Talk about eccentric.
About a couple of artists who deliberately paint people’s least favorite things.
And about . . . teaching elephants how to paint.
Russian duo Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid have done all that. Now, in “People’s Choice” and “Elephant Art,” which together constitute their exhibition “Komar and Melamid — Desperately Seeking a Masterpiece,” the two artists are displaying their wacky, wild and brilliant works at the Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art in Sakura City, Chiba Prefecture.
Komar and Melamid started their “People’s Choice” project in 1993 in the United States. Project workers telephoned 1,001 people chosen at random and asked each of them, in interviews lasting around 25 minutes, more than 100 questions. These began with matters close to everyday life, such as: “When buying a new car, how important is the design?” Then their queries became more artsy, such as: “Do you prefer angular straight lines or soft curvy lines?”; “Do you prefer small or large paintings?”; or “Do you like the works of Pablo Picasso?”
Based on these interviewees’ responses, Komar and Melamid then created people’s “most wanted” painting — a mid-sized autumnal landscape, in which people are enjoying themselves by the waterside with animals frolicking around. Conversely, the “most unwanted” painting turned out to be a small abstract creation of geometrical forms in orange, cream and pink. For a country like the U.S., where modern art is thought to have a big following, it seems tastes still run toward the traditional — or dull, even.
“This project is like the presidential election,” says Melamid with a grin. “Even if you did vote for [that person], you may be disappointed after they actually do become president.”
From the U.S., Komar and Melamid took their project to 18 other countries, including Russia, France, Kenya, Portugal and Iceland. Wherever they were, though, they found similarities in people’s likes and dislikes. For instance, though the color blue seemed to be adored the world over, the color gold, sexual images and religion were turn-offs.
Well, the world’s one thing; Japan’s another. Finally, though, the duo arrived this year — only to find that blue is the favorite color here, too. Altogether, the upshot was that Japanese people’s “most wanted” painting was a blue pond closely resembling those of Monet’s “Water Lily” series . . . but with vague reflections of children in the water and a mysterious cat’s face etched into the bottom right of the canvas.
What we dislike, apparently, is Picasso, religion, African art, famous people . . . and sex. What came out of this result is beyond your imagination. In the center of a large 2 × 2-meter canvas, whose main background is the most-disliked-color, purple, stands a strange, Cubist creature with two faces — one an Asian sage, the other a celebrity — and a sizable penis. This figure is framed by African motifs. (And if you still can’t imagine, you’ll have to go see for yourselves: The artists are keeping the image under wraps.)
Komar and Melamid, who were born in the former Soviet Union, both attended the Moscow Art School and the city’s Stroganov Institute of Art & Design. Under the communist government, they were forced to study Socialist Realism, the official style for art, literature and the like, and to draw political heroes like Stalin and Lenin.
During this period, however, an underground art movement opposed to Socialist Realism began, of which Komar and Melamid were part. Together, the two created “Sots Art,” a term coined from Socialist Realism and American Pop Art. Officially, they drew heroic portraits, but unofficially they created parodies of such figures. Because they were not allowed to hold public exhibitions, these artists had small shows in their apartments.
Although Komar and Melamid had joined the Moscow Union of Artists in 1968, four years later they were dismissed for “distorting the reality of the Soviet Union.” This did not stop them, and eventually, some of these works were smuggled out and displayed at galleries, including Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York.
Finally in 1978, while they were both still in their thirties, Komar and Melamid made their way to the United States. There, the two artists’ works replete with wry irony and humor won widespread acceptance, and in 1981 they became the first Russian artists to receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
While their “People’s Choice” was well under way, the two started another project called “Elephant Art,” whose unlikely genesis was the Thai government’s 1990 restrictions on logging. That move put many elephants and their handlers out of a job, so to help them Komar and Melamid founded the nonprofit Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project in 1997.
Help the elephants surely needed. Having numbered over 300,000 in Siam (Thailand) at the end of the 19th century, of which around a third were domesticated, today there are a mere 5,000 of the mighty beasts, of which around 3,000 are looked after by handlers.
It was in this context that Komar and Melamid opened the first “elephant art academy” in Lampang, Thailand, in 1998. Since then the two artists, together with the animals’ handlers, have been teaching elephants how to paint. The results have been astonishing. In 2000, at a Christie’s auction in New York, paintings by the academy’s elephants fetched between $350 and $2,200.
You don’t have to go to Thailand or the U.S. to judge such artworks for yourself, though. Instead, the wide open spaces of Kawamura Memorial Museum currently house pachyderm paintings aplenty — and it’s fascinating how, like creations by human artists, each expresses the personality of its maker. Kamsean, for example, a 5-year-old male at Maesa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai, clearly favors squiggly lines on his big white canvas; while his 4-year-old female cohabitee, Duanpen, took a brush and rhythmically beat it, filling her canvas with splodges. Each exhibits a personal artistic style.
Furthermore, at this exhibition, not only can visitors see works by these young “artists,” they can also watch Terry, the 11-year-old elephant from Ichihara Elephant Kingdom in Chiba, in artistic action.
Still a beginner, having only started painting lessons this year, Terry sometimes seems to have trouble calculating the distance between him and the canvas. As a result, he often just swings his brush around in the air, gripped by the end of his trunk, as if he’s fooling around and unaware he’s actually painting. Not so, for if you look at his eyes you’ll see they are glued to the canvas, full of determination, and quite different from when he’s resting or having fun.
Can elephants really paint? Komar and Melamid think so.
“Who knows what will happen in five, 10, or 200 years from now on,” says Komar with a mischievous smile. “In 200 years, elephants may be painting, while artists may be in zoos!”
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