, in his infrequent travels back to Ukraine, enlisted associates to seek out and acquire at flea markets, discarded oklads - sheet metal coverings that once framed old religious icons. Since 2000, Popov has utilized these authentic oklads in framing his painted recreations of icons depicting his repertoire of modern comic book superheroes.

As Popov became more absorbed in the history of religious icons in his native Ukraine, he became aware that it was not a lost art, but that there was a whole school of contemporary artisans who were honoring the past by continuing the tradition of making meticulous icon replicas.

Always open to new conceptual ideas and challenges, Popov engaged his childhood friend, Serhii Shyshlovskyi, with a proposal: could some of those Ukrainian artisans be open to working with him, utilizing his pop culture imagery, in employing their centuries-old skills to make stunning new collaborative “icons”? The answer was affirmative, as can be witnessed by the stunning work that resulted

The artisans Elena Bublik, Liudmila Udovitchenko, and Lidia Yashenko (all women) come from the Ukrainian cities of Dniper and Poltava. Called the “Serhii Shyshlovskyi Group” after Popov’s boyhood friend, they go by their art names “Light”, “Fate”, and “Lily”. The evolution of each work is not merely a copy of an earlier work, but a painstaking original process between Popov and these artisans thousands of miles away.

First Popov produces detailed sketches on his computer, referencing ancient Christian iconography. He then substitutes and refines his pop culture subject matter until a finished and unified composition is completed. That “model” is then sent to the Ukraine where, under the overall supervision of his friend Shyshlovskyi, Popov’s conceptual vision is turned into reality. The whole process is a coordinated team effort as each of the artisans utilizes her particular skills. One would do the gesso carving and gold leaf; another would paint the faces; and the third would add the clothing, lettering, and backgrounds. Each
artisan’s specialty is necessary to create a unified whole.

For Popov, his art went from concept to collaboration to completion, from his adoptive country to his country of origin, then back again.

He has acknowledged the craftmanship in Ukraine that has kept the icon tradition alive for generations. In employing, directing and inspiring these fine artisans, Valentin Popov has reimagined icons with the startling originality of his modern vision.