Ilya Kabakov has outlived his birthplace, the Soviet Union, by 22 years and counting. No artist has captured the gray terror of that failed utopia with more spiritual empathy and formal bravura than this now 80-year-old multimedia virtuoso, who moved to the West in 1987 and has been living on Long Island for the past 20 years.
Under the Soviets, Kabakov worked as a children’s-book illustrator, a trade that honed his representational skills and undoubtedly helped fuel his phantasmagorical visions of bureaucratized oppression and sublime liberation. Kabakov’s projects can be as labyrinthine as a Kremlin power play, but unlike those diabolical machinations, his work celebrates individual deliverance.
At Pace, the viewer is first confronted with paintings imagining topsy-turvy scenes, such as in Vertical Painting #9 (2012), in which one woman plays the piano while another reaches forward, perhaps to turn pages of sheet music. But the pair has been rotated 90 degrees to face downward, and their images break into shards of color that fall, like broken glass, into a chandelier-lit ballroom painted horizontally across the bottom of the canvas.
In The Appearance of Collage #12 (2012), everyone is properly oriented, but incongruous heads, seemingly torn from other paintings, are superimposed upon figures in lab coats who are intently studying a brightly lit rectangle, perhaps some radiological experiment. The scene is reminiscent of those citizens who, at the height of Stalin’s terror, would paint over or tear out of official histories images of anyone the state had designated as “unpersons.” (David King’s chilling study of this phenomenon, The Commissar Vanishes, exposes how Soviet artists airbrushed apparatchiks from or into authorized photographs as they fell into or out of favor with the politburo.)
Kabakov’s work might represent dreams or nightmares, grandeur or gloom, memories of camaraderie or isolation, alternate realities revealed through ripped layers of time and space. His palette includes clotted burgundies and luminous yellows that convey a radiant murk, a scrim behind which Soviet history and individual lives appear and then dissipate. “This ‘darkness’ ‘shines’ via its own depth,” Kabakov has accurately noted of his canvases, adding, “this is the ‘darkness’ of the paintings of the baroque with its own light inside.”
The artist’s interest in the dramatic lighting effects of the Baroque period becomes even more apparent in a second, darkened gallery, where he and his wife, Emilia (with whom he has collaborated on installations since 1988) have erected a large glass cabinet, which contains what first appear to be dotted white X’s. On closer inspection, the bright dots resolve into tiny white figures, each roughly an inch tall, suspended on fine wires. Geometric shadows cast onto the floor become a crucial part of the work, landing this mesmerizing concoction somewhere between Constructivist graphic design and a Caravaggio-like vision of levitating transcendence. The Kabakovs share with that Baroque master a belief in the everyday sublime — Caravaggio through the dirty feet and sagging flesh of Christian worshippers bathed in theatrical luminosity; the Kabakovs through the metaphysical absurdity of their narratives. These little white beings have appeared in the Kabakovian universe before, notably in a 1991 installation at the Museum of Modern Art, where text on the wall explained that aliens had invaded an exhibition of paintings “which are of a harmful, ‘bourgeois’ nature, defaming our Soviet way of life.” In the current show, the “little white people” have been captured in their mysterious travels by a man whom some undefined authority notes is “Excited. Constantly in a state of tension, talks excessively. Uncommunicative.” That disconnect between talking and communicating gets at the resplendent enigma of the Kabakovs’ ever-expanding oeuvre, as if the “darkness at noon” irrationality of totalitarian rule is beyond words, something only the soul can comprehend — and, more important, overcome.