Ironic Icons: The Art of Valentin Popov
Long Beach Museum of Art
By Amy Kaeser
Through March 19th
Valentin Popov’s new exhibition, Ironic Icons: The Art of Valentin Popov now on display at the Long Beach Museum of Art until March 19, 2017, offers visitors a unique reinterpretation of Western and Eastern classic icons. With references to Pop culture and the comic strip storyline, Popov juxtaposes traditional motifs from Eastern Orthodox Christianity with Western corporate logos and caped crusaders, Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, and Cat Woman, classic icons of Western superhero’s/heroines, strike their signature pose while confidently looking toward the bright horizon. Popov presents visitors to LBMA with a healthy dose of humor, satire, irony, and art history.
The superhero’s image, which Popov boldly reimagines within a traditional Russian iconographic context, are familiar enough to audiences worldwide that the Saint, the Sinner, the son of God, the Holy Cross, and the Wiseman of the nativity seamlessly becomes subjects in Popov’s new narrative. In three of the singular portraits of each crusader—St. Batman (2016), St. Superman (2009), and Wonder Woman (2009), Popov hand paints each hero/heroine with bright, vibrant colors of red, white, and blue then surrounds them in gold, silver, and brass hammered frames similar to alter pieces of Byzantine or the Gothic era. The use of various precious materials to frame each portrait of what Popov, a native of the Ukraine, grew up seeing as the Wests influence in Eastern Europe, offers the “ironic” position of the exhibition—the stories of the comic book characters mirror in many ways the iconic figures of the Bible, “superhero’s” in their own time and place.
The exhibition’s 60 works on display offer a number of images playing with our notion of mythology, eighteenth and nineteenth-century Classicism, and secular engravings, as “found” items and evidence of the lingering influence of the superhero’s presence. Notably, Batman, whom Popov dedicates a significant percentage of the works on view, is seen in some works at various stages in his life—Nativity: The Birth of St. Batman (1993), St. Batman (2016), and Trinity (2010). Popov states the focus on Batman as a central figure in his canon of work is because, “he was more, than any other, just a man.” The sense of vulnerability and assumed power with which an icon like Batman exudes was an obvious choice to incorporate into his art.
Batman’s image is seen in the gold-leafed alter-pieces surrounded by angels and Saints that could seemingly date back to the thirteenth-century, as depicted in the piece Batman Icon (St. George) (1993), a recreation of the life cycle of St. George, but here Batman is substituted for the dragon slayer. The legends of both figures overlap in a way that it doesn’t seem completely absurd that the one is in place of the other—each having their origin story and mythology to contend with. Popov follows the style of iconographic alter piece figures by portraying Batman’s “St. George” as a slender figure, two-dimensional, willowy and elongated, much like the characters depicted at this point in the development of artistic style.
For Popov, the ironies of Ironic Icons lay at the point an intersection between both the comic book and religious figures. How ironic that at one time Saints and Prophets, Sinners and martyrs, were the hero’s and villains of their day, are recycled into modern Western culture, repackaged with justice and liberty as their sermons instead of the moral teachings of the Church. Can you worship a superhero as fervently as you would worship within a house of God? Is the God complex one and the same as the Hero syndrome? Within this exhibition, Popov leaves the work open to interpretation and up to the audience to decide where the moral ground resides.
Ironic Icons: The Art of Valentin Popov is the first showing of the Ukrainian artist in Southern California and can be seen now at the Long Beach Museum of Art, running until March 19th, 2017. Popov’s work is also part of numerous museum collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, and the National Museum of Ukrainian Art.
Long Beach Museum of Art homepage:
Valentin Popov artist website: