“Wonder without Land”

at the Orange Art Foundation

“Wonder without Land” is a show brought together by collaborators Kuzma Vostrikov and Ajuan Song at the Orange Art Foundation, located downtown on Wooster Street. The exhibition consists of some twenty photos and a back room devoted to objects that either appeared in the photos or are related to them thematically. Kuzma and Ajuan--they go by their first names as an artistic duo--have been working together for the better part of a decade, producing visually complex, usually surreal images that are stylistically eccentric and are often populated by a female Asian model. These images are devoted, to some extent, to a critique of commerce, via a hyper-realism close to surrealist tradition. They are extravagant examples of a self-sufficient esthetic, whose idiosyncrasies cause them to visually stand out, as well as communicate an ironic reading of current lifestyle expressiveness. So Kuzma and Ajuan’s world is their own, albeit one oriented toward the curiosity and wonder of their viewers. They suggest ways in which unorthodox inclusions of unrelated images might well describe the random, nearly anarchic, visual spaces we inhabit today.

 

The photos are wonders of image juxtapositions. The work titled Simple Architecture of Sadness (2018) is a visually striking composition of an Asian woman, her hair done in as series of tight, small topknots, who ears a black blouse and white pants. She is imprisoned by two chairs, a white with a whole in the seat through which she has inserted her head; and a black chair, with two holes for her legs. The model’s hands, coming up beneath the seat, look like they are extended in mild supplication. The title indicates that the image is elegiac, concerning sadness. Like most of the photos, it  is also self-sufficiently referential, inhabiting its own world. Stylistically extreme, the image’s brightly schematic simplicity adjusts to a visual culture that now makes use more and more of the surface brightness of the computer screen. At the same time, the image works as a parody of Internet culture, its penchant for a sharply detailed but narcissistic vision. In Synergy of Comfortable Circumstances (2018), a model pokes her head, her hands, and her legs through openings of a simple painting of a black armchair with a red seat. Her long hair hides her head, and her legs are clothed with turquoise-blue stockings, on top of which are fishnet stockings. She also wears yellow high-heeled shoes. Is the composition a tribute to the pleasures of affluence? It could be. Like the images Sadness described above, it belongs to its own cosmos, being believable on its own terms. Yet, at the same time, it relates a set of circumstances that seem to be linked to upper-middle-class culture, even if this is done obliquely.

 

Surrealism derives more than a small part of its visual power from images that are either indirectly or directly sexual. Kuzma and Ajuan also make use of this orientation to enliven and contemporizes their point of view. Antiquated Lips (2018), for example, depicts a young, attractive Asian woman with a complicated top-knot hairdo and white kabuki facial makeup and bright red lipstick. She wears a single sleeve, tan-gray top that clings to her torso, while surrounding her are a group of large red lips. The figure’s demeanor is enigmatic, being of flat affect, but her clothing and surrounding sea of lips sexualize her presence--although this occurs rather mildly. In another photo, called Angry Birds (2018), a pair of woman’s bare legs extends upward from a large wooden paint pot, tan with two black stripes. The upper thighs of the legs are decorated with black wings painted on them, while the feet are also embellished with an unidentifiable black image. The legs move upward without evident purpose; the motivation for the image is obscure. But the picture is memorable for its mixture of enigma and sensual feeling. This combination is central to Kuzma and Ajuan’s technique and esthetic. It results in imagery that is both obscure and, somehow, memorable.

 

The Asian model in Wordless Wind (2018) has her hair swept upward, as if taken by a gust of wind. Ovals are drawn around her eyes while her mouth has moved to the right side of her face. Her lips, clearly drawn and not photographed, introduce the inevitable note of artifice we come to expect in the collaborators’ art. The model wears a dress consisting of brightly colored vertical stripes. Like so many of Kuzma and Ajuan’s works, we see bright hues as an elaboration of stylized effect, meant to dazzle the eye, This leads to the artificial conditions we experience in many of the photographs. In The Last Lucy (2018), a young woman, of somber demeanor, looks off to the side; her hair falls down past the sides of her head, joining together just under her chin. But her left ear sticks out way above its natural placement. This person seems to be an alien despite her mostly normal appearance. The siting of her ear so far above where it should be throws the young person’s image into confusion. The dislocation of the lips in Wordless Wind and the ear in The Last Lucy look like a ritualized attempt on the artistic duo’s part to undermine our visual expectations; in both cases, the image arrangements don’t exactly work. We can only assume, given the repeated nature of such imagery, that the artists are working out a commentary on the frailty of the physical--and metaphysical--nature of our condition.

 

In the last room, we find elements that were used in the photographs: among them, the large red lips, three bowler hats, and a trumpet painted red. There is also a striking object that is a chair, with a hole in the middle serving as the opening for a guitar partially engrafted onto its seat--the neck and strings extend from the sounding hole into space. Seen by themselves, the objects possess a striking structural distinctiveness. They generate an aura whose three-dimensional nature adds to the already equivocal, obscure nature of the photos. So the three-dimensional pieces are located closely, in artistic terms, to the two-dimensional images via their complexities of realism and eccentric ontologies. This means that the show is of a piece, in the sense that both photos and sculptures relate a vision that is idiosyncratically compelling. In their exaggerations, and their surrealist critique of mercantile allure, the photos provide viewers with an idiom that is meant to transcend and supplant the commonplace visuals of commercial thinking. And the sculptures re-enact, in three-dimensional realism, such thinking as a way of undermining the small, but inevitable, compromises of material life. It is interesting to consider that Ajuan, a Chinese woman, and Kuzma, a Russian man, are working together in Brooklyn to implicitly criticize American culture. Their studio thus becomes an outpost of subtle judgment, even as they use the tools of a culture they may well be finding fault with. We cannot be sure this is so, for the photos exist without clarifying commentary. But we can speculate on the artists’ intentions, which suggestively comment on materialism and beauty. That we, as viewers, are meant to make sense of their motives makes their work ambiguous and evocatory, as well as intellectually compelling.

 

- Jonathan Goodman, New York,  December, 2019