Michael Iofin :: Fine Art

  A Postmodernist with a Human Face
Boris Bernstein

The difference between a poet on the one hand and a historian or a moral or physical philosopher on the other is the same as the difference between a clouded sky and a clear sky, since in each case the same light exists in the object of vision, but is perceived in different degrees according to the capacity of the observers. Poetry, furthermore, is all the sweeter since a truth that must be sought out with some care gives all the more delight when it is discovered.
–Francis Petrarch, Coronation Oration

. . . The foundation and the initial speedup took place in the fatherland. Our existence in Russia was the cause. Today you have the e ect.
–Joseph Brodsky, from Conversations with Joseph Brodsky by Solomon Volkov


First, let's get the obligatory introductory remarks out of the way.

Michael Iofin is a painter and graphic artist, a mature master with complete command of his craft. At one time his painting gravitated towards the genre of trompe l'oeil, in which an illusion of reality is created on a plane in order to trick the eye. Though trompe l'oeil demands authentic technical virtuosity, during Iofin's youth the genre was not a rarity, given that it served as a refuge. While the theoreticians of Socialist Realism were still battling abstractionism, which by then had faded, trompe l'oeil, in itself very realistic, served as a phantom umbrella. Yet Socialist Realism was never a concern for Iofin: his coming of age fell during the rst exhibits of the unofficial, i.e. subversive art, which immediately defined his artistic and at once personal ideals. He wasn't engaged with the official aesthetics, but rather was formed in the atmosphere of independent Soviet (anti-Soviet? extra-Soviet?) avant-garde of the 1960-80s, becoming one of its devoted participants. Therefore, the illusionism in some in his works is not a trick, but rather a phase in his natural personal evolution.

Like a pianist who manages to strike a record number of keys in a given unit of time, a master of tromp l'oeil may choose to limit himself simply to demonstrations of technical reworks, yet there is more to the genre: meaningful things can be expressed there as well, as we will see. In America, Iofin has gradually changed his style. His paintings no longer pretend to be reality but speak of their own presence (or about their own reality, if you like) which they do by many means: an unnatural color palette, a distinctive, signature, surface texture (thanks to the special oil pastel technique invented by the artist), marked silhouettes, deformations.

Has Iofin ceased to be a realist? He never was one–and if he was, this lasted no longer than a short while.

What art critic doesn't strive to classify a painter? Paste him, like a butter y on a pin, into an appropriate display case? Let us try to discern the boundaries of the class.

At one extreme I would put those several of Iofin's paintings that depict other paintings. One dresses up as a Chagall, another as a René Magritte, a third one as a Falk, and so on. They are not copies: not one of these painters had such paintings! Nor are they counterfeits: Iofin follows the style and iconography with a certain degree of proximity but not closely enough to cause confusion. Moreover, as an alibi, Iofin painted not only the pictures, but also the frames, thus putting quotation marks around the quotation. Hence, nothing except for the frame is in the first person, as if the personality of the author, whose own hands painted the picture, were absent. Instead, there is a self-renouncing medium through whom speak the spirits of the late masters. If the author does not completely put aside his voice, then he makes only a bow, a show of reverence, a gesture of homage, nothing more.

These pastiches, paintings "in the style of" great masters present only an extreme case of the saturation of Iofin's art with the art of others. It is well-known that art is nourished as much with life as with art itself; in the end, as Paul Valerie would joke, a lion is made of a well digested ram. The question of the relationship between the lion and the ram, however, is not that simple: at a later point in history came news of which Valerie had not even dreamt. Contemporary times challenged the very principle of personal authorship with all its consequences–up to and including the issue of copyright. An unheard-of communization of imagery occurred, and Iofin was a co-conspirator in this revolutionary enterprise.

