alexander lobanov’s hidden pictures.
The New Museum’s group exhibition Ostalgia derives its name from the word ostalgie, a 1990s neologism that describes a sense of longing for life in East Germany. I felt my own heartstrings tugged by a wave of nostalgia, although it had nothing whatsoever to do with the Cold War.
Alexander Lobanov, Untitled (source)
Upon examining the meticulous, weapon-riddled self-portraits of outsider artist Alexander Lobanov, my mind was transported to a place of yore. Think a little less “Leningrad,” a little more “pediatric waiting room with blocks and Brio train sets strewn about.” Yes, folks, Lobanov’s drawings may as well be grown-up Hidden Pictures® from Highlights for Kids.* You know how it goes: in Hidden Pictures, you’re given a wholesome scene, such as Neighbor Mr. Frog Rakes His Leaves, or Kid Stay Healthy and Have Fun by Rollerblading. But lo and behold, there’s more to see, if you look closer: little objects are embedded within the scene. The sleeve is actually a toothbrush! The cloud is made out of an ice cream cone!
What in the world does everyone’s favorite publisher of Goofus and Gallant have to do with artist Lobanov? Deaf and mute after afflicted by meningitis at the age of five, Lobanov spent his adult life in mental institutions. He taught himself to draw, using ink, colored pencils, and felt-tip pens to sketch the minutiae of his portraits. He often represents himself as Russian revolutionaries. And the weapons, oh the weapons! Rifles, machine guns, swords, treacherous-looking scissors, daggers, sometimes even scattered ornamentally across the background of an illustration.
Weapons are concealed within the landscapes, uniforms, and patterns. The crow’s head is actually a pair of scissors! Rifles comprise the spokes of a wagon wheel!** An eagle poses regally atop a sword’s hilt! The wholesome objects of Highlights’ Hidden Pictures are now the tools of Russian oppressors.
*Looks like you can now play Hidden Pictures online. I know what I’m doing at work tomorrow!
**Unpictured here, the interweb search has failed me. Go to the New Museum to see this work for yourself.