Michael Iofin :: Fine Art

Bermuda National Gallery, Catalog

One of the artists who arrived from the former Soviet Union in the course of the crumbling and collapse of that Empire is Michael Iofin (b. 1959). He grew up in Leningrad when the only acceptable form of visual and other self-expression was still Soviet Socialist Realism. In art as in life, to be and do other than what was prescribed had been to risk at least comfort, at most life. The avant garde had been underground since the Stalinist decrees of the early 1930s, hence a phrase used by Western art historians, "two-world condition," referring to the necessity of living in and producing images acceptable to official Soviet policies in order to survive physically, while producing images of a different sort in secret that, in satisfying the artist’s own creative needs enabled him/her to survive psychically. Some artists carried their ideas and their paintbrushes and canvases to distant outposts of the Soviet world, such as Uzbekistan, as we have noted. Others merely hid their avant garde inclinations behind the closed doors of studios into which only close and trusted friends and family members might gain access.

Iofin came of age as this system was beginning to collapse but when for many, leaving the realm of familiar discomfort for a New World was still a desideratum. Moreover, for Iofin and many like him, the condition of Soviet artistic life was further complicated by the fact that he is a Jew. A Jewish artist with avant garde inclinations experienced a "three-world" condition, caught between the official and unofficial, acceptable and unacceptable realms of creativity and further pulled by the question of where in either realm the Jewish part of one’s identity might fit. The matter there was and remains different from that matter here: Jews in the Soviet Union and its Russian offspring are considered a nationality like Georgians, Lithuanians, Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks and others, not a religion as they would be considered in America.

By paradox, Jews wanting to leave to go to Israel could do so more easily than if they wished to go, say, to the United States, since the Soviet regime regarded Israel as the homeland of the Jews and therefore saw such emigration as repatriation. But Soviet Jews might consider Israel no more their home than any other particular place, perhaps even less so given the decades of anti-Israel propaganda to which they would have been subject by the time of the 1970s when the first burst of Jewish emigration began and the more so by the end of the 1980s and early 1990s when members of Michael Iofin’s generation were in the process of leaving. One gains a strong sense of this from Iofin’s "Return to Jerusalem" (1992). Divided into three parts so that it is functionally a triptych, the painting’s right and left sides offer cityscapes of Petersburg (former Leningrad) and San Francisco, respectively. It is summertime on the right, winter on the left; blue skies and green trees on the right are balanced by gray skies and snow on the left. The center scene is separated from the side scenes by a pair of trees: a snowy, leafless tree to the left near which a heavily-dressed middle-aged man huddles, and a palm tree to the right against which a lightly-dressed young man leans, eyes closed, dreaming.

The central cityscape is Jerusalemic, with domes and arches and a church tower and a minaret; the whole bathed in a pinkish-golden light, with the Judaean hills rising in the background. In the foreground a series of

ures huddle, one with his eyes open, the others in various positions of the sort of discomfort one recalls from the uneasily sleeping Roman guards in Piero della Francesca’s "Resurrection of Christ" in Arezzo. There is a bundle and a suitcase tied with rope among them; one of them wears the striped garment and yellow star that identifies him as a former resident of some Nazi concentration camp. Above the group, near a rough wooden door lying ajar sits a gigantic angel, in the pose of Rodin’s "The Thinker." Jerusalem is the site to which the Jewish exiles dream and if they are fortunate, return – a city dominated during the centuries of exile by churches and mosques; that having been the center of the Jewish homeland might rebecome or might not rebecome that homeland. From distant Petersburg it may be dreamed of, summer and winter, year in and year out, but is it home when it is achieved – can you go home again? Is the earthbound Jerusalem, divided between religious and political powers and ambitions and harboring refugees from broken exilic homes with broken bodies and hearts, capable of lifting them and itself up toward the idealized vision of a heavenly Jerusalem over which God and God’s angels preside?

