ICONIC IRONY

Andrei Ustinov

What’s known is known to a few
Aristotélēs
O Superman. O Judge. O Mom and Dad.
Laurie Anderson

When it comes to Valentin Popov’s Ironic Iconsa viewer is bound to start with basic inquiries, as if asking Mom and Dad simple questions like “what? how? why?”

“What”is a rather trivial subject—superheroes from American comic books. It is an unconventional angle of Popov’s vision that transforms them into the icons—wooden panels which are painted with primary dyes mixed with an egg white, yet gilded with gold leaf and sometimes precious stones to convey the sappiness of their pretentious solemnity. He further drowns his protagonists in an absurd pomposity with all the weight of heavy gilded casings, known as oklads. This is how he equalizes super heroes and saints.

You recognize how they look, wearing a nimbus and a cassock, or a mask and a cape. You remember that someone somewhere sought their assistance. You know their monikers St.Christopherand Santa Barbara, Supermanand Superwoman. Perhaps, you may even recall their full names Reprobusor Peter Parker. However, unless you are deep into exegesis or a comics nerd, you have absolutely no idea what they actually did, how their lives, whether fictitious or imaginary, have unfolded.

In this regard, Popov will not help you either, but he may give some hints by the way of pentimento. Here he leaves a graffiti of the Joker’s demented smile, there he drops Batman’s skull on the path of The Equestrian, or simply slams baby Penguinin the caring hands of some unsuspecting, and definitely not “holy” family. He utterly refuses to follow a very linear and, as a rule, pretty straightforward story of any superhero. Actually, Popov is affronted by the very narrative of comics, where every literary plot twist is highly predictable, and artistic devices used in storytelling are limited to either BANG! or BOOM!

In the DC UniverseBatman rides to the rescue using crazy means of transportation, armed to the teeth with various accoutrements, proudly wearing a cape and projecting a piercing gaze through the holes in his jet black mask. In Popov’s series of works across a variety of media, he represents different facets of his private obsession with Saint Bat(check out his email address!) Popov defrocks the caped crusader, but keeps his mask with pointy ears that replace a halo, and fervently succumbs to a peripatetic climb from Woodside to Calvary that concludes with an anticipated Crucifixion.

Batman’s major advantage lies with cool gadgets, always readily accessible to him yet for others representing nothing more than the stuff that dreams are made of. So, for his St. Bat Popov creates a level playing field—a chessboard. As we have the white rook on c5, and the white queen on h2, Black is almost in zugzwang. However, the dark knight lands on d4, prevents an apparent surrender of the black king, and saves the day. HOORAY!

“How”is achieved as a matter of Popov’s craft. For an artist to embrace so many forms and genres including drawings, paintings, miniatures, photographs, and direct them toward a fulfillment of a singular theme might seem manic indeed. Also, one should not overlook sculpture, as that black and white Batmanhanging from Brunelleschi’s cross will surely look intimidating enough in any chosen establishment.

While superheroes depend on having a wild array of dreamt up contraptions at their disposal, Popov’s tools although diverse are quite real. He exercises his artistic authority in mastering pencils and pens, chalk and coal, acrylics and oils. An avid admirer of Alexander Dumas, Popov is like one of the musketeers, although he exchanged a plumaged hat for a palette, and a sword for a brush of just the right shape and size for that particular moment of inspiration.

Furthermore, Popov’s magnanimous tribute to all superheroes: Batman, Superman, Spiderman, et al., achieves its purpose by undermining the very foundation they stand upon. These imaginary superfriends to diminutive humankind always take themselves very-very seriously. They are always so grave and staid throughout their stories that are so inconsequential.

Why so serious?A simple answer is that the comics are absolutely immune to irony, while their protagonists are loaded with fallacy that looms on every page. Popov’s art is categorically subversive to them, because he uses Ironyas the only tool strong enough to expose their paltriness and triteness. Irony, as we know allows to challenge any work of art for its ostentatious seriousness and falsehood.

We learned that from Aristotélēs and the second part of his De Poetica, granted, lost forus in antiquity, but reconstructed in its major themes by Umberto Eco in his encyclopedic The Name of the Rose. Ironyhas a magic touch when it comes to overthrowing wiredrawn somberness, and exposes it as something petty and banal. It is Ironythat elevates Popov’s craft, bringing it to another plane, higher and higher, where angels are soaring.

Angels are truly more credible than saints and superheroes. I can easily believe in Damieland Cassielwatching over days going by and by from the top of Brandenburg Gate in Wim Wenders’ subtly romantic Der Himmel über Berlin. After all, Ironycannot exist without being romantic.

Angels however, always bring a storm, maybe even a tempest. This is what Walter Benjamin, a rapt and observant scholar of angels’ behavior, wrote in his Über den Begriff der Geschichte(1940), while commenting on Paul Klee’s diffident Angelus Novus:
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

And what Laurie Anderson, the preeminent performance artist, paraphrased so beautifully in her The Dream Before(1989):
She said: What is history?
And he said: History is an angel
Being blown backwards into the future
He said: History is a pile of debris,
And the angel wants to go back and fix things,
To repair the things that have been broken.
But there is a storm blowing from paradise
And the storm keeps blowing the angel
Backwards into the future.
And this storm, this storm
Is called
Progress.

Here, in Ironic Icons, Popov comes across as a supplicant to a higher power of art. And all the superheroes canonized by him with Iconic Irony, fly to the rescue with all the veracity and valor only they can graciously grant.