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Painting of the Year
Bill Gates, Saddam Hussein and Alexander Litvinenko are among the figures in an epic collage called "2007."

Brian Droitcour, The Moscow Times

Dmitry Vrubel and Viktoria Timofeyeva's "2007" is a monumental collage in oil paints that spans 21 meters on two walls of the Guelman Gallery at Winzavod. At one end, billionaire Roman Abramovich coquettishly peeks from behind a birch tree; at the other end sneers a gopnik, or street thug. In between, President Vladimir Putin wags a pistol, while kitty-corner from him U.S. President George W. Bush furrows his brow. Wedged between these massive portraits are scenes from recent Dissenters' Marches, smaller renditions of politicians ranging from Mayor Yury Luzhkov to former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and the work's dealer, Marat Guelman.

"2007" is composed of compelling images that the artists collected from newspapers and immortalized in the classic technique of oil on canvas. "We look for a link between documentary and art," Vrubel said in an interview Wednesday. "Newspapers are disposable, but images made by hand are meant to last a thousand years."

Vrubel Ц who has collaborated with his wife Timofeyeva since 1996 Ц is best known for his 1990 painting on the Berlin Wall of Leonid Brezhnev kissing East German leader Erich Honecker, framed by the text "Lord! Help me survive amid this fatal love." The image is so iconic that Vrubel has made it his user picture on "It's good PR," he said.

In recent years, Vrubel and Timofeyeva have worked on other high-profile projects that investigate the crux of media and reality. Last year the artists collaborated with NTV to produce printed 6-by-6 meter banners with the faces of writer Boris Akunin, boxer Nikolai Valuyev and politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky; film crews captured the reaction of the celebrities when they saw their giant faces. In 2004, Vrubel and Timofeyeva published "The 12 Moods of Putin," a calendar where each month featured a different facet of the president's public persona.

In February, the artists drew controversy with a painting of Alexander Litvinenko, based on the widely replicated photograph of the former KGB officer in his London hospital bed, wasted away from polonium poisoning. The criticism stemmed not from the choice of the image, but the text that Vrubel paired with it: "When I have a creative crisis, I always lie on the couch, I cannot stand up, I feel really awful." While many were upset by the work's apparent cynicism, Vrubel later said he was interested in using a media event to date a period when he suffered depression.

Now, a blown-up version of the Litvinenko painting has taken a prominent position in "2007." His wan face is split in half where the two long canvases meet in the gallery's corner. "The poisoning of Litvinenko was a critical moment in Russian history," Vrubel said, explaining why he and Timofeyeva put the image at the painting's center. "If the Russian state really did assassinate someone, and the death happened on live television, that says a lot about who we are and where the country is going."

Overall, "2007" suggests an unpleasant future. It is sobering to imagine the clashes or alliances that could arise from connecting the dots between the painting's characters: Patriarch Alexy II; the skinhead activist Tesak; Eduard Limonov, founder of the banned National Bolshevik Party; and participants in Dissenters' Marches. Perhaps more ominously, Vrubel and Timofeyeva included Saddam Hussein and Brezhnev. "As the number of dead in the Iraq war approximates the number of people killed under Hussein, people will start to say, 'We were better off with Saddam,'" Vrubel said, and compared the potential situation in Iraq to the nostalgia for the Brezhnev era that he observes in Russia today.

In the gallery, the walls opposite the panoramic canvases are hung with smaller studies for each of the faces of "2007." This installation technique invokes another ambitious Russian painting, Alexander Ivanov's epic 1857 work "The Appearance of Christ to the People" as it is displayed in the State Tretyakov Gallery. But the flattened, collage-like structure of "2007" lacks the perspective that leads the viewer's gaze to the messiah in Ivanov's canvas; moreover, "2007" is painfully lacking any figure who could be called a savior.

"2007" runs to June 20 at the Guelman Gallery, located in the Winzavod Center for Contemporary Art at 1 4th Syromyatnichesky Pereulok, Bldg. 6. Metro Kurskaya. Tel. 228-1159.

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