In his exhibition essay for Anna Parkina's solo show, Fallow Land, curator John Zarobell describes generic groups of ancient nomads who would burn down forests and return years later to farm the same land. For Parkina, a 31-year-old Russian artist, Zarobell suggests that it's early 20th-century Russian modernism that should be razed, but the show lacks the same conviction.
Conflicts between artwork and the claims made on its behalf are common, but in this case the artwork itself stutters and goes flat. Parkina uses a combination of paper collage and photo collage, but in the case of this show, the form does little for her. Over and over we see the head and outstretched hand of a boy, a figure wielding a sickle, a Soviet-era apartment building, a car -- sometimes as photographs and sometimes as paper silhouettes. Unfortunately, the shapes and pieces are so similar that the work begins to read like tessellated wallpaper in last season's fashion colors (pale lemon yellow, avocado green, otter brown, and robin's egg blue).
Luckily there are two sets of works that stand out: the first being three unassuming black-and-white photo-collages (Untitled 8, 9, and 10). Each contains similar subject matter: a worker (or workers) yielding tools, spliced into a hybrid landscape created out of images of snow, spring tree branches, and car hoods. Without the ornamental repetition of the colored-paper, the abstraction of each collage's component shapes stands out more clearly, declaring itself a question (what constructs a mythology of a place or people?) instead of just a formal game.
Even more interesting is a grid of nine vellum collages (again untitled), individually lit from behind via a light box. The overall effect is akin to looking at a stained glass window. The colored shapes glow warmly and allude to specific forms, but never settle on becoming any one object. Instead, they wobble against each other like pieces in a puzzle that don't exactly match up, an effect magnified by Parkina's inclusion of the puzzle template. Behind the colored shapes is a clear sheet of vellum on which the tentative layout of the forms has been traced.
These last two series of works -- plus other, unincluded pieces -- lead me to say that I'm not ready to write Parkina off completely. For the purposes of this show, however, the fallow land of the title seems more applicable as a metaphor to this period of Parkina's own work than anything I feel inspired to conclude about early Russian modernism.
Anna Parkina's Fallow Land is on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through June 19, 2011. For more information visit sfmoma.org.