While it may seem unorthodox to use Kafka as a point of reference for an exhibition of Russian photographers, the newest show at Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery, while subtle in its drama and dignified in its pathos, carries a palpable sense tasty, existential dread. And, while Russia is not without its own masters and a longstanding tradition of dark literary notes, none have inspired such an economic descriptor. The pieces in From Moscow With Love are moody and foreboding, packing wrenching, but understated, twists visible only to the most observant eye.
Thursday night, I was invited over to perennial home-run hitter, PDNB Gallery, for Moscow Mules and a brief talk by owner/director Burt Finger and PaperCity Fine Arts editor, Catherine D. Anspon. The always-amusing Finger and the delightfully quirky Anspon had traveled last August to Moscow as reviewers for Russia's first International Photography Portfolio Review, organized by the Houston FotoFest Biennial, and Finger brought back work from seven photographers - many of whom had never before shown in the United States - for the group exhibition, From Moscow With Love.
As always, Finger had us wrapped around his ... well, let's just say, he's an engaging speaker.
PDNB hosted a disturbingly beautiful show in early March called BORDER dealing with the infamous drug wars in Ciudad Juarez, and, true to form, its follow up strikes nerves that viewers have likely not accessed in decades. However, Moscow is more subtle, requiring a bit more work for a similarly (gloriously) disturbing payoff.
I'd circled the gallery a number of times before narrowing on the particular photographs that would stay with me for nearly a week. (Perhaps it was the bit of vodka in my Moscow Mule that helped open my eyes?) Initially, I was most drawn to Valery Samarin's series of untitled photographs that, in collaboration, compose "The Poem of the Fork."
I see the world primarily in narrative. Images, design, philosophical ideas are, to me, only atomic portions of a more moving mode of artistic expression. This is, of course, a purely individualized perspective, and no disrespect is intended toward visual artists and musicians; I do not, for a moment, presume to be "correct" in my aesthetic. But, for me, the narratives I experience become part of me and my own narrative. Emblematic of particular emotions, they emerge as cognitive tools to describe my experiential understanding of the world, life, humanity, and so on. Samarin's fork series, while composed of highly designed, minimalistic elements without an immediately obvious "story," evokes an incredibly literary sensation, the same feeling one might indulge while reading The Castle or The Trial. Stylistically, they match the images I've developed reading these pieces, and as a result, they become in my own mind a continuation of the thoughts and feelings I've experienced through the work of Franz Kafka, a sensation as inexplicable as it is inextricable.
On the other hand, Gregori Maiofis' work is far more traditionally literary with highly politicized statements etched across the bottoms of selected photographs and extensive use of metaphor. Maiofis makes wide use of animals, sometimes in conjunction with human subjects, sometimes in place of them, and his photograph "Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery," featuring a monkey placing a slip of paper into a ballot box could not be more clear. However, his "House is Burning, Clock is Ticking," is more challenging in its interpretation, but the payoff is utterly priceless.
The photograph features an elderly clockmaker busily tinkering with a pocket watch, surrounded by clocks. I suspect I glanced at this photo five times or more before realizing that, just behind the clockmaker, while I he continues his day with seemingly little chagrin, a television set presents the Twin Towers aflame.
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Aside from a handful of casual trips, I have no real connection to New York; neither would I be reasonably be called "patriotic." But, that image is chilling - particularly on a bromoil print, a 19th century technology, and surrounded by timepieces and the aged clockmaker. I doubt anyone first viewing that photo, at least those seeing it without a spoiling discussion such as this, can deny at the very least a sharp intake of breath. In fact, when Finger pointed it out to the crowd, it was clear that many hadn't yet noticed it. Onlookers gasped. Audibly.
But, lest I impart the wrong impression, it was not a groan of disdain at a cheapened use of an emotional image in order to elicit undue emotional reaction. It is not a cheating moment, no flimsy trick. It is executed in a manner that is riveting and eye-opening. My fellow viewers were simply - before my own eyes - reliving a very real moment of "shock and awe;" the same emotion they had likely felt nearly eleven years prior. The image moves something, somewhere deep. Something not a mere "American" experience and that is difficult to discuss in any language.
See these and works by five other spectacular Russian photographers hand-picked by Burt Finger for From Moscow With Love, running through through July 28th at 1202 Dragon St.