In Russia, Sven Gundlach is a cult figure. During the 1980s he was a key player in the underground scene and was involved in some of the country’s defining acts of artistic rebellion. A posturing frontman for the ‘simulationist’ rock group Mid-Russia Heights, he was also an accomplished painter, poet and musician. As a member of the art group Mukhomor (The Toadstools), he was even buried alive in a box in a Moscow park. Video documentation from the event shows a bespectacled Gundlach miraculously emerging from the ground after nearly being suffocated. In 1992, however, he gave up painting and went into business as an advertising executive. He currently runs a graphic design agency and owns a range of magazines, peddling such not so avant-garde commodities as flooring and commercial interiors.
Well, perhaps he didn’t quite give up art-making for good. More than a decade since his last outing Gundlach has returned to the gallery, brought back into the fray by a chance encounter last year while clearing out his home, when he uncovered a cache of previously forgotten works that had been gathering dust since the mid-1980s. These drawings and sketches form the core of his recent comeback exhibition at E.K.ArtBureau, along with a new installation co-authored by his daughter Christina.
Works from the 1980s are rare in Moscow. Many were lost, abandoned or sold abroad, at a time when domestic collecting institutions were non-existent. Although myths abound about exactly what was produced during those heady days of Perestroika, the rediscovered pieces offered a chance to inspect the evidence at first hand.
So what’s it like? Firstly, everything seems to have aged well. The series ‘Russian Layer’ (1987) looks as fresh today as if it had been plucked from the most frenetic scene of the film Spirited Away (2001). Gundlach’s trademark technique involves drawing in candy-coloured swabs of paint, each outlined in black marker pen. His subject matter is local folklore, illustrated with a cast of street-smart Muscovites. A house on chicken legs features in one sketch; another shows a bolshy teenager picking a fight. Some are painted on top of old photographs; others use Japanese calendars as their ground.
Asger Jorn did something similar in the late 1950s – daubing Expressionist gestures onto the surface of thrift-store canvases. Yet whereas Jorn was a scourge of bourgeois taste, Gundlach’s motives seem completely removed from critique. If anything, his works point to a more personal creative impulse. Indeed, even when Gundlach was arrested in 1983 and sent to the army – to Kamchatka, in the far east of the Soviet Union – he kept working. His series of reconfigured recruitment posters ('Sad Army', 1984) are collages cut and pasted to reveal lonely soldiers strolling through idyllic Kamchatkan valleys.
Other works seems to prefigure Gundlach’s move into advertising. The series ‘Announcement’ (1986–7) imagines a poster campaign promoting standard-issue Soviet merchandise, such as green saucepans or bright red building bricks. A comment on freedom of choice or a yen for capitalism? Here, as with much from the so-called Russian New Wave (think East Village on a budget), it is tempting to see Gundlach’s work as a DIY form of Pop culture, filling in for a time when Russia’s own Pop culture was anodyne or non-existent. Not only would blisteringly modern works such as ‘Russian Layer’ confuse the KGB agents who came knocking on Gundlach’s door; they also provided him and his friends with a shiny alternative to the ‘long, dull autumn’ of Communist-era life.
Reconciling Gundlach’s most recent installation with his earlier pieces was the biggest challenge of this exhibition, not least because his new offering, Womb of a Dream (2005), takes a form so remote from anything he did in his youth. It is a small room covered in priyaniks (Russian gingerbread), decorated with bags of salt hanging from the ceiling and covering the floor. At the centre of the space stands a dresser and mirror, while wall-mounted televisions, in place of windows, broadcast pictures of a woodland landscape spinning around outside. A mixture between a Grimm fairy tale and an optimistic socio-experimental environment, it was described by the artist during a recent interview as an ‘empty place where a big Russian dream can appear’. It is also his most sentimental effort yet; further proof that things are rarely as great the second time around. In Gundlach’s case, though, at least he got it right the first time.