His paintings swarm with fragments of other famous pieces of art. Often openly exposed, but at times veiled and requiring identification, these references are intertwined with creations of Iofin's own imagination. Like this: at a table standing on the street sit the loafers from Jan Steen's painting at the Hermitage; or on another street only one of those two loafers remains; or Iofin, asleep somewhere on a roof, is attacked by Salvador Dali's tiger; Marc Chagall from his own painting stands in the midst the Summer Garden in St. Petersburg with his hand raised, the hand that the flying Bella was touching in the original; or the portraits by Pierro della Francesca of Federigo da Montefeltro and his wife Battista Sforza are mounted into the compartments of a fantastical display along a fragment of a Dutch still life; or among the participants in a San Francisco carnival one can spot the head of one of Breugehl's blind men, the man in a red turban from a van Eyck's portrait, Durer from the self-portrait of 1498, and again the tireless loafer of Jan Steen. Further on, Vermeer from The Allegory of Painting stares into the cloudy wall of Magritte; still further on, in a densely populated Ho manian painting, Signor Arnolfini–from a well-known double portrait by Jan van Eyck–has turned his back to us, while his lovely wife remains in her own pose, only now she is crying, and the pair of wooden slippers, the symbol of domestic comfort and matrimony, is standing just as they used to. . . Should I continue?

Well, this is the case not only with Iofin: the time has come when in a culture saturated with art, the art took on itself. Dressing up, pretending, exchanging masks, endlessly quoting–all these variants of an ironical game with the classics by means of simultaneous uni cation and estrangement comprise the vague, fuzzy concept of postmodernism. At the dawn of the postmodern epoch (which thus named itself even before its own coming) bilingualism seemed almost its primary characteristic. Charles Jencks, the prophet of postmodernism, referred to this feature as "dual coding": one code for the masses, and another, secret, for the initiated. For instance, where "a man in the street" sees a fragment of a column aimlessly inserted into the interior, a possessor of esoteric knowledge, a player in the game, will recognize the quotation (a Corinthian capital from the Temple of Apollo in Phygalia) and this recognition in itself makes him a participant in re ned entertainment. The problem, in truth, is that the mechanisms of mass culture re-mill the fragments of high-brow art with ever-increasing speed: at a stationary store one can buy a blow-up doll of the personage of Munch's Scream, Vermeer's Allegory of Art fits an advertisement just as well as do Magritte's paradoxes, and your computer mouse can afford the luxury of gallivanting on top of Van Gogh's self-portrait. The real postmodernism, probably, starts where different cultural codes are split apart and re-mixed into an unstructured plasma, where the sublime and the profane perform in the same weight divisions, where one's own and the someone else's collide as equals. In literature, such collision is called intertextuality; paintings can be considered intertextual as well–in as much as they can serve as texts.

In any case, let's talk about High Art.

Any variant of postmodernist art excludes personal origin, existential experience, internal necessity–this is the art of inventiveness and wit. Here is not the place to develop this thesis, I'll just try to explain myself with the aid of an example. Komar and Melamid's worthy project, Most Wanted Painting, a series of paintings drawn in strict agreement with the results of a poll, can serve as a model. The project is multi-purposeful: a literal parody of the slogan "Art belongs to the people" accomplished in an idiotically scrupulous, science-like manner co-exists here with the ultimate resolution of the personality question. The author, or more precisely authorship as a principle is annihilated without a trace, and in its place is mounted a awless proxy for the people's visual imagination. Or lack thereof. We cannot engage in a dialog with Komar and Melamid: they are not there.

But Iofin cannot escape from himself and, regardless of whether or not we so desire, he does position us for dialog. He is an incomplete, an improper, or, if you'd like, a de cient postmodernist, a postmodernist with a human face.

Herein lies the other boundary of the class being described.

Not withstanding stylistic and semantic diversity in Iofin's painting, I find in it both explicit and concealed leitmotifs. St. Petersburg is the most drawn-upon and drawn-out among them. For Iofin St. Petersburg can be a subject unto itself, but it can also be a singular city space able to contain anything: scenes of street life from the tsarist times as well as that of the most modern era, absurd companies of "the artist's friends," a promenade with Chagall (is it not along the street where the Artists' Union has its offices in the building of the former School of the Imperial Society for the Encouragement of the Arts where Chagall studied?), a fragment of an old Dutch still life (or the Russian parody of it) inserted into the perspective of a street–the list can continue. We will return to street life later, but now one more remark on combining the uncombinable.

