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The Paradoxical Parody of Valentin Popov's Ironic Icons

Rick Gilbert

Throughout human history, religious iconography has formed the backbone of "high" art not only in the western world but universally. In a sensational and much-heralded tour-de-force of multimedia exoticism, postmodernist artist Valentin Popov has crafted a suite of modified Russian religious artifacts based on the traditional tabletop and wall-mounted folk art icons commonly fashioned from such materials as wood, enamel, hammered metal and gold leaf and populating the interiors of the humblest of hovels to the most splendid temples of worship. Popov clearly benefits from a lifetime of familiarity with these devotional aids derived from his upbringing as a native Ukrainian surrounded by tokens and trappings of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Contemporary cultural commentators have observed that, in the present era, the museum has replaced the church and "art is the new religion." In the example of the artwork before us, the psychological framework of religiosity itself is examined through the "ironic" invocation of comic book superheroes as replacements for the old gods. These dubious dramatis personae have been deified and enshrined as the shallow symbols of humanity's desires, fears, hopes and anxieties in the modern age.

The ascendancy of American and British Pop Art during the 1960s was borne on the ideological shoulders of a worship for comic book superheroes, movie stars and commercial trademark characters - mascots of a new mythology based on mass consumer culture. Pop Art brazenly and gleefully parodied these modern icons with a mock reverence, enshrining and sanctifying them. Artist Valentin Popov carries this attitude a step further by transposing camp figures from popular comic books, television and movies for traditional religious figures and then, so as to square the equation with a Dadaist flourish, mocks not only the original intent of the religious icons, but mocks their substitutes, the pop culture preoccupations they represent, and modern art as well, all at the same time. In effect, Popov achieves a double irony, mocking both the original religious intentions of the icons and the celebration of the superficiality of modern consumerist society embodied by Pop Art.

The glib, deadpan nature of Popov's presentation amplifies the effect and solidifies the triumph of the artist's method: the circle has been squared. The deft construction of Popov's creations, involving genuine vintage icons carefully carved, delicately painted and resplendently gilded, is carried off with an attention to detail that heightens the authenticity and cements the impact of each piece. Popov's Rembrandt / Not Rembrandt series of some years back is marked by the same strain of disarming precision and verisimilitude with which Rembrandt etchings were aped in a manner jaw-dropping and spectacular.

Valentin Popov's Ironic Icons represent postmodernism at its best and attest to its validity and durability, demonstrating how a reassessment of art history and its stages, episodes and departments can offer endless possibilities for exploration.

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