Elena Khudiakova: In Memoriam – Dadiani Fine Art 9th – 18th September 2015
By Guy Sangster Adams
Elena Khudiakova and her good friend, the curator and art dealer, James Birch, had been planning to exhibit her second series of Soviet Pop Consumerism paintings at Dadiani Fine Art later this year. Sadly the London-based Russian artist and fashion designer died two months ago on 3rd June 2015, during a brief trip back to Moscow, at the age of just 57. In commemoration and celebration of her life and work Birch, who commissioned the paintings, and gallery owner, Eleesa Dadiani, decided to bring the exhibition forward.
Khudiakova studied for 7 years at Moscow’s renowned Architectural Institute, specialising in interior architecture, before later continuing her studies, from 1991-93, at the City and Guilds of London Art School. During which time, she began to develop her Soviet Pop Consumerism painting style and at Birch’s suggestion painted a series in this style. One of which was included in the group exhibition, The Curator’s Egg, at London’s Anthony Reynolds Gallery in 1994. It captured the attention of Charles Saatchi who asked to see the whole series which he bought almost in its entirety.
There is a duality to Khudiakova’s ten canvas-strong new series, painted between 2011 and 2014, being shown under the title In Memoriam, because they also feature her material culture memories of her childhood in Soviet Russia including cheese, caviar, sweets, watercolour paints and inks, perfume, and leather-bound books. The typography of the brand names is as much a feature of the works as the objects themselves, which follows in the Pop Art tradition, which Khudiakova also uses to make a wry commentary on the Soviet Union – utilising a style renowned for celebrating consumer affluence and free market economy to celebrate items produced by communist state-run industries.
In addition to which, when one looks more closely at the paintings one notices that the imprint of the books is ‘EK’, the labels on the cheese also feature an ‘EK’… by inserting her own initials Khudiakova was also playfully exploring how artists themselves become brands and consumer items over and above their works – something that has perhaps always been prevalent, but is ever more so now. For a while Khudiakova lived and painted on a houseboat on the River Thames, her obituary in the Daily Telegraph, 1st July 2015, quotes her as saying that this “floating, liminal situation enabled her to appreciate the nature of the modern consumerist world, being a part of it but also apart from it”.
As an expatriate for the second half of her life, liminality was also very much a facet of those years. When she first moved to London in 1989, with the written invitation to work for Birch she was one of the first Russians to have been able to emigrate without the condition of marriage. By dint of which there were very few Russians in London at that time which as Birch says, added to her out-of-the-ordinariness that her “unusual, exquisite, model looks, and her height – she was 5ft 11 inches” compounded.
Khudiakova and Birch had first met at UNESCO in Paris in September 1985 when she was part of the Russian cultural delegation. It was good timing because Gorbachev had become the Soviet president in March 1985 and the reforming era of Glasnost and Perestroika was under way, which made it far easier both for Khudiakova to assist Birch on his plans for a Francis Bacon retrospective exhibition in Moscow, but also for that exhibition to take place in 1988. Once she had moved to London she and Birch would often have dinner with Bacon, who described her as “exquisitely beautiful” and “enchanting company”.
In 1989, Birch gave Khudiakova her first exhibition, Costume and Fashion Designs from the USSR, at his then gallery, Birch and Conran, in London’s Soho. Fashion and jewellery design had been her primary focus since she had graduated from the Architectural Institute in 1982, by which stage she had decided that clothing was “architecture in another form”. Inspired by the clothing designs of Constructivist artist, Varvara Stepanova, Nadezhda Lamanova, the celebrated pre-revolutionary couturière whose designs had to become very different in the Soviet era, and film-maker, Eisenstein, the exhibition featured 20 exhibits of ‘high fashion using imagery from behind the Iron Curtain’, which from time to time throughout its run Khudiakova would model.
The outfits included a red silk skirt hemmed with illustrations of workers’ heads that ‘march’ with the sway of the skirt, a red evening dress with pictures of Stepanova and the poet Mayakovsky stitched to the bust, and pictures of the Moscow skyline and metro along the hem, and metal belts made from Kremlin souvenirs.
For the promotional material for the exhibition Birch asked Grayson Perry to photograph Khudiakova wearing the designs. Birch had given Perry his first exhibitions in the early-mid 1980s, and told me, “I wanted to help him out with some publicity so I commissioned him to take the photos…” he laughed after saying this, since Perry, who won the Turner Prize in 2003, is now internationally renowned. Birch had forgotten about the shoot until, in the days after her death, he was going through a portfolio of her work in her flat and came across the photographs; only one or two of which were published at the time.
A few months prior to the exhibition Khudiakova’s designs had also featured in the Russian section of Jean-Paul Goude’s famous parade in Paris marking the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Fashion and jewellery design remained the mainstay of her career: she worked for Vivienne Westwood from 1994-2010, she also designed for Pierre Cardin, and designed jewellery for Eric Van Peterson, Harrods, and Saks Fifth Avenue. In Russia her designs were included in Sotheby’s Moscow Avant-Garde sale in 1998, at which some were bought by Elton John for his collection, and in 2011 her designs were included in Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art’s Alternative Fashion for Glossies 1985-95.
There is poignancy to Elena Khudiakova: In Memoriam, not least that these last ten canvases must now remain the culmination of her Soviet Pop Consumerism, but as sadly such they must be, they are an exquisite apogée.
Elena Khudiakova: In Memoriam
Dadiani Fine Art, 30 Cork Street London W1S 3NG
9th – 18th September 2015
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