A Mind at Play 

NIKITA GASHUNIN

at Maya Polsky Gallery, through April 29

The work of the Russian Nikita Gashunin plunged me into a kind of visual ecstasy. The array of colors, shapes, and sizes of the buttons covering the oval Buttons' Egg suspended time and space, seeming to subsume the world. The Armor Clad Egg, covered with overlapping watch casings, coins, and subway tokens, is more subdued chromatically, consisting mostly of silver and gold, but offers an amazing variety of shapes and designs. And there is Plastic Egg, in which a variety of tiny plastic artifacts--pieces of a children's construction kit, medicine bottles, toys--jut perpendicularly outward, porcupinelike, from the egg's surface.

Gashunin's nine eggs on display--which are among the 21 works in this, his first U.S. one-person show--are unified in part by the materials that compose them. The buttons of Buttons' Egg make an obvious unity with one another and with the egg's oval, but so do the different curves of diverse materials in Egg-Samovar. There, an old clock dial, some curved metal plate with slots for levers, and a fragment of a circular stone portrait relief are different enough to create visual collisions while their curves combine in an almost rhythmic overall composition. The fact that many of the fragments on this egg are rusty or otherwise ruined denies it any initial prettiness, but I soon saw beauty in the juxtaposition of forms and in the more random patterns of rust and decay.

What gives these works their uniqueness, and much of their visual pleasure, is Gashunin's nonsystematic method of organization. The found objects, detritus of the modern world, are arranged neither casually nor according to some predictable formal pattern. Instead Gashunin seeks maximum variety: colors and shapes are arranged mostly next to others that are visually contrasting, even opposites, to create a collision of forms. But lest such an arrangement become too predictable, he will sometimes juxtapose similar or identical shapes: near the top of Plastic Egg are several identical red construction-crane-toy parts, side by side. The only formula in these works is the absence of any formula, and the result is that the eye is continually tickled, repeatedly surprised, and made somehow more alive.

An artist I thought of while viewing Gashunin's work was Henri Matisse, whose masterpieces are well represented in Russian museums, and who is cited by Gashunin as his favorite painter and most important influence. In many Matisses, the representational structure of the composition--a figure in a room, for example--is undermined by patterns of spectacularly diverse and exotic colors, or by the way the decorative patterns of a tablecloth continue onto the figure's clothing or the wallpaper. The eye, in thrall to color and line, forgets the time and space of the image and the possible meanings of its content.

Gashunin's works similarly undercut their contents' meanings. The cameras that fill the surface of Photocamera Egg all stare out at the viewer; each seems like a slightly confrontational mechanical cyclops; but there are so many of them, each a different size and kind and with its own language on its lens, that each camera soon becomes a "mere" element of a surface. A pale light inside the egg shines out through some of the lenses, reversing the direction of normal light flow in a camera and further removing them from their original function. The entire egg is mounted on the lens opening of the bellows of a camera laid on its back; it appears to grow out of the lens, a bit of humor that seems to further reverse the idea of "camera."

But it is hard to avoid a content-based reading of Military Egg. Toy soldiers jut out perpendicularly from the surface, a pleasing arrangement of silver and gold. At the egg's top a proud Red Army soldier stands at attention with a flag, while other soldiers aim rifles and bazookas at him; still others simply stand at attention, and some face downward rather than up. The soldiers came from toy kits; although I could see the Red Army's star on many uniforms, I could find no red stars on the soldiers poised to attack. At the egg's base, ten soldiers are prostrate, attached by screws through their torsos; I took them as dead, as references to the skull at the base of the cross in many crucifixion paintings, as references to the crucifixion itself, as signs of the costs of war. The whole piece seemed quite obviously a little battle story: Soviet soldier attacked by foreigners.

Gashunin, who met me in the gallery, would have none of this. The nationality of the soldiers was irrelevant to him--he would have used many other nationalities were they available. "The plastic idea"--the formal effect of the arrangement of shapes--"was more important." The dead soldiers are not necessarily dead, but are there for "plastic" reasons alone.

Gashunin, 38, lives in Moscow, where he was born; this is his first U.S. visit. He studied drawing for years in school, beginning as a child; trained as an art teacher in college, he learned useful technical skills but much more of the "story of the Communist Party," in which he had little interest. His early paintings and drawings were both abstract and figurative; his present direction, assembling works out of found materials, dates to the mid-80s; the works in the exhibit were completed between 1988 and 1994.

