Behind the Iron Curtain

An exhibit at the UA Joseph Gross Gallery tells the story of a young girl in a bleak Soviet metropolis

Artist Yana Payusova grew up in Leningrad in the waning days of the Soviet Union.

Born in 1979, she was just 12 when the USSR collapsed in 1991. Judging from Tale of Two Heads, her series of storybook paintings at the UA's Joseph Gross Gallery, the Soviet-era Leningrad of her childhood was a grim and shadowy place, colored in grays and khakis.

Re-imagined in her artworks, its streets are crowded with apparatchiks and "BureauRats," black marketeers hawking meat and gas masks, and babushkas hurrying along in scarves and heavy winter coats. Inside cramped Soviet-style apartments, decorated with reminders of past Russian glories, fortune-tellers and fortune-seekers alike preside. Everyone is on the make, including the caretaker of a church.

Payusova studied art first in Russia and then in the United States, earning an MFA at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Now living in Boston, she painted the 21 small acrylic works on canvas using an ingenious mélange of cartoons, old-time Byzantine iconography and Soviet realism, with a little medieval Brueghel thrown in for good measure. She's a master at architectural reconstruction, conjuring up streets and alleyways and arches in dizzying diagonal lines. Oftentimes, in the background is the shimmering gold of Russian religious icons.

But Tale of Two Heads is a painting and word exhibition. It's like a picture book whose pages have been taken apart and plastered onto the walls. Each of the small paintings, just 12 inches square, is paired with a page of text, written by Payusova's art partner, Joseph Farbrook.

The two artists—two heads—collaborated on the storyline, basing it partly on Payusova's memories of her childhood.

"The work is both history and fantasy," she says in an artist's statement, "a life re-imagined from a young girl's perspective."

Known as St. Petersburg in the days of the tsars (the city has now reverted to its old name), Leningrad is the bleak setting for a dark story of a child lost and found. The unnamed narrator is a girl of 8 or 10, dressed in a brown shirt and black jumper. Her greatest comfort is her Double, an imaginary friend who's nearly always with her. These "two heads" are identical, though the Double is stripped of what little color the narrator has: She appears always as shadow girl in gray.

The story opens with a monstrous image of a wintry square. A swarm of women wrapped in wool are wearily waiting in line, no doubt to do their food-shopping. The ground is carelessly littered with vodka bottles and cigarettes. Hardly anyone is paying attention to the enormous pair of fleshy human feet planted in the square. One little boy has noticed, and he points skyward, evidently toward the giant's unseen head.

Whether the giant is a metaphor for heavy-footed Communism (the hands of a giant puppeteer appear in another painting), or is just a children's-story character, is anyone's guess. Throughout, the artist plays with this ambiguity, deftly merging familiar children's bogeymen with the specter of Big Brother.

The action begins in the second painting, back at home, where the young girl has told her little brother to get lost. To her dismay, this time he has obeyed her: He's vanished.

The boy's disappearance triggers a day-long search; like Leopold Bloom perambulating through Dublin, the girl and her Double wander through Leningrad, moving in and out of Soviet offices, through apartments, a graveyard, a jail and even a TV station where a ballerina in full Swan Lake regalia is performing on air, the better to distract the viewers from the day's inevitable bad news.

The story is more than just a critique of life in the latter days of Communism. It also conjures the darker side of childhood, where adults are useless, or puzzling, or terrifying. The mother of the girl never makes an appearance (she's said to be coming home at 5), and the child seeks help from a parade of strangers, most of whom cheat her, berate her or, in one case, cart her off to jail. These adults are masters of cynicism.

"All knowledge has a price," the fortune teller says, "and thoughts are bought and sold."

As in the best children's stories, though, the plucky girl persists, venturing boldly into the scariest of places. If she does not exactly solve the problem herself, her Double—her braver self—does the job.

As a work of art, Tale of Two Heads requires of viewers the same persistence and patience that's demanded of the girl. It takes time to make one's way through all of the paintings and to read the text. The text is fine, if a little clunky; it sometimes reads like a translation. Some of the characters, like the shrieking schoolteacher, are downright repulsive, along the lines of old-time newspaper caricatures.

But there are wonderful narrative touches, with characters appearing more than once, linking the episodes together. And the best of the paintings are strange little jewels. In the picture of the tea-leaf reader, an entire kitchen is set inside a giant teacup. The church scene is a marvel of miniature Greek Orthodox paintings of saints. Best of all are the glimpses of the rooftops and towers of old St. Petersburg, seen through windows and at the far end of streets, haunting reminders of the sweep of Russian history.

Across the way, the University of Arizona Museum of Art is also exhibiting the works of a painter raised behind the former Iron Curtain. Born in East Germany in 1944, Andreas Nottebohm also trained in the capitalist West, in Munich, Paris and Salzburg, long before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Now living in San Francisco, Nottebohm works in metal and paint. His earlier pieces in his big solo show are relatively conventional paintings atop aluminum, but his most recent works are pure abstractions. They combine metal and brilliant color—shiny silver, glittering cobalt—in stunning op-ed configurations.

"KN-1942 (Zenith)" inadvertently continues the theme of duality. It puts together two triangles, both of them 3-D slices of metal shimmering in orange, gold and yellow. You'd swear on first glance that the triangle on the right was on top of the left one, jutting out into the gallery. But it's not. The triangles are actually joined together. They form one flat plane—or one Earth, say—divided only by a thin line.

If anyone wants to read a parable about East-West relations into this, feel free. Or get away from geopolitics altogether by heading into the adjoining gallery of outer-space paintings. These somewhat hokey, but wholly patriotic works by Nottebohm and the late painter Robert McCall chronicle the NASA Years, and the exploits of humankind far from Earth.

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