East Regards West: The Art of Leonid Sokov

I’m going to talk today about the artist Leonid Sokov. Not a household name, you say? In my world, his work was displayed nearly all last year in the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers. It was the first major show devoted to Sokov, who was born in 1941 in the former USSR and emigrated to New York in the 1980s.

Sokov is most famous for juxtaposing iconic figures from the former USSR with iconic figures from the West. hammer and dollar signSculptures of Western art, for example, approach iconic sculptures of Soviet leaders. Lenin and western scruptureMarilyn Monroe disports with Stalin. (Some of these images are also on his Web site.)  To quote the Zimmerli’s Web site: “Soviet nonconformist artists deviated from the officially prescribed patriotic style of Socialist, creating their ‘unofficial art’ following Stalin’s death in 1953 until Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s. Sokov is associated with Sots Art, one of the most influential developments within Soviet nonconformist culture and prominent during the 1970s and 1980s. Sots artists mocked the regime’s efforts to control all forms of creative expression by distorting and defacing recognizable elements of Soviet propaganda in their work.”

So while much of his work gives you exactly what a viewer might expect from an artist who came to maturity in the former USSR—one sculpture of a face, for example, springs into motion whenever a viewer passes, because the eyes begin to move from side to side to spy on every passing form—a lot is tantalizingly ambiguous. The iconic Russians and the iconic Americans, for example, are staged in a meeting ground in which their fame or notoriety is the common element, not their respective economic and social arrangements. Who won the Cold War, then?

My favorite sculpture—and one in which, more importantly, I think you can find a key to these juxtapositions—is one in which Mickey Mouse stands on a hammer and sickle. The crossed hammer and sickle, of course, was the symbol of the USSR. Uncrossed, each provides a platform for one of Mickey’s feet. Remember, these are big feet; Mickey is shod in outsize clown shoes.

But it’s the spatial arrangements that are so interesting. This is a small—almost tiny—sculpture. Mickey seems to be bracing against the hammer and sickle, almost vibrating with a kind of tensile strength. So in one read, he has vanquished the USSR and its symbols. Not to belabor the symbolism, but a potent symbol of consumer capitalism (Mickey is one of the most ubiquitous and recognizable symbols of the West, and a commodity himself in a thousand cartoons and Mouseketeer hats)—has trod upon the USSR’s discredited symbols. They are underfoot. He is victorious.

Except that the tensile way in which he braces himself seems ambiguous. It prompts another read of the USSR’s symbols. Think of what the hammer and sickle are, divorced from the flag. Before the hammer and sickle were crossed on a flag, they were the tools of working people. So—despite a somewhat threatening look to Americans—they are the common implements of, well, carpenters and farmers. The tools of common guys and ordinary gals.

If these are the tools of common guys and gals, might it be said that they support Mickey, rather than provide fodder for the dust under his feet? That elements in common use are the buttress upon which his fame and power rest? After all, Mickey Mouse gained his popularity because millions of common guys and gals would buy a ticket to see his antics. Those ticket buyers, those viewers, those people who watched the cartoons and set the mouse ears upon the heads of their children, are his foundational support. So when the West won, when the Wall fell, it was because of the adherence of common folk–carpenters and farmers and their like–to the pleasures that Mickey symbolizes.

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