To say that memory is a tricky subject for an artist sounds like a bland stating of the obvious. Of course memory’s tricky. It’s tricky for all of us, right? As a species, we are an addled, distractible animal, our minds engineered for a decline as slow and inevitable as the value of a new car driven off the lot. But bear with me a second. Say you’re visually inclined. Could there be a more frustrating space to peer into than the stage of the mind? For every spotlight of clarity, you get a swirling stew of darkness. So how do you paint that?
Oleg Vassiliev makes a darn fine attempt. The Russian non-conformist artist, who quietly bucked the dictates of Soviet-era realism, emigrated away from his home country after the Cold War. He would never live there again. Suddenly, remembering—the birch forests of his youth, the snow—became an essential activity. It would become even more urgent after his wife died, in 2010. (After the death, he relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota, to be near a son who lives there.)
When you walk into the Museum of Russian Art’s mezzanine level, you get to see how Vassiliev remembers. I’m talking about his paintings here. Much has been made about the etchings in “The Art of Oleg Vassiliev,” which were made in Paris and have never been shown together before, but I found myself more drawn to the artist’s paintings.
Technically speaking, they are immaculate. Many are so precise that they verge on photo-realism. It’s the clarity of Vassiliev’s memory—which he must have had to train like a muscle—coming through. But most are also singed with flares of intense, extraterrestrial light, cones of white haloed with prism-fractured rainbows of primary colors. The details that Vassiliev worked so hard to perfect get suddenly washed out in a blinding flash. Some things, he seems to suggest, are too painful to see clearly.
Consider the portrait of his wife. On a beach, the woman pads out into the surf beneath a cloud-dotted sky. But a set of crisscrossing spotlights converge at the center of the canvas, blotting the figure out in a supernova of illumination. The wife, so cleanly remembered, becomes a ghost. The blending, of both hyperrealism and an avant-garde, almost spiritual skewing of sight, must have been how Oleg saw the world.
“To me,” he famously said, “the visible and tangible world is more a thing of remembrance than a perception of reality.”
The Art of Oleg Vassiliev
Etchings on view through April 8
Paintings on view through February 19
Museum of Russian Art, 5500 Stevens Ave Minneapolis, MN 5541, tmora.org