Ivan Sotnikov developed his own unique style in art and music, combining his passion for semiotic systems and his love of traditional folk art with an explosive creativity. Alongside Timur Novikov, he co-founded the New Artists group in 1982, which initially operated out of a communal flat. There they held a series of influential exhibitions and parties, fusing fine art with youth culture, film, fashion, and performance, and collaborating with other protagonists of the countercultural scene such as rock band Kino and idiosyncratic Popular Mechanics Orchestra. In the spirit of Dada and the absurdists, Sotnikov and Novikov famously co-created the ‘Zero Object’. Declaring (à la Malevich) а rectangular cut-out within an exhibition wall panel to be a legitimate work of art, the artists then used it as a ‘live picture’ through which to look out at the public – a prank performance with a theoretical subtext; an intuitive and experimental act of creative autonomy.
Sotnikov’s paintings – the main focus of his creative output and this exhibition – are often joyously exuberant and darkly comic, reflecting both the artist’s ‘larger than life’ personality and the period in which they were produced. In this era, “Bakhtin’s ‘culture of laughter’, Propp’s studies of the Russian fairytale, and Huizinga’s ‘ludic’ theory were all the rage, whilst Hesse’s Glass Bead Game and the I Chingwere required reading.* An avid collector of modern visual folklore, Sotnikov often made use of this genre’s attributes in his own work. He avoided over-intellectualising his subjects, instead emphasising their frivolous and witty properties) alongside the anarchistic ‘infantilism’ and anti-aesthetics of punk.
The exhibition at White Space brings together a selection of Sotnikov’s paintings from his Battle with the Squirrel series. Executed in the last few years of his life, the works encapsulate the distinctive artistic mythology and iconography present throughout his career. They harness the classic Soviet cultural pantheon (for example fir-trees, probably Sotnikov’s most reoccurring and favourite motif), and portray the artist’s passions, struggles, victories and downfalls.
His signature style, purposefully simple and pared down to basic logo-like forms and outlines, is exemplified in the painting Battle with the Squirrel (2012). A chorus of squirrels noisily intone ‘tick-ticking’ (tыц-тыц) whilst engaging in a mischievous (paramilitary) activity: a metaphorical ‘battlefield’. In Sotnikov’s world, the squirrel is both a ferocious beast and a joker. The dazzling red colour creates a bright and hallucinatory presence, appearing seemingly out of nowhere. In another work from this series, soldiers are shown during a frenzied combat with the symbolic squirrel, limbs scattered, guns drawn. To this grotesque scene, Sotnikov adds even more ‘fire’, exaggerating and thickening the density of paint through strongly expressive brushstrokes. Simple and direct, his images appear almost child-like, but the effect is highly calculated and carries on the artist’s subversive and candid character typology.
By adopting the crude vernacular of folk art and by bringing it into the domain of ‘high art’, Sotnikov followed the principles of the historic Russian avant-garde (in the style of Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, and other early 20th-century precursors). This can be seen in his early works from the 1980s and 1990s, which depict nudes painted on supports of varying kinds and shapes. He was particularly drawn to Larionov’s neo-primitivist folk paintings, whose subjects often included naked women and soldiers, and mixed these with the contemporary Leningrad underground’s range of themes: cars, planes, and cityscapes.
Sotnikov’s style and subject matter remained incredibly consistent throughout his career. Works from the late phase are as naïve, full of humour and imagination as previously, whilst also acquiring a new lyrical quality (his landscapes from Montenegro for example, where the artist spent the few last summers of his life). Along the way, he discovered a kinship with Pop Art and Neo-Expressionism: the German Neue Wilde, the Italian Transavantgarde, the American New Wave and the French Free Figuration.
The exhibition also features a rare three-dimensional work, Utyugon(1982/2014). Part sculpture, part sound-piece, Utyugon is a fantastical musical instrument made of scrap metal, domestic irons and a wooden kitchen table which could be amplified with pickups. The suspended flat irons, hanging below the table on wires were manipulated by knives to create unusual sounds. First played by Sotnikov at Club-81, Leningrad in 1982, its presence in the exhibition reveals an additional, performative dimension to the artist’s uncompromising approach offering a savage expression of creative and personal independence and a concrete celebration of his stylistic recklessness. Bold to the last, the works on display show a unique ability to confront private demons through a public practice.