The artist painted this work shortly after he had managed to emigrate from Leningrad-become-Petersburg, not to Israel but to the United States, following in the footsteps of the millions of refugees and immigrants who preceded him to these shores. From a 300-year-old city rent by canals and a malfunctioning infrastructure he came not to a 3,000-year-old city rent by politics and religion but to a much newer one, by the endless sea, rent by the occasional earth tremor and a complex art scene. Indeed one of the difficulties for artists from the world that Iofin left behind who come to the West is how to redefine themselves under conditions where any sort of art is acceptable – this is the land of infinite choices and virtually untrammeled freedom to choose – but where one might be lost among the endless array of artists recognized or not recognized by the art world, and where one lacks the strong support system that one’s intimates back home had provided. Put otherwise: what had been home with regard to that support system was never home in the larger sense because it was always a home at risk within the larger system; coming to the United States meant coming to a place that could take years or decades to feel like home.

This is the condition of any refugee from one place to another; should the refugee be both thoughtful and Jewish, it might occur to him that he is part of a condition that has run through nearly two millennia of Jewish history. Iofin is both, and his work in coming to America in part reflects this. He dreams of Jerusalem as he still dreams of Petersburg as he fantasizes about San Francisco. The "Hagiography of Communal Apartment Dwellers" (1994-98) charts a journey at once personal and communal that, three to seven years beyond immigration remembers, dreams and transforms nightmarish memory into the sort of coloristic symphony found in Chagall’s "The Blue House". In the middle of the painting there is a once-elegant apartment-building hallway, its spectacularly-colored blue walls cracked to reveal under-layer and brick, its bright yellow floor tiles broken, its elegant dark brown double door closed. This was the doorway into the well-appointed apartment of someone socio-economically successful before the Revolution; it was turned into a residence for an entire group of families with the advent of the new Soviet regime. Near the door sits an empty wine bottle; the floor mat harbors a cigarette butt and an unopened envelope – perhaps a letter (perhaps a letter of invitation from someone in the United States to come settle there).

The central image is ringed by fourteen smaller ones, (appropriately, the number of the Stations of the Cross, since life in such a communal apartment was painful and required Christ-like patience), each and all surrounded by trompe-l’oeil framing inscribed with Russian "titles" in the Old Slavonic style and English-language translations. The form resembles an altar piece, with a main subject surrounded by small predella scenes. If the Icon, as we have noted, is a window into the Other realm, it has been replaced here by a closed door into a realm that superimposes seventy Soviet years over centuries of Tsarist rule; of upper-class elegance fragmented into working class pieces; of a world still alive in its debilitation more than a decade after the Soviet Union collapsed and the artist left; of the cake of life sliced into fourteen portions of varied palatability.

We recognize elements of Iofin’s life embedded within the cycle of life before us; we recognize elements found in his other paintings: the gigantic angel in trompe-l’oeil stone that appears and reappears – guarding or guiding or both? – in his little boy bedroom, alongside the old neighbor he recalls who still engaged in the complex lace-making that is part of the old Russian tradition. The angel helps carry down the stairs of his apartment building the sheet-draped body of a neighbor who has died. The sublime and the spiritual cannot be disconnected from the down-to-earth and the ugly. Near the scene of death another neighbor finds the only place and moment of peace and privacy: the communal toilet; as long as he manages to sit there, he will be able to read the newspaper and think about the world beyond these crumbling walls. For a young man and woman with no place for privacy, "Bath Day" provides the only time and place for sexual intimacy. Across the way we see a wedding scene in which the bride and groom in their Sunday best share the frame with a neighbor in a sweat suit (the same sweat pants as are on the man on the toilet) busy using the communal apartment phone as the wedding party squeezes through the door. The frame above this scene is more densely packed, with all of the inhabitants sharing the communal kitchen to cook what little food any of them might have. Elsewhere below, the "Holiday Fireworks" are virtually invisible.

