An internet search for Elena Khudiakova will not tell you much. This apparently enigmatic Muscovite was not exactly obscure during her lifetime, being revered for her fashion designs by collectors such as Elton John, who bought one of her subversive re-imaginings of the Stalinist uniform, or fellow designer Vivienne Westwood, whom she worked for from 1994-2010. She was also a fine artist who was admired by Charles Saatchi (who naturally bought her whole collection) and Francis Bacon, whom she regularly dined with. Yet it seems difficult to find information on her these days, despite her prolific career and evident presence in influential circles. In London, she exhibited at (to name but a few) the Birch and Conran Fine Art Gallery and the Anthony Reynold’s Gallery, the Russian Cultural Centre, Pushkin House and the Russian embassy. But unless you were there, there is no real way of knowing what impact Khudiakova really had. Sadly, her life and work are scantily documented.
Even sadder, Khudiakova died in June this year of a cerebral haemorrhage, somewhat serendipitously on what was St Elena’s day, in her hometown of Moscow. She was only 57. It would be a great shame in wake of this event to forget her life, which is exactly why Dadiani Fine Art will be exhibiting a selection of her 2012-2014 paintings in a show entitled In Memoriam: Elena Khudiakova, curated by old friend James Birch. The paintings are certainly not forgettable, in their bold ‘Soviet Pop’ style, that deals critically with the nostalgia of growing up in a USSR saturated with brand names and propaganda. Caviar, for example, showcases a Russian icon: the state-produced delicacy marked with the CCCP logo. As if with a wink, the artist’s initials EK can similarly be found branded onto every work.
The paintings are a wry comment on the visual similarities between the Western model of Capitalism and the Socialist agenda throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s. Ideologically opposed, and quite literally divided from, the West – as Khudiakova would have been able to attest to, being one of the first Russians to leave the USSR without a formal invitation or marriage offer – nevertheless her world was shaped by it. Born in 1957, the year the launch of the Sputnik satellite triggered the ‘Space Race’, the artist would grow up in a culture that competed fiercely with the US in particular, but could not prevent the inevitable popularity of American crazes such as blue Levi jeans. It seems obvious why Khudiakova took up interest in the Pop style; indeed, we could compare her to Pop artists like James Rosenquist, who were captivated by American consumerist culture in the 60s. Khudiakova’s Television Set could just as easily record a glossy image of JFK as it does a Russian ballerina.
Except her paintings, unlike Rosenquist’s, with their tendency to throw a combination of five different images at you at once, veer on the edge of playing it straight; another obvious visual comparison is that of the Social Realist style under Lenin and Stalin. Lenin himself can be spotted in Vases and Flowers, ensconced within shrine-like imagery. It is almost (to lift a phrase from the title of Regina Spektor’s 2004 album), ‘Soviet Kitsch’. At least, they are paintings of kitsch (in this case meaning mass marketed) objects – but they maintain a subtle and subversive air of irony.
The Dadiani exhibition, by great coincidence, will end just a day after the opening of The World Goes Pop at the Tate Modern, a show which will aim to examine how Pop Art played out internationally during the 60s. Khudiakova’s paintings are Russian enough to hold a different kind of edge to American Pop. But we must also remember that these works are very recent and not from the 60s or 70s. Khudiakova painted these just two years ago, not from contemporary source imagery but from her memory. As well as being playful and bold, these are somehow also sad images; hardly flat-out tributes to the USSR, but certainly nostalgic enough to produce that twinge for something lost. And what, after all, could be more fitting, given the loss of such an extraordinary woman?
– Olivia Bladen
Elena Khudiakova: In Memoriam opens at Dadiani Fine Art, 30 Cork Street, London W1S 3NG from 9th -18th September 2015; Private view: Tuesday 8th September, 7 – 9pm. Admission; FREE.