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01/09/2013 12:32 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2013

Aidan Salakhova: A New Start for the Madonna Universale

As an individual counterpoint to the current Saatchi group exhibition of post-Soviet art in London, a solo show at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMoMA) pays tribute (through January 20) to an artist whose career has spanned the entire post-Soviet period: Aidan Salakhova.

She was born in 1964 and her earliest works date from the last years of Perestroika. Her show on Gogolevsky Boulevard -- the MMoMA's dowdy frontline venue -- spans works from the last six years and is entitled Fascinans & Tremendum (Fascination & Dread).

Pseudy Latin titles are all the rage in Nouveau Moscow these days; one thinks of Allegoria Sacra and The Feast of Trimalchio by AES+F, the four-person Moscow combo whose sophisticated videos, and accompanying sculpture and paintings, have seen them styled as Russia's first 'artistic supergroup.' With her impishly erotic take on religion, much in evidence at the MMoMA, Salakhova could claim to be the Russian Madonna.

Her show features sculpture, painting, drawings and video as she assumes the mantle of Donna Universale. A Renaissance sobriquet springs to mind in a show dominated by Carrara marble, the favoured stone of Michelangelo. Salakhova's empathy with the great Florentine even extends to a shared interest in male genitalia; she once reproduced the private parts of his giant David.

Actually, not once. Twice; in the same painting.

That was back in 1990, but her interest in sexuality remains as powerful as ever. Fascinans & Tremendum alludes, or so the catalogue tells us, to a 'mixture of Eros and death drive' (instead of quoting a cognoscenti psychologist -- Paul Verhaeghe -- the catalogue might have quoted Emile Zola in La Bête Humaine: 'Ils se possédèrent, retrouvant l'amour au fond de la mort').

The show majors on two ensembles in white marble and polished granite, produced between 2010-12.

The first consists of three freestanding, lifesize figures shaped like slightly tilting pepperpots (they might remind British viewers of be-burka'd Daleks). There is no individuality to these figures. Their black granite draperies are cleft only by slithers of white marble: once in the form of crossed hands; twice as vertical triangular slits (one plain, one resembling folded cloth).

The second ensemble consists of chunky oval busts in the form of faceless hooded figures with heavily folded sleeves, again sculpted predominantly from gleaming black granite. White marble hands emerge from these busts, holding a variety of objects ranging from a book to a phallically-shaped minaret. The 'busts' are affixed to the walls of a narrow room, against a background of black-and-white wallpaper -- also designed by Aidan. Its kitschy Islamic patterns would not look out of place in Abu Dhabi's Sheik Zayed mosque.

Culture-clash underpins the work of an artist whose grandparents came from Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, and who grew up as a child of the Communist establishment -- her father Tair Salakhov was one of the most famous Soviet artists of the 1960s and '70s, and remains a living legend: a copy of his giant 1961 work To You Humanity -- an Ubermensch couple flying through space brandishing glowing spheres -- dominated the Azerbaijan Pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale.

Islamic patterns, hands, folded cloth and phallic minarets, in a variety of media, are leitmotifs of Salakhova's Moscow exhibition.

She has a fetish for slender-fingered hands, starting with her own -- shown meandering over a male body in a grainy video at one end of the show.

Her folds are light, almost fluttering -- more Botticelli than Zurburan.

The phallic minarets are most effective -- 'enticing' might be stretching it -- as 18-inch figurines in onyx and alabaster, strewn anarchically around a table in a small through-room.

When I suggest to Salakhova that her female-dominated artistic world implies a bleak view of mankind, she waxes indignant. "Men are important!" she grins. "Certain parts of them!"

Ambiguous minarets have been part of Salakhova's vocabulary since her Visual Stimulation show of 1990, and she has been deemed flippant and provocative for most of her career. You can see why some of her works (several of them present in Moscow) were censored at the 2011 Venice Biennale. With uncharacteristically heavy-handed humor, Salakhova evokes that incident by erecting an extra draped, fake bust next to the others -- aping the action taken by Allah-fearing officials in charge of the Azerbaijan Pavilion, where her works were displayed along with those of five other artists.

Draped? The sheer weight of her figures meant removing them from the Azerbaijan Pavilion was no easy task -- and weight, again, causes problems when it comes to her Moscow display. Her lifesize trio cry out to be seen together, or at least within eyeshot of one another -- but are placed in three different rooms and deprived of cumulative impact. They were, it transpires, simply too heavy for the floorboards of any one single room -- which makes one wonder if the largely unmodernized 19th century MMoMA was a suitable venue in the first place.

Yes, insists Salakhova -- for a surprisingly sentimental reason: one of her figures is displayed in the room where her father worked when she was a girl.

All the monumental stonework means that Salakhova's deft pictures -- many idiosyncratically combining paint and pencil -- are outmuscled here, reduced to little more than backcloths. The exception is an icon-like, gold-ground tripytch of three kneeling, black-clad females, who appear to be hearing, seeing and speaking less evil than Salakhova's religious censors.

The spiritual side to her work is not reflected in the catalogue photographs chronicling her Italian sojourns. These show Salakhova attacking blocks of marble wearing bracelet, necklaces, nail varnish and designer sunglasses, not forgetting a head-scarf to keep the her hair out of her eyes. Well, in theory: Salakhova has had the shortest fringe in the western world for most of her adult life.

More disappointingly: her spiritual side is not captured by the way her works are displayed at the MMoMA, either. Bland spotlighting undermines her sculptures' emotional power, whereas they cry out for chiaroscuro drama. The show's schoolmarmish division into Hands, Body and Objects smacks of the over-earnest curator. Beral Madra's connections in the Gulf States are not, of course, to be sniffed at by an artist aesthetically attuned to the Islamic World, but wit is sadly lacking in both her exhibition design and eight-page catalogue introduction. Why do so many curators believe artistic credibility dependents on flurrisome footnotes and pretentious quotes?

Aidan Salakhova has scant need of a curator in any case; she has been mounting exhibitions herself for over 20 years, ever since founding Moscow's first gallery back in 1990. Her reliance on a curator suggests a vulnerability hinted at in Venice by the wall she scattered with marble teardrops -- a mesmerizing work sadly missing here.

Aidan Gallery closed in 2012 after the "economic nightmare" of the last three years, during which it was her sales as an artist (especially in Dubai) that offset the gallery's mounting losses. But the recession could be a blessing in disguise, enabling her to concentrate not just on her own creative output -- but also on transmitting her gifts to others.

Salakhova is a teacher at the Surikov Institute (Moscow's premier art academy), and expresses girlish glee at recently being granted the right to work with senior students after a decade confined to 1st- and 2nd-years. She must be a charismatic tutor: her students' works -- visible in her former gallery, which she now uses as a studio -- zealously ape her own sleek stylization and restrained color range.

This civic-minded aspect to Salakhova's artistic activity remains little-known among Moscow glitterati, whom she vigorously frequents as one of the city's most notorious party girls. Salakhova is happy to be seen as a femme fatale and, à propos of nothing in particular, casually lobs in "I like pole-dancing."

This cynical image is hard to square with her wide-eyed, Judy Garland-like delight at being hoisted above the dance floor on a crescent moon, at the start of her post-vernissage party; or with the monastic abstemiousness of her sculptural retreats to sleepy Carrara, where her social whirl was confined to the odd cappuccino at the local restaurant.

The ambiguous veils she went a-chiselling in the marble quarries of north-west Italy reflect a split persona. Do they evoke female exploitation or women's defence against a hostile world?

Aidan Salakhova's art talks not just of Moslem women, or even of women in general -- but also, perhaps primarily, about herself.

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