WOOLLY THINKING AT ITS BEST; A New Gallery Dedicated to Eastern European Contemporary Art Is Showcasing Five Russian Artists Whose Work Is a Pleasing Mix of Mythology, Memories and Folkcraft. Everything except Politics ... EXHIBITION OF THE WEEK

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Byline: Ben Lewis

PAST FUTURE PERFECT Calvert 22, E2 ***

IS IT a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Woolly Jumperman! Hanging on one wall of the Calvert Gallery is a knitted full bodysuit, loosely woven in stripes of multicoloured yarns, which covers not only the arms and legs but the entire hands and face of the wearer. It's by the Russian contemporary artist Leonid Tishkov. Well, I say it's by him, but next to the outfit there's a video of his late mother, in the front room of her little cottage in a tiny village in the Urals, hard at work, with her needles. As you will see later in this video, Tishkov has been known to don this suit and prance around the rooftops of apartment blocks like a woollen superhero.

Like the best of this exhibition, this is a warm, emotional work, full of memories, intimacy and stories, with a trace of daftness. But there's no political metaphor here: Tishkov is not flying, even ironically, as he should, to the rescue of Russia, whose economy and democracy have been destroyed -- far more than ours -- by the greed and violence of a tiny political elite. That's the bad thing about this exhibition.

Hardly a month goes by in London nowadays without another multimillionaire benefactor opening his or her own not-for-profit architectdesigned gallery/private foundation/ converted warehouse, townhouse or church, and Past Future Perfect is the inaugural show in the latest of these, Calvert 22, two floors of neat white cube -- or L-shape, to be precise -- in the heart of Shoreditch. What sets this place apart from the others is that it is dedicated to Russian and Eastern European contemporary art.

Calvert 22 is run by Nonna Materkova, a Russian businesswoman who came to London 10 years ago. She is a partner in an international financial consultancy advising Western businesses on how to invest in Russia. She has hired a talented and experienced team for her gallery. The director is Jane Neal, who has brought a whole generation of young artists from Romania to world attention. The current Calvert 22 exhibition is curated by David Thorp, who has had stints at the South London Gallery, Frieze Sculpture Park and was also behind the champagne-drenched glitz of the questionable GSK contemporaries show in the former Museum of Mankind before it became the Haunch.

Past Future Perfect consists of the work of five Russian contemporary artists whose work brims with tales, symbols and folky craft. Next to the jersey bodysuit is another piece by Tishkov, a dark, macabre knitted top made entirely from the threads of his own socks, with bits of the heels hanging down. It's a play on the Russian phrase to "have your soul in your heel", which means to be frozen in terror. A third sculpture consists of the artist's own childhood bed, in which the mattress has become a lightbox dusted with salt and emitting a mysterious white light. On one of the bedposts a tiny miniature figure, a self-portrait of the artist, is perched. The artist gazes back at his own childhood.

What all the artists have in common is that they take the materials and forms of conceptual art, put in the art of the West to such dry ends, and use them to evoke Russian mythology, bedside stories, childhood memories and family history. They have all been influenced by the model-making -- though not political bite -- of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, the giants of Russian art of the past three decades.

Haim Sokol's arrangements of found objects look like moments from halfremembered fairytales. A dead toy dog, his hair matted by an ethereal mix of dust and white paint, lies at the bottom of an old, worn-out wooden ladder. On the top rung is a child's pair of old brown wooden boots. In another piece, letters -- all found by the artist -- have been folded into paper airplanes, surrounded by other airplanes made out of severely rusted folded metal. They hang at the top and lie at the bottom of a lamppost, which emits a faded glow. …


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