A Russian cracks the Western art market with new renderings of a classic form. By Patrick Pacheco
On a bright, cold Friday morning in January, Yuri Petrochenkov sits on a bench in the Forbes Magazine Galleries, in Manhattan, watching as a well-heeled crowd examines 'Russian Design From Old to New,' an exhibition of his work (the show has since closed). He has decorated his porcelain eggs with Russian icons, onion-dome swirls, spirahng helixes, geometric homages to Suprema-tism and Constructivism, and satirical political cartoons (his GLwnodt egg features a screaming mouth breaking out of a wall).
Most of the eggs in the Forbes show run from $500 to $2,200, and some of the porcelain plates he is showing fetch as much as $3,000 - enough to make Petrochenkov a rich man by Russian standards, able to afford all the amenities for his wife and 16-year-old son back in St. Petersburg. But the idea of being a rich, successful artist who is accepted in the West (all of his sales have been outside Russia) and envied at home is not one with which he appears to be entirely comfortable.
This particular exhibition of Petrochenkov's work can serve as a symbol of the artist's current situation. This displaj' of his relatively proletarian porcelain (his political plates, for example, are decorated with images of food-rationing coupons) sits a room away from Forbes s priceless collection of jewel-en-crusted Faberge eggs, those remnants of czarist opulence. Like his country, the 54-year-old artist seems to have one foot in communism, one in capitalism.
Later, over a cup of coffee in a deli near the gallery, he explains in thickly accented English the complicated feelings he has about his first New York show: 'You know, at the opening a couple of days ago, people were going, 'Ah, yes. This is Forbes.' And it Li a good situation for an artist, especially one who makes eggs, but it is also a circus.' He adds, 'the next time, I will show my work on the subway, and the prices will be just $6 or $7. Then I will see what effect my work has on people.'
The gleam in his eye as he puffs away on a Russian cigarette (until a waitress insists he stop smoking) is mischievous. 'The new capitalists of Russia make me want to be a communist again, ' he says, adding that while he used to restore icons for the Russian Orthodox Church, he no longer does so; once discouraged by the Soviets, these religious images are, he says, now exploited by the power structure. 'Everyone who was in the Politburo is now a capitalist. Same people, different propaganda. They're all still stupid.'
When asked if it is the Faberge tradition that inspires his work, Petrochenkov says, 'No, I don't like too much detail. If there is too much detail, then the egg disappears, and if the egg disappears, then I disappear.'
While his porcelain eggs account for only 20 to 30 percent of his oeuvre (which includes drawings, etchings, and watercolors), he says that he has been fascinated by the egg since childhood. Petrochenkov explains that Russians, like many Americans, customarily decorate eggs for Easter, and often enter them in competitions or exchange them as gifts with friends. Even during the years of Soviet rule, he says, Easter was the most joyous holiday on the national calendar - a celebration of nature's springtime renewal following the brutal Russian winter. "I have over 100 in my own collection," he says. "They remind me of my childhood."
While Petrochenkov says he was always fascinated with the idea of the egg as a canvas, it wasn't until the mid-1970s that he began exploring the shape's artistic possibilities. Before that, he had studied industrial design at the Mukhina Institute of Industrial and Fine Arts in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and worked - "for my bread and butter," he says - as a designer of industrial equipment. In his spare time, he was trying to master different art forms on paper. From 1960 to 1962, he was part of the underground art movement in Leningrad and participated in unofficial shows held in people's apartments.
In the early 1970s, Petrochenkov began to have official shows at various "palaces of culture" around the city. This exposure culminated in an invitation to participate in the "New Art from the Soviet Union" show in Washington, D.C., and an exhibition at the Galerie Hardy in Paris. Just before those shows, he tried decorating a plate with a drawing. Pleased with the results, Petrochenkov built a kiln and started to create porcelain eggs, a form that generations of Russians have adopted. (In fact, other artists have not limited themselves to porcelain as he has. Wood, metal, glass, and stone have all been popular materials.)
"At first, it was just style and craft, not art. But now I think it's art, " Petrochenkov says of his incorporation of this traditional form in his work. "Not just serious fun, but art. It is like drawing on air, or in the space around me. The surface is continuous, like a picture without a frame or a world without end. It is a landscape from the perspective of God."
Powerful though the pull may be, Petrochenkov says he tells himself at the beginning of each year that he will no longer work with porcelain and will instead devote all his time to drawing and painting. The firing process, he tells himself, is too expensive and time-consuming, and the fumes too dangerous. Since his pieces can require as many as seven or eight firings, he has nine kilns. "In the time it takes to make one egg, I can do a hundred drawings and sell them for $1,000 each," he says. "They take one hour, the eggs two 'weeks. A lot of things can go wrong with the eggs, they can break, and yet I still do it." He throws his hands up like a Chekhov character too -weak to resist his fate. But in spite of all his reservations, Petrochenkov is still very much involved with the egg. He participates in and helps to organize an international exhibition, "Art and the Egg," held annually in Cologne, Germany, the week before Easter. The show draws artists from over 30 countries.
Though Petrochenkov is known in the West, and has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design (on subjects unrelated to eggs, he adds, sounding relieved), he says he can't make a permanent move to the West. "I just had breakfast - a Russian breakfast of eggs, sausage, caviar-with friends in Brooklyn," he says. "They speak Russian, eat Russian food, dress like Russians. They bring a piece of Russia to Brooklyn. But I can never leave Russia; it is in my blood."
For all its technological wonders and advances, he finds the West a bit too voyeuristic, mechanized, and cold. "For me, art is meant to bring you closer to people and family, not drive you away. I think anything that makes you remember your childhood is important art, more important than Frank Stella and Warhol.
That is why I like the egg," he says. "In my home, eggs are playful objects, presents. They are reflectors and conductors of memory, yet small enough to fit in your pocket. Pocket art. I like art you can carry around with you and not leave at home."