If one so desires, it is possible to see here another reference–one both refined and concealed–to the classical tradition. The yoking of realistic motifs and real subjects with symbolic objects and allegorical gures has been well-known at least since the Renaissance; during the Baroque era, no one took offense at such combinations. In Rubens's paintings, Henry IV and Maria Medici find themselves surrounded by Olympic gods representing qualities, destinies, merits, and virtues. In the eighteenth century, Pompeo Battoni composed a painting using "the Iofin formula": a realistic city landscape, a line of Venetian palaces facing the Grand Canal, is recessing and in the foreground–as if invading from the fourth dimension–appears an allegorical pyramid: on a chariot harnessed with lions rides Venice herself (as a fair lady), surrounded by Minerva (as Wisdom), Neptune (as the Master of the Sea), Cerera (as Abundance), Mars (as Invincibility), and so on. Such is, if you'd like, the antique intertextuality. For a normal eye this mixing of the real with the symbolic, of a fragment of reality with transformed mythological quotations would seem absurd. Iofin develops the absurd from this point to its logical end. Rather than a Venetian perspective, the streets of St. Petersburg serve as a real backdrop, and in place of commonly known allegories, there are personal ones, without fixed meanings, blurred, unclear, appealing not to thought, but to imagination. What are those strange "friends of the artist" up to on the embankment? If you'd like, you may see in each of them depictions of loneliness, restlessness, aimlessness, stubbornness, lostness, disconnectedness–a kind of one-time allegory, just for this case, ad hoc. You may even go further, having assumed, and not without basis, that the artist never had such friends, that all these friends are he himself, that here we have a self-portrait in characters, a personi cation of his own existential situation. Hidden in his absurd is a proprietary logic: you are given initial imagery to start with, and you are then free to draw your own inferences.

However, there are also works where one can find permanent symbols with fixed meanings. I suspect that such explicitness appeared in those places where imagery intersected directly with biography. The motif of a heavy, impermeable brick wall is present in several paintings marking the end of the Soviet era: The Beginning of the Journey, The Beginning, The Hour of First Sun. It is not surprising that in the first two there twinkle the glints of Sotsart with its scoffing poetics. The latter, with its simple symbolism of immured and open window openings has the least narrative; the plasticity of a deaf wall, all crooked but absurdly indestructible, is tense to a nightmarish degree, and the glimpses of the shining skies in the several unobstructed windows fail to bring a cathartic resolution. Yes, you guessed it! The painting is dated 1990.

That those paintings and others like them are autobiographical is obvious. The motifs of the sky, light, taking off, sailing away are transparent symbols of emigration rendered as internal experience, lived through not as reality, of course,–what reality?!–but rather as a dream, as an illusion, as a departure for Utopia. The personal nature of the image is stripped to the nakedness of a diary entry that is truly addressed to no one.

Here we approach the core. Michael Iofin is an émigré, an artist formed in the Soviet state (which does not mean that he is a "Soviet artist") who in mid-life relocated to the banks of the San Francisco Bay, to a wonderful, but very much other city, to a different socio-cultural environment, to a country where the art world is organized according to different rules. "There the beginning, here the consequences." The fantastic edifice of Iofin's painting is built on a fracture, hence its internal tension and dramatism.

Most likely, only thus could appear the paradoxical St. Petersburg of his dreams. Here one would like to insert the adjective "nostalgic", but then the adjective "paradoxical" would have to be removed, whereas the situation is such that both must stay.

Let us look closer.

In St. Petersburg, or to be more precise in Leningrad, Iofin created a series of paintings titled Letters from St. Petersburg. Seven still lifes comprise the series, each depicting with false realism a set of objects spread out over old sheets with views of the city. The title of the series is also a kind of trompe l'oeil : those letters are from Leningrad, they are the chronicle of the modern history of the city, reflected in the objects. Among Iofin's work The Letters is probably the most literary organized series of paintings: it consists of five chapters with a prologue and an epilogue. Time speaks through things. A Mauser pistol, an icon, a severed telephone receiver, a postal stamp with a portrait of Hitler, or a reel of magnetic tape will at some point become objects of elaborate iconological deciphering, maybe even very soon, but at present they are still easily readable. Reproductions of these paintings have been published as a separate album; a wonderful preface explains the meaning of each object in relation to the time whose symbol it had become. In comparison to other works by Iofin, this series is perhaps all too understandable, as if to reaffirm the old banality that still lifes are about people. The series could seem illustrative if not for the intonation which is inside (and yet bigger than) the narrative. The articles collected in the painted space tell of a country during one of the darker periods, if not the darkest one, in its history. They glow with an equivocal light: a hard evidence of poverty and tragedy of life is portrayed together with the warmth of this life's uniqueness. Have you ever gone through the belongings of someone recently deceased? Entered a certain personal cosmos that once had a center, a meaning, a function, which had suddenly lost the internal connections and meaning, because an axis had just recently been pulled out of its world? Now, this minute, still preserved in its lingering alignment is the trace of the life drama that happened here, but soon, this very second, it will fall apart into insignificant entities each unto itself. Not by accident the meaning-forming principle used in this cycle echoed the one employed in the portrait of the artist's parents.

