ROMANTIC CYNICISM

Rick Gilbert

Formulated during the years he lived in the U.S.S.R., Popov’s pet theory of “Romantic Cynicism” is a dualist, manichaean philosophy blending the romantic ideals of an eternally optimistic socialist utopia which was the Soviet Union with a personal sense of cynicism about life’s drearier realities. “In the former U.S.S.R.,” Valentin explains, “everyone was supposed to love one another and help one another achieve the common good, by each taking according to his needs and giving according to his abilities.” Popov’s large-scale painting First the Apple...Then Us, with its portrait-of-the-artist-as-worm emerging from a plump, ripe, red apple set in the foreground of a swampy prehistoric landscape, embodies the philosophy of Romantic Cynicism in its linkage of innocence and corruption, deceptive appearances, and twilight on the flimsy edifice of human “big ideas,” hopes, and aspirations. Though his work often takes this form of comic surrealism, Popov is deadly serious about his vision of the world as a rotten apple with subversive spoilage gnawing at its core. His yin-yang view of the positive-negative nature of existence is reflected by artworks in which he links all manner of polar opposites to create what he calls “electric power circuits”.

Perhaps no segment of Popov’s oeuvre is more “romantically cynical” than his Saint Batman series. An episodic satire three years in the making, the series eventually involved more than 100 pieces. Loosely patterned after the life of Christ, Batman, in Popov’s take, is a figure fashioned from fragments of popular mythology, religious lore, and created pseudohistory. Popov artworks have depicted Batman as Columbus, Batman in Egypt, Batman as the subject of invented 19th century-style engravings. Batman is considered as an immortal, seen in diverse parts of the globe in every century. Batman’s roots are endlessly examinedin a cycle of falsified religion and myth extending from his supposed childhood and youth through his
ultimate crucifixion and possible resurrection. The series culminated with a performance piece in which Popov had himself crucified in a Batman costume, documented the event with the help of assistants, then made a plaster cast of the martyr from a living model. These tributes were followed by the issuance of a Batman death mask postage stamp. Popov explains his concept of Batman as a savior in a world where beliefs are so muddled and the presence of God is so elusive that people want to retreat into a childhood mentality where everything is good or evil, black or white. Batman comes to the rescue whenever he is summoned. A simplistic, cartoon icon from American pop culture, Popov combines Batman with the serious tradition of Christ, mankind’s savior, and the whole concomitant tradition in art. Popov portrays Batman as Cupid leaving the bed of Psyche, Batman as Frederick the Great, Batman as the namesake of an engraving titled Heroism at the End of the 20th Century.

Popov is big on the notion of heroes and heroism. Not only is he enthralled with such recurring heroes of art history as Jesus, Saint George, Napoleon and Mickey Mouse, he is also concerned with the idea of the artist as hero and with masks, since masks are worn by everyone, heroes and artists most of all. Saint Batman is a sort of amalgam of all these obsessions, a masked crusader who is around to ensure that mankind keeps its moral balance. Popov’s favorite philosopher is Nietzche, creator of the Superman concept as well as athe concept of a moral state of being “beyond good and evil.” Popov’s own preoccupation with morality is expressed in his huge, lushly painted mock Victorian moral allegories. Looking like vintage valentines or enamel cover art for turn-of-the-century candy tins, these feature the seashore frolics of guileless, goo-goo-eyed children dressed in sailor suits and sunbonnets captioned with didactic inscriptions like “Nothing dries as fast as tears...” or “Familiarity breeds contempt...and children”. In one, a boy is about to launch a toy boat in a real ocean; in another, Cupid has been shot in the back with one of his own arrows. Twisted parables paradoxically framed, they make for a weird fusion of early commercial advertising illustration and pure Dada.

Under Romantic Cynicism’s rubric, any number of sins are subsumed. Among them are Love – Death, a black and white photograph of a linen panel where the word “Love” is lettered in black pigment opposite the slightly dessicated cadaver of a rat into whose fur has been snipped the word “Death” - a startling, if somewhat snide image. Tears is one of Popov’s epic, large-scale oil and enamel on aluminum panels with linework which, though painted, has the effect of etching. Of an allegorical cast, it is a charming monumental portrait of a wavy-haired young girl in a frilly dress. The skin of her face, forehead, cheeks, arm, neck, and chest, is scribed with radiating lines following the natural anatomical curvature. Coloration ranges from pink to green, gray, blue and black, with touches of carmine and vermilion. Staggered across the picture plane are the words: “Nothing dries as fast as tears.” Alongside this motto, there is a spray of tears – a sort of aerial squadron of dive-bombing red tears, resembling bloodrops, while across her chest, is a block of text suggestive of both a protective shibboleth and of a written judgment. The little girl has her hand upraised, with thumb and forefinger cocked and tilted towards her mouth in a curious gesture at once poignant and vaguely disturbing. Familiarity is another massive oil on aluminum allegory. This time, a boy wearing a sailor’s suit, and a bonneted, red-headed girl are engaged in a quaint transaction. With one hand, the boy is holding a starfish, its underside up, exposing a gaping, vulva-like slit, at which he points with the index finger of his other hand. The girl gazes on the object with rapt fascination. An inscription reads: “Familiarity breeds contempt …and children.” The boy is lined with brightly colored striations. The girl’s face is overlain with a mesh of pointillist dots.

