What can pictures tell us about the great events of political history? Recent scholarship identified the complex relationship between Jacques-Louis David’s history paintings and the French Revolution. Was he truly a prophet? It’s not clear anymore that before 1789 he had any idea what was to come. And we have learned to be critical of the Chinese Socialist Realism showing a smiling Chairman Mao and his happy peasant followers. Nowadays those paintings appear solely as propaganda, coverups for the murderous reality of the Cultural Revolution. What then are we to make of Kon Trubkovich’s five large paintings displayed at Gagosian’s Park Avenue gallery? Two of them, Golden Ratio (Orange) and Golden Ratio (Chartreuse) (both 2021), depict a brawl between Russian separatists and Ukrainian nationalists that took place in the Ukrainian parliament in 2015. One, Female Figure (After Popova) (2021), is a distorted image of a canvas attributed, perhaps problematically, to the Russian avant-garde artist Lyubov Popova (1889–1924). And two, The Antepenultimate End (2019) and Barricade (2021), show Russian street scenes taking place immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The political events in the former Soviet Union at this time have been much discussed in the news and also by historians. And it’s fair to ask what, if anything, these paintings can add to our experience or knowledge.
Trubkovich, who was born in Moscow in 1979, emigrated with his family to the United States in 1990. His timing was extremely lucky; they got out of the Soviet Union just before that country collapsed. One great problem with Soviet communism, historians explain, was its total reliance upon outdated systems of industrial production. For example, the Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin points out the largest Soviet automobile factory needed 30 times as many man-hours to produce a car than the comparable American establishments. And this was a relatively advanced factory purchased from Fiat. It’s hard to imagine a more devastating commentary on industry in what was supposed to be a worker’s state. Soviet Russia collapsed, it seems, because it couldn’t compete with the West. Trubkovish chooses to use reconstructed TV images as shown on obsolete VHS format video as the source for his painted historical scenes. Stand up close to his paintings, and you only see endlessly long lines of tiny pixels of paint, as laboriously constructed as cars in the Soviet factories, with some overlaid painted lines running across. But then step back three steps and these pixels turn into detailed pictures. One might call these paintings Soviet realist-style pointillism, for they mostly depict realist subjects in this borrowed style.
In representing political life in his former homeland, Trubkovich has employed his personal version of obsolete technology. Pointillism understood, as I propose, in a broad way is used in the creation of pictures with small markings that only fall into place at a distance. This technique of representation making can carry very varied political significance. Probably for its creator, Georges Seurat, and certainly for his follower Paul Signac, it was grounded in the political hopes of anarchist philosophy. And that French tradition was taken up by Pellizza da Volpedo in The Fourth Estate (1898–1901), a celebrated leftist Italian political painting, which appears at the start of Bernardo Bertolucci’s famous film 1900 (1976), a communist history of 20th-century Italy. And in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) a trendy young fashion photographer uses up-to-date photography and some paintings done by the English artist Ian Stephenson in this pointillist to reveal the mysteries of “swinging London.” Pointillist representations in paintings and photography thus often have political significance.
It’s hard nowadays to even imagine recapturing the optimism involved in these earlier uses of this pictorial technique. When you get up close to events, everything looks chaotic. But when you stand back to get the bigger picture, as provided by historians, how can you know if their viewpoint is reliable? Whatever the literal truthfulness of Trubkovich’s images, the form of their presentation certainly provides a truthful representation of the consequences of Soviet backwardness. We have come to habitually distrust history paintings, for we know that as representations they have a tendency to historical inaccuracy. Still we desire such paintings, for we cannot give up our desire to understand our world. “One of my main tasks,” Kotkin writes, “is to elucidate how and why the Soviet elite destroyed its own system … the greatest surprise … was not that it happened … but the absence of an all-consuming conflagration.” If such an erudite historian is still surprised by events, then what hope is there for the rest of us to comprehend that history? And what can any pictures add here? Trubkovich offers a fascinating answer to these questions. Step up close and his paintings dissolve into pixels. Stand back and they turn back into images. So which position should you trust? His paintings play on that ambiguity. However you read them, they are truthful in revealing the impossibility of resolving our desire for a truthful, unambiguous view of contemporary history. And doing that in the American art world is an immensely valuable achievement right now.
- My account is indebted to the Rail Zoom presentation, “The Antepenultimate End: Kon Trubkovich”: October 18, 2021, hosted by Jason Rosenfeld.
- Stephen Kotkin, Armageddon Averted. The Soviet Collapse, 1970–2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), caption to photograph 6b, p. 5.