Eleanor Heartney. "Moscow: The Group" at Neuhoff. (Russian and Soviet art, various artists)(New York, New York) - Art in America, Feb 1996 v84 n2 p92(1)

The richly diverse underground art scene which flourished during the final three decades of the Soviet Union reinforced the romantic notion that adversity nourishes art [see p. 51]. But what happens when adversity disappears--or, perhaps worse, is replaced by less blatant but ultimately more insidious obstacles?

That question haunts this exhibition of current work by members of the "heroic generation" of Soviet artists. These were artists who came of age in the post-Khrushchev era and courageously forged a nonconformist art that challenged the stifling official culture. One would like to report that they have successfully weathered the change from a socialist to a capitalist era. But while most are still making art--albeit in many cases from locales outside their native country--the apparent freedom of the market has failed to supply them with a substitute for the antagonist against which they formerly defined themselves.

As a result, much of the work has an innocuous, decorative quality. Curiously, the artists who have fared best in the transition are those who are based in a realist esthetic. Oscar Rabine continues to create moody, densely painted scenes of urban desolation intercut with glimpses of the artist's past: the immigrant's visa (Rabine now lives in Paris) or portraits of friends or deceased fellow dissidents. Erik Bulatov, widely known for his injection of fragments of Soviet propaganda into idealized scenes of rural and urban life, here replaces the Soviet banners and texts with a flat, communist-vintage crimson hue which seeps over portions of the tableaux. In one work here, only the cloud-streaked blue sky remains of a presumably bucolic landscape, while the ground and trees are masked in a glowing radioactive red.

Far less effective are the abstract works. Igor Chelcovski's crudely constructed geometric assemblages, painted in cheerful pastels, look like they belong in a child's playroom. Much slicker are Garry Faif's neo-constructivist sculptures. Squares, rectangles and cylinders held together in dynamic tension with bits of wire and confined to a revolutionary palette of red and white, they suggest coffee-table versions of Tatlin or Gabo.

Several of the painters are also inspired by the original Russian avant-garde. Edouard Shteinberg's Malevich-influenced compositions balance triangles, arcs, rectangles and numerals. In the Soviet era, his chromatically subdued paintings had a delicate, spiritual quality, but now his bolder-colored works recall corporate graphics. Similarly, Vladimir Nemuchin's collage paintings seem to have lost their edge. He continues to use his trademark playing cards, whose invocation of the powers of chance and fate quietly challenged the determinism of Soviet ideology. However, with one exception, the works here abandon the messy gestural quality of his earlier work for a tidy, lifeless precision.

The dilemmas faced by post-Soviet artists mirror those confronted by postmodern artists generally: the loss of the sense that history has a logic and the disappearance of a clear-cut adversary. In such circumstances, art begins to lose its moorings. Can it find a way to be anything more than a decorative accent or a self-indulgent cry for attention?