'Figurative Diaspora': Progressive Works Rooted in Social Realism

Erik Bulatov, Jumping, 1995

Jan. 31, 2018

"Figurative Diaspora," now on display through March 4 at the New York Academy of Art in Tribeca, is a provocative sampling of paintings that turns social realism on its head. Curated by the school's dean, Peter Drake, and artist Mark Tansey, the 18 works are stylistically rooted in those heroic portrayals of the worker, and utopian images of the Soviet and Chinese Communist state. Deemed “subversive” by the curators, these paintings by Chinese and Russian artists—some of whom have immigrated to the U.S.—take a jaundiced view of those systems. It is an unusual yet fitting show for the academy, one of the foremost institutions of figurative art.

Surprisingly, the curators note, China had no tradition of oil painting until the 1950s, when Soviet artists trained their young Chinese counterparts, spawning propagandistic realism under Mao and a new tradition of technically impeccable figurative art. Generations later, as we see in “Figurative Diaspora,” those stylistic influences—if hardly its ideological ones—remain. What these works share, Tansey says, “is the similarity of gestures, the figural dynamics and the Social Realist voice."

Peter Drake took us on a tour of the show. Below are his edited comments on five of the pieces.

Oleg Vassiliev, Myakovsky's Square, 1995

The painting shows a portrait of artist Eric Bulatov superimposed on the famous square in Moscow, a former gathering place for poetry readings and other expressions of dissent that often resulted in arrests and beatings by the authority.

"Throughout their lives, these artists experienced ideals presented to them as utopian possibilities and then saw them collapse. A lot of what this work does is to set up illusions and then break them down."

"The band of red running through the painting shows that no matter how liberal that area of Moscow was, it was limited. Anything they did creatively had very sharp parameters that were defined by the state."


Komar and Melamid, AntiChrist (Glory to God), 1990-91

Several of the works in the show contain religious references. "Spirituality comes up over and over again. When the Soviet empire collapsed, a vacuum was created and there was a rush to religious culture that was just as dubious and destructive. Having been raised inside the Soviet culture, they're deeply suspicious of anything that is authoritarian whether it's religious or political."

"Glory to God," a title inscribed on this painting by Komar and Melamid, has come to be a meaningless phrase, said Drake, similar to "God bless you," and the painting slyly makes that point. "By placing the Christ-like figure inside Lenin in a pose that you might see over and over in social realism, Komar and Melamid are being critical of both these extremes. The utopian possibilities have collapsed on them and once again their belief systems get disrupted and then discarded."


Lu Liang, Huatugo-1, 2017

"One sees these cities all over the place in central China, unoccupied in bleak and empty landscapes, ghost cities that are being made in advance of civilization in the hope that industry will follow, that agrarian culture will move into an urban environment. But it just hasn't happened. It's all about loss and progress at the same time."



Ni Jun, Portrait of Ma Kelu, 2015

“This is very typical of the work that Non Jun’s being doing for the past 30 years,” Drake said, noting that such paintings that appear conservative to Western eyes can be seen as progressive in China, where Non Jun, one of the country’s most influential painters, is based. “To paint something that was realistic, that showed people as they are, and the city as it is, is doing art for art's sake—the exact opposite as doing art for political purposes.”


Yu Hong, Resolution, 2015

"A man stole a manhole cover and sold it for scrap metal because he was so poor. A woman who was walking down the street reading on her cell phone fell into the hole and was found days later. One form of misery leading to another form of misery. The people in the painting are the observers of the new China. This the metaphor for the new China’s two extremes: the huge disparities of wealth where some people can afford a Maserati and other people can barely feed their family. It's a really strange and sad painting."