Yet another monumental oil on aluminum narrative is Are You My Scared Little Boy? In this instance, a young boy is attired in vintage plus fours and ankle-height, lace-up shoes. The knees of his plus fours billow over his leggings, jacket, cap and curls. Cradling a toy boat in his arms, he stands at the seashore amid a pile of smooth, waveworn rocks. As a cresting wave crashes on the beach and a swath of moonlight spreads across the surface of the ocean from the horizon to the foreground, what would ordinarily be the shining moon is, instead, seen to be a blushing rose blossom, on which the boy intently gazes. Next in the same series is Life. Calling to mind a Victorian valentine, a pair of curlyhaired children stand chest-height at a draped table accompanied by a tufted stool. On top of the table rests an open book turned face down, and a large hourglass at whose spilling sands the children peer in fascination. Overhead, a legend reads: “Life”. Lush, rich colors against a dark background give the scene a sort of gothic, gloomy feel. True masterpieces, solidly unified by a perfect balance of concept, mood, and execution, the Romantic Cynicism allegories, fashioned as they are with a quasi-folk or naive art look blended with classical execution, radiate an altogether unique feel. The series continues with Le Colonial, in which another pair of children in vintage attire takes center stage. This time around, the girl is bonneted, gloved, and beruffled. The boy sports jacket, tie, and cap. The boy holds a snake whose tongue is darting in the direction of the girl. The girl has turned her back and shrinks away, half beguiled, half alarmed. The boy seems to want to impress or frighten the girl. He stares at her to gauge her reaction. The girl’s eyes are riveted on the snake; it is the latter which has her rapt attention. Large, solid color blocks inform this composition, with less of the abstract infilling and patternism characteristic of some of its siblings. The eyes of the children are especially expressive. The eye of the snake is dead, inert, like that of a lifeless prop. Beautiful… spotlights a youthful couple in eighteenth century garb standing for a portrait along with a shaggy goat. The dandified man, bewigged, leotarded, and sashed, flaunts a flowery purple tunic, a white chiffon tie at his throat. His moon-faced consort sparkles in her violet Marie-Antoinette-style dress, with a silk bow at her throat and a Voltaire-esque snood enveloping her hair. She holds a basket of multi-colored fruit. Even her pet goat has a scarlet flounce draped over its back. Behind the trio is a psychedelic riot of color - overarching blue-green foliage, a lot of gratuitous abstraction and some inexplicably hovering eyes. First the Apple, Then Us is a hilarious piece of pop surrealism. Within the prehistoric confines of a primordial swamp fringed with palm trees, reeds, and thickets, a curious drama unfolds: from the interior of a huge apple, emerges a caterpillar with a human head – that of the artist, Popov, himself. From the caterpillar-man emerges a speech balloon comprising of images of eyes. Above him hover four diaphanous bubbles containing ghostly symbols. First the Apple, Then Us is a wry confection, comical and Kafkaesque at the same time. Residuum epitomizes the principle of Romantic Cynicism. This mixed media piece is adorned with an ornate motif similar to a geometric tapestry, predominantly orange and gold in color, with an intricate, baroque design enclosing a small central square, dark to the point of nihility. The cynicism resides in the stark contrast between the romanticized, high-style matrix and the burnt-out kernel left over in the middle which repesents residuum. Equally romantically cynical is Hunger Never Saw Bad Bread, a sarcastic vignette presenting a partly outstretched, partly coiled snake in the act of clamping its jaws around a small rabbit. Fanning the snake’s head are stress lines intended to underscore a moment of epiphany.

The entertaining conceit of “Romantic Cynicism” was first formulated by Popov in connection with a major exhibition in the mid-1990s. The concept is concerned with a “way of seeing,” which reconciles the ideas, imagery, and atmosphere of dark romanticism with an attitude of arch irony. Whether it is considered a matter of romanticizing cynicism or cynicizing romanticism, the Romantic Cynicism project is a seriocomic extravaganza spoofing schools, styles, genres, and art movements themselves. Half in earnest, half in jest, Popov manages to integrate, under the intellectual umbrella of his satirical theoretical doctrine, a melange of allegory, melodrama, Gothicism, sentimentalism, grotesquerie, and mock chivalry. But, beyond the enigma, mythomania, mimetic compulsion, curious, hybrid morphology, and all the other descriptives which might be applied to Popov’s productions, two deeply important undercurrents sustain them. The first is the mystical impulse and the tendency to apotheosis which, in Russian art, is as deep-rooted as instinct. The other is the satirical streak. This dark humor, which figures so prominently in much of this artist’s work, is deceptively playful: underlying the comic veneer, rest many layers of serious investigation. The chameleon from Kiev is nothing if not oblique and elliptical. Ultimately, his is a meta-art, in the sense that it is art about art, art about the process of artistic creation, art about art history, art about modernism in all its manifestations, art about metaphysical aspect. It is an art of infinite inflection.