One of the highlights of last year’s Venice Biennale was Pavel Pepperstein’s low-ceilinged den tricked out with black lights and a pounding rap-techno-Stravinsky soundtrack (in the otherwise mostly incoherent Russian Pavilion group show). Covering the walls was a series of fantastic drawings marrying Russian avant-garde iconography to traditional land- and cityscapes with fairy-tale-like results. The power of these “Landscapes of the Future” lay in their bizarrely astute scenarios, which the artist described on each work in curvy cursive script, such as “City of Houses with Heads” or “The monument of the yellow colour, Kamchatka 4307.” The works slyly critiqued Russian political history by hijacking Suprematist motifs and wedding them to future “monuments” whose necessity is absurdly suspect.
The puckish Moscow conceptualist has a gift for narrative, visual and textual (he’s a well-known writer in Russia); this gift was apparent in his recent small “Retrospective” at Schau Ort. Though the Zurich show didn’t have the cohesiveness of Pepperstein’s Venice installation, it demonstrated the artist’s range in scroll-like works, paintings of surreal familial scenes, cartoony ink sketches and even a solitary video, its decidedly retro sexual politics evinced by a series of women “hypnotizing” a man’s penis into erection.
The exhibition’s various works, gleaned from the past two decades, seemed a magpie offering. A 2007 series of watercolor-and-ink paintings, suggestive of unfurled scrolls in their extreme horizontality, evoke both Raymond Pettibon and Walton Ford, featuring animals—a monkey in washes of yellow, a bat bathed in blue—with carefully wrought, enigmatic expressions. More compelling is the “Sherlock Holmes” series, from 1992, of tall vertical ink paintings. Each depicts a mountain gorge and waterfall, delineated in swift strokes of the brush, while a tiny, fussily drawn Holmes fights an opponent on a precipice. The kitschy backgrounds suggest both Chinese classical painting and Swiss Alpine landscapes, while the figures look like children’s book illustrations. The art historical and literary tropes Pepperstein courts here are wide-ranging, culminating in scenes of both strange specificity and mystery.
By contrast, Pepperstein’s acrylic paintings appear flat and uninspired. The large canvases and colorful palette demand a certain kind of painterly commitment that the artist seems uninterested in granting. The concise, fraught narrative, in graphic black and white, is where Pepperstein excels. He has an illustrator’s witty, deft way with a line. An untitled ink-on-paper work from 1999, for example, dazzles. A neat row of cascading elements seems to flow down the paper, each formed from a different, and surreal, source: a man’s beard, a girl’s hair, a sleeping child’s blanket, the light from a bulb. The lines are lucid and graceful; their movement from figuration to abstraction inevitable. That the “waterfalls” could operate as both an elegant series of minimalist forms and as the basis for some fantastic tale points to Pepperstein’s ability to conflate childlike wonder, political satire and art historical engagement so that they end up, on paper, looking very much like the same thing.
Photo: Pavel Pepperstein: Annulled Execution, 1996, acrylic on canvas, 153⁄4 by 235⁄8 inches; at Schau Ort.