THE POTATO IN MY RUSSIAN WORK

Early on in my Russian experience I sensed a feeling of largess among many of the Russians I met. No one was quite sure of the possibilities and there tended be a cumulative sigh when anyone talked about the positive aspects of the on going transition taking place in the early 90’s. I think universally, there was a built in callousness toward disappointment! If you don’t expect much and if you don’t get much you shouldn’t be disappointed or feel betrayed. Further more if you not expecting much ‘any’ reward for effort can be satisfactory even if it’s relatively insignificant. I thought the ‘gold’ for the average person in Russia could easily be symbolized by the potato! In the United States the metaphor could be the hamburger. Think low, stay low, don’t rock the boat, and don’t complain. Things could be worse and some days they were.
The potato seemed right.

 

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POTATO DAY (1995) was the first large piece in the group of works utilizing the image of the potato. It was an imaginary monument representing the illusion of a holiday for the working class. The initial image was a large pile of potatoes cast in bronze which sat without resolution for some months in my studio. Ultimately the base became a surreal serving or dining table for the duly rewarded Potato Day hero.

Around the base of the table top above the unstable spindly legs (Russian Society) is a collage of repeated Xeroxed copies of the figures from Ilya Repin’s painting “The Borlacks on the Volga”. The copies were then glued to aluminum. Repin’s painting had become one of my favorites by a nineteenth century Russian artist. The theme, of this painting, portrayed exploited Russian laborers. It was a very direct and poignant social commentary for the time. The Borlack were Russian indentured servants, virtual slaves, that only received there emancipation late in the eighteen hundreds. Even after African Americans were set free in 1863 during the American Civil War.

 

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POTATO EATER #1 (1996) expresses a willingness to accept the lowly potato as sustenance and reward. Simultaneously the figure’s head is sinking into the table that acts as pedestal and support. The legs of the table once again unstable in appearance are made of four linier stacks of cast bronze potatoes. The piece is signed quite obviously on the fragment of a potato being bitten off and chewed up by our “Eater”. It once again has an element of self portraiture in its implication although the sculpted head is not representational. You may refer to my “Guilt Series” work of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s for further inference of a similar personal metaphor.

 

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NEW GROWTH (1997) brings an element of positive possibilities into the series of potato pieces. We know that all that is new is not good; nor is all that is old good. But new offers hope, were as old ‘is what it is’ and can not deviate from the affects it’s had. New Growth may be the beginning of improvements; hope in nature is frequently symbolized by spring which follows the sleep of winter and is the predecessor of summer’s harvest.

Note the handle on the shovel which is designed with caution symbols and colors of all sorts. The handle further draws attention to itself in its exaggerated length (tempting us to grasp it). It’s saying, “be careful of what I might do!” In its allure precaution should be considered before engagement.

 

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POTATO EATER #2 (1997) is the crazy middle child. It is the same head and hand consuming the potato but amidst a variety of “new growth” possibilities. Color adds to the intensity as do the twisting table legs. Nothing here gives a sense of security! In my mind I find the piece entertaining and a break with the somber quality of No.1.

 

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POTATO EATER #3 (1998) is the finale in the Potato Eater Series and in so being is designed to look like a grave marker or monument (conclusion). The ceramic images on the walls of the piece are done in the fashion of portraits of the dead frequently seen on grave markers in Russia and around the world. In this case I used copies of the heads of the four figures in Vincent Van Gogh’s early painting titled, coincidentally, “The Potato Eaters”. It came to me at some point that Van Gogh’s painting paralleled my sculpture series thematically and had the same name. Maybe it was some subconscious influence! I have always liked that painting and its Barbizon period theme, and the earthiness and primitive caricature quality of the figures. Certainly it was not an intentional influence! But the ceramic disks add something timeless to my sculpture, and offer a tribute to the master. And I think the inclusion of these images is humorous.

 
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