The work of Pavel Pepperstein is, to western audiences, often impenetrable — not least because it often relies upon references to in-jokes and Russian-Language text. Pepperstein is interested in exploding-out historical moments and psychedelic experiences and picking through the debris. He’s called it “the spiritual backstage”.
To help navigate all this, we are invited to experience the retrospective at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in the artist’s home city of Moscow via a series of deliberate, smooth cuboid spaces. They have been specially commissioned and constructed for the exhibition. The resulting chambers, which viewers can only pass through in the prescribed direction of travel, make reference to a couple of iconic cinematic spaceships: Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968) and Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’ (1971). Under normal circumstances it might seem invasive, but the self-consciously stark environment works as a palate-cleanser against Pepperstein’s tightly conceptual imaginings.
In the first chamber, large, illustrative paintings explore a handful of philosophical categories. The subjects are specific, sometimes curiously so; Difference, Tao, Zeitgeist, Bushida, Dharma, Ding and Sich. His representations are collage-like, with political iconography at odds with prettified pattern-work, deeply entwined with pop cultural symbolism. Jackie O. and Lee Harvey Oswald frequently appear in both image and text. Here is clearly a fascination with hyper-documented moments of recent history when myth, speculation and paranoia were at the forefront of public consciousness.
Hyper-documentation comes to mind again when thinking about the show’s title: ‘The Human as a Frame for the Landscape’. It may just be because of the proliferation of fashion bloggers who have decided to use the gallery space as the backdrop to their shoots on the afternoon of the press view, but many of the painted works seem to act as a neat inversion of the self-generated images we see online, where certain landscapes are used as a framing device to share pictures of our bodies on platforms like Instagram. Instead, Pepperstein paints contorted figures, with little fragments of landscape held within the voids their doubled-back bodies create.
Later, diplomacy intersects with domesticity as a political situation room is upholstered in an over-the-top floral print. This is a moment when the conscious exhibition design really works, as the navigation of themes and ideas up to this point, and the genuine surprise with which the viewer encounters the installation, really pays off. The joke doesn’t work as well perhaps when we are led into a reconstruction of Lenin’s mausoleum. Unlike his actual resting place, this one is covered in fake foliage, and Lenin’s ‘body’ is accompanied by a model of an unidentified woman. It’s the only moment of the show that really jars, the critical point apparently being that the woman laid next to Lenin is attractive, blonde and scantily clad.
If a retrospective is supposed to work as series of spaces containing a series of works that build a sense of an artist’s oeuvre, then this show is overwhelmingly effective. Making sense of Pepperstein’s career is no small task, and ‘The Human As A Frame For The Landscape’ begins to trace those connections and illuminate a certain type of thinking.