Why I Paint American Communists?
by Yevgeniy Fiks

I’ve been asked on several occasions recently Why I paint portraits of American Communists now, in 2006. Those who questioned me, including members of the art community (most of whom were politically on the Left as a matter of fact) pointed out that there is still hidden discursive dangers in addressing Communism today and that the New Left must continue to divorce themselves from the past of Communism, let alone the present-day Communist Party USA, a discursive living dead.

The fact of having contemporary Communists as the subject of my paintings and their apparently realistic language was read by my critics as a gesture of either radical and irresponsible affirmation of the horrors of Communism or a type of sinister nostalgia for utopia. My critics seemed to be disturbed by the fact that American Communists in my paintings appeared “too human” and “dressed too casually” and that I painted them directly from life without irony and deconstruction, that has been a commonplace for tackling this subject matter in progressive Russian art ever since the 1970s. However, among various reactions to this project, my all time favorite was an earnest and naïve question “Are you a Communist yourself?” directed at me, which took me mentally for a moment back to the Cold War era, far away from the America of the War on Terrorism.

I want to try to refute some of these charges and accept others, while perhaps creating ground for a whole new set of charges.

I came across the Communist Party USA in fall of 2005 and went to their national headquarters on West 23rd street in New York City. The Party occupied four floors of a six-story building. As I later learned, the rest of the building (which the Party in fact owns) they rent out, including to an artist’s supplies store on the ground floor. The headquarters was not much different from other business offices that I’ve seen here in the States. It was rather modest, with cubicles, desks, computers, phones, sentimental pictures of loved ones, est. One would have never guessed that it was the office of the Communist Party if it wasn’t for abundance of portraits of Lenin and Marx on walls in almost every room.

The atmosphere in the office was of normality, routine, and “business as usual”. The first person that I met there was Jarvis Tyner, the Executive Vice Chair of Communist Party USA, an older African-American man who has been with the Party for 40 years, a sidekick of Gus Hall. Believe it or not, but Tyner gave me his business card. The card was exactly the same size and format as any other business card but carried the traditional hammer and sickle “logo”. A business card being one of the attributes of the capitalist economy, I couldn’t get away from an uneasy feeling that CPUSA has become just another non-for-profit organization, with an office, business cards, an.org web address, est. As far as I was concerned, this was a site of the post-Soviet condition, which I experienced on West 23rd Street in Manhattan.

Having been broad up in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the 1970s and 1980s, I’m forever connected to the history of Communism whether I like it or not. This relationship is complicated, characterized by trauma, denial, mourning, and disavowal. It is precisely because of the fact that I lived through the last two decades of the “really existing” Socialism, I have very little patience for both the Communist ideology and the practice of Socialism, an attitude natural for an overwhelming majority of thinking/responsible (post)Soviet subjects. On the current American political spectrum, my own politics is only slightly to the left of the Democratic Party. It’s not Communist ideology that I’m interested in, but the historical and personal dimensions of it, as a way of understanding, articulating, and critically-engaging both Soviet history and the post-Soviet present.

I paint my subjects — current members of the Communist Party USA — in trivial interiors of their New York offices and wearing everyday cloth. These paintings are a site of struggle against specters of both Socialist Realism and Sots Art, which are inevitably evoked when a genre of a “portrait of a Communist” is concerned. The project also problematisizes the historical relationship of the medium of oil painting to the rhetoric of both Socialist Realism and Sots Art, as painting was clearly the most paradigmatic form for both. I had to use painting for this project as these two ideologies had to be addressed by their own means.

My intention is to inform. These paintings portray those who identify as Communists in the present-day United States. It’s about stating facts — and the fact is that there are Communists in the USA circa 2006. The existence of Communists in the USA, a quintessential late-capitalist nation, fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet bloc is highly subversive and problematic for a post-Soviet subject. How can a post-Soviet subject come to terms with the fact of existence of American Communists today? How can she explain it? Communism is dead in Eastern Europe but Abdul, Sheltrees, Dan and others whom I painted are living, breathing, and thinking New Yorkers of the 2000s. It’s precisely in this context of the proclaimed death of Communism and the end of the Cold War that I focus my attention on American Communists today. It’s the contradiction between the notion of death of Communism and a sense of life emanating from those whom I painted that is so disturbing.

This project is about the meaning of an act of painting a portrait of an American Communist in New York today, in 2006. A fundamental question here is How can one approach painting a Western Communist today? From what political, ideological, aesthetic, personal or otherwise position can one attempt that? Does the contemporarineity afford us an option of addressing Communism today with choices that extend beyond the prescribed affirmation, critique, or post-ideological neutrality? Are there any alternatives?

I would not have done this project in the 1970s and 1980s, when the future of Communism was still in question. Back then I would most definitely have done what Komar and Melamid and other Sots Artists did. And I applaud them for what they did! Even now it’s not so easy not to fall into the trap of Sots Art and not to represent American Communists as Soviet Communist leaders in official Soviet art — with a low point of view, as heroes, larger than life, with the masses in the background — and therefore to ridicule them through the ironic gaze. However, now when the demise of Communism is a reality as objective as it gets, the tactics of Sots Art seized being adequate for addressing this subject. Today, a more direct, observational method (at least in the realm of representational strategies) appears to be more fitting and critical than deconstruction. Especially after I’ve got to know members of CPUSA personally I felt that I had to paint them directly from life, observationally.

Indeed, these paintings are indifferent toward 20th century ideologies, but not toward their subject. I don’t reaffirm or critique my sitters on the basis of their political believes. However, I’m affirmative and very interested in them as individuals that they are. This project is about the politics of everydayness in the West, about the triviality of being a Subject in today’s United States, even a Communist subject. These are portraits of individuals, of Americans, who happened to be Communists.

I don’t sympathize with the cause of American Communists, but I empathize with them as subjects in the context of the legacy of the impossible 20th century. This empathy is an oblique projection of a sense of my personal (as a post-Soviet subject) guilt and responsibility, if you will, for the Soviet history. And Western Communists are an integral part of our Soviet history from which there is no escape. It was us who instilled hope in them, then misinformed, and later betrayed them. However, there is an element of rational self-interest to my appeal for such a responsibility. I see this assumption of responsibility on the part of a post-Soviet subject for Western Communism (both past and present) as a necessary stage in her effective dealing with the consequences of the traumas of both the Soviet history and the post-Soviet present.

I tried to put my finger on precisely what type of fiction American Communism is in 2006. These paintings are portraits of people in the work place. Members of Communist Party USA are depicted in their offices and not in the streets, where revolutionary struggle used to take place in the past. The paradigmatic site of today’s American Communist Party is in the office, behind the desk, in front of a computer. These are individuals and no longer part of a collective and they are employed by an organization called “Communist Party USA”.

Yevgeniy Fiks: Communist Party USA Series

Portrait of Jarvis Tyner (Communist Party USA)

Portrait of Jarvis Tyner (Communist Party USA), 2007

Portrait of Dan Margolis (Communist Party USA)

Portrait of Dan Margolis (Communist Party USA), 2007

Portrait of Estelle Katz (Communist Party USA)

Portrait of Estelle Katz (Communist Party USA), 2007

Portrait of Esther Moroze (Communist Party USA)

Portrait of Esther Moroze (Communist Party USA), 2007

Portrait of Gabe Falsetta (Communist Party USA)

Portrait of Gabe Falsetta (Communist Party USA), 2007

Portrait of Ereka Smiley (Communist Party USA)

Portrait of Ereka Smiley (Communist Party USA), 2007

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