Alexander Kosolapov

16 April 1943, Moscow

Alexander Kosolapov received his art training at the “Stroganovka” (Stroganov Moscow State University of Arts and Industry), one of the most ideologized art institutions; it trained specialists in the auxiliary genres for the general system of Socialist Realism, designers and commercial artists. This school’s degree guaranteed steady income that was not directly tied to executing ideological commissions. Most of the nonconformist artists earned a living in these marginal areas, making a very clear distinction between “hack work” and “real art.” It was only in the early 1970s that a group of young designers of the happy socialist present, which included Kosolapov, decided to unite these two apparently incompatible forms of activity.  “Aurora” (1974) describes this state of dual worlds—externally it blends in completely to point of indistinguishability from the standard ideological production. However, in fact this object, if you look at the cutout in the box, outlining a recognizable ideological sign, you discover a completely realistic landscape. It’s a romantic picture, ready-made, found by Kosolapov in a garbage bin. We can imagine that it was painted by an official artist who found moral and ethical respite in such work from official commissions.

There is every reason to suppose that this project was inspired by the ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin, who was a cult figure in the 1970s for the late-Soviet period intellectuals. The young admirers of the 1920s philosopher decided “to try on” his ideas of carnival and the medieval culture of laughter. The work “Cosmonaut and Ballerina” is seemingly drawn by an overly diligent but not very bright designer, who confused the two undeniable symbols of success of socialism building—the conquest of space and the achievements of Soviet ballet. But the character in the spacesuit cannot support a ballerina in a classical tutu on the theater stage. Another of that series, “Study, Son!” (1974), depicts a man in a Soviet officer’s uniform lecturing his son, who will also join the military. But only if he gets good grades. However, this extremely banal message is flattened by the translation into a playful form—the figures are cut out of plywood and represent a kind of flat sculpture.

These works, created in 1975-1975, despite all the pretend simplicity and calculated directness, are distinguished by a certain opacity.  Only viewers versed in both Soviet ideological products and the carnival world of the Soviet political joke could fully read the hidden codes in the works.  But by 1975, Alexander Kosolapov had to change his strategy in a cardinal way. He had immigrated to the USA, home of Pop Art, where many other artists of the Sots Art movement would end up. There he discovered that the consumer society was no less repressive than the Soviet ideological system. This discovery apparently came on the level of the figurative surface. After all, Kosolapov had a degree in design and could easily analyze the visual moves made by the creators of advertising posters and brands of big companies. Apparently, this led to one of the most striking and emblematic works of the American period of Sots Art: “Lenin—Coca-Cola” (1982). On a rectangular canvas, the profile of Vladimir Lenin is added of the company’s logo, and the company’s slogan (It’s the real thing) is signed: Lenin. Undoubtedly, the slogan had an author, just as does the prototype of the Lenin portrait.  But both basically delegated their individuality to the cause of an advertising (or propaganda) campaign. The work itself was apparently executed by the same dumb but diligent worker who had toiled in the 1970s for the Soviet ideology machine and then had moved to the USA. He overdid it in his zealousness, and the Coca-Cola people thought that the company was advertising Communism.  Kosolapov replied that, on the contrary, Comrade Lenin was advertising capitalist wares. We can only imagine that the representatives of the global brand must have studied the translations of Mikhail Bakhtin, a very popular author among American Slavic scholars. The suit was dismissed.  But the project to have this image on a billboard in Times Square never did happen.

Let us a note an important detail: while Kosolapov’s Sots Art works of the Moscow period were distinguished by a brutal negligence, in the American works, the facture of world brands is replicated with a terrifying mathematical precision. So much so, that the substitution of “Malevich” for “Marlboro” on the label is done much more convincingly than some Chinese manufacturers do for their fake products when they just change a letter or two in appropriated ads of world brands.

However, these critical analyses of the lofty and the profane passed relatively painlessly, despite the power of transnational corporations. In the new Russia, things are much more complicated:  “Caviar—Icon” was removed from a show at the State Tretyakov Gallery, and recently an ultra rightwing group named the artist as one of the hundred most dangerous enemies of the Russian people. Yet the artist living in New York simply wanted to point out the hypertrophic scale of consumerism in his homeland and that the spiritual sphere had also become part of the endless consumer hysteria.

Andrei Kovalev