Also in Leningrad, Iofin completed a series of seven lithographs titled Bridges. There nothing is phantasmagoric. Drawn in rather classical tradition, the views of the city depict the lesser known bridges–none of the standard, postcard St. Petersburg among his art!–small bridges across canals whose names escape even the neighborhood's inhabitants. The difference from the customary St. Petersburg views is that the bridges are captured at tense angles and the buildings, visible from below, rise above in reverse perspective: the farther away they are, the farther their walls come apart, leaning over the streets, their mass increasing. Here one could hear the echo of the urban insanity of deformed buildings and crooked streets from the paintings of the expressionists, but weakened to such an extent that the motif of insanity is no longer audible and only the elevated plastic energy of the stone volumes, surfaces, and lines remains. In this view the deformation amplifes the unique spatial poetry of the city.

Here is the painting I have already named: The Hour of the First Sun. It is an architectural thriller, an image of a hopelessly enclosed space with immured window openings–the anti-windows–an image of prison, whose ideal emptiness is scarier than many prison fantasies. Its brick walls are clumsily yet solidly built in the same diverging perspective, but the vital filling is removed. The construction is bare. It is, therefore, easy to notice that this is a possible inner side of one of the above-mentioned St. Petersburg houses.

I think that this is a distilled expression of the duality within the latest of Iofin's portrayals of St. Petersburg: nostalgic attraction and idiosyncratic denouncement, all together, inseparable and unfusable. Is not this why he often populates the city with scenes from before the Revolution? Those narrow-waisted maidens in long skirts, officers, vendors, shops, petit-maîtres from the capital, street sweepers with badges seem illustrations to unwritten short stories from bygone times or naïve attempts to erase the footprints of the past century from the face of the city. On the other hand, when the depicted street life relates to the places, times, and customs corresponding to the artist's biographical experience, the romanticized past and imaginary characters yield to the vulgar reality of a beer kiosk.

The never-ending St. Petersburg cycle reveals its meanings through juxtaposition and comparison of certain paintings. Here, within the complete works by Iofin, appears the second intertextuality, a personal one.

In several paintings, the same St. Petersburg street repeats as if in a recurring dream: a tallish three-storey building, then a two-storey, a little shorter, then a four-storey one, a bit taller again, so that a piece of windowless rewall is visible, then the street turns along the tram tracks to the left, the perspective dead-ends into the houses across the street, and occasionally the cupola of St. Isaac's Cathedral reveals itself. This is the everyday flesh of a city, the apartment buildings–you are free to recognize behind the identical windows diversely populated rooms of communal flats–but all identifiably St. Petersburgian. All, only that in real St. Petersburg the streets seem never to end, whereas here the space is enclosed. So it is in many St. Petersburg compositions: as if the hopeless looping of the perspective matches the repetition of the motif. You die, then start all over again. . .

Take a look at such paintings as Lonely Day or, even better, Scream, a recent painting (dated year 2000), a translation of the universal Scream by Munch into the language of Iofin-Petersburg urbanism.