The artist’s parents are at the top, at home in Leningrad during the 1970s, on "New Year’s Eve." A Christmas tree dominates the window, grim expressions dominate their faces; a sparse supper and celebratory bottle of champagne await the termination of the interminable, predictable speech by a Communist Party functionary who fills the small black and white television screen – ignored by both parents, as he cheers the accomplishments of the regime in the past year. For the young artist the only space and time for the creative enterprise is at "Night on Earth" when, in their one-room portion of the communal apartment his parents are asleep and the building has become sufficiently silent to think and paint – providing nobody complains too loudly about the smell of oil and turpentine seeping through the crumbling walls and ill-fitting doors. The "Passover Meal," celebrating the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to Freedom and the Land of Promise is as grim as "New Year’s Eve," but its contemporary reality as real for Soviet Jews as for Harriet Tubman and her celebrants on the move.
A constricted and confining world – but this was home and this is still remembered as home, nostalgically even if with gritted teeth or even backward-looking disbelief. "Hotel Residents" (1993) follows the artist’s mind and memory through even more abstract walls, doorways and windows wrapped in the invisible cloak of irony. It is a surreal exploration of the phenomenon of homelessness and temporary housing that connects the personal and the communal to the universal. It is allusive both to the tenets of Soviet Socialist Realism in being so technically successful in depicting its elements with a camera-like eye and to the history of Western art by way of many of its details and fragments in this fragmenting image. One is reminded in particular of the Surrealists, since Iofin’s "realist" style repeatedly fragments, reconfigures and transcends the reality of the here and now. Windows and doors punctuate the stage-set-like walls with their peeling wallpaper: temporary is more than merely temporary; every window is an opportunity to leave and a question as to what is out there besides blue skies. Like the other two works discussed here, this image is part of a never-ending Petersburg series, fastened together by the sort of dream and memory glue that Chagall carried around in his head which for him yielded never-ending allusions to Vitebsk.

How does one shape the home and the life that carries one from one city or country or culture to another, and from a progression of hotels to a house to a home? Is it by being the consummate artist – like Albrecht Durer, his 1498 self-portrait reproduced at the base of this three-tiered-by-three-section-wide image, who became wealthy by working not only with paintbrush on canvas but in reproducable print media that carried his works across Europe during his lifetime? Certainly the self-portrayed Iofin, leaning forward in his chair at Durer’s table might consult the sober German genius. Maybe instead he should follow the lighter lead of the pipe-smoking, tippling Dutch master, Jan Steen, who joins them at the table of life and art to yield a painterly threesome. How does one become free? That question asked since Moses led the Israelites wandering from Egypt to the Promised Land, (a journey of transformation that took forty years to accomplish), dwelling in temporary residences along the way, is seen in a ghostly visual pun through the lower right-hand window. There, on the roof, like the famous Chagall fiddler, a symbol of the uncertain existence for Jews in Tsarist Russia, is the outline of a dancer, his pose reminiscent of Kazantsakis’ Zorba the Greek, whose instruction was simply to dance to be free .

Larger than the question of finding a way and a certain place in which to plant one’s roots is that of what reality it is that is briefly home to its residents, but never truly home to any of them. Is it the realm of comedy and carnality (the clown and prostitute on the lower left – but we recognize that this clown is of the Pierrot sort, who weeps inwardly as he makes us laugh, for the Columbina who consistently ignores or disappoints or betrays him – or is it the realm of somnolent spirituality (the angel asleep beneath a colorful blanket on a bed that hovers against and within the right-hand middle window and its landscape (or is it before and within the thin wall between that window and the doorway below it)? These walls are both external and internal; the bird that lifts its voice in song and spreads its wings against a stunning blue sky is mechanical, and sprung from the grandfather clock become cuckoo clock that hovers against the wall. Time moves in strange ways in this world of constant inconstancy.

