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Valentin Popov

The icon has a long tradition in Eastern Orthodox Christianity with examples traced back to the sixth century. Rejecting the Old Testament prohibition of making graven images, the icon being not three dimensional, developed as a flat panel painting, often with elaborate surface carving or metal embellishments. Unlike western Christian painting that emphasized narrative and explored a wide range of Biblical subjects, icons are fairly static depictions of holy beings or objects such as Christ, Mary, saints, angels, the Lamb of God, or the Cross. Less common are narrative scenes such as St. George and the Dragon or a holy portrait with scenes from that individual’s life depicted around the borders of the work. Icons appear to be simply another form of panel painting to western eyes but they are mistaken in that impression. I should know, as having been born and raised in the Ukraine, icons are an integral visible and spiritual element of daily life in Eastern Europe and a mystical manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

An icon is not merely a picture and its significance is hard to describe to the uninitiated. The word that best describes a believer’s response to icons is veneration… a combination of awe and respect. In addition to being an object of contemplation, an icon whether Christ, Mary, or some other image, functions as a symbolic vehicle of salvation for a believer.

Arriving in this country as a young artist, I was struck by the constant verbal references to Christianity by ministers, politicians, and commentators, just like there is today, but a near complete absence of visual imagery in the daily life of average Americans. What also struck me here, however, was the predominance and popularity of superheroes through movies, television, books, and comics. Visually stunning with colorful capes and masks, some endowed with super powers, others with exotic and ingenious weapons, devices, and vehicles, these heroes lived not just in the imagination of young people but occupied a prominent position in the consciousness of adults. As Andy Warhol had transformed and elevated images of Marilyn, Liz, Jackie, and Elvis into substitutes for Jesus and Mary in high art, comic book superheroes functioned in a similar fashion in broad popular culture. Like the teachings of Christianity, the actions of these fictitious superheroes emphasized selflessness and coming to the aid of the oppressed, endangered, and downtrodden.

It was in 1993 that I first began to meld my Ukrainian past, filled with the memories of icons, with the exciting yet unnerving sea of popular culture I was now swimming in here in America. I focused upon the image of Batman over all other superheroes. Poignantly, he was, more than any of the others, just a man. 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. Over an intense two-year period, from 1993 to 1994, I explored the myth of Batman in painting, collage, sculpture, performance art, and photography. During this period, I briefly experimented with the notion of utilizing the icon form in several 1993 works (Batman Icon and Batman Icon (St. George)) but never fully analyzed or understood the full potential of what the form, materials, and spiritual significance of the icon could be in informing my own art…until now.

Barnaby Conrad III wrote about me that I had, “the skill of an academic master and the satirical eye of a postmodern comedian.” I don’t know if that is true, but unlike many artists today, I seek to know and understand the past in order to intelligently face the future.

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