Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

New York

at Pace

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Ilya Kabakov is a bad painter. Emilia, whose support for her husband’s art has earned her equal billing for two decades, doesn’t paint at all. But they keep filling galleries with paintings, as they recently did at Pace, where they presented “The Two Times” (2014-15) and “The Six Paintings about the Temporary Loss of Eyesight” (2015)—two new series that are as bad as any they’ve ever done. The palettes of these haphazardly representational works are swampy and too brown. In one of the “Eyesight” paintings the figures are outlined in red, which bleeds into the lighter ground, making a mess. Fields of solid color are applied too thickly, with strokes of uneven length and direction that the eye stumbles over as it crosses the painting. To look at these works and feel something other than disgust takes faith that art, even in painting, lies beyond the surface. 

While “bad painting” has been a deliberate practice for some time, the cloying kitsch of these series is particularly hard to stomach. It helps to remember that, besides being a bad painter, Kabakov is a philosopher of art and a student of the lives of artists. He’s an acute psychologist who can conjure a compelling character with a few deft sentences. He’s a draftsman with a keen sense of the dramatic potential of negative space. Those aspects of Kabakov’s work were presented in a side gallery at Pace; Mathematical Gorsky, from the “Ten Characters” series of albums drawn in the early 1970s and published in a limited edition in 1997, tells an elliptical tale about a man who sees everything as numbers, even as his numerical imagination is interrupted by images of things from the world.  

Kabakov painted little after his first art school stint in Moscow (1945-51), where he learned he had no facility for the medium, so he later studied graphic design and worked as a book illustrator. But in the 1980s, having turned largely to conceptualism and installation, he took up painting again to make work from the position of characters he created: untalented hacks, propaganda painters, avant-garde visionaries who lacked the skill required to realize their vision. One could argue that Kabakov’s approach has entered the mainstream in the 21st century, as the art world’s burgeoning interest in the “authenticity” of outsider art and the concomitant romanticization of less professionalized art-making spheres have led MFA-trained painters to affect a self-taught folksiness. But most faux-outsider art trades in small scale and precious daintiness. Kabakov, on the contrary, works with big canvases, spoiling a lot of expensive oil with his sloppy mixing.

“The Two Times” eschews the relatively minor genres of portraiture and landscape in favor of pompous historical subjects, juxtaposing the grandeur of the Western European canon—the sort of masterpieces found in the Hermitage—with the treacly heroism of late Soviet Socialist Realism. In The Two Times #4, a philosophe in a powdered wig gazes at the viewer from the left of the canvas, while on the right a stolid surveyor makes notes on an oil derrick. In The Two Times #2 Christ’s body is carried across an Italianate escarpment, while an incongruous wedge-shaped intrusion, hovering in treetops shadowed in poor imitation of Poussin, shows one red-kerchiefed Young Pioneer clapping a congratulatory hand on the shoulder of another. The choice of subjects suggests the impersonality of a roving, fragmented gaze. The artist has no identifiable character here. But there is a story about seeking aesthetic value in the historic glories of foreign nations, and seeing the present more poorly for it. The Kabakovs don’t express the perspective of a single artist; rather, their position in these paintings seems to evoke the collective outlook of a self-taught culture, an outsider civilization.