Back in 1982, artists Timur Novikov and Ivan Sotnikov had themselves photographed grinning through an empty rectangular space at the first official show of the semi-underground group TEII. The fact of the exhibition says volumes, but these two were out to test the boundaries of even that totalitarian concession: "unofficial" artists had been given apertures in free-standing partitions in a Leningrad gallery in which to hang their "unofficial" paintings. Novikov and Sotnikov left one empty, but added a label beneath saying "Zero-Object" and their names.
Perhaps it was an ironical statement about the nonsensical nature of an official unofficial underground art, but the true irony was that, despite the almighty fuss, their artwork in absentia was allowed to remain in the exhibition by official officialdom and even received an honorable mention as the best piece in it. And so was born a new "unofficial" underground movement, the New Artists or, as they would become known, the Club of Friends.
Curated by Ekaterina Andreeva, Calvert 22 Gallery in London's Shoreditch has brought together a number of works under the exhibition title Club of Friends to chart the progress of this wild child of the late Soviet Union as it flirted with glasnost, sexuality, gender and the "is it art?" warranty of notoriety in the late 1980s and '90s.
Novikov, the master of this ensemble, would channel their energies down some surprising paths over the next twenty years, exploring everything from Warhol-watered New Wave cool to truly wacky avant garde movie before changing tack completely with a reappraisal of neoclassicism, suspicious for all its reassuring kitsch in that its ultimately anti-modernist pose also claimed to reject postmodernism while simultaneously playing snap with some of its most recognizable imagery. More on this later.
There's a lot of fun to be had here: the group's early video art is provoking, if sometimes down-right odd, and as unconventional as anything Warhol made; it gives the impression of young people exploring what happens in the outer spaces of creativity. Forbidden fruits, such as German Expressionism and American Pop Art, anathema to po-faced post-War Soviet culture, mingle with teenage sex and new-age sexuality. Evgeny Kozlov's Gulf of Finland explores with the economy of a crayon's line hot summer bodies by the sea. Bella Matveeva's erotic fabric collage, Dreaming, is playful with the classical male nude. When Victor Kuznetsov met Oleg Maslov it was a marriage made in Pierre et Gilles heaven; series such as Hommage à Alma Tadema and the bizarrely camp video Mireille make a bee-line for 19th-century neoclassical homoeroticism.
The queerness of Novikov and several others from the Club of Friends seems beyond doubt. They were brave in their lives and their art. Photos in the exhibition show them larking about in New Romantic poses, sporting make-up, at a time when gay artists could be condemned to hard labor for circulating their work. In the failing Soviet Union the in-your-face glam draggery of video and photo artist Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe was dangerously subversive. In the current climate it still would be. Tragically, Mamyshev-Monroe drowned in a swimming pool early last year. His death was closely followed by Georgy Guryanov's, the post-Punk drummer boy of '80s cult band Kino, whose meticulously painted images of semi-naked athletes also have more than a whiff of gay "propaganda" about them.
When it comes to Novikov himself, there's something other-worldly about the whole experiment. His fabric pictures play with the queer identities of Oscar Wilde and Ancient Greek sculpture but, beautiful and fascinating though they are, there's something of the gloom of an iconostasis about them too. It's no surprise that he chose to burn one of them in a re-enactment of the famous Bonfire of the Vanities by Renaissance firebrand preacher Girolomo Savonarola, staged in 1998 on the 500th anniversary of the monk's death. Novikov even began to look like a monk, sprouting a long, springy beard and adopting an Orthodox religiosity that was rather more than casual interest towards the end of his life.
His veer towards the right in the late '90s is also telling. When the New Artists became the New Academy in 1991, it was only a matter of time before the classicism the group now espoused became a symbol of the purity of the new Russian nationalism. Its cult of the Tsar, of the Orthodox saints, of 19th-century Russianness, its cult of Novikov himself for that matter would thrive in Putin's Russia. Academy members received state salaries and cosied up to state museums in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Gone was Punk to be replaced by opera and the perfect human form. By his premature death in 2002 Novikov had already aligned his Academy with anti-Western paranoia, writing "...it is clear that the dissemination of American modernism is relevant only for the countries of Western Europe, which are members of NATO. And Russia is necessary for the West in the image of the enemy."
The opening of the exhibition coincided with a new push to define the Fundamental of the State Cultural Policy, a paper which enlarges on official attitudes towards culture: anti-multicultural, anti-tolerance and diversity, anti-liberal, pro an interpretation of what it means to be Russian summed up in the expression "Russia is not Europe." Contemporary artists who ignore this will not only be starved of state support, "[a]s a minimum, such art should not receive government support," but, "[a]s a maximum, the state should prevent [its] negative impact on public consciousness." Bizarrely the works on show in Calvert 22's fine exhibition would both fall foul of this policy and endorse it. Uniquely, it shows not only how challenging cultural norms can be a supremely creative force for positive change in society, but also how artists can move from there towards an absolute adherence to a single ideal - neo-academism in this case - towards, in effect, a new totalitarian approach to art.
A version of this article was first published by Russia! Magazine