It is a world like that of the former Soviet Union and that of the current United States – and perhaps that of everywhere and anytime – where one cannot be sure whom to trust. Perhaps not even the purveyors of Faith, one of whose symbols in the history of Christian art is the white lily that leans before the great clock. This is the lily of the Virgin Mary’s purity, who brought forth One who would sacrifice Himself for human salvation. The purveyors of faith remind us again and again of the danger to our immortal souls without such salvation: on the ledge of the open window to the left, before an elderly woman and a young, lushly naked woman is the stripped skull of mortality to which the physical aspect of the wit and wisdom of us all will ultimately be reduced. The naked woman suggests the repentant Mary Magdalene, particularly in juxtaposition with that skull. This is a vanitas painting: the entire world, with its interweave for us humans of religion and art and politics and economics is home, but a temporary home. Not just one country or another, one people or another, but all of us anywhere and everywhere. What we think is home is merely the hotel we stay in briefly as we pass through (on our way to the Funeral Home and the tomb).

Iofin’s work is layered with puns that interweave each other. From the two-world condition with its additional layer for Jewish artists he has come to a world in which he resides with less anxiety and more physical comfort than in the one he left, but in which his paintings reflect the two world condition of past and present, Saint Petersburg and San Francisco, Russia and America, the Soviet Union and the United States and all the concomitants of that double reality. So he and his works reflect on "home" as a bi-lingual phenomenon on many levels – including the literal one of speaking Russian with fellow emigres far from what was and wasn’t home and speaking English with those who might or might not be real new friends in what might or might not be or ever become a real home. In the jargon of the postmodern epoch of literary and visual art, interweave and overlay from different arenas are referred to by Charles Jencks as "dual coding": one code for Everyman (who simply recognizes exquisite aesthetic details) and another for the initiated, art-wise audience (which recognizes the symbolic and allusive layers to those details). What literary criticism calls intertextuality is seen to occupy the endless interstices of Iofin’s paintings.

It is, as with so many great artists, a very personal visual intertextuality, the central element of which is home and the question of how and where it might be. In carrying from one city and country and continent to another it interweaves at least one more layer of irony if one applies the title of one of the great American novels – Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again – to Iofin and also to Lawrence and others (which, in applying visual art to literature is clear intertextuality). Soviet artist refugees (and Soviet refugees who aren’t artists) come to America and don’t easily find it home; Africans forced to come to America certainly did not find it home and many of their descendants still don’t, two or three centuries later. But the world of this discussion defies national, religious, ethnic or racial boundaries. Before the end of World War I dispersions of peoples most obviously and frequently referred to Jews and Africans, and then also to Armenians and Palestinians. Since that time the list of groups to which the home-defying term "Diaspora" might apply has multiplied. The past century’s cruelties have produced more homeless adults and children and more makeshift ways of rethinking "home" than all of prior history combined.

"What is home?" begets not only the question of definition and counter-definition of what constitute the essential parts of "home" and how they differ from and overlap those of "house" – but whether, if we leave home (by choice or not), we can ever find it again. The answer will differ from people to people, culture to culture, language to language, artwork to artwork and individual to individual, depending in part upon how each does define home as well as house, both inside and out. That the human mind and imagination determine this variously is corroborated from an oblique direction, an invention of human thought: the computer terminal. For that invention offers yet another layer to the discussion, circling us around to its beginning. At the computer terminal where this discussion of words and images is being written to be read by others, the key "home" is used variously to evoke the idea of returning – to the beginning of a line, a paragraph or an entire essay. By contrast, nowhere does the keyboard indicate "house". Through the instrumentation of the computer terminal, words and the expression of ideas and the discussion of images and other products of human effort may be communicated from within any one house or home to the wide world outside, endlessly multiplying the possibilities for connecting us. And for raising questions, suggesting answers and both reinforcing and eliminating confusions – whether about "house" or "home" or any other concepts we would define.

Copyright Š Michael Iofin. All rights reserved.
Michael Iofin :: Home Page Michael Iofin :: Biography Michael Iofin :: Gallery Michael Iofin :: Exhibitions Michael Iofin :: Publications Michael Iofin :: Mail Michael Iofin :: Acrylic Michael Iofin :: Oil Pastels Michael Iofin :: Lithography Michael Iofin :: Early Works