January 23, 2003
Paintings filled with emotion, rebellion
Gubin exhibit is a prelude to festival
By Glenn McNatt
Sun Art Critic
Baltimore's celebration of all things Russian gets a head start at Gallery International, where emigre painter Mikhail Gubin is exhibiting his expressionist canvases as prelude to the city's Vivat! festival that opens next month.
Gubin, who immigrated to the United States in 1989 via Vienna and Rome, paints in a muscular, rough-hewn style that recalls both the neo-expressionist revival of the 1980s as well as the German artists of the Die Brucke movement who popularized the style during the first decades of the 20th century.
As a young man, Gubin, who describes himself as mainly self-taught, rebelled against the official Soviet Realist style in force under communism. Before leaving Russia, his artistic life was lived largely underground, in the so-called "apartment exhibitions" organized by like-minded nonconformists searching for their own style.
With the advent of perestroika, the cautious economic and political reforms introduced under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Gubin and other disaffected young artists experienced a heady taste of artistic freedom that only whetted their appetites for more - which, it turned out, the authorities were unwilling to grant.
Gubin and his family's decision to emigrate set off a retaliatory spiral of arrests, persecution and harassment as the Soviet government tried to make an example of him and his friends. After arriving in this country, the artist settled in New York, where he now lives and works.
As it happened, Gubin landed in New York just as the 1980s fascination with German neo-expressionism was beginning to wane. Many of his paintings seem to have religious associations - Madonnas, saints, etc. - as well as subjects from dreams and myth.
In A Boy Who is Called Sebastian, for example, the artist depicts the famous saint as a young boy transfixed by toy arrows tipped with rubber suction cups.
The deliberately crude drawing and the unwholesome palette of dark greens and yellows turn this symbol of Christian commitment and courage on its head, much as his mother and child paintings are often anti-Madonnas representing the modern world as a cynical and cruel epoch.
By contrast, Gubin can also paint rich and lovely pictures when he chooses. There's a marvelous still-life on the far back wall of the gallery that alone is reason enough to pay a visit. And there's no doubting the intensely emotional character of such pieces as Mother and Daughter and Romeo and Juliet - though, like Gubin's St. Sebastian and Madonnas, the meaning of these images have been so savagely deconstructed that viewers may not even recognize them as traditional icons.