Gashunin would not speak of Faberge in relation to his own eggs. A jeweler catering to wealthy Russians and to the czars, Faberge made "eggs" encrusted with jewels and precious metals that have long been a symbol of czarist opulence and excess. But the contrasts, intended or not, are evident. Rather than using precious materials, Gashunin makes his art out of mass-manufactured objects, the sorts of things available to anyone, including junk from actual junkyards. His eggs, Military Egg aside, are structured nonhierarchically--no piece is presented as more important than any other. Gashunin cites as his artistic goal the discovery of his own "plasticity," and the works can function similarly for the viewer. His attempt to present his objects without their original meanings and only for their plastic values is itself a "meaning," evidence of a desire to perceive familiar things as color and form. If the meaning of a precious jewel is found partly in its unusual light patterns, partly in its rarity and monetary value, and partly in the cachet that attaches to it, then the meaning of Gashunin's metal and plastic parts resides in their cheapness, their availability, their ordinariness. His is a genuinely egalitarian art.

Besides the eggs, the exhibit has other kinds of works--an etching, several collages, and several objects constructed out of fragments of machines: nuts, bolts, screws, rods, gears.

One collage, a large diptych called In the Darkness of the Night, strikes an ominous tone. Two dogs, created out of myriad printed fragments of machines, snarl at each other in separate panels. Set against a dark sky with glittering silver and gold stars, they stand in jumbles of blue bars that resemble city skylines; I thought of scenes in apocalyptic SF movies of wild dogs roaming urban wastelands. But the equally large pair of collages, Black Butterfly I and Black Butterfly II, is more benign. Again made of collaged prints of machine parts, these butterflies are represented as if pinned to a white sheet; behind them are the outlines of "shadows," equally intricate clusters of machine parts that are paler and more diffuse, as if made of light that passed through the wings. The whole butterfly is presented as more complex and arguably more beautiful than any machine, but my attention was soon captivated by the interweaving of color and black-and-white prints, and by ever-varying degrees of depth and flatness in the various machine images.

Some of the three-dimensional objects express attitudes that conflict, often humorously, denying the works any primary meaning and directing the viewer's attention back to their form. Viperfish, a cross section of a fish with lower teeth bared that was made of machine parts, looks fierce at first, but the decorative relationship between its parts--none of the wheels seem to be connected to others--soon puts one in an almost playful mood. Formula MCCXCIII is a race car in cross section, its title translating to 1293, the month and year of its completion. Its wheels come from a sewing machine, a rusty drive chain comes from a tractor; its engine block consists of differently shaped samovar spigots. Dangerous Toy is shaped like a giant ladybug, but its back is covered with rusted machine-part protrusions, slightly ominous, thornlike. When one pulls a chain a mechanism plays Brahms's "Lullaby."

The Captive, the most intricately constructed object, took 18 months to make. A giant fly sits in a bird cage with a mirrored bottom that allows one to see its underside. Constructed of wires, tubes, tiny electrical parts, and various unidentifiable fragments, it displays the care and intricacy of a machine ready for flight. Though made of found objects, it is surprisingly and realistically symmetrical: two tiny gear wheels on one side are replicated almost exactly on the other. Red, white, and green lights blink on and off to the accompaniment of gentle percussive sounds suggesting that it is ready to soar, yet the humorous playfulness of these lights and sounds undercuts its fiercely poised form. There is a cockpit with a tiny pilot, introducing a further contradiction--insect or plane?--and his instrument panel has a band of red lights that flash with impressive realism. The fly is connected to a battery on the cage's floor, doubling the contradiction; how will it fly away if it needs a battery for power?

Gashunin's spectacularly nonfunctional reality is filled with such impossible contradictions. Its manifestations have no meaning clear enough to be translated into action. His assemblages, organized so that each part collides with its neighbors, create a sensual eye play of colors and forms. Implicit is a protest against all social orders, of language and science and traditional art, that impute meanings to things. Without them we are also without hierarchies; all things are equally valuable, and all is the proper domain for the free play of the aesthetic imagination.

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