It is possible to name other groups of paintings, where multi-layer application of texts/images, like Petrarch's clouds, envelop but also expose a certain personal truth. The painting My House is dated 1994. A remote landscape background speaks to us with a rare clarity: the left half is the view of San Francisco, the right belongs to St. Petersburg: there are now two homes. The foreground is assembled from disjointed motifs, organized with little care by an architectural enclosure that is falling apart, unable to organize even itself. Flying gures of a lad and a naked beauty head motionless towards a stone bed placed high above, unstable and undefined (as everything in this painting) since it rests on a broken arch less one support. On the bed lies the painter himself (it is his home, remember?), Salvador Dali's tiger jumping at him is probably part of the painter's dream. Down on the pavement Jan Steen's Loafers are having a party with their drinking buddies; it is assumed that Steen had painted himself, and therefore, besides Iofin's self-portrait, present in the painting is yet another one. In front of the table a disgusting boy with an elderly face stares at us, the big army belt with a star on the buckle is most noticeable in his attire. To the left on the same pavement sits a foolhardy guitarist with a furry dog beside him. Above the rustic socle of the house one can catch a minute glimpse into its bowels: a faceless wall clock, a shelf with books and dishes, a little boy is napping by a window above, a bird having made a nest on the boy's head sits there in great anxiety crying and beating its wings. To the right, under the broken arch hangs a big, old-fashioned lamp-shade, probably silken, festooned, such as the ones that used to hang in the main room, or the only room, in the middle, above the dinner table, the center of family life–the symbol and guarantor of peace and coziness–but here it exists in the ideal blue emptiness, the microcosm that it used to organize and keep together is lost and–one must assume–lost forever.

I am not going to undertake the decoding of these symbols. To force on each of them a particular meaning, even if successfully, would be presumptuous. Together with its uncertainty, The House would lose its charisma of strangeness. Having retold the poetry with intelligible prose, I would have taken away its music, untranslatable into words, and its poetic openness to interpretations.

But here is what is interesting. My House is reminiscent of another painting, completed earlier, most likely descending from and undoubtedly evoking it. We can follow the very path of the transformation. In that earlier one, called The Inhabitants of an Inn, there are no distant landscapes, we are presented with a frontal façade of a building. At a table set for a street feast sits the same Jan Steen from his own painting, beside him sits Dürer from the earlier mentioned self-portrait, and finally, Iofin himself. Here we have a conversation among self-portraits: Having juxtaposed a jolly Dutchman with a rigorous and elevated German, our author is chatting with both of them.

On the left, in place of the guitarist, are two mimes, Pierro and Colombina. In a window above is a nude beauty, she hasn't yet flown off. The skull on the windowsill recalls the repented sinner Mary Magdalene. The wall clock in the center has grown to monstrous proportions, and out of it, on a spring, bolts a mechanical bird, the predecessor of the one who will make a nest on the head of the sleeping boy. The bird is crying. The little boy sits by himself on a step of a fragile re-escape ladder. On the highly placed bed, exposed to the whole world, sleeps a faceless angel with folded wings, and behind this angelic resting place through a rectangular aperture opens a joyless perspective on a city. One can arrange a visual experiment overlaying these two paintings: house-inn, faceless angel-sleeping artist, and so on. Similarities and differences of such images give birth to yet new overtones in this complex and difficult reflection on oneself, on one's place in this world, on how it is both whole and split in two.

There is one more painting that one cannot avoid mentioning in relation to this, especially as it is called My House 2. It differs from its predecessors in its simplicity: without paradoxes, frontally, filling practically all the canvas, stands an ordinary St. Petersburg house. In this house the artist probably actually dwelled. The vital truth is apparent: the house is not quite in order, the gutters are leaking, the gates are crooked. But with Iofin, simplicity can only be imaginary. Look closely: the house is dead, the lifeless windows either shine with black abysses or reflect the gray light. In the same blind fashion the depth of the backyard behind the gates is closed. Nobody is shoveling the snow. A natural house and a phantom house, attraction and repulsion of memories wrap up the internally connected cycle Houses.

I cannot possibly cover all that Michael Iofin did and does. He is a master of many talents, and I have barely mentioned his engravings or his superb book illustrations (notably to stories by Babel and to Jewish folk tales). This, however, is a di erent genre that demands a di erent approach. I wanted to get to the heart of his anxious, dramatic artistry, select the proper keys to the special, paradoxical world of his painting, position him in a contemporary context. What has been said about his endless St. Petersburg cycle is also partly true with regards to the nervous and, as always, intricate language of his paintings inspired by the atmosphere of San Francisco.

As I see it, the diagnosis was pronounced in the beginning: Iofin is a modern artist who, unable to escape the postmodern consciousness, with every act of his creative existence refutes its rules by creating art encoded in the modern fashion and yet deeply personal, approaching confession, challenging us to a sincere conversation, intellectual and full of vivid feelings at once.

Translated from Russian by Alexander Zeyliger and Marci Shore

January 2003

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